The vexed history of Blessed Paul VI’s letter on life and love, published 50 years ago this week

In 1963, Father Andrew Greeley published an article citing studies that showed overwhelming support among American Catholics for the Church’s teaching that artificial birth control is always wrong.

“Catholics accept the Church’s teaching with a vengeance,” Father Greeley wrote, adding that on this subject some Catholics were “more Catholic than the Church.”

Five years later, in July 1968, Pope Paul VI published his encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”), which reaffirmed the teaching. It was greeted by a storm of theological and popular dissent. 

Not long after, Father Greeley, a sociologist and novelist, declared the encyclical to be the source of many if not most ills in the Church. He didn’t explain what happened between 1963 and 1968 to account for the change.

Yet Catholic attitudes clearly did change. In 1973, demographers Charles Westoff and Larry Bumpass concluded that the use of contraceptives by American Catholic women shot up from 30 percent in 1955 to 68 percent in 1970. 

As for here and now, a Pew Research Center study two years ago found that even among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, only 13 percent thought contraception was wrong.

Is that the end of the story? Hardly. While supporters of “Humanae Vitae” may now be comparatively few in number, the encyclical has the backing of a committed core of passionate defenders, including people who swear by Natural Family Planning and champion St. Pope John Paul II’s innovative Theology of the Body. 

Since the time of Pope Paul VI, it has enjoyed the support of popes up to and including Pope Francis, who will canonize Pope Paul as a saint in October.

The cover of a 50th anniversary edition of “Humanae Vitae,” published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

A fresh look

Against the background of the gap between Church teaching and its rejection by many of Church members, the 50th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae” is an appropriate — some would say urgently necessary — time to take a fresh look at what went into building Catholic dissent.

To begin with, there is the obvious fact that the encyclical could hardly have appeared at a less auspicious time. In 1968, a cultural — and sexual — revolution was well underway in the United States and other countries, with a spirit of rebellion against whatever smacked of tradition or took a stand against self-indulgence spreading like wildfire.

Opposition also was mounting to the growing U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, and campus protests were erupting throughout the country. In April, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, with his killing sparking riots, burning and looting in several cities, including Washington, D.C. 

Barely two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles. President Lyndon Johnson, fearing public humiliation at the polls in November for his Vietnam policy, decided not to run for reelection. During the Democratic convention in Chicago, protesters clashed with police in the streets outside.

For years, too, powerful groups and institutions, including the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, had been promoting population control, with Catholics among those targeted by the message. 

By 1968, breaking with previous policy, the government had started edging into the birth control business via Johnson’s Great Society program. Government involvement in population control at home and abroad would soon skyrocket under President Richard Nixon. Inevitably, all this had an effect on Catholics. So did events within the Church. 

The Second Vatican Council had ended three years earlier, but the turmoil it unintentionally helped create was in full flood by 1968.

Highly publicized departures from the priesthood and religious life, a phenomenon that began during the council, were still taking place. 

An ill-defined state of mind called “the Spirit of Vatican II” persuaded many people that old beliefs and old values should — and probably would — be tossed aside. The teaching against artificial birth control was an obvious target for that way of thinking.

The first oral contraceptive, Enovid, was approved by the FDA in 1960. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Sowing the seeds

But the seeds of dissent had in fact been sown much earlier.

Up to 1930, a substantial consensus in opposition to artificial contraception existed among Christian churches. 

But that year the Anglican bishops broke ranks at their Lambeth Conference, adopting a resolution giving guarded approval to the practice of artificial birth control by married couples in some circumstances. Other churches soon followed suit, and the consensus was no more.

Pope Pius XI stood firm. In his encyclical “Casti Connubii” (“On Christian Marriage”), dated Dec. 31, 1930, he issued a resounding defense of the Church’s traditional teaching. It concluded with these words:

“Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

Pope Pius XII repeated the teaching. Speaking to a meeting of Italian midwives in October 1951, he recalled what Pope Pius XI had said, and declared: “This precept is in full force today as it was in the past, and so it will be in the future and always because it is not a simple human whim but the expression of a natural and divine law.”

