Why did so many Catholics succumb so quickly and definitively to the specious promises of artificial birth control?
The answer to that question is an intricate story, of which I can only tell a small fraction. But I hope the fraction will help us appreciate better what the Church went through 50 years ago, during the decade of discontent, in one of the most turbulent years in modern history, with the publication of the most controversially received document in the history of the Catholic Church.
I tell it for the sake of remembrance, for understanding and to help us avoid past mistakes.
Before Vatican II
The 100 years before the publication of Humanae Vitae were very productive for the science of contraceptives. Charles Goodyear patented the process for vulcanizing rubber in 1844, and the first condom was produced in 1855. Margaret Sanger was born in 1879 and founded her American Birth Control League in 1921. The structure of steroid hormones was determined in the early 1930s. High dosages were later found to inhibit ovulation. But they were very expensive to produce.
The elderly Sanger, when she learned about hormone research in the early 1950s, made it her business to fund the new science, first through her own Planned Parenthood and later through other organizations she could influence. The research paid off, and, in 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first steroid hormone drug, Enovid, for contraceptive use. By 1962, the same year the Second Vatican Council opened, more than 1 million American women were on the pill.
Virtually the whole non-Catholic world had made up its mind by this time that birth control was a panacea. The Anglican bishops had already began courting the idea at the 1930 Lambeth Conference and by 1958 had fully committed the Anglican Church at Lambeth that year.
As went Anglicanism, so went the rest of Protestant Christianity. The National Council of Churches approved the panacea by an “overwhelming” margin in 1961.
At the dawn of the 1960s, professional associations, politicians and financiers were falling over each other to endorse anti-natal solutions.
The 20,000-member American Public Health Association went on the record in 1959 in favor of publicly funded programs of birth control. John D. Rockefeller III used his Bureau of Social Hygiene and Population Council to export contraceptives throughout the world through population-control programs. The influential government-sponsored “Draper Report” recommended in 1959 that the U.S. government should finance and manage huge population-control efforts to the “Third World.” People feared overpopulation almost as much as they did nuclear weapons. The alarmism blinded nearly everyone. Even President Lyndon Johnson vowed in a State of the Union address to “deal with the explosion in world population and the growing scarcity in world resources.”
Enemies From Without
The Catholic Church still stood in the way of this anti-natal advance. Thus, it’s not surprising that her adversaries sought to influence Catholic opinion.
The erudite and saintly Msgr. George A. Kelly (1916-2004) wrote that, “by 1962, Planned Parenthood extended [its] forays deeply into Catholic territory.” It sent senior staffers to the 1962 National Catholic Family Life Convention in St. Louis to “open” Catholic minds. Its representatives “sought meetings with leading Catholic family-life directors throughout the country or made trips to Europe seeking dialogue and understanding from leading Catholics in the ancient citadels of Christendom.
“It was obvious,” Msgr. Kelly wrote, “that Planned Parenthood expected support for its objectives” from those inside leading Catholic universities (e.g., Louvain) “and within the Vatican itself.”
For Planned Parenthood’s Catholic outreach, 1963 was a banner year. Sanger’s scion sponsored a 200-page book published by Alfred A. Knopf entitled The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor’s Proposals to End the Battle Over Birth Control. Its author, an early abortion defender, pioneer in contraceptive research and long-standing Planned Parenthood member, Dr. John Rock, a distinguished Harvard professor of gynecology, was widely touted as a “devout Roman Catholic,” although Msgr. Kelly doubts the claim.
Rock’s book was enormously influential on Catholic opinion during the Council. In the year Vatican II concluded its deliberations, Rock, under sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate, publicly proclaimed that he had “complete confidence” that the Catholic Church would change its teaching on birth control.
Enemies From Within
The pressure to adapt was not only from hucksters on the outside, but from respected Catholics at every level within the Church.
Influential theologians such as Father John Courtney Murray, powerful prelates such as Cardinal Leo Suenens, and widely read Catholic periodicals such as Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter all supported, or gave the impression of supporting, cultural accommodation toward birth control.
Subversive conferences were convened at Catholic venues to undermine Church teaching. These included a series of secretive meetings on population at the University of Notre Dame held from 1963 to 1967 under the leadership of George Shuster, special assistant to the president, Father Theodore Hesburgh, and jointly sponsored by the two population-control giants, the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation.
The meetings brought together liberal Catholics, foundation representatives, Planned Parenthood activists and public officials. Political historian (and former Notre Dame professor) Donald Critchlow wrote that their purpose was plain: “to encourage liberal opinion within the Church.”
At one of the meetings, Father John O’Brien of Notre Dame, an activist priest, and Cass Canfield, a Planned Parenthood official, agreed to hold a national conference on population at the august Catholic university. Shuster’s biographer stated that all conference attendees, Catholic and otherwise, knew the aim was “to create an oppositional voice within the Catholic Church on the issue of family planning.”
During the Council years (1962-65), Redemptorist Father Francis X. Murphy, using the pseudonym Xavier Rynne, notably shaped popular opinion on the Council through his widely read “Letters From Vatican City” published in The New Yorker. His most enduring contribution was to frame the Council as a Marxist-like conflict between farsighted liberals and Neolithic conservatives.
