By Jon O’Brien | Summer-Autumn 2008
Catholics for Choice
In July 1968 Pope Paul VI cleaved the Catholic church into irreconcilable factions. With his decision to ignore the majority’s findings on the Birth Control Commission that contraception could and should be allowed, and instead adopt the conservative minority report, Pope Paul issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae and dashed the hopes of Catholics around the world.
The majority, unable to reconcile the rigid encyclical with their need for an updated sexual ethic based less on the biological function of reproduction and more on the evolving nature of companionate sexual relationships, embraced individual conscience in matters of contraception and, increasingly, in other issues. Meanwhile, a minority sought desperately to reassert the principle of absolute obedience to the hierarchy, particularly on matters of sexuality, becoming more entrenched with each passing decade.
Even 40 years later, the wounds have not healed. For many Catholics, both clergy and lay, their relationship with the church would never be the same. And the church itself would be radically altered, unable to move forward; forever defending a teaching that was judged indefensible 40 years ago and has only become more so with the passage of time and the arrival of new issues related to contraception, such as preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS.
The Birth Control Commission
In 1963 a papal commission was working on a new statement on marriage as part of the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII to update the teachings of the Catholic church. Some of the conservative members of the pope’s staff were afraid that the more liberal members of the commission would use the occasion to reopen discussion about the hierarchy’s prohibition on “artificial” methods of contraception, such as condoms and diaphragms, which the hierarchy had banned in the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii. Although the hierarchy taught that only the “rhythm” method of timing intercourse for a woman’s infertile period was acceptable to limit births, the contraceptive pill recently had been developed and there was much talk of the hierarchy sanctioning its use for Catholic couples because it used naturally occurring hormones to mimic the infertile period of pregnancy. In addition, a new generation of theologians, led by Dr. Hans Kung of Switzerland, was arguing that there was no good theological basis for the ban. So conservatives decided to take the issue of contraception off the table and convinced the pope to establish a separate commission to discuss contraception. This commission consisted of six people; four of them laymen. After Pope John XXIII died, the commission was continued by his successor, Pope Paul VI, who expanded it to 13 members in 1965 and 58 in 1965, including five (married) women as part of its contingent of 34 lay members.
The commission took its job seriously. It studied the history of Catholic teachings on contraception and found that many of the scientific and theological underpinnings of the prohibition on contraception were faulty or outdated. Lay members presented the findings of surveys they had conducted of devout Catholic couples about their experiences with the rhythm method; some of the women present testified about their own use of the method. What the commission heard challenged their thinking about the role of fertility and contraception within marriage. They heard that contrary to the assertion of the hierarchy that natural family planning brought couples closer together, it often drove them apart. They heard of couples who became obsessed with sex because of the unnatural restrictions placed upon spontaneous demonstrations of affection. And they heard women speak of childbearing as one of many roles they played as wives, mothers and partners and of the importance of the non-procreative sexual bond to marriage.
In the end, the commission voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the church rescind its ban on artificial contraception, saying that it was not “intrinsically evil” nor the popes’ previous teachings on it infallible. But to the Vatican, it was impossible that the teaching on birth control could change because this would acknowledge that the hierarchy had been wrong on an issue it had elevated over the years to a central tenet of its teachings. For the last meeting of the commission, in the spring of 1965, it demoted the commission members to “experts” and brought in 15 bishops to make the final report. What followed was a serious of contentious meetings, as the increasingly impassioned pro-contraception forces squared off against a minority of members determined to hold the line for the Vatican. When Father Marcelino Zalba, a church expert on “family limitation,” asked the commission in undisguised horror what would happen “with the millions we have sent to hell” if the teaching on contraception “was not valid,” commission member Patty Crowley shot back: “Father Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?” (Robert McClory, Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, 1995)
But in the end even the bishops were swayed by the logic of the case for contraception. They voted nine to three to change the teaching, with three bishops abstaining. The official report of the commission said the teaching on birth control was not infallible; that the traditional basis for the prohibition on contraception—the biblical story of Onan and his spilled seed—had been interpreted incorrectly in the past; that the regulation of fertility was necessary for responsible parenthood and could properly be accomplished by intervening with natural processes; and, finally, that the morality of marriage was not based on “the direct fecundity of each and every particular act,” but on mutual love within the totality of marriage.