As that suggests, the teaching wasn’t new. Essentially the same thing had been said for centuries by those with teaching authority in the Church whenever they addressed the question. 

And although a scholar (and later a federal court judge) named John T. Noonan, in his influential 1965 book “Contraception,” argued in favor of change, even Noonan was obliged to admit that, as he wrote, “the teaching on contraception is clear and apparently fixed forever.”

In April 1963, shortly before his death, Pope John XXIII had established a Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birth Rate whose specific purpose was to prepare for the Holy See’s participation in an upcoming conference sponsored by the United Nations and the World Health Organization. 

No one knew it then, but this body was to play a central role in the drama of dissent leading up to “Humanae Vitae.”

Pope John died on June 3, 1963, and Cardinal Giovanni Montini of Milan was elected to succeed him. He took the name Paul VI.

Although he supported the teaching on birth control, the new pope apparently thought oral contraceptives — “the Pill” — might possibly be morally different from other forms of contraception. He therefore expanded the scope of the commission’s work while also enlarging its membership. Soon it became popularly known as the “birth control commission.”

A detailed account of its work was written several years ago by Dr. Germain Grisez, a prominent American Catholic ethicist and moral theologian who died last February. It can be found on his website, “The Way of the Lord Jesus” (

A philosophy professor at Georgetown University at the time of the events he records, Grisez in 1965 published his first book, “Contraception and the Natural Law,” in which he argued the case for the traditional teaching using a new theory of natural law based on human goods. (The argument, briefly, is that moral evil lies in freely willing and acting against fundamental goods of the human person, and contraception clearly does this in the case of the good of procreation.)

Grisez was enlisted by Father John C. Ford, SJ, an American moral theologian and commission member, and the two men worked closely together in the commission’s latter phases and later.

Although the commission president, starting in February 1966, was the conservative Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, its secretary general, Father Henri de Riedmatten, OP, a staff member of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, tilted its work toward changing the teaching, according to Grisez.

In addition, he writes, Father Ford found a number of theologians on the commission to be “predisposed to change.” As the internal politicking continued, sentiment shifted in that direction. 

That remained the case after Pope Paul reorganized the group to include only cardinals and bishops — 16 of them — as members, with the nonbishops designated experts.

Matters came to a head in a series of meetings in April, May and June of 1966.

The result was two documents — misleadingly labeled the “majority report” and the “minority report” — laying out various arguments and considerations, which were presented to the pope.

Pope Paul VI greets children as he visits the Church of St. Leo the Great in Rome March 31, 1968. CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE PHOTO/GIANCARLO GIULIANI, CATHOLIC PRESS PHOTO

Pressure on the pope

Not surprisingly, six months later, these and other commission documents were leaked to media and published in English and French — in the U.S., in the National Catholic Reporter. The move clearly seemed designed to put pressure on the pope.

The story got headline coverage around the world. But Pope Paul made it clear he wasn’t impressed, saying in an address in October 1966 that views generated within the birth control commission “cannot be considered definitive.”

Finally, on Monday, July 29, 1968, Pope Paul released “Humanae Vitae” for publication. It repeated the Church’s long-standing condemnation of all forms of artificial birth control. Each and every marital act, it said, “must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”

The pope had finally spoken. But in a way it was already too late. Many Catholics had already made up their minds by then, and often they had decided in favor of birth control. 

Many factors combined to produce this result. Pope Paul’s long delay was among them. 

Presumably, he expected that Catholics would wait until the pope made up his mind and then obediently follow his lead. 

But instead of that happening, the delay gave proponents of change time to mobilize support for their position, while feeding the impression that Pope Paul would go along with them in the end and sometimes suggesting that it hardly mattered whether he did or didn’t.

The media — increasingly including Catholic media — helped build this expectation of change. Even The Ladies Home Journal weighed in, with a 1966 article highly critical of “the rhythm method” that concluded with these words: “When there is this much widespread unhappiness, this much that is destructive of the very ideals of marriage the Church wants to preserve, something is wrong.”

The lay-edited Catholic journal Commonweal made the important point that the birth control debate was “a focal point for all manner of issues far more basic” than contraception. 

