Catholic respondents' answers to questions on a variety of contraception methods closely in line with the answers of the "nones."
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While the Church calls Catholics to reject the use of artificial contraceptives, an overwhelming majority of Catholics in the United States continue to use them, according to a recent survey run by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a branch of the US Health and Human Services. The survey found that Catholics, as well as Christians of all denominations, continue to use condoms, the pill, and other methods to prevent pregnancy.
The National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) was undertaken by the NCHS in order to help the government understand factors regarding marriage, divorce, adoption, pregnancy and other procreative behaviors in the US. It should be noted that the survey was conducted between 2015 and 2017; thus it cannot account for any changes in sexual practice caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey questioned 5,554 female and 4,540 male respondents from all backgrounds, but it was the breakdown by religious affiliation that yielded some of the most interesting results.
Condoms and the pill
Condoms, the most prevalent form of birth control in the US, were found to also be widely used among Catholics, at least at some point in their lives. An overwhelming 92% of Catholics surveyed responded that they have used or continue to use condoms as a contraceptive. This is only three points lower than the cumulative total of all survey respondents, including all Christian denominations and the “nones,” who admitted condom use at a rate of 95%. Due to the question including the past tense, it isn’t a clear indicator of current practice.
The pill, a form of contraception that acts primarily to prevent ovulation, was also widely used by Catholics, although to a much lower degree. More than half (63%) of Catholics surveyed responded that they had used or continue to use the pill as contraception. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter (23%) of Catholics said that they have used the Plan B pill, which is intended as “emergency contraception” after intercourse. Catholics were the most likely group of Christians to use Plan B, and were only slightly behind the “nones,” of whom 29% indicated use of Plan B.
Other similar forms of contraception, like the Depo-Provera shot – which is essentially an injection form of the pill that lasts roughly 3-4 months – had much lower rates of usage (18%). However, It should be noted that the Depo-Provera shot is not intended for long-term use and it is recommended that the treatment should not continue beyond a couple of years.
Some 62% of Catholics also cited “withdrawal” as their favored means of contraception.
NFP and church attendance
Religious News Service highlighted the scant practice of Natural Family Planning (NFP), also known as FAMs (fertility awareness methods). NFP includes various methods by which couples avoid sex during the fertile period of the woman’s menstrual cycle. Only one fifth (20%) of Catholics have ever attempted an NFP method, with levels only varying a few points between those who never attend Mass and those who attend weekly.
Overall, church attendance does not appear to influence the use of contraception by Catholics. While 88% of those who never attend Mass reported condom use, 89% of those who attend Mass weekly also admitted to using condoms (again, at some point in their lives). The rates only rose in groups that reported seldom or monthly appearances at Mass, who responded at rates of 94% and 95% respectively. These two groups were overall the most likely to use every form of birth control, while those who never attend Mass and those who attend Mass weekly were the least likely.
Ryan Burge, who wrote an excellent analysis of the data for Religion News Service, noted that the statistics represent a disconnect between the faithful and Church teaching. He suggested that the stance of the laity on birth control could be directly responsible for the decline in Church attendance in the US:
“One may indeed wonder if that tension is driving some Catholics away from the pews or the faith entirely: Scholarly work from the 1990s found that Catholics would leave their local parish if they disagreed with the priest’s comments on abortion to seek out more moderate parishes.”
Read a selection of Aleteia articles about NFP methods here.