While there was only one official report of the commission, the dissenting members prepared what would later be known as a minority report. This report basically said that the teaching on contraception could not change—not for any specific reason, but because the Catholic hierarchy could not admit it was wrong: “The Church cannot change her answer, because this answer is true … It is true because the Catholic Church, instituted by Christ … could not have so wrongly erred during all those centuries of its history.” It went on to say that if the hierarchy was to admit it was wrong on this issue, its authority would be questioned on all “moral matters.” (National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 1967)
It was only in 1588 that Pope Sixtus V took the strongest conservative stance against contraception in Catholic history.
— Church and State (@ChurchAndStateN) February 19, 2021
By this time, the existence of the commission and its report recommending that the teaching on birth control be changed had leaked to the public, creating great expectation among Catholics that the Vatican was preparing to rescind the ban on artificial birth control as part of the general modernization of the church that accompanied Vatican II. Lost to most Catholics was the fact that the Vatican had established the commission as a way of containing the problem of the birth control discussion. It was a shock to Catholics—and indeed most of the world—when the encyclical Humanae Vitae was finally released by the pope on July 29, 1968, proclaiming the teaching on contraception unchanged and unchangeable: “The Church … in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”
Pope Paul had completely ignored the work and recommendations of his own commission, despite a vote by 30 of the 35 commission’s lay members, 15 of the 19 theologians and nine of 12 bishops that the teaching be changed. Instead, he latched onto the so-called minority report and declared that since the finding was not unanimous—and since the positive finding on contraceptives disagreed with previous teaching—the teaching could not be changed, a requirement that had not existed for any of the other issues discussed by the Vatican Council.
Incongruously, the encyclical did not deny the value or necessity of family planning; it just said that couples could not “directly prevent conception”—in other words, use modern contraceptive methods—a distinction that baffled most people. In essence, it declared that the totality of the marital relationship did not outweigh the necessity that each and every act of sexual intercourse embody the procreative function of marriage, the exact opposite of the finding of the Birth Control Commission.
A Losing Battle
Reaction to the encyclical ranged from dismay and disappointment to outright dismissal. Many Catholics had made up their own minds about birth control in the years the commission had spent debating the issue. Foreshadowing the crisis of authority that would consume the church in later years, prominent Jesuit philosopher Rev. Robert Johann told the New York Times the day after the encyclical’s release that, “educated Catholics are not going to pay any attention to this statement.” Commonweal magazine said: “For millions of lay people, the birth control question has been confronted, prayed over and settled—and not in the direction of the pope’s encyclical.” A Manhattan housewife told the Times: “I don’t care what the pope says. I have a feeling the clergy are talking to themselves on this issue. I have made my decision and couldn’t care less about people at the Vatican.” (New York Times, July 30, 1968)
In fact, a survey just a year after the encyclical’s release found that 44 percent of Catholic women of childbearing age who were regular churchgoers were using “artificial” contraception. By 1974, 83 percent of Catholics said they disagreed with Humanae Vitae.
Just as stunning as the indifference with which the Catholic faithful met the new encyclical was the response of the world’s Catholic theologians and bishops—the very people who were responsible for explaining the teaching to Catholics and urging them to follow it. No sooner was Humanae Vitae released than it was met with an unprecedented torrent of dissent from inside the church, most of it asserting that Catholics were free to follow their consciences on the issue of birth control. Many of the world’s most noted theologians—including Bernard Haring, Karl Rahner, Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Richard McCormick—dissented from the encyclical. The theological facilities of Fordham University, St. Peter’s College, Marquette University, Boston College and the Pope John XXIII National Seminary issued public statements of dissent, as did 20 of the most prominent theologians in Europe.
In the United States, the dissent crystallized around a group of theologians at Catholic University led by Father Charles Curran. By 3 a.m. the morning after the encyclical’s release they had 87 signatures to a statement of dissent; two days later they had 172 and eventually some 600 theologians signed on. The dissenters included the Rev. Bernard Haring, who was considered “the foremost world authority on Catholic moral theology;” John Noonan, a law professor who wrote the definitive book on the history of contraception in the Catholic church and was a special consultant to the papal commission; and all six US lay members of the papal commission.
The Legacy of Humanae Vitae
The impact of Humanae Vitae has been wide-ranging both within the Catholic church and in the world at large, with the prohibition on birth control affecting Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and forever altering the Catholic church.
Father Charles Curran, who would battle the Vatican for years about its stance on birth control before being forced from his teaching position at Catholic University, recalled: “Even those who lived through the heady days of the Second Vatican Council have difficulty recapturing the spirit of those times. We are optimistic about the life and future of the church.” At Catholic University, Curran recalled, “students were enthusiastic; lectures were overcrowded; laypeople took a much greater interest in theology and religious education than they had before; priests and religious were eager to find out about the work of the council.”
