People dress as sperm cells at the Papal Nuncio building in The Hague for the sixth birthday of the encyclical, ‘Humanae Vitae’ in 1974. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

How Catholic women fought Vatican’s prohibition on contraceptives

(The Conversation) — Fifty years ago a fierce debate erupted in the Catholic Church over the papal document “Humanae Vitae,” which reiterated the church’s ban on artificial contraception. Six hundred scholars, including many clergy, dissented from its teaching, sparking a debate that caused a crisis over authority in the worldwide church.

While much attention is focused on the epic battle between theologians and the institutional church, which undoubtedly was significant, as a historian of Catholic women, I find the responses of Catholic laywomen even more compelling.

As theologians dissented, bishops raged and popes dug in their heels, Catholic laywomen and their partners made their own family planning decisions, as they had for many years before and would for decades after.

What is Humanae Vitae?

Pope Paul VI. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Humanae Vitae was a papal encyclical released by Pope Paul VI in 1968. However, it wasn’t the first papal document to prohibit contraception use. Thirty-eight years prior to that encyclical, Pope Pius XI had released a document called “Casti Connubbi,” barring Catholics from using artificial contraception.

There were some clear differences between the two encyclicals. The first insisted that procreation was the chief purpose of the sexual act. The second said that the “unitive” purpose – that is, the use of sex as a means of expressing love and strengthening the marital union – was equally important.

But Paul VI ultimately insisted that the unitive could not be separated from the procreative. According to the Catholic Church, each and every conjugal act must be open to life.

Even though Humanae Vitae largely affirmed an established teaching, it was still controversial. This was because the debates among theologians and laypeople in the 30 years following Casti Connubi caused many to believe that the 1968 encyclical would overturn the Church’s ban on artificial contraception.

Role of Catholic women

What is important to note is that well before the 600 theologians expressed dissent, Catholic laywomen had already begun to reject this teaching. One major reason was what many believed to be a major flaw in the Vatican’s argument.

As early as the 1940s, large numbers of Catholic couples were encouraged to use the rhythm method, or timing sex to coincide with “the safe period” in a woman’s cycle, most commonly determined by charting a daily temperature reading. This was the accepted way to avoid conception, as they were not allowed to use a barrier method to achieve the same end.

Many failed to understand or accept this logic. If the church was admitting that couples could choose to limit their family size, why wouldn’t it allow them a more effective means of doing so, is what many women asked. They were also not convinced every sexual act need be open to life if the couple was open to having children.

So, starting in the 1940s, Catholic laywomen and men began to publicly discuss the church’s teaching on contraception. By the early 1960s, when the birth control pill came into common use, these questions became especially pressing. Catholic laywomen regularly wrote in the Catholic press and elsewhere expressing their views as married women and fostering a conversation that called the ban into question.

They wrote eloquently about their marriages, their sex lives, their struggles with endless pregnancies and, increasingly, their frustration with rhythm. The only method of family limitation allowed them failed over and over again while the necessity of denying themselves sex caused rifts in couples already stressed by the care of large families.

Those frustrations often included the priests who promoted rhythm. “To me and many Catholics rhythm is a manifestation of an attitude of many clergymen looking down from their pedestals, offering us glib platitudes and the letter of the law, without seeing our real problems,” wrote Carolyn Scheibelhut, an American Catholic laywoman, in a letter to the editor of the Catholic magazine Marriage, in 1964.

Did the Vatican hear laywomen’s voices?

Laywomen’s voices finally reached the Vatican through the papal birth control commission assembled by Pope John XXIII, between 1963 to 1966, to study the issue of artificial contraception.

Patty Crowley, co-founder of the Christian Family Movement and one of the few married women invited to participate, brought with her the results of a survey of Catholic couples who overwhelmingly described their struggles with the teaching, despite often heroic attempts to abide by it.

She later remarked, “It just struck me as ridiculous….How could they be talking about marriage and birth control of all things without a lot more input from the persons involved?” Crowley testified before the commission, telling them that, besides being unreliable, rhythm was psychologically harmful, did not foster married love or unity and, moreover, was unnatural.

In what was surely a first in this group of primarily celibate men, Crowley explained that the majority of women most desire sexual intercourse during ovulation, precisely when they were taught to avoid sex. “Any simple psychology book tells us that people who are in a constant state of stricture in an area that should be open and free and loving are damaging themselves and consequently others,” she insisted.

Collette Potvin, another married woman who testified, recalled thinking “When you die, God is going to say, ‘Did you love?’ He isn’t going to say, ‘Did you take your temperature?’”

Persuaded by these testimonies and others, the commission voted to overturn the ban. Leaked to the press in 1967, this decision raised the hopes of laypeople all over the world. These expectations fed the outrage when Pope Paul VI chose to disregard the majority report of his own commission in 1968.

Use of contraception today

Majority of Catholic women around the world use contraceptives. Photo courtesy of Catholic Diocese of Saginaw Follow/Creative Commons

So, do the majority of Catholic women follow the teachings of Humanae Vitae on contraceptive use?

Available data show they do not. Their choice to disregard this teaching started well before the letter was released. Among American Catholic women, for example, as of 1955, 30 percent used artificial contraception. Ten years later, that number had reached 51 percent, all before the ban was reiterated in 1968.

