October 20, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

How the Pill affected Catholic married women in the 1960s

John F. FinkLast week, I wrote about the Sexual Revolution that began in the 1960s. I noted how important the development of the birth control pill in 1960 was to that revolution, by enabling single women to enjoy the sexual freedoms that men always enjoyed. This week, I want to examine specifically how the Pill affected Catholic married women in the 1960s.

Until the 1960s, it was common for someone to say to the parents of a large family, “You must be Catholics.” Unlike their neighbors, faithful Catholics—and almost all of them were faithful then—did not use condoms or other devices to limit the size of their families. They tried the “rhythm method,” but unlike today’s natural family planning methods, it didn’t work very well.

Then came the Pill. It made women infertile the whole month, instead of only most of the month, so they wouldn’t get pregnant after intercourse. Many women believed that this method of birth control would surely be approved by the Church since couples did nothing during intercourse to prevent sperm from reaching an egg.

By 1962, when the Second Vatican Council began, the Pill was in common usage. But was it moral? Theologians were divided on the issue. Therefore, in 1963, Pope John XXIII appointed a six-member Commission on Population and Family Life to study the issue.

As I wrote here last November during my series of columns about the 20th-century Church, bishops at the council asked for reconsideration of the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception. But Pope Paul VI intervened to remove that item from the agenda, saying that the commission appointed by Pope John XXIII would study the issue after the council ended.

The commission was greatly expanded, eventually to 72 members. It met over a period of three years before issuing two reports, a majority report and a minority report. Although these reports were intended only for the pope, they were leaked to the press, which caused confusion among the faithful and the broader public.

The majority said that artificial birth control is not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves about the methods to be employed. It said that contraceptives should be regarded as an extension of the already accepted cycle method.

The minority report, drafted by American Jesuit theologian John Ford and American theologian Germain Grisez, said that declaring that contraception is not evil in itself would mean that the Church would have to admit “that for half a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error.”

Then nothing happened for two years. Many bishops, priests and laity alike more or less assumed that Pope Paul VI would accept the majority report. Priests in confession often advised married couples to use their own judgment.

But then, on July 29, 1968, Pope Paul issued the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which upheld the long-standing teaching that artificial contraception, including the Pill, was forbidden. The reaction was unprecedented as theologians dissented openly. Many Catholic women continued to use the Pill they thought would be approved, and polls today indicate that most of them have continued to do so 49 years later.

Catholic families today usually are much smaller. †

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