How the Catholic Church almost came to accept birth control

Another opponent of the Catholic ban was John Rock, a devout Catholic doctor who taught at Harvard Medical School and who would become one of the leading clinical researchers responsible for developing the pill. Rock held that contraception was sometimes medically necessary and often personally desirable for maintaining happy marriages and well-planned families. He also believed that birth control was essential for those who could not afford many children. As early as the 1940s, he regularly taught his medical students how to insert diaphragms — even though birth control was illegal in Massachusetts.

Rock was by no means a radical. He was a solid Republican and didn’t approve of sex outside of marriage. But he openly defied the Catholic Church and state laws.

When Rock began research on oral contraceptives, he believed that the pill offered a means of birth control that the church would accept, because it simply repressed ovulation and replicated the body’s hormonal condition in early pregnancy. In 1963, he even wrote a book making the case, called “The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor’s Proposals to End the Battle Over Birth Control.”

As momentum built for the church to reconsider its position, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of thousands of bishops from all over the world, in 1962. The conference, known as Vatican II, resulted in a number of reforms that modernized church practices. Many believed that afterward, the church’s position on contraception might be relaxed. In fact, Pope John was putting together a committee to consider the matter shortly before he died. It then fell to Pope Paul VI to resolve the issue.

In 1964, Pope Paul appointed a commission on birth control to advise him. As the panel deliberated, anticipation ran high; many journalists, clergy and lay Catholics expected the church to lift the ban. Scottish songwriter Matt McGinn wrote a jaunty tune, recorded by Pete Seeger, about a woman with a house full of children waiting for the pope to “bless the pill.” She buys a package of birth control pills so she will be ready when the church acquiesces. In the final stanza, she hopes to hear the pope’s approval “before my man comes in.”

In 1967, the commission’s report was leaked to the press, revealing that a significant majority of its members favored lifting the ban, including 60 of 64 theologians and nine of the 15 cardinals. The minority who were opposed issued a separate report. After much consideration, the pope issued a formal encyclical, Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) in 1968, siding with the minority and reaffirming the church’s prohibition of any form of artificial birth control.

Catholic leaders quickly criticized the decision. Father Bernard Haring of Rome, widely regarded as the leading moral theologian at the time, called upon Catholic women and men to follow their consciences, rather than the pope’s decree. Countless parish priests agreed and gave sermons to that effect. The pope’s decision had little impact on Catholic women’s use of contraception. Two years after the decree, two-thirds of Catholic women were using contraception. Quickly, the gap between Catholic and non-Catholic women disappeared. According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, Catholic women use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholic women. The Catholic Church has remained an outlier on the issue, unable to enforce its ban. [More]


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