A World View: Catholic Attitudes on Sexual Behavior & Reproductive Health

Conscience, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

A World View: Catholic Attitudes on Sexual Behavior & Reproductive Health


THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH has become the focus of significant controversy in recent years. Already contending with overwhelming dissent from followers regarding its positions on women as well as on sexuality, reproduction and the family, the church has been struggling with explosive and continually recurring allegations of child sexual abuse by its priests and a heavily criticized position against the use of condoms as a way of reducing the transmission of HIV and the spread of AIDS.

While there are Catholics who wholly agree with and abide by the policies set forth by the church, there are many more who question its dictates as they relate to their personal lives and the role played by the church in public policy. Whatever paths Catholics choose to follow, what is evident is that Catholics are not monolithic in their views, and more often than not disagree with the positions of the church on these issues. It is critical that those who develop public policy and those who serve Catholics as health care and social service providers are aware of these views. Such awareness will continue to move the church, along with the national and international communities, toward a greater understanding of its people.

CATHOLICS WORLDWIDE

There are approximately 1 billion Catholics across the globe and they make up 17 percent of the total population. Catholics dominate South and Central America, constitute a significant portion of Europe's population and reside in large numbers in North America and Africa.

CONTRACEPTION

The church prohibits the use of modern contraception in any form. This includes voluntary sterilization. Permissible birth control according to the Catholic hierarchy is limited to periodic abstinence (natural family planning), total abstinence and breast-feeding.

Women strongly support family planning

The Catholic hierarchy, both male and celibate, is twice removed from the impact of pregnancy. If sexually active, or even possibly non-sexually active Catholic women held positions of authority, the perceptions and use of family planning might influence changes in church doctrine.

The data here are consistent with the theory that more women including more Catholic women--might be inclined to use contraceptives if more of their husbands approved of it.

CONDOMS AND HIV/AIDS

The Catholic church states that the only morally acceptable way to avoid HIV/AIDS is to abstain from sex outside of marriage, and to abstain from sex within marriage if a spouse is infected with HIV/AIDS.

There are approximately 42 million people across the globe living with HIV/AIDS. While the Catholic church claims to provide treatment for approximately 10 million individuals living with this illness, it does not support efforts to educate people about the effectiveness of condoms as a means of preventing the spread of the virus. Not one of the tens of thousands of social service agencies and hospitals controlled by the church is permitted to provide condoms or safe sex instruction to those who seek assistance. This prohibition also applies to those of the non-Catholic faith who visit these facilities.

LIMITS OF CHURCH AUTHORITY

While the Catholic church has and continues to articulate standards of morally exact behavior in Catholic life, many followers believe they must be guided by their own conscience in their decision-making. Catholic teaching does encourage believers to follow their conscience after thoroughly weighing the doctrines of the church. Most Catholics believe this should apply to decisions regarding family planning, sexuality and reproductive health as well. The majority of American Catholics believe they have the ability to make up their own minds on critical issues like contraception and abortion, and should not permit the church to wholly regulate such aspects of their lives. In predominantly Catholic Mexico, only one percent of those polled offered the church as the source where they obtained their most pertinent information relating to sex.

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