According to Curran, Humanae Vitae hit like a storm that dashed the hopes of millions of Catholics. “All the hope and enthusiasm, all the sense that things had changed and that the birth control teaching could change, were crushed by the document,” he recalls today. Beyond the sense of betrayal felt by many who had invested their energy and hopes in transforming the church, Humanae Vitae also altered the relationship between Catholics and the hierarchy, says Curran. “In a sense, there was one positive outcome from the encyclical in that Catholics realized that they could disagree with the pope on nonfallible issues and still remain a good Catholic. However, the negative outcome was that it created a lot of tension regarding the credibility of the church,” he says.
Statistics on papal authority bear Curran out. In 1963, 70 percent of Catholics believed that the pope derived his teaching authority from Christ through St. Peter; by 1974, only 42 percent believed the same thing. By 1999, nearly 80 percent of Catholics believed that a person could be a good Catholic without obeying the church hierarchy’s teaching on birth control. Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley noted in 1985: “Certainly never in the history of Catholicism have so many Catholics in such apparent good faith decided that they can reject the official teaching of the church as to what is sexually sinful and what is not, and to do so while continuing the regular practice of Catholicism and even continuing the description of themselves as good, strong, solid Catholics.” (Andrew Greeley, The American Catholic: A Social Portrait, 1977)
In fact, the tacit disobedience fostered by Humanae Vitae soon spilled over into other areas of the church, with Catholics increasingly making up their own minds on a host of other issues, including abortion, premarital sex and homosexuality. By 1999, only 20 percent of Catholics thought church leaders held the final moral authority about divorce, abortion and homosexuality; only 23 percent about premarital sex, and only n percent about birth control. The very thing that Pope Paul had feared most—that changing the teaching on birth control would erode the hierarchy’s authority on other matters of sexual morality—happened precisely because the teaching was not changed.
Humanae Vitae and Public Health
Beyond its impact on the Catholic church, Humanae Vitae has had another legacy, dramatically impacting the health status of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, especially women. Ironically, the encyclical had little effect on contraceptive practice in many western and more developed countries. Surveys show consistently that Catholic women in the United States, Europe and many Central and South American countries disregard Humanae Vitae and utilize modern methods of contraception. In the United States, 97 percent of Catholic women over the age of 18 have used a method of contraception banned by the hierarchy, the same percentage as the general population. Less than three percent of Catholic women in the US say they have used Vatican-approved methods of “natural” family planning. Use of modern contraceptive methods is high in many predominantly Catholic countries: 67 percent of married women of reproductive age in Spain use modern contraceptive methods, as do 69 percent of married women in France, and 60 percent of married women in Mexico and 70 percent of married women in Brazil.
In the developing world, however, as well as in countries in which the Catholic hierarchy holds sway over official family planning policies, it is another story. Humanae Vitae has contributed to a persistent unmet need for modern family planning methods in many of these countries, which leads to increased abortion, death and disability for women denied the ability to limit pregnancies, as well as the spread of AIDS. In addition, the Vatican has used its status at the UN to impose its anti-contraception policies on Catholics and non-Catholics, frustrating the development of comprehensive global family planning and anti-AIDS programs.
The Catholic hierarchy has also attempted to block access to emergency contraception for women, particularly in Latin America, where it has influence at the highest levels of government. In Latin America, as in other parts of the world, the Catholic hierarchy argues that emergency contraception is an abortifacient, although it is scientifically proven to act to prevent conception. In countries such as Chile, Peru, Argentina and Colombia, the hierarchy has had some success in limiting access to emergency contraception. First, the hierarchy works to prevent emergency contraception from being approved by drug-regulatory agencies. If the hierarchy is not successful with that strategy, “then they try to ban its distribution or limit sales by requiring a physician’s prescription. If the government decides to make it accessible to everyone through the public clinics, by including it alongside the other available contraceptive methods, initiatives to ban its availability are immediately begun. Their allies at all levels of service provision are urged to limit access to it, both nationally and locally, with any success depending on the extent of their political influence.” (Reproductive Health Matters, May 2007)
The Aids Epidemic
Nowhere has the public health impact of Humanae Vitae been felt more than in ongoing efforts to combat AIDS. Despite scientific evidence that condoms are a critical piece of AIDS-prevention efforts, the Vatican has refused to relax the ban on contraceptives and has spread disinformation about the effectiveness of condoms that undercut many national efforts to promote condom use. Much like its stance on family planning, it claims that abstinence is the only way to avoid AIDS and aggressively promotes this position, as when Pope Benedict XVI told African bishops in 2005: “The traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.” (BBC, June 10, 2005)
Recognizing the moral imperative of preventing the further spread of AIDS, bishops around the world have attempted to strike a balanced response to the AIDS epidemic, only to be rebuffed by the Vatican. In 1987, as a realization of the magnitude of the AIDS crisis was growing, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement saying that sexuality education programs “could include accurate information about prophylactic devices … as potential means of preventing AIDS,” but issued a statement two years later that said that condoms as a means of AIDS prevention are “technically unreliable” and “morally unacceptable.”
