Excerpt from Patricia Miller’s Good Catholics
The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church
CHAPTER 1: The Four Wise Women
Years later, when the remembrance of so many other things had faded, the memory still remained crisp in her mind. She saw herself lying in the hospital bed, bleeding, writhing in agony. She remembered clawing at the curtain surrounding the bed, trying to get help, certain she was going to die. Finally she managed to cry out, “God dammit, I can’t die. I have ﬁve children.”
Her cries roused her roommate, who summoned a doctor. The doctor managed to staunch the bleeding from the hematoma that had resulted from the birth of her ﬁfth child. It was not an unexpected complication. She had hemorrhaged after giving birth to her fourth child. The doctors had warned her against any more pregnancies, but she was a devout Catholic and the church said that using birth control was a sin. So another pregnancy had followed quickly on the heels of the last, and a little over a year later she was again in danger of dying and leaving her children motherless. As she lay helpless on her bed, Jane Furlong Cahill made a decision. “I decided that the pope can have all the kids he wanted. I was through,” she said. 1
After that she used the Pill, which had only just become available, and eventually she got a tubal ligation to permanently end her childbearing ability. It was a controversial choice for a Catholic woman in 1964, but especially so for Cahill, who was one of the ﬁrst women formally trained in Roman Catholic theology and knew that the church made no exception to its teaching that Catholics could never use artiﬁcial methods of contraception. The only acceptable form of birth control for Catholics, both then and now, is natural family planning, which relies on calculating a woman’s infertile period during her menstrual cycle and only having sex on those days. The “rhythm method,” as natural family planning was called in the early 1960s, was notoriously unreliable, however, which made it a poor option for women like Cahill who really, really didn’t want another child. In 1963, Catholic physician John Rock reported that couples using the rhythm method experienced rates of unplanned pregnancy that were two to three times higher than those using other methods of contraception. According to the church, Cahill’s only option if she absolutely, positively wanted to avoid pregnancy, even for life-threatening reasons, was to stop having sex with her husband altogether. 2
The Catholic Church’s absolute ban on modern methods of contraception is inextricably linked to its views on sex and marriage. The church fathers who laid out the founding doctrine of the religion were always squeamish about the idea of sexual intercourse; they considered chastity a holier state. But at the same time, they recognized that it was neither possible nor practical to suggest that most people abstain from sex. Corralling sex within marriage was better than unbridled fornication. Hence, it was “better to marry than to burn with passion,” according to the Apostle Paul. But even within marriage, the Christian fathers’ acceptance of sex was grudging. Inﬂuenced by the Stoics, they looked to nature to determine the purpose and moral limits of bodily functions like sex. Hence, sex within marriage was only moral if it was used for its “natural” purpose of procreation. They taught that Christians were not to have sex for pleasure or when pregnancy was impossible, such as when a woman was already pregnant. The belief that pro-creation sanctiﬁed sex automatically excluded the possibility of using withdrawal, contraceptive potions, or crude devices—all of which were common and widely used in the early Christian world—to frustrate conception. 3
As she lay helpless on her bed, Jane Furlong Cahill made a decision: “I decided that the pope can have all the kids he wanted. I was through,” she said.
The ﬁrst formal theological condemnation of contraception was made by St. Augustine in the early 400s, when he declared that it is “a procreative purpose which makes good an act in which lust is present” and that married people who contracept “are not married.” It was a proclamation that would guide Catholic thinking about contraception for the next 1,500 years as the Augustinian doctrine was gradually codiﬁed by the church. 4
In 590, Pope Gregory the Great decreed that married couples who mixed pleasure with procreation in sexual intercourse “transgressed the law.” The ﬁrst church legislation forbidding contraception appeared in the 600s in a canon that speciﬁed a penance of ten years for any woman who took “steps so that she may not conceive.” The church’s reaction to the distinctly non-procreative ethic of courtly love in medieval Europe and Catharism, a Christian sect that rejected the Catholic sacraments, including marriage, further hardened its insistence on the procreative purpose of sex. By 1400, Augustine’s doctrine on contraception was the rule within the church. 5
Despite its longevity, Cahill wasn’t the only Catholic woman questioning the teaching on birth control. In 1964, another budding theologian named Rosemary Radford Ruether published an article titled “A Catholic Mother Tells: ‘Why I Believe in Birth Control’ ” in the Saturday Evening Post, bringing the issue straight into the living rooms of Main Street America. Ruether took the church to task for failing to acknowledge that in modern marriages couples didn’t have sex just for the purpose of having children. She also revealed what many Catholic couples were saying privately: the rhythm method not only didn’t work but put extraordinary strain on otherwise happy marriages. “A man and a wife may follow all the current methods for predicting the time of ovulation, they may be armed with an arsenal of slide rules, thermometers, glucose tests, they may abstain for the proscribed period with dogged perseverance, and they may still ﬁnd that the method has failed…. The rhythm method keeps couples in a constant state of tension and insecurity,” she wrote. 6
Ruether, who was just embarking on a promising career as a theologian and already had three young children, wrote of her own failure with the method and the desperation of other women who found themselves pregnant when they didn’t want to be, including a friend who was in despair after finding herself pregnant for the sixth time in seven years. Like many women of her day, Ruether realized that controlling her fertility with a fairly high degree of certainty was essential to her ability to steer her own life. “I see very clearly that I cannot entrust my destiny just to biological chance. As a woman who is trying to create a happy balance of work and family, I know effective family planning is essential. A woman who cannot control her own fertility, who must remain vulnerable to chance conception, is a woman who cannot hope to be much more than a baby-machine,” she wrote. 7
As Ruether noted, the church’s distinction between “natural” family planning and contraceptives was “theologically meaningless.”
