The Story Behind the Ban on Contraception
Fifty Years Ago, Pope Paul VI Slammed The Door On Catholics’ use of modern contraceptives with the encyclical Humanae Vitae and its fateful words: “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.” 1
Humanae Vitae marked a turning point for the Catholic church, as Pope Paul rejected the theologically sound findings of his own Papal Birth Control Commission in favor of a turn to rigid orthodoxy. Having missed the chance to craft a modern, compassionate sexual ethic based on the individual consciences of Catholics, the church found itself largely ignored on matters of sex by its own faithful, which left it grasping for other ways to enforce its teachings. It was also a historic moment for the rest of the world, as Humanae Vitae would come to dominate the hierarchy’s stance on public health challenges like the spread of HIV/ AIDS and access to birth control in the developing world.
Understanding how the Catholic hierarchy came to reject contraception and made protecting a flawed encyclical a central part of its theology and public witness is essential to current policy debates as well as the lives of millions that continue to be impacted by the church’s most infamous encyclical.
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. 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. The contraceptive pill had recently been developed and there was talk of the hierarchy sanctioning its use for Catholic couples because it used naturally occurring hormones to mimic the infertile period of pregnancy.
A new generation of theologians, led by Dr. Hans Küng of Switzerland, was arguing that there was no good theological basis for the ban. 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 and later 58, including five (married) women as part of its contingent of 34 lay members.
The commission 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 testified about their own use of the method. What the commission heard challenged their thinking about the role of fertility and contraception within marriage. Contrary to the assertion of the hierarchy that natural family planning brought couples closer together, they heard that 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.
The commission voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the church rescind its ban on artificial contraception…But to conservatives in 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.
The commission voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the church rescind its ban on artificial contraception. They declared that contraception was not “intrinsically evil” nor the popes’ previous teachings on it infallible.
But to conservatives in 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, the Vatican demoted the commission members to “experts” and brought in 15 bishops to make the final report. What followed was a series 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? 2
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 that the previous 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. 3
While there was only one “official” report of the commission, the dissenting members prepared what would later be known as the “minority report.” This report said that the teaching on contraception could not change—simply 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.” 4
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.
Pope Paul had completely ignored the work and recommendations of his own commission, despite five meetings over three years and a vote by 30 of the 35 commission’s lay members, 15 of the 19 theologians and 9 of 12 bishops that the teaching could and should be changed. Instead, he 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. It declared that the totality of the marital relationship did not outweigh the necessity that every act of sexual intercourse embody the procreative function of marriage, the exact opposite of the finding of the Birth Control Commission. 5
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.”
Just as stunning was the response of 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 Häring, Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, 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. 6 The Canadian bishops released a statement saying that Catholics who tried “sincerely but without success” to follow the encyclical “may be safely assured that whoever honestly chooses the course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.” 7 Bishops’ conferences in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Holland issued similar statements.
In the United States, dissent crystallized around a group of theologians at Catholic University led by Father Charles Curran. By 3 AM the morning after the encyclical’s release, they had 87 signatures to a statement of dissent; two days later they had 172 and eventually 600 theologians signed on. The dissenters included the Rev. Bernard Häring, who was considered the church’s foremost authority on 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.
According to Father Curran, Humanae Vitae hit like a storm that dashed thehopes 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.” It 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 non-infallible 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.
Faced with unprecedented dissent and disobedience, the Vatican refused to seek an accommodation that would recognize the reality of widespread contraceptive use, particularly during the papacy of John Paul II. In 1983, he issued a statement that said: “Contraception must objectively be judged so illicit that it can never for any reason be justified,” in response to several national bishops’ conferences which had suggested that contraceptive use was not a grave offense in situations such as when a pregnancy threatened a woman’s health. 8
Despite the hierarchy’s seemingly intractable stance, Catholics in the developed world have largely followed their own consciences on contraception or remain largely unaware of Humanae Vitae at all. In the United States today, 99 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning, which is the only method approved under Humanae Vitae.