Since then, cardinals and bishops around the world have said that using condoms to prevent the transmission of AIDS, particularly within marriage and the context of responsible sexuality, is a better option than spreading a deadly virus.
In 2000, Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family summarized the thinking of many in the Catholic hierarchy when he wrote in L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, that “the use of prophylactics” in some circumstances, “is actually a lesser evil but it cannot be proposed as a model of humanization and development.”
Among African prelates in particular there has been a growing recognition that abstinence is unrealistic as a primary AIDS strategy on a continent where there are significant power discrepancies between men and women and many wives are powerless to refuse sex with their husbands, even if they suspect they have been unfaithful. South African Bishop Kevin Dowling has been an outspoken advocate of condom use as a response to the AIDS epidemic since zorn, when he said: “When people for whatever reason choose not to follow the values we promote as church—within and outside of our community—then the bottom line is the real possibility that a person could transmit a death-dealing virus to another through a sexual encounter. Such people, who are living with the virus, must be invited and challenged to take responsibility for their actions and their effect on others. They should use a condom in order to prevent the transmission of potential death to another.”
Catholics around the world support condom use as prolife because it prevents the spread of HIV and AIDS, including 90 percent of Catholics in Mexico, 86 percent of Catholics in Ireland, 79 percent of Catholics in the United States, and 77 percent of Catholics in the Philippines. Large majorities in these countries support a change in the Vatican’s position on condom use.
There was some hope that the era of Pope Benedict might usher in a more humane condom policy, particularly after Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the Vatican’s top health official, suggested that married women could use condoms in “self-defense” if their husband had HIV. Pope Benedict commissioned a study on the issue by Cardinal Barragan, but the findings were never published.
In 2008, as the US Congress considered funding for an important overseas AIDs-prevention program, the Catholic bishops’ conference invested considerable energy into lobbying against some vital life-saving measures that many advocates had proposed. During the drafting of the Lantos-Hyde US Global Leadership against HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria Act, the bishops lobbied successfully for the decoupling of vital family planning services that can prevent mother-child transmission of HIV and AIDS and the retention of the anti-prostitution pledge, further marginalizing an extremely at-risk group.
The bishops’ lobbying was successful despite the fact that Catholics in the United States and elsewhere support aid for international family planning. Studies show that properly directed funding for international family planning programs saves women’s lives and the lives of their children when those women have HIV and AIDS.
In El Salvador, the bishops helped pass a law requiring condoms to carry a warning label that they do not offer protection against AIDS. In Kenya, Cardinal Maurice Otunga burned boxes of condoms and sex-education literature. Health officials in Zambia were forced to withdraw an anti-AIDS campaign that urged condom use after protests by the hierarchy. In Honduras, Roman Catholic officials prevented the distribution of 1 million condoms in an anti-AIDS campaign. The Health Commission of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India opposed an AIDS prevention program that included abstinence and condom education, saying: “We do not think that condoms do much to prevent AIDS … It’s just a false promise. They say consistent and continuous use of condoms would yield results. That’s not practical.” (Indo-Asian News Service, August 30, 2005)
Alberto Stella, the UNAIDS coordinator for Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Pica, recently charged that the Catholic bishops’ opposition to condoms is contributing to the spread of AIDS in Latin America, saying that condom use has been “demonized” by Catholic leaders. “I guarantee the epidemic would be resolved in the region [if condoms were used all the time],” he said. (Reuters, October 24, 2007)
Beyond its official pronouncements denouncing condoms and its efforts to halt condom-based HIV and AIDS prevention programs, the Catholic church is also a major provider of AIDS care in the developing world through its network of hospitals and social service agencies. The Vatican estimates that it provides 27 percent of all AIDS services globally through the church or related organizations. However, officially, none of these organizations can distribute condoms or provide education about the use of condoms to prevent HIV, even though they are dealing with HIV-positive populations.