Her analysis made her the ﬁrst Catholic woman to publicly critique the church’s ban on birth control. But Cahill and Ruether were not alone in concluding that the church’s dictum on contraception was an anachronism. By the mid-1960s, more and more Catholic women were using “artiﬁcial” methods of contraception. In 1955, just under half of all Catholic women had never used any method of birth control, including rhythm. But ten years later, by 1965, fewer than one-quarter of Catholic women had never attempted to control births. Of the married Catholic women who did attempt family planning in 1955, slightly over half had most recently used the rhythm method, while just over one-quarter used appliance contraceptives like condoms or diaphragms. This was almost exactly opposite the general population of white women, where just over half of all women used appliance contraceptives and fewer than one-quarter used rhythm.
But with the approval of the birth control pill in 1960, Catholic women began abandoning the rhythm method for the certainty of oral contraceptives. By 1965, only 36 percent of Catholic women practicing family planning were using rhythm; 20 percent were using the Pill and another 25 percent were using other modern methods. All total, by the time Ruether wrote her article nearly half of all Catholic women were using contraceptive methods forbidden by the church. 8
Lay Catholics weren’t the only ones concluding that the ban on contraception made little sense in the modern world. Catholic theologians and bishops were also suggesting it was time to revisit the teaching. Two developments spurred their willingness to question the ban. One was a change in how the church viewed the purpose of marital sex. The church had held since Augustine’s time that the primary purpose of sex within marriage was procreation. A secondary purpose was expressed in the negative: to prevent fornication. But gradually a more positive view of sex crept in that allowed that pleasure and the expression of conjugal love could be part of the equation. In 1951, Pope Pius XII formally admitted that it was okay for married couples to enjoy sex: “In seeking and enjoying this pleasure, therefore, couples do nothing wrong.” 9
The church’s view of marriage was evolving in tandem. Increasingly it viewed marriage as having two ends: procreation and the “ontological completion of the person” within the union of marriage. This meant that many of the old prohibitions against “sterile” sex within marriage, that is, sex that could not produce offspring, such as sex during pregnancy, no longer held. If some limited forms of non-procreative sex within marriage were now considered licit and sex was acknowledged to have more than one purpose in marriage, this raised the question of whether in general each and every act of intercourse within marriage necessarily had to be procreative. 10
The second reason many theologians believed that the church could approve modern contraceptives was because it had already approved the idea of family planning when it approved the rhythm method. As Ruether noted in her Saturday Evening Post article, the church’s distinction between “natural” family planning and contraceptives was “theologically meaningless.” If, she said, it was morally acceptable to “divorce sex from impregnation” with the rhythm method, “it would then seem to make little difference whether the egg and sperm are separated by barriers of space or of time, and whether the couple use times of natural sterility or use bodily hormones to create temporary artiﬁcial sterility.” 11
The church’s incongruence on the issue of family planning dated back to 1930 and the papal encyclical Casti Connubi (On Christian Marriage), which was speciﬁcally written to address the growing acceptance of birth control throughout the Western world. The invention of vulcanized rubber in the 1830s had made possible the production of cheap, effective condoms. The ﬁrst diaphragms were developed in the 1880s. For the ﬁrst time, fairly reliable methods to prevent conception were widely available. Margaret Sanger’s crusade to bring contraceptives to the teeming tenements of the lower East Side made birth control front-page news in the United States and helped publicize its availability. Family planning leagues sprung up to promote the new technology and make it available to the poor. The acceptance of birth control reﬂected not just its increased availability but the reality that larger families were no longer economically viable, or necessary, in the post-agrarian era. It also reﬂected the growing acceptance of the idea of companionate marriage—that marriage was more than just an economic arrangement for the production of children, but an emotional partnership.
