People & Events: The Pope Issues Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life")
In July 1965 a Gallup poll asked Catholic Americans if they thought their Church would ever approve of birth control. Sixty-one percent of the respondents replied yes. There was just cause for optimism. Oral contraceptives had been on the market for five years, and had not been banned by the Pope.
Change in the Air
Within the hierarchy of the Church, both bishops and priests around the world were boldly speaking out in favor of contraception and especially the Pill. The Church had convened a papal commission to study the issue, and reports leaking out from the meeting suggested change was in the air. There was a general consensus that the commission would recommend liberalizing the Church's policy. It was just a question of when.
Rock's Argument for the Pill
In the mid-1960s, one of the Pill's most prominent Catholic advocates, Dr. John Rock, insisted that the Pill should be acceptable to the Roman Catholic Church as a variant of the rhythm method. He was confident that the Vatican would eventually accept his argument that the Pill was a "natural" form of birth control and allow Catholic women to use it for contraception.
The Pope's Encyclical
It was not to be. On the morning of July 25, 1968, the Vatican called a press conference to announce its decision on the Pill. In the papal encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life"), Pope Paul VI ended the speculation over oral contraceptives and birth control once and for all. He reaffirmed the Church's traditional teachings and classified the Pill as an artificial method of birth control. To go on the Pill or use any other contraceptive device would constitute nothing less than a mortal sin.
Singling Out the Pill
In addition to condemning abortion and sterilization, the Pope singled out the Pill for its role in separating the act of sex from procreation. The Pill, Humanae Vitae declared, "opened up a wide and easy road... toward conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality. Man, growing used to contraceptive practices, may lose respect for the woman and come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion."
Disappointment Among Catholics
John Rock had lobbied long and hard in favor of the Pill, and Humanae Vitae was a bitter disappointment. "The hierarchy has made another terrible mistake," was all he could say publicly on the subject. Rock was not alone in his reaction. In the United States there was an immediate groundswell of resistance. At Catholic University in Washington, D.C., two thousand demonstrators, many of them priests and nuns, gathered to voice their dissent. A number of priests even resigned in response to the Vatican's decision.
Even though John Rock had lost the battle with the Vatican, Catholics around the world agreed with his view. A Gallup poll taken only a month after the encyclical found that only 28% of American Catholics favored the Vatican's stance. Among Catholics in their twenties, 8 out of 10 disagreed with the pope.
Ignoring the Vatican
Within just two years of Humanae Vitae, almost as many Catholic women used the Pill as non-Catholics. By 1970, two-thirds of all Catholic women and three-quarters of those under 30 were using the Pill and other birth control methods banned by the Church. In 2002, Humanae Vitae still defined the Church's position on birth control, and many observers of the Church believed that it contributed to the erosion of the Vatican's authority during the last decades of the twentieth century.
previous | return to people & events | next