Sex and the Modern Catholic

The Tablet
July 26, 2008

Publication of Humanae Vitae 40 years ago was a seismic moment in the history of the Catholic Church. Today most practising Catholics ignore its teaching on birth control and more than half think it should be revised. This is the central finding of a major survey commissioned by The Tablet

By the time the contraceptive pill came on the market in 1962, Catholic couples had begun to wonder if it was the answer to their prayers: a reliable and convenient method of birth control they could use with the Church's blessing. The hopes of a great many Catholics were dashed with the publication of Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae Vitae on 29 July 1968 which forbad the use of all artificial forms of contraception including the Pill.

Exactly 40 years later, a major study conducted by The Tablet has found that its teaching is ignored by the great majority of Mass-going Catholics. This is one of the main findings contained in part two of our survey of 1,500 Catholics from parishes across England and Wales. Although almost half have never heard of Humanae Vitae, a large majority is aware of the Church's ban on artificial birth control and more than half believe it should be revised.

Part two of the survey asks a broad range of questions surrounding sex, relationships and contraception and the Church's teaching. It has found that a large proportion of otherwise faithful Catholics are using a range of artificial contraceptives, especially condoms and the contraceptive pill. More than half the adults aged 18 to 45 lived with their partner before getting married and a majority would not consider discussing their family's size and contraception with their priest. The latter point may well be related to modern Catholics' reluctance to go to confession, as confirmed in part one of our survey.

Though the study reveals overwhelming support for marriage as a life-long commitment, nearly three-quarters of Catholics believe separation or divorce is better than an unhappy marriage and a similar number feel divorced people who remarry should not be excluded from Holy Communion. The findings of part two of our survey are set out below.


To questions about the morality of using contraceptives, the largest proportion of respondents, 35.2 per cent, disapproved of the morning-after pill, with a significant number, 17.8 per cent, expressing the same view even when the woman had been raped. Other methods which were most disapproved of included sterilisation (except for health reasons), 18.5 per cent, and the coil, 16.2 per cent, while condoms were least disapproved: only 9 per cent said they wouldn't use them as it would be wrong.

At the same time, some of those who have used natural family planning have also used some form of contraception in their lives: 73 per cent of these respondents had also used or said they wouldn't mind using condoms, 51 per cent had used or wouldn't mind using the contraceptive pill, 27 per cent had used or  wouldn't mind using  the coil, 33 per cent had used or wouldn't mind using sterilisation, 22 per cent had used or wouldn't mind using the morning-after pill, 30 per cent had used or wouldn't mind using the diaphragm.

Significant proportions of respondents also chose the "no opinion" response, which in some cases may imply reluctance to talk about the use of, or attitudes to, various means of contraception. For example, when asked about condoms, migrants, those with lower education and those familiar with Church teaching on contraception were more likely to choose "no opinion".


Some 82 per cent of respondents indicated that they are familiar with the Church's teaching on contraception. A total of 15.7 per cent regarded the teaching as right, the same  proportion thought it was wrong while 54.3 per cent thought it should be revisited; 40.7 per cent said it is hard to accept and 18.2 per cent hard to understand (as respondents could chose more than one answer to this question, percentages do not add up to 100). Some 19.1 per cent indicated they would discuss family size and contraception with their priest, while 60 per cent said they wouldn't and 21 per cent were not sure. Only 33 per cent reported that family planning was discussed at their marriage preparation class.

As reported last week, respondents were asked about their awareness of Humanae Vitae. Sixteen per cent were fully aware, 37 per cent somewhat aware, 47 per cent not aware/never heard of it.


Age group      Fully    Somewhat      Not
                           %               %               %

18-35                 7                21             73
36-45                 7                33             60
46-65               18                36             46
Over 65            24                51             26

Those Catholics who are fully aware of Humanae Vitae, as well as those who attend Mass several times a week, are more likely to say they would never use condoms because it's wrong than that they have used them.


The most popular means in terms of usage appears to be condoms with 68.8 per cent of respondents reporting that they either had used or wouldn't mind using them while the contraceptive pill is used by 54.5 per cent. Natural family planning as a means of birth control was regarded favourably by 67.1 per cent. As many as 15 per cent indicated they wouldn't mind using the morning-after pill while 10 per cent had actually used it; 42 per cent wouldn't mind using it in the case of rape and 2 per cent reported having actually used it in these circumstances.

It must be noted, however, that the extent of the actual use of, and to some extent attitude to, particular methods of contraception depends on their availability during respondents' sexually active lifetime.


