How The Catholic Church Has Evolved (Or Not)

by Lauren Barbato

The Catholic Church has never been a beacon of progress, but that hasn't stopped activists from condemning it. Most recently, activists, religious leaders and California politicians sent a letter to Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, criticizing his support of an upcoming anti-gay marriage rally, March For Marriage, in Washington, D.C. The San Francisco Archbishop is slated to appear at the March for Marriage event on June 19 alongside Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. Cordileone has long been an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage — and a foe to liberal politicians — raising $1.5 million for the Proposition 8 campaign in 2008. Unfortunately, Cordileone isn't alone, or even close, in his conservative "pro-family values" views among his fellow Catholic clergy. Here's a look at how the Catholic Church's stances on social issues have evolved — or not — over time...


Of course, the Catholic Church has long been the leaders of the modern-day pro-life movement in America. Although abortion has been considered a grave sin for centuries, it wasn't until the late 1800s that the church officially said life begins at conception, and made abortion punishable by automatic excommunication. The penalty applies not only to women who have abortions, but also to people who perform, pay for and condone them. The Catholic ban on abortion is so extreme that it doesn't even allow abortions when a mother's life is in danger. The consequences of this have been awful, to say the least: In 2010, a nun at a Catholic hospital in Arizona was excommunicated for approving an abortion for a dying woman.

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In the years before Roe v. Wade, the Catholic Church partnered with the burgeoning anti-abortion movements at the time; in many ways, it was the Catholics who dominated the conversation. Of course, not much has changed since the landmark ruling. Abortion remains one of the biggest issues in the Catholic Church, and the common refrain is, "You can't be Catholic and pro-abortion."

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However, the church might ease up on its anti-abortion political agenda. At a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last week, the bishops discussed whether they should rewrite the "Catholics voter guide" to include less about the "evil" of abortion and more about fighting economic inequality — a top priority for Pope Francis.

Birth Control

Birth control is a whole other issue. At the moment, the only "Vatican-approved" birth control methods are abstinence and natural family planning. Artificial contraception, such as condoms, the Pill and the IUD, are banned by the Catholic Church, but that's not to say Catholic women don't use them. In fact, a 2011 study from the Guttmacher Institute found that 98 percent of Catholic women have used a form of artificial birth control. The study estimates that 68 percent of Catholic women currently use the Pill.

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As it turns out, Catholics have been tied to the Pill since its creation: The Pill's inventor, John Rock, was a devout Catholic doctor who lobbied the church for more than a decade.

In 1963, Pope John XXIII called a commission on birth control, which not only included clergy but also married Catholic couples. After several years of discussion, the commission voted overwhelmingly to repeal the ban. However, three dissenting bishops went behind the council and persuaded Pope Paul VI to uphold the contraception ban. Paul did, and it was a huge surprise to American and European Catholics. And Rock, disappointed and betrayed, reportedly left the Catholic Church.

Despite a growing movement of pro-choice Catholics, the Vatican has made no move to approve birth control. However, Pope John Paul II, after much resistance, did approve the use of condoms to curb the spread of HIV in Africa.

Gay Rights

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Being gay is not necessarily a sin in the Catholic Church; you can have "gay thoughts," but you can't act on them (i.e. live openly). Pope Francis has shown more sympathy toward LGBTQ activists than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who once said gay marriage was "a threat to world peace." Last July, Francis said he wouldn't "judge" gays and lesbians. "They shouldn't be marginalized," he added.Francis' words have given many Catholics hope. There's already a strong LGBTQ presence among American Catholics, including Catholics For Marriage Equality, New Ways Ministry and Dignity USA, to name a few. A majority of American Catholics also support same-sex marriage: According to a 2014 poll conducted by Univision, 54 percent of U.S. Catholics say gay marriage should be legalized. The findings were consistent with a Quinnipiac University poll taken in 2013. But let's remember that this is only a slight majority, and many Catholic clergy in the U.S. still advocate for staunch anti-gay policies. As U.S. News & World Report recently noted, both sides continue to "claim" Pope Francis as their own.

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It helps that gay religious leaders and laypeople are becoming more visible in not only the Catholic Church, but also in Protestant denominations. Last March, Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, called on Francis to change the church's position on homosexuality.

Justice For Nuns

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The Catholic Church angered many in 2012 when the Vatican released a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an association that represents more than 80 percent of American nuns. The assessment was mocked by many, as it claimed the nuns were promoting "radical feminist themes" — a rather funny assertion — because they weren't spending enough time on promoting "anti-gay" and "anti-abortion" policies.

Although the sisters may not be reading Andrea Dworkin between praying the rosary, many of them are unapologetically feminist. Many Catholic laypeople speculated that the assessment, which called for an overhaul of the LCWR, was really an attack on the American nuns for breaking away from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

While the bishops vehemently opposed the Affordable Care Act, the sisters came out for it. In fact, they even negotiated with President Obama on it, eventually supporting the law's birth-control mandate. At the signing of the ACA in 2010, Obama invited the leader of the LCWR to stand beside him — a major blow to the bishops. As a result, the Vatican reprimanded the LCWR for making statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”

It's important to note that the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which represents conservative-leaning nuns, was not under attack from the Vatican. These nuns tend to be monastic, leading more cloistered lives than their sisters in public service. As such, many Catholics believe the doctrinal attack was also a way to make the liberal nuns less visible and diminish their power and influence.

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Two years later, the saga of the nuns continues. On April 30, the Vatican delivered another blow to the LCWR: Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican chief of doctrine, accused the nuns of not abiding by the mandated reform agenda. He stated the LCWR will need to have the speakers and material for its annual conference approved by the Vatican, and also criticized the organization's decision to grant an award to Sister Elizabeth Johnson, an acclaimed Catholic feminist scholar. The LCWR said it was "saddened" by the recent assessment.