The bishops at Vatican II were keenly aware of which way the societal winds were blowing. Whisperings about the new “pill” could be heard throughout the meeting rooms of St. Peter’s Basilica, especially the chambers where the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World was being discussed. Was it contraceptive, too, in the morally relevant sense? After all, it didn’t interrupt sex or stand as a physical barrier between the couple.
In April 1963, Pope John XXIII created a small commission of six members to discuss issues pertaining to family and population, including the problem of the “pill.”
He died in June of that year. His successor, Pope Paul VI, expanded the commission to 72 members in early 1964. It included bishops, theologians, physicians, sociologists, economists, biologists, statisticians and married couples.
In 1966 a majority of the members of the commission, 64 of the 69 who voted, urged Paul in a working document (known as the “majority report”) to change the Church’s teaching. Three bishops and four theologians argued against the majority’s reasoning; one bishop, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, was prevented from attending the vote by the Polish Communist Party.
In April 1967, the National Catholic Reporter published confidential documents leaked from the commission.
Going into 1968, virtually everyone believed that the Church was going to “change its teaching.” Priests presumed it in the confessional, and married couples acted upon it. After all, what CEO would go against the recommendations of his own senior leadership and trusted advisers?’
So when Pope Paul VI taught that taking the pill to render sex sterile was immoral, as was “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or a means” (Humanae Vitae, 14), it ignited a conflagration.
In November 1968, Francis Murphy/Xavier Rynne wrote: “The document started a serious crisis within the Church, the proportions of which are only beginning to be revealed.”
This sentiment was shared on all sides. Even the sternly traditional Jesuit Father Sebastian Tromp, the ghostwriter for Pope Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi (1943) and a contributor to the Council’s great dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, stated in the fall of 1968: “The crisis through which the Church is now passing is more serious than the Reformation.” Even Protestants were swept up in the momentum. On Oct. 11, 1968, a Christian Science Monitor editorial stated that “nothing on the face of the earth can stem or reverse” the rejection of Catholic teaching on birth control.
Dissent and De Facto Schism
The massive worldwide theological dissent from Humanae Vitae gave birth to a novel form of utilitarian reasoning in Catholic thought — called “Proportionalism” — that argued that good ends can justify evil means. Thanks to Proportionalism, not only was the Church’s definitive teaching on contraception rejected, but so, too, was almost the entire corpus of traditional teaching on sexuality.
Between 1970 and 1990, virtually all academic Catholic moral theologians, and a large majority of seminary instructors, adopted some form of proportionalist reasoning. The theologians, protected professionally as they were by “academic freedom,” were in the vanguard advocating for this brave new Catholic morality. Following in the rearguard, more cautiously but no less devotedly, were the scores of priests and bishops who quietly supported the revolution in sexual ethics from the inside.
For nearly 50 years, including through the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, despite the popes’ efforts to curb the dissent, this resolute and obstinate rejection of definitive Catholic teaching on matters pertaining to marriage and sexual morality has characterized a majority of baptized Catholics.
As I recently wrote, “The Catholic Church has thus existed for decades in a condition of objective and grave disunity over matters of de fide doctrine. Another way to say this is that the Catholic Church has existed in a de facto state of schism.” The Pew Research Center reported in 2016 that 87% of Catholics — who attend Mass at least weekly — believe using contraception is acceptable. And yet the same report stated that 83% of Massgoing Catholics oppose abortion.
Task for Today
Why the difference between the two issues?
It’s because many people can see that killing small children is wrong, but not that certain types of illicit consensual sex acts are wrong.
The reasons for this epistemic blindness are complex.
But the blindness is undeniable — so much so that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was led to say in the 1990s that human reason seems to have lost its ability to grasp the truths of the natural law, especially in the area of sexual ethics; that the evidential character of universal moral norms has collapsed. Reason, he famously stated in 2002, borrowing an expression from medieval theologians, seems to have a “wax nose”; it can be “pointed in any direction, if one is clever enough.”
The task before us today is to help make evident the moral truths affirmed and defended in Humanae Vitae. Notice I didn’t say “remake,” since I don’t think most Catholics ever really saw lucidly the wrongness of contraception, however faithful they were. On this issue, the obedience of most was legalistic — “I do this because the Church teaches it, and that’s what a good Catholic does.”
If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have lost the argument on contraception so quickly and decisively after Humanae Vitae.
Good arguments alone will not suffice, although we can’t do it without them.
We need to testify with our lives to the union-procreation paradigm affirmed in Humanae Vitae; we need to trim the tree, as it were, of Church teaching on sexual ethics with married lives of manifest good works and of joyful endurance of the daily sufferings of family life, and, in all things, pray for grace to perspicuously witness to the truth, beauty and goodness of that despised reality that sex is for marriage and marriage is for babies and bonding.
Paraphrasing what is attributed often to St. Francis, “Preach the Gospel of marriage, and if necessary use words.”
E. Christian Brugger is the senior research fellow in ethics
at the Culture of Life