Roman Catholic Church Reaffirms Its Position Against Birth Control Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ending a five-year period of study of the moral issues surrounding the use of artificial birth control, the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s earlier prohibition on all forms of birth control, including abortion and the pill. The encyclical was met with widespread criticism and dissent and led to divisions in the Church that continue into the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

The question of artificial contraception first came to prominence in the Roman Catholic Church in the second quarter of the twentieth century. In response to the Anglican Church’s acceptance of artificial birth control at the Lambeth Conference in 1929, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti Connubii Casti Connubii (papal encyclical) Papacy, Roman Catholic;encyclicals Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclicals (on Christian marriage) the following year. While recognizing the legitimacy of deferring (or even avoiding) childbirth in certain circumstances among married couples, the papal document expressly prohibited artificial contraception as a means of accomplishing this, allowing only for a process based on the natural cycle of fertility (later called the rhythm method or “natural family planning”). This teaching was affirmed in various statements by his successor, Pope Pius XII. Theological debate continued, however, especially in the period following World War II, a period that saw the development of new methods of artificial birth control, most significantly the anovulant (or birth control) pill approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960. Roman Catholic Church;contraception Christianity;Catholic doctrines Contraception [kw]Roman Catholic Church Reaffirms Its Position Against Birth Control (July 25, 1968) [kw]Catholic Church Reaffirms Its Position Against Birth Control, Roman (July 25, 1968) [kw]Church Reaffirms Its Position Against Birth Control, Roman Catholic (July 25, 1968) [kw]Birth Control, Roman Catholic Church Reaffirms Its Position Against (July 25, 1968) Roman Catholic Church;contraception Christianity;Catholic doctrines Contraception [g]Europe;July 25, 1968: Roman Catholic Church Reaffirms Its Position Against Birth Control[09850] [g]Italy;July 25, 1968: Roman Catholic Church Reaffirms Its Position Against Birth Control[09850] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;July 25, 1968: Roman Catholic Church Reaffirms Its Position Against Birth Control[09850] [c]Health and medicine;July 25, 1968: Roman Catholic Church Reaffirms Its Position Against Birth Control[09850] [c]Women’s issues;July 25, 1968: Roman Catholic Church Reaffirms Its Position Against Birth Control[09850] [c]Organizations and institutions;July 25, 1968: Roman Catholic Church Reaffirms Its Position Against Birth Control[09850] Paul VI Pius XI John XXIII Pius XII Ottaviani, Alfredo Ford, John C. Curran, Charles E. John Paul II

In March of 1963, five months after the opening of the Second Vatican Council in Rome, Pope John XXIII appointed a commission to restudy the birth control question in the light of these new medical developments. The work of the commission continued under his successor, Paul VI. Officially known as the Pontifical Commission for the Study of Population, Family, and Births Pontifical Commission for the Study of Population, Family, and Births , the group met five times between October, 1963, and June, 1966. Its membership, which originally consisted of six men, grew over time to include women and married couples, scientists, social scientists, medical doctors, psychiatrists, priests, and theologians. By 1965, the commission’s membership had expanded to fifty-eight.

The commission’s June, 1966, report recommended that the matter of birth control be left to the individual consciences of married couples, accompanied by moral guidelines warning against selfishness and requiring a general openness to procreation in the marital relationship. On July 29, 1968, Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae Humanae Vitae (papal encyclical) (of human life), reaffirming the Church’s prohibition on the use of all forms of artificial contraception.

Pope Paul VI in 1970, during a meeting with U.S. president Richard M. Nixon.

(National Archives)

Debate continues over the events that led to the Humanae Vitae, subtitled “on the regulation of birth,” especially in the light of the commission’s report. Key players who are considered by many to have influenced the document’s issuance include the conservative cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, secretary of the Holy Office in Rome, and the American Jesuit theologian John C. Ford, whose works had long argued in favor of the Church’s traditional position. As members of the Church’s birth-control commission, both of these individuals strongly disagreed with the commission’s majority position and worked behind the scenes in the period following its release to undercut its conclusions and to convince the pope of the need to reaffirm the Church’s traditional teachings. Others, however, argue on purely theological and philosophical grounds that no other conclusion was possible: The papal document was inevitable.

