Catholics, contraception and the heretic faithful

One of my most conservative friends is Catholic, but he is not a "conservative Catholic." In my book, he'd only be a conservative Catholic if he opposed the death penalty (he supports it), opposed abortion (he believes women should have the right to chose) and engaged in natural family planning (he appreciates the fact that all women he's had sex with, including his wife, used the Pill or another artificial contraceptive to avoid unwanted pregnancy).

His opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage puts him in agreement with the leadership of his church. He also attends Mass each weekend.

But otherwise, his contrary views make him a heretic and, in the eyes of the strict adherent, no Catholic at all.

Of course, he's not alone. There are millions of other American Catholics who do not adhere to the teachings of the Magisterium. We have been branded "cafeteria Catholics" by those who consider themselves more "faithful." Cafeteria Catholics select, as we move through life, which church teachings we follow and which we don't.

Use of the term goes back to the late 1960s and the publication of "Humanae Vitae," the encyclical that reaffirmed the church's opposition to artificial birth control and declared use of contraceptives a sin. That issue, perhaps more than any other, drove American Catholics into the cafeteria. Over the last 25 years, surveys by sociologists at Catholic University have shown that only a small percentage of Catholics — 10 percent to 13 percent was the range since 1987 — grant the church moral authority on birth control.

Which is why many Catholics, including my conservative friend, look at the current controversy over federal law, health insurance and contraceptives and again see a church leadership out of step with most of its members. Cardinal-designateEdwin F. O'Brien, leader of the Baltimore archdiocese, and his brother bishops have the right — indeed, the official responsibility — to oppose new requirements that churches, along with all other employers, offer insurance coverage for birth control.

But most American Catholics will see this issue as a matter of public health and personal choice; we'll disagree with the hierarchy and go about being Catholic. That's how we are; some 86 percent of us, according to a survey published last fall, think "you can disagree with aspects of church teachings and still remain loyal to the church."

I refer to a report entitled, "Catholics in America: Persistence and change in the Catholic landscape," resulting from the work of sociologist William D'Antonio. His team has conducted five surveys of American Catholics since the mid-1980s. He's found the classic clash of old school versus new school, and the fight is in the cafeteria.

"Catholic identity, no longer a matter of simply knowing the Baltimore Catechism and having particular ethnic ties, has become part of the national dialogue between those with a more conservative vision and those who define the church more in terms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and its documents," Mr. D'Antonio reported last fall.

The survey found that Catholics maintain their core beliefs in Jesus' resurrection, in Mary, in the sacraments and in helping the poor. We have high regard for the rituals and traditions of the church and appreciate the sense of community that comes with parish life.

But far fewer (only about 30 percent) seem to care about Vatican authority — the rest say it is either "somewhat important" or "not important at all."

"American Catholics are more likely to stress the personal importance to them of the church's theological beliefs and helping the poor while seeing the Vatican's teachings on contraception, same-sex marriage and abortion as less important," the Catholic University report said.

Only 21 percent of American Catholics in the survey said they think maintaining the celibate priesthood is important. Only 35 percent regard the opposition to same-sex marriage as a priority. Opposition to abortion came in at 40 percent, well behind prayer, the sacraments, helping the poor and belief in the resurrection in importance.

Fifty-seven percent of Catholic women and 46 percent of Catholic men think it's kind of cool that they can belong to a church while disagreeing with its doctrine.

Of course, the Vatican isn't keen on that at all. Pope John Paul II said you can't be a "good Catholic" if you don't adhere to church teachings. Millions of Americans — the faithful heretics — disagree.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM. His email is

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