The tipping point was reached in 1930, when the Anglican Church, which at the time was the most inﬂuential Christian church in the West, officially approved the use of birth control by married couples. Other Protestant denominations soon followed, signaling that contraceptives had gained moral and social legitimacy. With birth control gaining widespread acceptance, the Catholic Church had to respond. On the very last day of 1930, Pope Pius XI issued Casti Connubii. In it, he ﬁrmly restated the absolute Augustinian prohibition on contraception and denounced the idea that the primary purpose of marriage was anything other than producing and raising children. He condemned contraception as “base and intrinsically indecent” and said that it “violates the law of God and nature, and those who do such a thing are stained by a grave and mortal ﬂaw.” 12
The encyclical was read to ban all known forms of contraception: withdrawal, the use of condoms or diaphragms, douching after intercourse, and folk contraceptive potions.13 However, the pope appeared to give approval to a birth control method that had been rattling around since the ancient Greeks but had seen a spike in interest since the discovery of female ovulation in the mid-1800s: timing sexual intercourse to coincide with a woman’s naturally occurring sterile period.14 The method had limited practical application at the time because science had yet to ﬁgure out exactly when during the menstrual cycle women ovulated, although some couples did try to put it into practice—often with unsatisfactory results. 15
But all that changed in the early 1930s, right around the time of Casti Connubii, when scientists ﬁnally determined when ovulation typically occurred, allowing for the development of the rhythm method. It was far from perfect, but it did offer a way to at least slow the growth of a family without resorting to contraceptives. The Vatican earlier had indicated preliminary acceptance of rhythm, but growing interest in the method elevated the question of whether it was acceptable under Catholic doctrine to a pressing theological concern. 16
The question was not deﬁnitively answered until 1951 by Pope Pius XI’s successor, Pius XII. In an address to the Italian Catholic Society of Midwives, he declared that the “observance of the sterile period can be licit” if done for serious reasons. He said, however, that serious indications for limiting births included “medical, eugenic, economic, and social” reasons, which went far beyond the reasons traditionally accepted by even the most liberal of Catholic theologians for refraining from sex to limit family size: extreme poverty or a serious threat to the woman’s health. In doing so he gave the Catholic Church’s stamp of approval to the idea of couples purposely manipulating the size of their family for the sake of the family’s overall well-being. In case there should be any doubt as to what he meant, a month later he conﬁrmed, “We have affirmed the lawfulness and at the same time the limits—in truth quite broad—of a regulation of offspring.” 17
Popular publications wrote about the “Catholic Revolution” and the “Growing Unrest in the Catholic Church” as the controversy became the subject of widespread discussion.
So by 1960 the church had made three key admissions: that sexual intercourse within marriage played a role that was not limited to procreation; that it was acceptable to limit family size for a number of reasons; and that it was licit to use the naturally occurring sterile period to do so. Enter Catholic physician John Rock, who helped to develop the birth control pill. By designing a contraceptive that used hormones already present in a woman’s body to mimic the natural infertility of a pregnant woman, he hoped the Vatican would ﬁnd a theological basis to approve the method. In 1958, when the Pill was already being tested on human populations, Pius XII said its use would be acceptable “as a necessary remedy because of a disease of the uterus or the organism” even if it had the secondary effect of causing sterility. This meant women could use the Pill to treat painful periods or excessive bleeding, which became a popular early theological work-around for Catholic women who wanted to use it.
Theologians also speculated that the Pill could be used to regulate irregular menstrual periods to make the rhythm method work more effectively—which led to an extensive theological discussion about what constituted an irregular enough menstrual cycle to qualify. Of course, that raised the question that if the Pill was allowed to make the menstrual cycle regular enough to permit the reliable use of rhythm, why not just permit the use of the Pill? 18
Pius XII appeared to condemn such use in 1958, but the question only gained steam with the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Pill in 1960 and evidence that many Catholic women were using it without waiting for instruction from the Vatican. Theologians began cautiously suggesting that the Pill could be lawful under Catholic doctrine as long as it wasn’t used for “hedonistic purposes.”
In 1963 the bishops of the Netherlands called for discussion of the question of oral contraception use at the upcoming Second Vatican Council. Three European theologians wrote articles in 1963 and 1964 for respected theological journals that concluded that it was licit to use hormonal contraceptives to regulate births. 19 A rash of books appeared during the same period criticizing the hierarchy’s complete prohibition of birth control. Former Bombay Archbishop Thomas Roberts declared there was no theological basis for the church’s ban in Contraception and Holiness, which included essays by Ruether and other theologians. The ban was also criticized by a Georgetown University theologian in Contraception and Catholics and by lay Catholics in The Experience of Marriage, in which thirteen Catholic couples wrote about trying to use the rhythm method, and What Modern Catholics Think about Birth Control. Father Bernard Häring, who was considered the dean of Catholic moral theology, wrote that Pius XII’s informal statement prohibiting use of the Pill as a regular form of birth control should not be taken as the last word and said that the church should seriously examine whether use of the Pill would help married couples practice responsible parenthood. 20
In 1966, John Noonan published Contraception, his sweeping history of the evolution of Catholic contraception theology, in which he concluded that Christian doctrine “did not have to be read in a way requiring an absolute prohibition” on contraception. He said that the doctrine was a reﬂection of the times in which it had been developed, in which society sought to promote the sanctity of marriage and place limits on sexual behavior and in which “slavery, slave concubinage, and the inferiority of women were important elements of the environment affecting sexual relations.” He noted the “profound” changes in church doctrine regarding marriage and marital intercourse and said this should affect the way the church viewed contraception. “[I]t is a perennial mistake to confuse repetition of old formulas with the living law of the Church,” he warned. 21
Traditionalist theologians held fast to the distinction between artiﬁcial and “natural” contraception, arguing that rhythm was acceptable because it did not interfere with the integrity of the act of intercourse (although many proponents of the Pill argued that it was acceptable because it didn’t physically interfere with intercourse like other contraceptives). The debate over contraception emerged as the major issue facing the Catholic Church. Popular publications wrote about the “Catholic Revolution” and the “Growing Unrest in the Catholic Church” as the controversy became the subject of widespread discussion. 22
With the debate raging, Cahill and Ruether weren’t content to sit on the sidelines and hope that the church fathers would eventually get around to changing the rules. They wanted to have a hand in formulating the rules. They were among the ﬁrst women in the United States to get advanced degrees in theology—the study of church doctrine and teaching to arrive at the essential truths of the faith. As they studied the church’s teaching regarding women—rules that forbade women from becoming priests, required women to “submit” to their husbands, and forbade the use of contraceptives—they began to suspect that these rules had less to do with the Catholic faith and more to do with the ways that the church and society had traditionally viewed women.