Whatever the reasons behind the encyclical, the document unleashed a firestorm of controversy. Released in the middle of a new spirit of openness following Vatican II, reaction was intense and largely negative, especially in the United States and in many parts of Europe. Although the encyclical continued to permit regulation of birth by “natural” means, this fact was passed over by those who had expected the prohibition on artificial contraception to be lifted. Among the immediate acts of protest was a statement authored by Charles E. Curran, a young priest and theology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. This document, signed at the time by eighty-seven American theologians, was released the day after the encyclical appeared and strongly challenged both its conclusions and its status as an infallible Church teaching. Within a matter of weeks the number of theologians signing Curran’s statement had grown to more than six hundred, including many from Canada and Europe.

Lay Catholics, particularly in North America and Europe, reacted similarly, dissenting from the basic conclusions of the encyclical. Criticisms appeared in many popular Catholic periodicals, and a Gallup poll reported in The New York Times in September of 1968 showed that 54 percent of American Catholics disagreed with the document while only 28 percent supported it. In the face of this dissent, Church leaders attempted both to support and in some ways to soften the Church’s position. A pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops, Human Life in Our Day, Human Life in Our Day (pastoral letter) issued on November 15, 1968, noted in a section called “The Encyclical and Conscience” the role that conscience plays in questions of Church teachings that are not of an infallible nature. The bishops’ letter, however, did agree with the encyclical’s overall conclusions.

Significance

Pope Paul VI’s successor, John Paul II, as well as the official teachings of the Church, perpetuated the mandates against artificial contraception outlined in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. In practice, however, large numbers of Catholics simply ignored the Church’s position, believing the issue was not a fundamental part of their faith.

The encyclical produced a high level of dissent among both theologians and laity, and, more generally, it served to undercut the Church’s authority and to divide its members. If Vatican II was, for many, the high-water mark of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century, Humanae Vitae may well have been the source of its greatest ongoing controversy. Roman Catholic Church;contraception Christianity;Catholic doctrines Contraception

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curran, Charles, ed. Contraception: Authority and Dissent. New York: Herder and Herder, 1969. Essays by nine theologians, historians, and medical and legal experts arguing against the basic conclusions of the encyclical as well as the document itself as an infallible Church teaching. One of the first works of this type published in the period immediately following the encyclical’s release.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horgan, John, ed.“Humanae Vitae” and the Bishops: The Encyclical and the Statements of the National Hierarchies. Shannon: Irish University Press, 1972. Contains summaries as well as the texts of official reactions to the encyclical from bishops around the world. Includes both English and Latin texts of the encyclical itself, as well as the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter of November, 1968.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McClory, Robert. Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, and How “Humanae Vitae” Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church. New York: Crossroad, 1995. A history of the papal birth-control commission based on documentary sources as well as interviews with members of the commission still living at the time of its writing. Also contains the full text of the commission’s majority report of June, 1966.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maguire, Daniel C., ed. Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Examines the issue of birth control among the world’s religions, including Roman Catholicism, outlining its acceptance by various religions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rock, John. The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor’s Proposals to End the Battle over Birth Control. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963. A book, preceding the encyclical, written by one of the individuals responsible for the development of the birth control pill. A well-known gynecologist and a devout Roman Catholic, Rock argued in favor of the moral legitimacy of the pill and helped set the stage for the American response to the encyclical five years later.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shannon, James Patrick. Reluctant Dissenter: An Autobiography. New York: Crossroad, 1998. Provides an insightful case study of a prominent Church leader’s struggle with the encyclical, leading to his resignation both as a priest and as a bishop.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shannon, William H. The Lively Debate: Response to “Humanae Vitae.” New York: Sheed & Ward, 1970. An early, informed, and readable summary of the historical background as well as the theological debate surrounding the encyclical.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Janet E.“Humanae Vitae”: A Generation Later. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press of America, 1991. Offers a conservative assessment of the encyclical and its history, written more than twenty years after its release. Contains later theological arguments supporting it, including those found in the writings of Pope John Paul II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tentler, Leslie Woodcock. Catholics and Contraception: An American History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004. Places the reaction of American Catholics to the encyclical within the larger context of Catholic sexual teachings and practices beginning in the late nineteenth century.

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