The controversy over Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that reaffirmed Catholic teaching on contraception 50 years ago, cannot be understood apart from the context of a well-funded advocacy network for population control after the Second World War.
The network includes big names in grantmaking like the Ford Foundation and John D. Rockefeller III. One scholar has been writing about this network for decades.
“The campaign to persuade Catholics, leaders and the lay public, that traditional views of sexuality, abortion, and marriage were antiquated was extensive and conducted on many fronts,” Arizona State University history professor Donald Critchlow told CNA.

“Groups such as Catholics for Choice were encouraged through philanthropic grants, but the more general campaign was conducted around sexual education.”
Critchlow is the author of the 1999 Oxford University Press book “Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion, and the Federal Government in Modern America.”

Together with his talk at the Catholic University of America’s April 2018 conference “The Legacy of Dissent from Humanae Vitae,” his work helps place Humanae Vitae in the political and policy context of its time.
“In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, leaders in philanthropic foundations, politics, and business joined together to undertake a campaign to control the rates of population growth. They concluded that future wars, famine, and other social ills could be prevented through a reduction in the rate of population growth.” Critchlow told CNA. “This neo-Malthusian agenda was joined by activists seeking reproductive rights for women and environmentalists seeking environmental justice.”
This took part in an environment of sexual revolution, even before the invention of the birth control pill.
“American sexual mores were already changing in the 1960s,” Critchlow continued. “Changes in sexual mores and sexual behavior cannot be attributed to one single cause. There should be little doubt, however, that elite opinion encouraged changes in sexual mores and behavior in the name of ‘progress,’ reproductive justice, and population control.”
The history professor classified the postwar era as “one of most massive efforts of social engineering in human history.”
“Many actors were found in this neo-Malthusian campaign, but it is important to emphasize that it was not a conspiracy as such,” he said. “Those involved in the population control movement and calls for publicly funded contraception, abortion, sterilization and sex education shared a general perspective on the need to control population growth and to educate the public. They saw themselves as the enlightened bringing progress to the masses, who were backward in their social, political, and religious views. “
When Humanae Vitae, issued by Pope Paul VI on July 25, 1968, reaffirmed Catholic teaching that contraception was immoral, these advocates responded strongly.
Humanae Vitae was attacked openly and publicly,” Critchlow said.
This advocacy network had Catholic allies. The National Catholic Reporter had received a leaked report backed by the majority of Paul VI’s birth control commission, which argued that contraception was compatible with the Catholic faith.
Theologian Fr. Charles Curran became the center of controversy, after the Catholic University of American overturned his tenure recommendation because he rejected Catholic teaching on birth control. The decision prompted waves of protest and controversy, and was later reversed.
Hugh Moore, a non-Catholic businessman and population control activist who had helped found the Dixie Cup Corporation, took out full page ads in the New York Times and other newspapers, circulating anti-Humanae Vitae material to the bishops and translating it into Spanish and French.
“He organized petitions from dissenting priests that were highly publicized. The Vatican, Roman Catholicism, and traditional bishops in the United States were portrayed as reactionary and out of step with modernity,” Critchlow added.
Moore had played a key role in establishing the International Planned Parenthood Federation and served as its vice-president in the mid-1960s. He helped co-found the Population Crisis Committee and was a leading advocate of voluntary sterilization.
According to Critchlow, the overall campaign against a feared “population explosion” was “conducted on many fronts, often uncoordinated, with sharp differences over strategy and tactics, but based on the assumption that population control was necessary to save humanity.”
After the Second World War, philanthropic foundations worked to establish family planning clinics outside the U.S. These foundations’ lobbyists then worked to get a U.S. commitment to domestic family planning. Under President Lyndon Johnson, anti-poverty programs saw family planning as an instrument, especially in inner city neighborhoods, black minorities, and Native American reservations. This was extended under the Nixon Administration.
Books like Paul Erhlich’s “The Population Bomb,” popular magazine articles, science fiction novels and movies raised fears of a dystopian future that would be inevitable unless population growth were controlled.
Another major name in the movement was John D. Rockefeller III, who funded many population control groups and founded the Population Council in 1952. Its charter’s first draft, which was later modified, spoke of creating conditions in which parents who are “often above average in intelligence, quality of personality” produce “larger than average families.”

Critchlow saw this as “eugenic language.”
The Ford Foundation similarly put millions of dollars into population control programs. Some donors, like Cordelia Scaife May, an heiress of the Mellon family fortune, would be drawn to more radical groups like Zero Population Growth.
In the 1960s, the Catholic bishops faced paralysis. Efforts to block the federal government’s moves to fund family planning were stalled by disagreement among the bishops and uncertainty about what Pope Paul VI would finally say about the birth control pill, among other problems, such as Catholic agencies’ and hospitals’ dependence upon federal funds.
“Catholic religious leaders, including educators, confronted a critical dilemma with deep roots in the Roman Catholic experience in America: How to be accepted in a country with a tradition of anti-Catholicism, while maintaining core Catholic principles,” said Critchlow. “Inevitably compromises were reached to ensure accommodation with a culture that was becoming increasingly secularized”
With the involvement of University of Notre Dame president Father Theodore Hesburgh’s personal assistant George Shuster, a series of meetings on human population growth were held at Notre Dame from 1963 to 1967 under the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation. They brought together selected Catholic leaders to meet with leaders of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Population Council, as well as with leaders of the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.
Critchlow, in his book “Intended Consequences” said John D. Rockefeller III and others within the foundation community were “astutely aware of the importance of changing the Catholic Church’s position on birth control” and saw the meetings as an opportunity to ally with Catholic leaders who could “help change opinion within the hierarchy.”
According to Critchlow, Fr. Hesburgh arranged for a 1965 meeting between Rockefeller and Pope Paul VI to discuss population control issues. The same year, 37 scholars who attended a conference at Notre Dame signed a confidential statement to the papal commission examining the morality of new forms of artificial birth control. Their statement lobbied for a change in the Catholic Church’s view of contraception.
Rockefeller appointed Fr. Hesburgh to the Rockefeller Foundation’s executive committee in 1966, with the understanding that he would abstain from voting on issues involving contraception, sterilization and abortion. Fr. Hesburgh served as the foundation’s chairman from 1977 to 1982.
“In the end, the bishops were forced to accommodate to dissent within the church. The Catholic Church was placed on the defensive until the rise of the abortion issue in which public opinion was much more divided on than oral contraception,” said Critchlow.
The population control programs led to several scandals involving U.S. and U.N.-sponsored family planning programs. In India, forced sterilization was widespread and drew outrage when reported. In the U.S., there were instances of federally funded forced sterilization in anti-poverty programs.
This resulted in strong attacks on population control, especially from feminists, and the movement changed strategies. It promoted delayed marriage through women’s economic and educational development.
“These goals of promoting economic independence and higher education for women in developing countries should be applauded, even if such programs are supported by feminist activists and population control advocates,” Critchlow said.
While the population control debate has shifted, the controversy over Humanae Vitae continues to this day.