Catholics and Polls

How often have we heard the statistic cited along the lines of “98% of Catholic women use contraceptives.” It seems come up every time the word ‘Catholic’ and ‘contraceptives’ appear in the same sentence. Here’s the original study.

There are some real oddities in this study, as people have noted since the study came out in 2011. I’ll highlight the two most prominent ones:

1) 11% of women are noted as using no method of contraception, and they mysteriously vanish from the math because only the 2% of women who are identified as using NFP are subtracted from 100% to reach the conclusion that 98% of Catholic women use contraception.

2) The data “[r]efers to sexually active women who are not pregnant, postpartum or trying to get pregnant.” So the study excludes women who are pregnant, postpartum, or trying to get pregnant. Since the Catholic Church teaches NFP as a way to space children, chances are NFP users are going to fall into one of these three categories for decent portions of their reproductive lives.

Normally, I would just put this case down as one more example in the ‘Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics’ folder. However, the proliferation of this statistic and similar statistics involving the Catholic Church are not simple mistakes. They serve a very clear purpose: To paint the Catholic Church as backward and out of touch with its members and therefore irrelevant. How do I know? Because this has been done before with abortion. Bernard Nathanson, a co-founder of NARAL who later became pro-life and then Catholic, lays out exactly what they did and why:

We systematically vilified the Catholic Church and its “socially backward ideas” and picked on the Catholic hierarchy as the villain in opposing abortion. This theme was played endlessly. We fed the media such lies as “we all know that opposition to abortion comes from the hierarchy and not from most Catholics” and “Polls prove time and again that most Catholics want abortion law reform”.

And the media drum-fired all this into the American people, persuading them that anyone opposing permissive abortion must be under the influence of the Catholic hierarchy and that Catholics in favour of abortion are enlightened and forward-looking.

Sound familiar? This tune is played endlessly on every issue involving in the Catholic Church. People who disagree with the Church are enlightened and forward-thinking. People who hold the Church position are brainwashed and backward. The Guttmacher study above even takes time in its short discussion to paint the Catholic hierarchy as out-of-touch and behind the times:

Even among married Catholic women, only 3% practice natural family planning, while a majority uses contraceptives that the Church hierarchy routinely denounces. This research suggests that the perception that strongly held religious beliefs and contraceptive use are antithetical is wrong—in fact, the two may be highly compatible.

I think it’s worth noting this tactic because it’s moving beyond the Catholic Church. I have been keeping track of the controversy in the Mormon church over women’s ordination, and the same narrative appears: The Mormon hierarchy is backward and authoritarian, bent on enforcing its will on regular Mormons. Those who oppose the hierarchy are free thinkers who want to liberate the church from its oppressive dogmas. This instance is even more obnoxious because, while I’m fairly certain a sizable majority of American Catholics use contraception (just not 98%), we know for a fact that the vast majority of Mormons oppose women’s ordination, and more Mormon women than men oppose it!

Any church that makes a habit of opposing the zeitgeist can expect similar treatment. So if people see some discrepancy between what they see in church and what the internet insists their fellow congregants believe, this is one reason why.

1 thought on “Catholics and Polls”

  1. Isn’t this exactly the point of the “lies, damned lies, and statistics” quote? Statistics are never as straightforward as they seem like they should be. In addition to the variety of ways (some used in this example) you can warp the meaning of statistics intentionally, you can also totally mess them up unintentionally as well — all without falsifying any data.

    It’s also erroneous to think that anyone would have a good enough grasp of the viewpoints of members of the church simply by being an active member of a community of members to have an understanding of the average viewpoints of the church as a whole. People tend to associate with like-minded people, creating an echo chamber effect. Different regions and countries have different cultural pressures and norms. That is why, despite its glaring flaws, statistical research can still have its benefits.

    The media used to investigate statistics and things like that. It’s now up to individuals like us to research and shed the light on statistical shenanigans.

Comments are closed.