Shocker! Solid effort on a Catholic sex story

It would be hard to find a subject that would be rank much higher than natural family planning on the religion-news beat’s “high degree of difficulty” list. As if that were not enough, I would assume that editors at The Denver Post assigned the following story because of the current tsunami of coverage about You. Know. What.

The surprise is that the story turned out pretty well, so much so that practicing Catholics have been sending around online recommendations.

Yes, I know that it contains the popular statistic that Catholic doctrine on this subject has been, all together now, “ignored at times by 98 percent of Catholic women.” But even there, that “at times” reference adds a touch of precision that many Catholics would salute. Yes, I also noted that the newspaper put a reference to religious liberty inside the now-familiar MSM scare quotes.

But let’s move on and look at the actual story itself, shall we?

For one thing, the Post turned to one of America’s best, one of the most experienced, voices on this topic and, surprise, the expert is a woman. Thus, readers are given a chance to read:

Catholic theologian Janet Smith, a professor at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, says the church long has been pressured to change its teaching on contraception. Every other mainstream Christian denomination has accepted it. Even forces within the Vatican have argued for it.

Yet, Smith said, the Catholic Church doesn’t want to be part of the mainstream. There is is no shortage of statistics, she said, showing that contemporary views and modern contraceptives have created a messy society in which sex has been cheapened and family devalued.

“We are drenched in contraceptives in this country, yet 42 percent of babies are born out of wedlock,” Smith said. “More than half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45, and three in 10 women, at current rates, will have an abortion by age 45.”

I can hear the thoughts in some readers’ minds, saying, “Wait a minute, where did she get statistics that alarming?” However the story actually provides a highly specific (and rare, in the mainstream press) attribution for these kinds of numbers.

Those statistics come from the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit policy-research center with strong historical ties to Planned Parenthood that is generally recognized as providing the most comprehensive data on birth- control use and abortion.

Rare? It’s rare to see the Planned Parenthood-Guttmacher link mentioned. Want more statistics?

More than half of sexually active Americans will contract a sexually transmitted disease during their lifetimes, according to Planned Parenthood.

In 1960, the year that the first birth-control pill came to market, it was projected that one in four marriages would end in divorce. Since 1970, that projection has been that nearly half of all marriages will end in divorce.

So the birth-control revolution is working just fine — not. One would expect Smith to say that. However, one of the major themes of this report is that she also blames the Catholic Church for those numbers — because its leaders have done so little to articulate and defend the faith’s teachings. The Post also allows Smith to note that in 1968, in the famous “Humanae Vitae,” the pope predicted that:

… four things would happen with widespread use of chemical birth control: Morality would be generally lower; women would be less respected (pornography being prevalent); human bodies would be viewed mechanistically, with more unnatural methods of conceiving and giving birth the result; and governments would impose population control on their people.

The church also has argued counterintuitively, yet accurately, Smith said, that access to contraception would not make abortion rare.

Yes, as one would expect, the story covers the other side of the debate — using solid sources.

So what is missing? I would imagine that some readers are thinking what I thought when I first read this report. This story discusses Catholic teachings on this topic from the view of academia and research, while the true experts on this topic are the wives and husbands who advocate this way of life because they have lived it. Where are their voices, on a topic as intimate and personal as this? Where’s the sidebar that considers that point of view?

As it turns out, a search engine revealed that the Post did publish that story and it included some, repeat SOME, material of that kind. I think it could have used more voices from the believers, as well as the doubters.

Nevertheless, the sidebar gives readers have a chance to learn:

“Hey, it’s green. It’s eco-friendly. It’s free. It’s easy,” said Kristen Hamill, a mom who teaches NFP for the Denver Archdiocese, which requires couples wishing to marry in the church to take NFP classes.

“Young people want to eat only free-range chickens. They want hormone-free beef at the restaurant. But they go home, and (the women) pop hormones into their mouths for birth control. It’s not natural,” said Hamill, whose eight-year marriage has produced two sons, ages 1 and 2½.

All in all, a solid effort. This is way above the norm. Bravo.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Suzanne

    Impressed by this story — its even-handedness and willingness to delve into the statistics. Very well done.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: “Young people want to eat only free-range chickens. They want hormone-free beef at the restaurant. But they go home, and (the women) pop hormones into their mouths for birth control. It’s not natural,” said Hamill, whose eight-year marriage has produced two sons, ages 1 and 2½.

    I’m pretty sure only a minority of consumers, young or otherwise, buy hormone-free beef or chicken, actually. As with NFP, hormone free meat is a fairly niche interest. (I think NFP can be highly effective, FTR, but I think that’s a poor analogy, especially considering that there’s actually not much evidence that organic meat is actually better for you).

    Re: Every other mainstream Christian denomination has accepted it.

    Sort of. I’m aware that there isn’t any official Orthodox teaching for or against contraception, but I’ve seen public pronouncements by the Patriarch of Moscow- which would be the largest single Orthodox national church- arguing for contraception being immoral. So it would be fair to say, at least, that the Russian Church agrees with Catholicism in opposing contraception.

  • Jeff

    “Hey, it’s green. It’s eco-friendly. It’s free. It’s easy,” said Kristen Hamill, a mom who teaches NFP for the Denver Archdiocese, which requires couples wishing to marry in the church to take NFP classes.

    “Young people want to eat only free-range chickens. They want hormone-free beef at the restaurant. But they go home, and (the women) pop hormones into their mouths for birth control. It’s not natural,” said Hamill, whose eight-year marriage has produced two sons, ages 1 and 2½.”

    Any piece that states the plain but often unrecognized truth that blue-staters aren’t always green has done a real journalistic service to us all – red, blue, and green, all three.

  • Rachel K

    I always like when NFP articles include people like Hamill, “whose eight-year marriage has produced two sons, ages 1 and 2½.” As I recall, the Washington Post article on NFP interviewed mostly moms with large families or women who were currently pregnant, which really undercuts the fact that NFP is effective when used correctly. As someone who’s been married for nearly five years and had two pregnancies with NFP, both planned, I like it when small-family NFPers are included as well.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    OMG. I know Janet Smith and am a fan of hers, and I am totally astounded at the fair shake she seems to have gotten in this article. I agree with her totally, but something missing is the causal connection between the advent of birth control and the social ills noted. I do not doubt a causal connection, because birth control affects and reflects attitudes that manifest in other areas of life. But a scientifically verified causal connection remains wanting. It remains uncanny in the meantime that forecast in Humanae Vitae has come true.

    Denver being Cardinal Chaput’s former diocese, perhaps the press had gotten into a habit of more objective coverage. Just waiting to see if he can turn around the Philly papers.

    …let’s not forget that NFP is often used to achieve pregnancies or to space them apart. Large NFP families are common.

  • Rachel K

    AuthenticBioethics, I agree on all points, including the fact that large NFP families are very common. I’m just tired of articles that act as though all NFP families are large, because again, that undercuts its effectiveness. The WaPo article had quite a few comboxers saying things like “family roulette” or sneering about how big the families were. Because the article didn’t include at least one person like Hamill, even balanced out by half a dozen other moms with huge families, it seemed to take that tack as well. I’m glad the Denver Post article had one voice from a small NFP family.