                                                     Have            Would             Never
                                                     used %        use %            use %

Coil     1                                        6.6                 16.1               36.8
Morning-after pill                        9.5                 14.9               49.4
Contraceptive pill                     39.5                 15.0               26.3
Diaphragm                                10.5                 21.0               34.4
Condoms                                   50.4                18.4               15.1
Sterilisation                                13.1                20.5               35.0
Morning-after pill
in case of rape                             2.1                 41.8              24.9
Natural family
planning                                      43.3                 23.8              11.8

(Excluding those professing no opinion)


Attitudes to contraception differ significantly between the age groups. While younger age groups more frequently said that they had used or wouldn't mind using such methods of contraception as the morning-after pill, contraceptive pill or condoms, the reverse is true for sterilisation - older respondents are more likely to use this since they have already had children -  and natural family planning. More of the older respondents say that using various means of contraception, including condoms, would be wrong.


Age group                  Have             Would             Never
                                     used %         use %            use %

18-35                           23.1               19.8                 34.7
36-45                           16.0               17.6                 46.5
46-65                             4.5               14.7                  52.2
Over 65                          3.0                 9.0                  57.3

(Excluding those professing no opinion)

 MORNING-AFTER PILL (in case of rape)

Age group                 Have             Would             Never
                                    used %         use %            use %

18-35                           2.5                44.3                17.2
36-45                           3.7                43.1                26.0
46-65                           1.2                46.1                22.3
Over 65                        1.8                30.6                33.6

(Excluding those professing no opinion)


Age group                   Have            Would             Never
                                      used %       use %             use %

18-35                            42.0               25.9                19.6
36-45                            46.0                 9.7                 27.2
46-65                            44.2               15.5                 20.9
Over 65                         23.4               12.0                 39.0

(Excluding those professing no opinion)


Age group                     Have              Would             Never
                                        used %         use %             use %

18-35                              60.2                22.0                   8.2
36-45                              63.6                11.3                 13.8
46-65                              50.4                20.8                 10.5
Over 65                           31.4                18.3                 29.8

(Excluding those professing no opinion)


Age group                       Have               Would             Never
                                          used %           use %            use %

18-35                                  1.7                   21.7               39.2
36-45                                12.0                   25.7               36.6
46-65                                17.9                   20.8               30.2
Over 65                             12.4                   14.0               40.4

(Excluding those professing no opinion)


Age group                        Have               Would             Never
                                           used %           use %            use %

18-35                                 30.2                 37.3                 10.3
36-45                                 47.9                 19.1                 15.0
46-65                                 42.0                 21.1                 11.8
Over 65                              48.9                 24.2                 10.7

(Excluding those professing no opinion)


The study also found that on the whole the better educated the respondents were, the more likely they were to use such contraception as, for example below, condoms.

Education level                     Have                 Would             Never
                                                 used %             use %            use %

Primary or lower                    35.0                   16.7                 16.6
Secondary/ vocational          45.9                   21.6                 12.4
College/ professional          46.7                    15.9                 20.0
Degree                                    58.7                    18.3                 13.0

(Excluding those professing no opinion)


Seventy-six per cent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: "In deciding what is morally acceptable I look to the Catholic Church's teachings." (5 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed, 19 per cent were neutral.) Meanwhile, 79 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with "a Catholic does not necessarily have to marry a Catholic" (9 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed, 12 per cent were neutral), and 60 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with "a Catholic does not necessarily have to marry a Christian" (22 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed, 18 per cent were neutral).

Only 12 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "marriage is not necessary if a couple decides not to have children",  while 68 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed and 21 per cent were neutral. Ninety-five per cent thought that "mothers and fathers should play an equally important role in bringing up children".

Thirty-nine per cent thought that "Genetic testing during pregnancy should be discouraged" (27 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed, 35 per cent were neutral), while 55 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with "IVF or assisted pregnancy is acceptable if no embryos are discarded" (17 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed, 28 per cent were neutral).

Finally, only 8 per cent of the respondents used a Catholic marriage/relationship counselling service. Of these 43 per cent were highly satisfied with it, another 43 per cent fairly satisfied, 12 per cent not very satisfied.


Some 32 per cent of respondents reported they had lived with their partner before the marriage, with the higher incidence of cohabitation among the younger respondents. At the same time, 48 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that "sexual relations before marriage should be discouraged" (23 per cent disagreed, 29 per cent were neutral). Meanwhile, 93 per cent of respondents agreed that "sexual relations within marriage are not only for conceiving children, but also for expressing love for each other" (3 per cent disagreed, 4 per cent were neutral).


Age group                    Yes %            No %

18-35                              58                   42
36-45                              53                   47
46-65                              34                   66
Over 65                           10                   90


Some 88 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that "marriage is a lifelong commitment despite any difficulties", but at the same time 71 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that "separation or divorce is better than an unhappy marriage between incompatible people" (18 per were neutral, 11 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed). Some 47 per cent thought that "the Church should allow divorce and remarriage (25 per cent disagreed, 27 per cent were neutral), and 70 per cent thought that ‘divorced people who are remarried should not be excluded from Holy Communion' (14 per cent disagreed, 15 per cent were neutral).


The views on gay couples were split: 35 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that "Same sex couples should be accepted as part of the Church community" while 36 per cent disagreed and 29 per cent were neutral.


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