In my early research several decades ago I considered the determinants of birth rates in the United States. I found, along with others, that higher income and more educated families had fewer children, that urban fertility was lower than rural fertility, that fertility tends to fall during recession (birth rates fell during this financial crisis), and that some other identified variables also had important effects on birth rates. But Catholic families at that time had considerably more children than Protestant or Jewish families with the same incomes, education, urban status, etc. The usual explanation for this was the obvious one: because of Church doctrines, many Catholic families in the United States were reluctant to use condoms or the other effective contraceptives that were then available.
A similar Catholic effect on fertility was also found in past international studies as well. Predominantly Catholic countries in Europe and elsewhere, such as Ireland, Spain, or Mexico, had larger families than did predominantly Protestant countries, like Sweden or Norway, even after adjusting for the effects on fertility of differences among countries in their average incomes, education, importance of cities, and other variables. Again, the explanation given for this result was that Catholic families were more reluctant to use contraception to reduce the number of children they had. Demographers even used the situation in Ireland to define a class of behavior called “Irish family patterns”, which meant that men and women married late-in their late twenties and early thirties- and that after marriage women gave birth at frequent intervals because couples made little effort to control their births once married.
These findings of a strong Catholic “effect” on fertility changed radically during the past 40 years or so. Studies for the United States now show that Catholic families have, if anything, fewer rather than a greater, number of children compared to Protestant families who have similar incomes and education. A similar reversal has occurred in international comparisons. Catholic countries like Spain, Italy, and Poland now have total fertility rates-the number of children born to the average woman over her lifetime- of only 1.4, 1.4, and 1.2, respectively, far below these rates in the predominantly Protestant countries of Northern Europe. Even “Irish” family patterns no longer hold in Ireland, where the typical woman has a little less than two children over her lifetime instead of four or five, even though she is not marrying any later than the typical Irish woman did in the past.
The Catholic Church allows the use of the “rhythm” method to avoid conceiving during a sexual act, but the only possible inference from the studies I have referred to is that Catholic families are also making extensive use of condoms and other contraceptives. This inference is confirmed by evidence on sales of condoms and other contraceptives. Although there is some controversy over exactly what he meant, Pope Benedict XVI said in recently published interviews that male prostitutes might use condoms if that would help them avoid spreading HIV/AIDS. Yet the low birth rates of the great majority of Catholic families indicates that even many highly devout Catholics have been made extensive use of condoms and other contraceptives for decades.
It is hard not to conclude from this evidence that economics has trumped religion in Catholic fertility decisions, and in other Catholic decisions regarding marriage and divorce. Developing and developed economies provide strong economic incentives to reduce the demand for children because the education, potential earnings, and labor force participation of married women has greatly increased in these economies, and the trade off between the quantity and “quality” of children has shifted away from quantity and toward quality. That is, since modern economies mainly reward persons who have much education and other human capital, parents tend to invest a lot in each of a fewer number of children.
Fertility behavior is not the only area where Catholics are violating Church teachings. Many young Catholics have sex before marriage, and use condoms and other contraceptives to avoid producing pregnancies. If they do get pregnant, many get abortions to avoid having a child out of wedlock. Catholic divorce rates in the United States and elsewhere have grown sharply since 1970, even though they still are somewhat below those of Protestants.
That the economic and other incentives in modern technologically advanced economies induced many Catholics to violate Church teachings on use of contraceptives, divorce, sex outside of marriage, and in other family areas may have profound implications for the evolution of Church doctrines on these and related questions. Perhaps the limited exception to the Church’s ban on use of contraceptives that Pope Benedict has apparently granted to male prostitutes is the beginning of a dialogue among the leaders of the Catholic Church on how best to respond to the obvious conflict in contraception use and other sexual and family decisions between traditional Church doctrines and the actual behavior of the vast majority of Catholics.