Historically women were seen as lesser versions of men in every way. They were thought to be less intelligent and less emotionally developed. Traditional reproductive beliefs dating back to Aristotle held that men contributed the spark of life, the soul, to an embryo through semen, while women contributed only the raw physical matter through their menstrual blood. The equal role of the sperm and egg in reproduction—therefore of the male and female—had not been recognized until 1875 and the old misunderstanding had tainted thinking about women for centuries. Pioneering feminist theologians like Cahill and Ruether sought to tease out what was real in Catholic doctrine and what were simply long-standing societal prejudices against women.
In 1966, Cahill published one of the ﬁrst serious feminist theological treatments of the issue of contraception in a religious journal. Titled “Contraception and Eve,” it took a fresh look at the story of Adam and Eve as it applied to contraception. In it, Cahill questioned why Adam, who is punished for the fall of man by having to “work by the sweat of his brow,” is allowed to use labor-saving devices to mitigate his punishment, while Eve, who is punished by an increase in the number and frequency of her pregnancies, is not allowed to use contraception “to put reasonable control back into women’s role as human wife and mother.” In this light, Cahill said, instead of being considered an affront against nature, contraception could be considered a form of redemption for women and “part of the restoration of women and men and marriage itself in Christ.” It was an example of how women could bring a completely different reading to traditional Catholic theology—one that was, not surprising, more sympathetic to the needs of women and the real-life demands of pregnancy and childrearing. 23
In 1967, Ruether published her ﬁrst book, The Church against Itself, in which she lamented the inability of the church to “delve deeply enough to create a viable theology of radical change” on issues like birth control because of its irrational commitment to outdated doctrines from the past. But the real thunderclap came in 1968, with the publication of Mary Daly’s The Church and the Second Sex. 24
Daly was a classmate of Cahill’s at St. Mary’s College, a women’s Catholic college that in the mid-1950s became the ﬁrst in the United States to grant advanced degrees in theology to women. After she received her doctorate in theology from St. Mary’s, Daly went to Switzerland to study at the University of Fribourg for her doctorate in sacred theology, the highest Catholic theological degree. No university in the United States would grant the degree, which allows theologians to teach theology or canon law at Catholic universities and seminaries, to a woman. It prepares theologians to participate in the highest levels of theological debate within the church, which is essential to creating and interpreting church doctrine. Daly said the church’s historical refusal to allow women access to a theological education was part of its systematic exclusion from leadership and decision-making roles in the church and “perpetuated an atmosphere in which theologians—all male—felt no pressure to give serious attention to the problems of the other sex.” 25
Daly was propelled in her groundbreaking critique of sexism in the Catholic Church by her own difficulty in obtaining a theological education and her experience at the Second Vatican Council, the historic worldwide church meeting called by Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s to discuss how the Catholic Church could modernize and, in his words, open the windows to “let in some fresh air.” Despite pronouncements about a new era of openness in the church and a greater role for lay Catholics, women were largely excluded from Vatican II. There were no women among the thousands of bishops, theologians, canon lawyers, lay observers and observers from other religions who were the official attendees at the ﬁrst two sessions of the council. This prompted Belgium’s Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens to ask, “Why are we even discussing the reality of the church when half of the church is not even represented here?”
Not only were women denied a meaningful role in the Second Vatican Council itself, but female observers were harassed and discriminated against by members of the hierarchy.
Eventually ﬁfteen women were invited to attend the third and fourth sessions of the council as “auditors,” but their role was largely restricted to observing the sessions. There was even a separate café constructed for their use to segregate them from the male conference attendees and the “real” action of the conference. 26
Daly was in Rome in the fall of 1965 for the last session of the council, just another doctoral student among the throngs of students, journalists, and Catholics from around the world attending the historic “carnival” that was Vatican II—part ecclesiastical conference, part free-ranging theological debate on the past and future of the church, part Catholic pageant. The excitement was palpable as liberal Catholics like Daly eagerly anticipated “the greatest breakthrough in nearly two thousand years” as the church “came bursting into open confrontation with the twentieth century.” They hoped that the church would shake off the constraints of its dusty dogma and become what they knew it could be—a powerful force for good and social justice in the modern world. 27
Daly borrowed a press pass from a journalist friend to attend one of the major conference sessions at St. Peter’s Basilica. What she saw sitting in the press box changed her view of the church, and her life, forever: “I saw in the distance a multitude of cardinals and bishops—old men in crimson dresses. In another section of the basilica were the ‘auditors’: a group which included a few Catholic women, mostly nuns in long black dresses with heads veiled. The contrast between the arrogant bearing and colorful attire of the ‘princes of the church’ and the humble, self-depreciating manner and somber clothing of the very few women was appalling. Watching the veiled nuns shuffle to the altar to receive Holy Communion from the hands of a priest was like observing a string of lowly ants at some bizarre picnic.” 28
The Vatican would shortly decree in The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), one of the key products of Vatican II, that “every type of discrimination,” including discrimination based on sex, was wrong. It would also recognize for the ﬁrst time that women should be free to “embrace a state of life, or to acquire an education or cultural beneﬁts equal to those recognized for men.” 29 But the reality of how the church viewed women was on display in Rome. Not only were women denied a meaningful role in the conference itself, but female observers were harassed and discriminated against by members of the hierarchy. A female reporter sitting among male journalists on the main conference ﬂoor was removed by a Vatican official and told that she had to sit in the balcony. A woman who was an expert on global poverty was denied her request to address the council and was replaced by a man. Another woman was prevented from receiving communion at a mass during Vatican II. For Daly, it was as if a veil had been lifted from her eyes. She ﬁnally saw how the church really viewed women: “as not quite human.”30
