Smack Talk and the Meaning of Statistics

In the comment boxes under Joe Hargrave’s “Man vs. Nature,” I noted the following exchange.

First, Deacon Ed made the following suggestion:

If the Chinese mandate only 1 child families, would it be too much of a stretch for Catholics, who purport to understand God’s design for creation, to be encouraged to have 5 children per family at a minimum.

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…to which another poster replied somewhat heatedly,

“Deacon Ed” presumes to make everyone have at least 5 children? Deacon Ed knows little of what he is talking about… Perhaps he should focus more on his own flaws and worry less about how many children other people have.

Let me inform you of some basic facts: virtually every couple I know has contracepted and many of them have been married for 30+ years and have good marriages [a big myth that couples who contracept get divorced]. They are good parents and good citizens and frankly, you have no business worrying about their sex lives.

Ann, another frequent commenter, noted that…

96% of married Catholics in America use some form of non-church approved BC. I suspect it’s even higher, more like 99.9999999% over the course of the entire marriage. Is it the train that’s left the station, or should we kick everyone out? IDK.

I’m not sure the origin of Ann’s statistic (the 96%, I mean; it’s clear she’s both surmising and rhetorically exaggerating on the second figure).

But I have a couple of thoughts about these statistics.


Who Is Included In That 96%?

To say that 96% of Catholic couples have disobeyed “at some point in their lives” misses a distinction — one which I think is important.

That issue is the distinction between pre-conversion ignorance and post-conversion hypocrisy. There is, I think, a difference between the person who doesn’t know any better, and the person who knows better and still disobeys, stubbornly refusing to consider any change of heart or of habit.

And even among the post-conversion hypocrites, there are further distinctions to be made. There are, of course, those who simply and stubbornly disregard the Church’s teachings. But there are also those who sometimes disobey — and are therefore hypocritical to that degree — but who disobey less and less over time because they refuse to lie to themselves that it isn’t sin.

This later group is important because they don’t give up. They keep repenting…and repenting…and repenting, time and time again. Repenting: Even when they’re skeptical about their own ability to keep obeying. Repenting: Even when they feel certain they’ll eventually stumble and fall. Repenting, in the hopes that this time, maybe they can put a few more weeks or months between each failure than they did the last time.

Anyhow, should all these groups of folk, including the ones who didn’t really know any better at the time, but later changed their habits when they learned and accepted the Church’s teaching, be counted under the 96% figure?

I myself am (relatively) new in attempting obedience to the Church on this issue. But then I am (relatively) newly Catholic. No one said anything much to me about this issue when I was a Protestant. Am I to be one of Ann’s 96%, then?

And of course, there are catholics and then there are Catholics. A “little c” catholic whose sole Catholic identification is a matter of upbringing, but for whom no adult decision has taken any conscious direction other than away from the Church, often still calls himself or herself “Catholic” in polls and surveys.

Are those folk to be considered “Catholic” for the purposes of this 96% figure? If so, why should any serious, faithful Catholic (even those stuck in the cycle of stumbling and repenting) see that figure as having anything to do with them?


What Lesson Do We Draw?

I suppose my question is: What is the purpose of Ann’s 96% percent figure, supposing it to be accurate? What lesson are we to draw from it?

Are we to conclude that this teaching is hopeless, at least in America, and that Deacon Ed and others should drop it?

That motive isn’t fair to attribute to Ann. But others sometimes seem to take that view.

Anyhow, there is another figure which, if I knew it, I would find more relevant: What percentage of practicing Catholic couples, who at some point decided that from that day forward they would make a bona fide attempt to live out the Church’s teachings in every other area of life, and are currently and continuously attempting to fulfill that decision, nevertheless willfully and knowingly reject the Church’s teachings in the area of artificial contraception, and have no plans to attempt to embrace those teachings at any point in the future?

I don’t suppose there’s anyway to learn that number. But wouldn’t that, really, be the relevant figure? And, doesn’t everyone agree that it’d be far south of 96%? Perhaps below 75%? Below 50%?

People will accuse me either of projecting, or of hopeless optimism, in that last suggestion. But there is precedent in my life for optimism about these kinds of things; namely, in avoiding sex before marriage. And I can think of perhaps five other Christian couples who, fed on a diet of Elisabeth Eliot’s Passion and Purity, remained virgins until marriage. And that’s just among the few of my good friends from college that I knew well enough to discuss such matters. In any other crowd of actively Christian couples, you’re going to find some who managed it.

Yet we are always told that nobody lives that moral rule any more. I remember in high school, talking to a friend about this commitment. Maryann, my friend, answered as follows: “Yeah, you say that now. But you’re going to go to college. And trust me, you’ll lay the first girl who throws herself at you.” I asked her if she wanted to bet. (Frustratingly, I’ve never had the opportunity to collect. On the other hand, I was pretty nerdy in college: Nobody threw herself at me. So I probably can’t claim to have won the bet.)


Trash Talk From The Tempter?

It seems to me that I mostly hear these 95%+ statistics in the area of sexual purity. Masturbation among men. Pornography. The numbers cited are in the high nineties.

I don’t doubt that the numbers are factual so far as they go. But what are they telling us? Is this supposed to be “actionable intel?” What actions are we to take?

Aren’t we all being told that obedience is hopeless? Is that the purpose of these statistics? Are we, perhaps, sometimes beaten into giving up on acts of moral courage by all these grim statistics? Are they trying to persuade us of the hopelessness of any attempt at obedience?

Is this, in effect, just the devil’s game-day smack talk?

Buck up your courage. Obedience is possible in sexual matters. Even for Americans.

Is your own obedience less than perfect? Okay, so repent! And try again! Rack up frequent-flier miles in the confessional! But don’t give up.

Don’t be cowed by the statistics. Attempt purity. Attempt obedience. It’s rarer than it ought to be, but it can be done.


  • Cord Hamrick

    Cord Hamrick is a husband and father of three, raised an evangelical Christian in Southern Baptist churches. After years of lurking, questioning, and eventually opining in the Catholic blogosphere, he was received into the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil, 2010. Cord is a sometime church musician, former praise-and-worship bandleader, frequent songwriter and arranger, occasional guitar teacher, and — because one really must somehow pay the bills — a developer of web-based software applications. He lives in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife and three kids.

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