The pope has renounced the papal throne. Long live the progressive pope! Such are the rallying cries from establishment voices wanting to see the Catholic Church loosen up now that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to step down. But maybe people should listen to the Church's actual views.
Mary Hasson from the Ethics and Public Policy Center has been doing some unique work looking into what Catholic women know and want from their Church. It's scandalous and yet not entirely surprising that she found only 13 percent of Catholic women who occasionally attend Mass accept Church teaching on contraception.
It's not a shock given that the average Catholic Mass goer is not exactly being taught the theology and even practicality of the Catholic teaching on sexual morality. Catholics all too often see Church teaching as a litany of "No"s when, in fact, it is all about "Yes." Yes to human dignity and happiness. Yes to the respect for one another that comes from truly believing you are made in the image and likeness of God.
"On the one hand, the number is small, no question," Hasson acknowledges. "That 13 percent includes not only weekly churchgoers but also women who attend less regularly, perhaps a few times a year. However, if we look only at women who attend Mass weekly, the percentage accepting the Church's teaching on contraception goes up, doubling (to 27 percent) among young women ages 18-34. That's a sign of hope -- in spite of decades of dissenting theologians, silence from the parish pulpit and distorted cultural messages about sex, these women have heard the Church's teaching and embraced it.
And despite the current conversation about women, contraception and religious liberty that's overtaken the government's federal health-care push, the media coverage has been such that most Americans still don't quite know what all the fuss is about. Some Catholic women have a similar relationship to Church teachings on contraception: 37 percent, in Hasson's findings, were unsure about the specifics.
"The 37 percent seems to confirm the stories that abound of Catholic women who went to Mass every week for years and to confession regularly, but never heard that contraception is wrong. Similarly, how many Catholics have gone through (extensive marriage prep in the Church) by never heard word one about the Church's teaching on sexuality or family planning," she said. "Or perhaps (they) heard some general teachings, and then, with a wink, were told to follow their consciences, with no further guidance about forming their consciences."
A cover story in glossy New York magazine recently dared to question the good of the birth-control pill based on the damage it had wrought on women's lives and bodies. The one institution that proposes a radically different way might just have something to offer the world -- if it only taught it and lived it.
Pope Benedict has been a teacher, first and foremost, reintroducing a proposal that Christ himself offered. Men and women living in service for love of God are good to have around. Enough with the campaign for less Catholicism in the Catholic Church. How about a welcome mat for a good and faithful shepherd who, with confidence and humility, speaks with clarity about the teachings of the Catholic Church, "proposing the good news of Jesus Christ to a disenchanted world," as George Weigel puts it in his book "Evangelical Catholicism."
The disenchanted are everywhere, even in the pews. And they want to be fed, they want to be engaged, they want to be transformed. They don't want more of the same misery omnipresent in the secular world. The world doesn't need a Gospel of misery but of hope. The Church has it, and we should expect the next pope to teach on, infused with a generous and contagious spirit of engagement.