Daly returned to Fribourg to begin work on The Church and the Second Sex, her groundbreaking effort to excavate the roots of sexism in Catholicism. It would become The Feminist Mystique for American Catholic women. In it, she showed that many of the foundational texts of Catholicism, from the Bible to the writings of church fathers like Augustine and Aquinas, were seeped in a “ﬁerce misogynism” under which women were viewed as inferior and subordinate to men. These views went as far back as the story of creation of Eve from Adam’s rib. St. Paul said that “man was not made from women, but woman from man. Neither was man created for women, but woman for man.” Pauline doctrine was widely interpreted throughout the Bible to mean that women were subservient to men in the natural order of things. 31
It was also widely held that women were mentally and physically inferior to men. Aquinas called women “defective” and “misbegotten” and said “the image of God is found in man, not in woman.” 32 The writings of these men, Daly said, “have been used over the centuries as a guarantee of divine approval for the transformation of women’s subordinate status from a contingent fact into an immutable norm of the feminine condition.” 33
Under this paradigm, women’s only value, and their salvation for leading men into sin in the Garden of Eden, was the one thing nature had equipped them to do: bear children. At the same time, said Daly, the all-male priesthood had a horror of anything related to the physical aspects of sexuality because of the church’s emphasis on celibacy as a holier state than marriage and the association of sex with the fall of man. Women were considered polluted by their close association with sex and childbearing. Tertullian called women “the devil’s gateway.” 34 As a result, they were quarantined from contact with certain aspects of the church. Hence the old ritual of “churching,” in which a women had to be puriﬁed after giving birth in order to return to church, and the prohibition against women entering the inner sanctum of the alter to serve as altar girls or lectors. “Valued chieﬂy for their reproductive organs, which also inspired horror, and despised for their ignorance, they were denied full personhood,” wrote Daly. 35
The result, said Daly, was the Catholic Church’s particular myth of the “eternal feminine,” which demonized women in the ﬂesh as gossipy, simple-minded, and sinful even as they were lionized in the abstract as paragons of obedience and submissiveness who found “generic fulﬁllment in motherhood.” This myth was used to justify women’s subordinate position in the church—and until recently in society—and closed the church to the type of theological evolution that would allow it to grapple more effectively with modern issues affecting women, like the use of birth control. 36
The warnings of both Ruether and Daly about the church’s inability to evolve and take a more realistic view of women and sexuality were fulﬁlled the same year The Church and the Second Sex was published, when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), his long-awaited encyclical on birth control use. In 1963, Pope John XXIII, who had succeeded Pius XII, appointed a commission that would eventually comprise ﬁfty-ﬁve members, including ﬁve married Catholic women, theologians, priests, and physicians, to study the question of whether the church’s teaching on artiﬁcial contraception should be changed. There is some indication that he created the commission as a way to isolate the incendiary issue of birth control from the Vatican II proceedings, which were already dealing with a number of controversial doctrinal issues, and had no real intention of changing the policy on birth control.
Originally there were no lay members on the commission, but when they were added they were all married Catholic couples drawn from conservative Catholic family organizations who could be expected to mirror the hierarchy’s position on contraception. The commission studied Catholic teachings on contraception and marriage and heard from its lay members on the realities of using the rhythm method. Contrary to the assertions of the hierarchy that the rhythm method, with its continual obsession with fertile periods and the timing of sexual intercourse, was a way to bring couples closer together and strengthen marriages, they heard that it stressed marriages and drove couples apart.
They also heard from the women on the commission about the importance of sex in marriage beyond procreation and the burdens of repeated or poorly timed pregnancies. After a series of hearings, the commission voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the ban against artiﬁcial means of birth control be lifted. After all, the church had accepted the idea of birth control, so why not give couples a better way to practice it if it would strengthen marriages and families? 37
Unhappy with the direction of the commission, the Vatican packed the last commission meetings with ﬁfteen bishops to formulate the ﬁnal recommendation to the pope. But even the bishops voted nine to three (three abstained from voting) to change the teaching, concluding that the popes’ previous teachings on birth control were not infallible and that the traditional theological basis for the prohibition of contraception was invalid. They declared that responsible parenthood was an essential part of modern marriage and that the morality of sexual acts between married couples were not dependent “upon the direct fecundity of each and every particular act” but must be viewed within the totality of the marriage relationship. 38
Despite the commission’s years of work and theologically unassailable conclusion that the church’s teaching on birth control was neither infallible nor irreversible, Pope Paul stunned the world on July 29, 1968, when he reaffirmed the church’s ban on modern contraceptives in Humanae Vitae. He declared that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” 39
The pope had deferred to a dissenting minority report prepared by four conservative theologian priests on the commission that maintained contraception was a “sin against nature” and a “shameful and intrinsically vicious act.” These theologians said that the church could not change its teaching on birth control because admitting the church had been wrong about the issue for centuries would raise questions about the moral authority of the pope, especially on matters of sexuality, and the belief that the Holy Spirit guided his pronouncements. “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,” they wrote. 40
As one of the conservative theologians famously asked one of the female members of the commission, what would happen to “the millions we have sent to hell” for using contraception if the teaching were suddenly changed? 41
Even the bishops voted nine to three to change the teaching, concluding that the traditional theological basis for the prohibition of contraception was invalid.