According to the magazine, these included the nature of marriage, “the role and value of the Church’s teaching authority,” conscience, natural law and “the nature of morality.”

Some prominent theologians also became advocates of change. These included well-known figures like Father Bernard Haring, CSSR, author of a popular moral theology text, and the American moralist Father Richard McCormick, SJ.

Already, too, the Second Vatican Council had added fuel to the fire. That happened during the debate over “Gaudium et Spes,” the council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, with the question being what, if anything, the council should say about birth control.

In the end, the Second Vatican Council settled for a footnote noting, at the insistence of Pope Paul, what Pope Pius XI had said about contraception back in 1930. But some still believe it would have been better if the bishops at Vatican II had been allowed to re-argue the question for themselves and settle it definitively there and then.

And so it went. By the time “Humanae Vitae” finally came out, the idea that the Church’s teaching would change was no longer a mere possibility, but for many people a virtual certainty. Disappointment and even anger were thus predictable early responses to the encyclical.

Most bishops’ conferences around the world declared their acceptance and assent. Most, but not all. Statements expressing some measure of disagreement — or at least nonacceptance — came from the hierarchies of France, the Netherlands, Canada, Germany, Austria and Scandinavia.

The bishops of the United States, meeting in November 1968, issued a long pastoral letter titled “Human Life in Our Day,” expressing strong support for what the pope had said, which they called an “obligatory statement.”

Pope Paul VI presides over a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in 1963. CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE PHOTO/CATHOLIC PRESS PHOTO

A wider view

Apparently not content with talking about just one hot-button issue, however, the bishops also discussed the U.S. role in Vietnam, taking a skeptical view of what was going on there. 

Stranger still, in speaking of birth control, the pastoral letter included a section of “Norms of Licit Theological Dissent” that identified what was allowable by “scholars” engaged in “professional theological work” who disagreed with “Humanae Vitae.”

In the real world, though, the dissent from the encyclical wasn’t occurring in cloistered academic settings where scholars expressed themselves with “prudence born of intellectual grace,” but in a world of news conferences, sound bites and headlines where dissent tended to be raucous and far from graceful.

That was the case, for example, with Father Charles Curran, at the time a theologian at the Catholic University of America, who called it “incredible that the pope should be thinking of such a statement.” 

After the encyclical appeared, Father Curran, enjoying maximum media support, proceeded to carry on what one writer calls a “well-planned strategy” of opposition.

Especially notable, too, was the so-called “Washington case” involving public dissent by 51 priests of the Archdiocese of Washington (a number eventually reduced to 19, many of the original group having quit the priesthood by then).

When most of these men refused to back off, Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of Washington withdrew their faculties to preach and hear confessions. The dispute eventually went to Rome, where in 1970 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy found that Cardinal O’Boyle had acted correctly, but didn’t require the priests to withdraw their public dissent.

Meanwhile, dissent continued to spread — dissent not only from the teaching on birth control but, as had been predicted, from a lot else besides.

As a writer in Commonweal put it: “We see at work in the birth-control issue the celibacy debate, the germinal drive for divorce and remarriage, the frequency of intercommunion, and a number of more doctrines such as purgatory, hell, transubstantiation, Mary as coredemptrix, and so on.”

As noted, the teaching of “Humanae Vitae” has been endorsed by popes since Pope Paul, including Pope Francis. And Pope Francis will canonize Pope Paul in mid-October.

Some people nevertheless worry that Pope Francis might take the same approach to contraception that he took to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics in his document on marriage, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”). That could mean declaring support for the teaching, while offering a “pastoral” solution for those who can’t — or anyway won’t — live by it.

A member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Father Maurizio Chiodi, suggested something like that in a public lecture last December. He remains a member of the pontifical council.

But however that may be, judging by the poll numbers Catholic consciences are already in disarray on birth control. Admirers of “Humanae Vitae” hope nothing happens during its 50th anniversary year to make that situation worse — just as they hope the anniversary moves at least some of their dissenting coreligionists to take another look at its teaching. 

Pope Paul VI at the Vatican on June 29, 1968. CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE FILE PHOTO

Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of many books, including his most recent, “American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.”

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