Yet in developing countries—especially where the hierarchy holds sway over family planning policies—Catholics and non-Catholics alike have not had the privilege to do the same. The Catholic hierarchy’s insistence that Humanae Vitae guide the health policies of governments, and often foreign assistance for these policies, has led to a persistent unmet need for modern family planning in the Global South. This gap has set back development progress, led to increased abortion, death and disability for women denied the ability to limit pregnancies and hurt efforts to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Today, an estimated 225 million women in the developing world have an unmet need for modern contraception, which contributes to high rates of maternal mortality. 9 Yet the Catholic hierarchy continues to be a vociferous opponent of modern contraception on the African continent, which has the world’s lowest rate of contraceptive use. Catholic bishops have been especially influential in promoting these views in countries with large Catholic populations, such as Angola, Congo, Gabon, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda, which have persistently high rates of unmet need for contraception. 10
Bishops routinely make false charges that modern contraception is harmful to women’s health, that the increased use of contraception leads to increased levels of abortion and that international family planning programs are western plots to destroy African society. 11 In 2015, the Nigerian bishops charged that international family planning programs were part of a “culture of death” designed to promote a “radical” program of abortion and contraception pushed by “wealthy philanthropists, donor nations and international organizations” that would result in the “hyper-sexualization of our youth.” 12 In 2016, the Catholic bishops in Uganda instructed all Catholic facilities, which include 115 health centers and nine hospitals, to stop dispensing contraceptives, citing Humanae Vitae as the reason and calling contraceptives immoral. These trends are especially concerning because Catholicism is growing fastest in Africa—the Catholic population on the continent has increased by 238 percent since 1980. 13
Nevertheless, some developing countries have been able to overcome battles with the Catholic hierarchy and meet women’s needs for contraception. Kenya, for instance, has successfully promoted the use of modern contraceptives, despite its large Catholic population and influential bishops’ conference. The Ministry of Health partnered with international NGOs to meet its goal of 52 percent of married women using contraceptives by2015 and by 2014 it already had 53 percent usage rates, resulting in a global Excellence in Leadership for Family Planning Award. Kenya is on target to expand family planning access to nearly 60 percent of married women by 2018, two years ahead of target. 14
In the Philippines, Catholics voice strong support for contraceptives but have been limited in accessing them by the hierarchy. According to a 2014 poll, some 68 percent of Catholics in the Philippines support contraceptive use. And the country had a successful government-backed family planning program in the 1990s, providing free and reduced-cost contraceptives to its large low-income populat ion. But when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo became president in 2001, she paid back the Catholic Bishops Conference for its support of her candidacy by ending the program and making natural family planning the country’s official method of birth control. As a result, the country’s rate of unmet need for modern contraceptives shot up to 38 percent by 2012. 15 Its high rate of poverty grew even higher, as the number of poor people increased by 4 million between 2003 and 2006. 16 The decline in the country’s maternal mortality rate, which had decreased at two percent per year between 1990 and 2000 also reversed. 17
Several reproductive health bills were introduced throughout the 2000s to restore the country’s family planning program but were successfully blocked by the politically influential Catholic bishops. They falsely charged that these bills would legalize abortion and threatened to excommunicate legislators who voted for them. But grassroots support from Catholics finally overwhelmed the bishops in 2012, when the Reproductive Health law passed guaranteeing all women access to modern contraceptives and instituting a program of sex education for schools.
The bishops refused to relent and in 2013 the Supreme Court blocked implementation of the Reproductive Health law after sustained lobbying from the bishops who claimed it violated freedom of religion. In 2014, the Supreme Court allowed partial implementation of the law.
Finally, in 2017 President Rodrigo Duterte issued an executive order that allowed for the full implementation of the Reproductive Health law. Nevertheless, the Catholic bishops were successful in blocking distribution of condoms in schools, signaling that they will continue to try and impose Humanae Vitae on a population that has disregarded the teaching. 18
Barring a few isolated cases, the Catholic hierarchy’s 50 year insistence in defending its global ban on contraception has stunted development progress around the world. It is 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 denies this reality, forcing silence on this and most other issues related to sexuality. 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 or one that offers women full equality within the church.
After fifty years, the damage that Humanae Vitae has done to the lives of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, as well as to the Catholic church itself, is clear. Catholics continue to use and approve of contraceptives in growing numbers, furthering the divide between rhetoric and reality in the church. Only by confronting the most fundamental of the hierarchy’s errors can the Catholic church move forward and the shadow of Humane Vitae finally be erased.
1 Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, July 25, 1968.
2 Robert McClory, Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, Crossroad Publishing, 1995.
3 National Catholic Reporter, “Reveal Papal Birth Control Texts,” April 19, 1967.
6 Charles E. Curran and Robert E. Hunt, Dissent In and For the Church, Sheed & Ward, 1969.
7 “Statement of Canadian Bishops on the Encyclical Humanae Vitae,” September 27, 1968.
8 National Catholic Reporter, “Pope Takes Firm Stand on Contraception Issue,” October 7, 1983.
9 S. Singh, J.E. Darroch, and L.S. Ashford, Adding It Up: The Costs and Benefits of Investing in Sexual and Reproductive Health 2014, New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2014.
10 S. Bradley, T. Croft, J. Fishel, and C. Westoff, “Revising Unmet Need for Family Planning,” DHS Analytical Studies No. 25, Calverton, MD, ICF International, 2012.
11 Father Peter West, “Fight the Culture of Contraception in Uganda,” Human Life International, https://www.hli.org/2012/12/ fighting-the-culture-of-contraception-in-uganda/.
12 “Nigerians Speak Out Against Abortion and Contraception Promoted by International Organizations,” Aleteia, April 24, 2015, https://aleteia. org/2015/04/24/nigerians-speak-out-against-abortion-and-contraception-promoted-by-international-organizations/.
13 Mark Pattison, “Africa’s Catholic population has grown by 238 per cent since 1980,” Catholic Herald, June 3, 2015, http://www. catholicherald.co.uk/news/2015/06/03/ africas-catholic-population-has-grown-by- 238-per-cent-since-1980/.
14 Gatonye Gathura, “Catholic Bishop Reawakens Fight on Contraceptives,” The Standard (Kenya), Jan. 13, 2018, https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/health/ article/2001265788/catholic-bishop-renews-fight-on-contraceptives.
15 S. Bradley, T. Croft, J. Fishel, and C. Westoff, “Revising Unmet Need for Family Planning,” DHS Analytical Studies No. 25, Calverton, MD, ICF International, 2012.
16 Chino Leyco, “Philippines Trails in Poverty Reduction, Says U.N. Report,” Manila Times, April 3, 2008.
17 Maternal mortality in 1990-2015: Philippines, WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, World Bank Group, and United Nations Population Division Maternal Mortality Estimation Inter-Agency Group, 2015.
18 Erik De Castro, “Inside the Philippines’ Long Journey Towards Reproductive Health,” The Conversation, May 9, 2017. https://theconversation.com/inside-the-philippines-long-journey-towards-reproductive-health-72737