But another reason lurked behind the official explanation about why the teaching could not be changed: maintaining the link between sex and procreation was essential to the maintenance of the traditional, subordinate role of women. Maintaining the traditional family, in which men were leaders in the world outside the home and women were conﬁned to the domestic realm by the demands of young children and repeated pregnancies, was a key concern of the Catholic Church. In the mid-1950s the Catholic bishops made headlines when they condemned married working mothers for deserting their children and helping to destroy the home. Allowing women to regulate their fertility was dangerous to what the church considered the natural order of things: women as receptors of God’s will as expressed through the acceptance of pregnancy. 42
Stanislas De Lestapis, a Jesuit sociologist who was one of the four authors of the minority report, ﬁrst warned against what he termed the “contraceptive mentality” in his 1961 book Family Planning. He said allowing women the freedom to regulate when they got pregnant would lead to a decline in women’s maternal instinct and a hostility toward children, increased female promiscuity, and “confusion between the sexes.” In the 1960s his fears about contraception were inﬂuential only among the members of the Vatican inner circle who were working to hold the line on contraception, but in the coming decades they would ﬁnd currency with a much more influential figure and come to dominate much of the church’s thinking about sexuality. 43
Humanae Vitae came as a shock to Catholics, who had seen other aspects of the church—like the Latin mass and the teaching that Catholicism was the only road to salvation—change as a result of Vatican II and widely expected the contraception ban to be lifted. It seemed that the church was perfectly willing to evolve doctrine—except when it affected women.
The day following the encyclical’s release, eighty-seven leading Catholic theologians released a statement condemning it, saying it relied on outmoded conceptions of papal authority and natural law. They said the encyclical was not infallible and because it was “common teaching in the Church that Catholics may dissent from authoritative teachings of the magisterium when sufficient reasons for doing so exist,” Catholic couples “may reasonably decide according to their conscience that artiﬁcial contraception in some circumstances is permissible.” 44 This statement was eventually signed by 600 Catholic theologians and was part of an unprecedented torrent of dissent that greeted the papal encyclical. Many of the world’s most noted theologians dissented from the encyclical, including Richard McCormick, Bernard Häring, Hans Küng, and Edward Schillebeeckx. There were public statements of dissent from the theological faculties at Boston College, Fordham University, Marquette University, and the Pope John XXIII National Seminary. Bishops’ conferences in the United States, Canada, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Holland also issued statements saying that Catholics who found it impossible to follow the teaching could use birth control in good conscience. 45
The outcry over Humanae Vitae only further reinforced the belief of Catholic feminists that the church’s teaching regarding sexuality had little to do with theology. Anthony Padovano, the theologian who authored the response by the U.S. bishops, agrees. “Humanae Vitae was really not dealing with contraception. It was dealing with the authority and prestige of the magisterium,” he said. To Daly, Ruether, and Cahill the birth control encyclical was just more evidence that nothing would change in the church unless women made their voices heard. 46
* * * *
When Elizabeth Farians was young, she couldn’t figure out why no one ever asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Somewhere along the line, she ﬁgured out it was because for a Catholic girl growing up in the Midwest in the midst of the Great Depression there were only two choices: wife and mother or nun. But Betty, as she was known, chafed against the restrictions placed on women. Women weren’t expected to think or play too hard, which didn’t suit her. She was a born scholar, winning scholarships and making the dean’s list semester after semester even as she crammed high school and college into three years each for fear she would have to drop out and go to work to help support her family, who were so poor that at one point they lived in a friend’s basement. She was also a talented athlete. She excelled at softball, basketball, and track and ﬁeld at a time when women were discouraged from playing competitive sports.
After college, Farians got a master’s degree in education and worked as a physical education teacher for girls, encouraging them to get involved in team sports, which she believed promoted self-confidence and leadership in women. She helped organize some of the ﬁrst community sports leagues for girls in Cincinnati and, deeply influenced by the social justice teachings of the Catholic Worker movement, racially integrated them, a local ﬁrst. But Farians had the feeling she was destined for something greater; she had a strong religious bent and wanted to be “dedicated” to something larger than herself but didn’t want to live the restricted life of a nun. 47
The answer came when she heard that the ﬁrst theology program for women had opened. “That was a tremendous breakthrough for women,” she recalled. “This new school meant that women no longer had to listen to men telling them they were inferior mentally and spiritually, or that women’s supposed inferiority was by divine design.” At St. Mary’s she became fast friends with another firecracker of a young theologian—Mary Daly. Together they relished the opportunity to study the foundational texts of Catholicism and receive the kind of education that had formerly been reserved only for men. Both Farians and Daly understood what this meant. For the first time, Farians said, “Women could speak with authority in religious circles, and even talk back.” 48
After graduating, Farians struggled to find acceptance in the all-male world of Catholic theology. She taught Thomistic philosophy (the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas) at the University of Dayton with the understanding that she would be “allowed” to teach theology after two years. When she pressured the school to live up to their agreement, she was fired. She was the ﬁrst woman accepted into membership in the Catholic Theological Society, but when she showed up at their annual banquet in 1966 the priest at the door threatened to call the police if she didn’t leave. Father Charles Curran, a well-known progressive theologian who would soon be the leader of the opposition to Humanae Vitae, personally escorted her inside the meeting, officially integrating the society.
