I am not today looking at the rights and wrongs of artificial contraception, but I would like us to consider the after effects as they have appeared in the Catholic community. You will recall that the Commission studying the issue at the request of the Pope decided in favour of artificial contraception. But this verdict was overturned in the Papal instruction Humane Vitae. Following this, several archbishops, while accepting the papal ruling, reminded their flocks that the ultimate arbiter would be their own consciences. This sounded – to me at least – to be a way of preventing Catholics leaving the Church in large numbers without contradicting the papal ruling.
I was reminded recently in a newly published book on demography that in the early 70’s the number of Catholic US women using artificial contraception increased from one third to two thirds. There was now little difference between the usage of Catholics and the usage of Protestants. But there are other, perhaps foreseeable, outcomes to consider.
One outcome which was certainly foreseen was a change in the characteristics of sexual intercourse. Thus, where intercourse had been locked into its nature as an act structured by its ability to effect conception, it was now an act of intimacy in its own right. That is, it became harder to demonstrate it as acceptable only in marriage. A common sequence for millennials appears to be: kissing. petting, contracepted intercourse, marriage. At the earlier stages an individual may have more than one partner – regarding contracepted intercourse as a day to day expression of intimacy. I know of several middle-class sequences which started at university, followed by a longish period of living together, and completed by marriage when the couple begin to think about children.
We might expect that such sequences would lead to a greater degree of future breakdown. But, so far, this does not appear to be so: ”Data from the Office of National Statistics shows that the divorce rates for couples who have been married for 15 years has fallen from 31 per cent in 2005 to 28 per cent in 2017, and are predicted to fall to 23 per cent within the next decade. As 90 per cent of intact parents with teens are married, these statistics show a clear improvement in family stability.” On the other hand, “Our new finding reveals that we have crossed a watershed. Cohabiting parents, despite being only one fifth of couples, now account for the majority of family breakdown.” I am quoting from the Marriage Foundation website. I recommend anyone interested in modern marriage to visit the research on this site.
A second outcome, which may be more important in the long run, has been a change in the emphasis and effect of conscience. No longer are our consciences automatically restricted to the formal teaching of the Church. While we are required to respect and to be guided by traditional moral teaching, it is our conscience to which we must ultimately attend: https://www.premier.org.uk/News/World/Pope-Francis-Be-guided-by-conscience-not-rules is a brief summary .
One thing seems certain: the Church of the future will be different from the Church of the past. And the question is: will it be a better Church or not.?