There are, however, numerous reports of local Catholic health workers ignoring the ban and distributing condoms or providing condom education, either covertly or with the tacit approval of local bishops. According to one doctor advising Doctors Without Borders on HIV, “What happens in practice depends a lot on local authorities. In some places they let us give people the choice, even if they won’t distribute condoms themselves. In other places, it is much more difficult, and patients who are religious won’t accept condoms because of the message of the church.” (New York Times, April 22, 2005)
The evidence is overwhelming that Humanae Vitae has been an utter failure in convincing Catholics to abandon modern forms of contraception. It has, however, prevented women and men in the developing world from accessing both reliable family planning methods and condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. It is also clear that the Catholic church cannot move forward until it honestly confronts the paradox of Humanae Vitae: that most Catholics use modern contraceptives, believe it is a moral choice to do so, and consider themselves Catholics in good standing, yet the Catholic hierarchy completely denies this reality, forcing the clergy into silence on this and most other issues related to sexuality.
There are sound reasons for the pope to reconsider the ban on contraception. From a theological perspective, the Papal Birth Control Commission determined 40 years ago that contraception is not “intrinsically evil” and that the teaching can be changed. Numerous bishops’ conferences have confirmed that a couple’s consciences are the final arbiter of the contraceptive decision and that the church recognizes the legitimacy of such a decision.
On the issue of AIDS, bishops and theologians have stated that the principle of the “lesser evil” makes condom use to prevent the spread of a deadly virus acceptable and that condom use would actually be a life-affirming action.
Despite the emphasis the hierarchy has put on the importance of continuity in the contraceptive teaching, this alone is not sufficient reason to maintain the ban. Theologian Anthony Padovano noted that the Vatican has changed its positions on issues of much greater significance, including the necessity of infant baptism for infants who die and the concept of “limbo.” “After all,” he said, “the church was totally committed to slavery and to the prohibition on [charging] interest and to the union of church and state, so if you stop and think of the way those issues were dealt with, it is clear that it has totally changed its policy on issues of much greater gravity.”
While it is difficult to state with any certainty how much the disaffection with the Catholic hierarchy’s teaching on family planning has affected the number of people who describe themselves as Catholic, it is surely not a coincidence that, were it not for the disproportionately large number of immigrants who are Catholic, the number of Catholics in the US would be falling significantly. A 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that while the overall percentage of the US population that describes itself as Catholic has remained consistent over the last 30-plus years, “Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses” of any major religion as a result of changes in religious affiliation.
Some 30 percent of the survey respondents were raised Catholic, but less than a quarter (24 percent) describes themselves as Catholic now. Taking the immigration factor into account, this translates to about a third of those raised Catholic no longer considering themselves Catholic, or, as Pew puts it, “roughly two percent of all Americans are former Catholics.”
Besides a challenge to its authority, at the heart of the Vatican’s reluctance to change the teaching of Humanae Vitae is its inability to craft a more modern sexual ethic that recognizes a role for sexuality beyond procreation and a role for women beyond motherhood and to offer women full equality within the church.
The institutional church invests so much energy in trying to promote laws and policy that affect the supply and availability of contraceptives speaks volumes about the obsessive mindset among the conservatives who control and direct the Vatican’s world view. Some openly question if any of this really matters. Most Catholics, regardless of the ban, simply ignore it. However, having lost the battle for the hearts and minds of lay Catholics, the hierarchy seeks to use its power and influence over national and local laws in an attempt to legislate adherents to the faith. For many years in the Republic of Ireland the bishops opposed the introduction of contraception. Of course, they eventually failed there as they do elsewhere time and time again as people and politicians understand that bad theology does not make good law. The tragedy is not in the global north, where most people have the means to overcome the nuisance of such moves, but that is not the case for those in the global south where access to life-saving contraception can be thwarted by the Holy See’s lobby at the UN or by a bureaucrat in a Catholic aid agency many thousands of miles away. The ban on contraception matters for the poor and the powerless—and for that the hierarchy must be answerable.
The past 40 years have been marked by a hardening of these attitudes at the very time that the world has moved to a different, more comprehensive view of sexuality and women’s role in society. The Vatican did not succeed in turning back the clock 40 years ago and it is unlikely to succeed in the future. But many people, especially women in poor countries, will continue to suffer as it tries to do so.
Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.
Professor Milton Siegel, who for 24 years was the Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization, speaks to Dr. Stephen Mumford in 1992 to reveal that although there was a consensus that overpopulation was a grave public health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the future, the Vatican successfully fought off the incorporation of family planning and birth control into official WHO policy. This video is available for public viewing for the first time. Read the full transcript of the interview here.
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