Farians was an activist by nature. Like fellow theologian Ruether, she took part in some of the early civil rights protests in the South, compelled by Catholic social justice teaching to join the nonviolent movement for African American equality. By the mid-1960s her own experiences with discrimination led her to begin agitating for change in the church. In 1965 she helped Frances McGillicuddy organize the U.S. chapter of the St. Joan’s Alliance, a UK-based Catholic feminist organization that had successfully pushed for the inclusion of women auditors at Vatican II. St. Joan’s focus was on getting women into the priesthood as a way of ensuring equity in the church. It was the ﬁrst progressive Catholic laywomen’s organization in the United States and included Daly and Jane Cahill.
In 1966, while she was teaching at Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Farians created the Ecumenical Task Force on Women and Religion to bring together Protestant and Catholic women to tackle the issue of sexism in religion. When she heard that Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminist Mystique, had started the National Organization for Women (NOW) to “bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society” and was going to be in Bridgeport, she called her up and asked to meet. Over a drink in the bar of the Bridgeport railroad station, Farians convinced Friedan that religion was a “root cause” of women’s oppression and should be included as a core issue for the largely secular women’s rights movement. At NOW’s next annual meeting, the Task Force on Women and Religion was added as one of NOW’s seven founding task forces and Farians was elected to the NOW board of directors. 49
Daly was fired after the publication of The Church and the Second Sex, but was rehired after protests against her dismissal shook the campus.
Farians began applying her experience with protests, which by the late 1960s had become a staple of activism across a range of issues from civil rights to the Vietnam War, to the ﬁght for women’s rights in the church. Farians had taken part in both traditional labor protests and NOW’s groundbreaking protests of institutional sexism—from all-male “executive” ﬂights and tap rooms that prohibited women to companies like Colgate-Palmolive that kept women from the best-paying jobs by barring them from positions that required lifting more than thirty-ﬁve pounds.
Farians was there when NOW picketed the New York Times for the common newspaper practice of segregating classiﬁed ads by sex, with the high-paying management and executive jobs reserved for men and the low-paying secretarial and administrative jobs the province of women. “I remember going into the New York Times building with our hands full of newspapers and just dumping them until the editors couldn’t open their doors—they wouldn’t talk to us or do anything about the classiﬁed ads so we organized a protest,” she said. 50
In 1968, the NOW task force, which included McGillicuddy and Daly, called for a “National Unveiling” to protest the Catholic tradition of requiring women to cover their heads in church, which it considered a sign of women’s subjugation. The following April the “Easter Bonnet Rebellion” took place at a church in Milwaukee where a priest had criticized a woman from the pulpit for not covering her head. Some ﬁfteen women approached the priest to receive communion during Easter mass, removed their purposely large hats, placed them on the communion rail, and proceeded to receive communion in what is believed to be “ﬁrst church demonstration for women’s rights.” 51
When a new Catholic missal was published in 1970 that allowed women to serve as lectors at mass for the ﬁrst time, but only if no man was available and required them—unlike laymen—to stand outside the holiest part of the altar, Farians was enraged. She organized the “Pink & Ash” protest. A copy of the new regulation was ceremoniously cremated and the ashes were tied in a pink ribbon and sent to Cardinal John Dearden, head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), at the bishops’ annual meeting. A poem by Farians was included that read:
We have burnt your sacred books.
Your latest oppressive words.
We are sick with your pomp and male prerogative.
We are weary of your callous stance toward women in the church.
You have raped us of our rights.
And preached that it was in the name of God. 52
By 1970 Farians, with her quick wit, outspoken demeanor, and knack for protest, was the national voice of Catholic feminism. “Some day soon some pastor is going to tell a woman she can’t read the epistle and she’s going to pop him one,” she told the New York Times with her typical flair. 53 Farians’s outspokenness came with a price, however. In 1970 she was ﬁred by Loyola University for her feminist protest activities. She had taken the job at Loyola after being ﬁred by Sacred Heart University for inviting a Vietnam War protester who had burned his draft card to address her class. Daly had suffered a similar fate after the publication of The Church and the Second Sex, but the faculty at Boston College had relented and rehired her after protests against her dismissal shook the campus. Farians wasn’t so lucky and found herself out of work and struggling to maintain her theological career. She wrote to one friend that the “personal struggle has been lonely and depressing.” She attempted to quit the NOW task force to concentrate on teaching, but the board refused her resignation because her work was so critical. 54
Farians sought dialogue with the church. In 1970 she collected the most prominent Catholic feminist groups, including the NOW Women and Religion Task Force, the St. Joan’s Alliance, the National Coalition of American Nuns, which represented feminist women religious, and several smaller groups into the Joint Committee of Organizations Concerned with the Status of Women in the Church. Farians badgered the NCCB to meet with the committee about discrimination against women in the church. In August 1970, the committee was granted a meeting with the newly formed liaison committee of the NCCB, which was the ﬁrst time the bishops met with women about women’s role in the church. They presented the bishops with a list of demands that included “the moral condemnation of sexism, an end to sex discrimination by the church, and an affirmative action program for women.” 55
When the committee received no response from the NCCB, Farians showed up at their annual meeting in 1971, where she castigated the bishops for refusing to end sexism in the church. “Because of the sex equals sin syndrome which permeates the church and the almost total identiﬁcation of women with this, women have been excluded from meaningful participation in the church . . . Women want their God-given rights of personhood restored,” she said. 56
The bishops may have disregarded Farians, but she got the attention of someone else who was concerned about the voice of women in the church as it related to another, even more controversial matter and was following the work of these four wise women—Cahill, Ruether, Daly, and Farians— with increasing interest. By the early 1970s, Farians had shown how to use creative liturgical protests to highlight sexism in the church. Ruether had gone public with what many Catholic women were feeling about the church’s irrational position on birth control. Cahill had offered the ﬁrst substantial theological criticism of the church’s position on birth control from a woman’s perspective. Daly had excavated the roots of the church’s misogyny and sparked a feminist revolution within the church. But it would take a ﬁfth woman to harness the work of these pioneering women and bring it to bear in the one area that no one was talking about in the church: abortion.
