The kids are all right — but disagree with bishops on sex and birth control

February 9, 2013

The headline last week in the National Catholic Reporter, the country’s go-to source for all things Catholic, might have run on the satirical news site “The Onion”: “Vatican admits it doesn’t fully understand youth culture,” it said. Next week, perhaps NCR will run a follow-up piece: “Bishops admit they have no clue about sex.”

The Obama administration has tried to be sensitive to the bishops’ claims to conscience. After much yelling about the trampling of religious liberties, most notably by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the administration last week unveiled adjustments to its health-care plan that would allow religious organizations to abstain from offering their employees contraceptive coverage under their group plans while, at the same time, requiring insurers to offer the coverage separately. The compromise is a win-win-win, the Department of Health and Human Services argues. The religious employer can follow his conscience. The woman gets the coverage, if she wants it. And the insurer doesn’t have to pay the higher costs associated with unplanned, unwanted pregnancies. In an editorial, The Washington Post supported the compromise.

But some bishops just won’t be satisfied. Three American bishops said on Jan. 30 that they’d sooner go to jail than submit to the contraceptive mandate. The archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, called the administration’s concessions “minimalist” and used the phrase “immoral services” as a euphemism for birth control. The spokeswoman for the USCCB, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said the accommodations “did not completely satisfy concerns related to conscience rights,” and Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s fuller response was equally chary.

What these most conservative advocates want, it seems, is for American women to be thrust back to a time before Vatican II, when legal birth control was scarce, expensive and difficult to procure.

Which brings me back to the NCR piece, and the Vatican’s articulated lack of understanding of youth culture. The hierarchy is worried enough about its hold on the young to have held a closed-door conference in Rome from Wednesday through Saturday at which bishops listened to experts on youth in an effort to improve their messaging to the young and recapture some of the generation who — in the developed West, at least — are falling away. In preparation for the conference, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, said he’d been listening to Amy Winehouse.

Ravasi will probably come to this on his own, but in case he doesn’t, here’s a clue: Young people care about sex.

And it’s not just having sex that they care about. It’s how religious leaders talk about sex. In America, young people emphatically don’t like religions that preach negative messages about sex. They don’t like to be told that sex is bad or that premarital sex is a paving stone on the road to hell or that homosexuals are in any way, as the catechism says, “intrinsically disordered.” The conservative insistence on birth control as “immoral,” as Chaput would have it, is, for young Catholics, a turnoff.

Donna Freitas, a scholar of religion and a Catholic who studies college students’ attitudes toward sex, wrote as much in 2010: “Catholic students especially spoke with great sarcasm about the ‘don’ts’ with regard to sex in the Catholic tradition, which make them feel alienated, and which make them think that Catholicism is utterly out of touch.” To underscore her point: 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Social conservatives like to point to the widespread use of the pill, and the subsequent sexual revolution, as the beginning of the end of American morals, the gateway to the erosion of family and marriage, the beginning of the end of a healthy respect for sex as an act of great emotional significance, as well as the means of procreation. But recent data fail to support this thesis. Teen pregnancy rates have sunk to record lows, according to a report last year by the Guttmacher Institute. Teenagers are waiting longer than they did in the 1990s to have sex for the first time, and when they do have sex, it is usually in their later teens, with contraception and a steady boyfriend or girlfriend.

So, despite all the hysteria about the eroding effects on values of social media and YouTube and the fear that the availability of birth control will lead to a nation of hedonistic narcissists, the kids are all right. They’re sensible and self-protective. But they’re less likely than ever to take advice about personal morality from older men who think they know better.

For Lisa Miller’s previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com/onfaith.

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