By 1970 the number of Catholic women in the U.S. using birth control hit 68 percent, and today there is almost no difference between the birth control practices of Catholics and non-Catholics in the United States. Globally, as of 2015, there is little difference between Catholic and non-Catholic regions. For example, the percentage of contraceptive use in heavily Catholic Latin America and the Caribbean was 72.7 percent, – a 36.9 percent increase since 1970 – compared to 74.8 percent in North America.

The ConversationI would argue the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae is a moment to remember the laywomen who changed Catholic history before, during and after 1968. It was laywomen’s collective decision to disregard the teaching that truly shaped Catholics’ modern attitudes toward birth control.

(Mary J. Henold is the John R. Turbyfill Professor of History at Roanoke College.)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  1. Humanae Vitae taught us that the authority of the institutional Church COULD be ignored. Then the abuse cover-up taught us that the authority of the institutional Church SHOULD be ignored.

  2. Humanae Vitae was promulgated mainly because the Vatican didn’t want to have to admit that it was ever wrong about anything. What most people don’t know is that the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching magisterium once taught, for well over a millennium, that the human sperm cell contained all that was necessary for the formation of life, the human egg merely being a receptacle for the precious sperm. Hence the hilarious musical number “Every sperm is sacred” from the Monty Python movie “The meaning of life.”

    Once it was scientifically proven beyond any measure of reasonable doubt that the church had gotten it all wrong, the church had to come up with another rationalization for its long-held policy which taught that contraception, like masturbation or homosexual sex, was wrong. So it came up with its current teaching that “all sexual activity must be open to the possibility of life.” Curiously, it leaves an out of sorts with its ridiculously named “rhythm method,” which nearly everyone agrees is a total farce.

    The Roman Catholic Church will go to great lengths to argue that it has never gotten anything wrong with regard to its official teaching. You see, to do so would risk having the entire house of cards come tumbling down and its credibility along with it, and they can’t have that. Sadly for that church’s hierarchs, their credibility was shredded with the clergy abuse scandal and is not likely to ever return to the glory days of the fifties when the New York Archbishop’s palace was referred to as “The Powerhouse.” Those days are long gone, as are the number of people who hang on the bishops’ every word.

  3. Although it has pointed out to you a number of times in the past, it is worth pointing out again that “the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching magisterium once taught, for well over a millennium, that the human sperm cell contained all that was necessary for the formation of life” is untrue.

    Catholic theologians speculated all over the place without any scientific knowledge about various issues on human conception and life, but none of them were incorporated into the “Church’s teaching magisterium”.

    That nixes the notion that “the church had gotten it all wrong”.

    The teaching that “all sexual activity must be open to the possibility of life”, which not only impacts that denomination’s view of contraception but also in part explains its opposition to same sex sexual activity – which I believe is your real target – stems from the Old Testament. When the deity dismisses Adam and Eve from the Garden, it is with the command “Go forth and multiply”.

    The Jews believed this precluded birth control among other things.

    The Catholic belief builds off this belief with additional material from the Christian New Testament and natural law.

  4. There are probably more people listening to the Church than to you.

  5. No Christian likes to think about the fact that Mary, the mother of
    Jesus, was married at 13 to 16, because when and where she lived marriage
    occurred at the same time as sexual maturity. That;‘s not the case today
    in the USA, so what are the implications for “pre-marital sex” and the
    use of contraceptives?

  6. In the 1800’s the pope, citing its ecuoiar philosophy/doctrine of Natural Law and using the same magisterium as was used in Casti Connubii, condemned democracy as a grave error and sin. ThIs condemnation was never officially rescinded, it was simply put aside after WWII when the church entered into an alliance with the USA in a crusade against communism.

  7. How d you explain away the pope’s encyclical in the 1800’s condemning democracy as against the natural hierarchy decreed by Natural Law?

  8. Implications in what context – the article or life in general?

  9. The ancient Jews, including Mary the mother of Jesus, married at the time of sexual maturity, 13-16. So forbidding pre-marital sex was easy enough. Now Catholics condemn young teenagers having sex and babies and getting married so young while some would say that the huge gap between sexual maturity and marriage allows for sex and the responsible use of contraceptives.

  10. What the Catholic denomination condemns is sexual relations outside of marriage, not “young teenagers having sex and babies and getting
    married so young”.

    It would seem on the surface that “the huge gap between sexual
    maturity and marriage” does not have any bearing on the condemnation.

  11. These folks need to learn about other forms of Christianity and vote with their feet. The Roman Church is a relic of the dark ages.

  12. This is the way it applied to many of our great great great great great grandmothers and in some countries even our great great great great great grandfathers such as Ireland before the famine. Life was hard and one needed to have as many children as possible to have a few survive to care for you in old age- assuming you made it to old age .

  13. And then your parents had you …. back to the drawing board, eh?

  14. You’re just butthurt that young people want nothing to do with bigots like you, who will rot away in nursing homes until you blubber out your last breath.

  15. actually i have not . why don’t you actually give a summary of it ? not a link . we all can find a link . but a summary as you question implies that you have a handle on it .

  16. I have no reason to provide anything on it.

    Some one unfamiliar with it tried to use to prove something, and when called on it, folded.

    You’ve already begun with a statement you haven’t even read it, so that appears to wrap it up.

  17. Prove that a virgin gave birth. I dare you.

  18. You realize that ‘butthurt’ is pure homophobia, don’t you?

  19. And yet you just can’t help responding to him. I think you’re in love.

  20. Why, because we believe in reproductive autonomy?

  21. With trolling Christians on the internet? It’s like a heroin addiction.

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