- Jane Furlong Cahill, interviewed by Patricia Miller, May 18, 2010.
- John Rock, The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor’s Proposals to End the Battle over Birth Control, New York: Knopf, 1963, 186-187.
- John T. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Cambridge: Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986, 34, 46-47.
- Augustine, Marriage and Concupiscence, 1418.
- Noonan, 144-150, 173.
- Rosemary Radford Ruether, “A Catholic Mother Tells: ‘Why I Believe in Birth Control,’” Saturday Evening Post, April 4, 1964.
- Charles F. Westoff and Norman B. Ryder, “United States: Methods of Fertility Control, 1955, 1960 & 1965,” in Studies in Family Planning 1, No. 17, February 1967, 1-5.
- Noonan, 306-8, 491-43.
- Ibid., 497.
- Ruether, “A Catholic Mother Tells.”
- Noonan, 426-27.
- It condemned sterilization, but from the perspective of its then-current use as a forced eugenic instrument for individuals labeled undesirable rather than from the perspective of a voluntary method of birth control.
- Fr. John Ford and Fr. Gerald Kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology Vol. II: Marriage Questions. Long Prairie, Minn.: Newman Press, 1964, 387.
- Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in 19th Century America, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994, 79-86.
- Noonan, 439-42.
- Pope Pius XII, “Moral Questions Affecting Married Life,” address given October 29, 1951, to the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives, in Noonan, 446.
- Noonan, 461-63.
- The theologians were Jouis Janssens, William van der Marck and Joseph Mary Reuss. See Noonan 470-72, 512-13.
- Bernard Häring, “Theology and the Pill,” Catholic Herald, May 29, 1964.
- Noonan, 532-33.
- See “The Catholic Revolution,” Look, February 9, 1967, and “Growing Unrest in the Catholic Church,” US News & World Report, March 27, 1967.
- Jane Furlong Cahill, “Contraception and Eve,” New Blackfriars 47, no. 553, June 1966, 469.
- Rosemary Radford Ruether, The Church against Itself, New York: Herder and Herder, 1967, 223-24.
- Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex, 3rd ed., Boston: Beacon Press, 1985, 190.
- Mary Luke Tobin, “Women in the Church Since Vatican II,” America, November 1, 1986.
- Daly, 9.
- Ibid., 10.
- Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes, December 7, 1965.
- Mary J. Henold, Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008; and Daly, 123.
- Daly, 81-82.
- Ibid., 89, 93.
- Ibid., 83.
- Ibid., 87.
- Ibid., 86.
- Ibid., 148-49.
- See Robert McClory, Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, New York: Crossroad, 1995.
- Pontifical Commission on Birth Control Commission, “Responsible Parenthood,” 1966.
- Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, July 25, 1968.
- McClory, 110.
- Patty Crowley, one of the laywomen on the commission, is said to have answered, “Do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?” Ibid., 122. See also Gerald Slevin, “New Birth Control Commission Papers Reveal Vatican Hand,” National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2011.
- George Dugan, “Working Mothers Called Harmful,” New York Times, March 27, 1954.
- Stanislas De Lestapis, Family Planning and Modern Problems: A Catholic Analysis, New York: Herder and Herder, 1961, 74-78.
- Deirdre Carmody, “Catholic Experts in Strong Dissent on Edict by Pope,” New York Times, July 31, 1968.
- Catholics for Choice, Truth and Consequence, Washington, DC, 2008.
- Anthony Padovano, interviewed by Patricia Miller, April 9, 2012.
- Elizabeth Farians, interviewed by Patricia Miller, July 20, 2010; and Henold, 73.
- Elizabeth Farians, “Theology and Animals,” in Sister Species: Women, Animals and Social Justice, edited by Lisa A. Kemmerer and Carol J. Adams, Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011, 104.
- Elizabeth Farians, “How NOW Got Religion,” NOW Papers on Women and Religion, 1971-72.
- Farians, interviewed by Miller, July 20, 2010.
- Elizabeth Farians, “Struggle for Women’s Rights in the Catholic Church,” Spring 1973, self-published pamphlet.
- Ibid., 2.
- New York Times, “Churches Feel Pressure of Women’s Rights Drive,” May 3, 1970.
- Henold, 78.
- Farians, “Struggle for Women’s Rights,” 3.
- Farians, “How NOW Got Religion,” 4.