Fifty years ago, in July 1968, the Vatican issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, “Of Human Life,” which prohibited virtually all forms of artificial contraception for Catholics. This has a claim to rank as one of the most important events in Christian (not just Catholic) history in the second half of the twentieth century, and perhaps the whole century. While the anniversary has received some attention, the fact that it is not better noticed today can actually be seen of just how important it was. I’ll explain that cryptic remark.
By way of background, the encyclical arrived in the aftermath of the second Vatican Council of 1963-65, which opened the door to far-reaching reform in Catholic life, practice and worship. I do stress “opened the door” as the full effects of the various decisions often took several years to implement, in a patchy and sporadic way. Rightly or not, there was a widespread impression that the Vatican would have no option but to change its firm stance against contraception. The Pill debuted in 1960, and in 1963, Pope John XXIII appointed a commission to explore the various issues. In 1966, an expanded Commission wrote a majority report recommending the approval of at least some kinds of contraception for married couples. “Everyone knew” that this liberalized position would become the Church’s official stance through some kind of new statement or encyclical, and all those informed people were stunned at the actual document that emerged.
So why is this important? Sheer numbers are a large part of the story: quantity has a quality all of its own. Whenever we study Christian history in modern times, it always helps to recall that the Roman Catholic church has for many decades been by far the largest component of the Christian community worldwide. Catholics have also been the largest single religious institution in the United States, representing about a quarter of Americans at any given time. Baptists – in all their diverse denominations – represent a very distant second. In short, what Catholics do matters. The various post-Vatican II reforms – for instance in liturgy, or the practice of fasting and abstinence – constitute an immense shift in Christian practice in the US. Catholic attitudes to contraception are a critical story in the overall “Christian” resp9nse to shifting sexual morality.
The encyclical was crucial, but the consequences were even more so. Throughout history, many who view themselves as faithful Catholics have rejected Church teachings in varying degrees of overtness. Some have been labeled as heretics, others have left the church altogether, and moved to other denominations. What was new about Humanae Vitae was the degree of overt dissent within the church itself, from clergy and scholars who in earlier years would never have dreamed of attacking a papal statement. But only a small minority of those critics actually left the church. Even more important was the number of families who in the following years decided that they could remain faithful Catholics while ignoring Vatican views. Within a couple of decades, the proportion of Catholic women in Europe and North America who were using contraception was virtually indistinguishable from non-Catholics, and that is the situation today.
A conservative Catholic might upbraid me here, and say that someone openly defying explicit Church teaching cannot properly be described as a Catholic. The objection is logical, but the fact remains that the vast majority of those users do in fact believe they are good Catholics, and that is a massive difference from any pre-1968 reality. Also, those lay people often receive validation from clergy, who make clear their disagreement with the encyclical.
Or in the words of the excellent British scholar Stephen Bullivant, speaking of Humanae Vitae:
This is, therefore, the watershed moment at which tribal divisions between “liberal” and “conservative”, or “progressive” and “traditional” Catholics began to carry serious meaning. In the past, Catholics were typically divided into “good” and “bad’, or “practising” and “lapsed”. But these were, in a sense, degrees on a single scale of being Catholic. They were not two different modes, different camps, of being Catholic. In August 1968, to be fair, they weren’t either. But over the following years that is precisely what they would become.
That became the new normal.
So someone under forty (say) today reads about a 1968 Church statement, and how millions of Catholics cheerfully decided to ignore it, while remaining active within the Church. And she or he responds, “Oh, that’s interesting. Just like things are now. But when were things ever different? Catholics pretty much always just go their own way.” Humanae Vitae launched a cultural revolution that has become so absolutely integrated into social assumptions that most of us have no idea of the scale or speed of the transformation. And that is why the relative lack of reaction today is in itself critical evidence of the impact of the whole affair.
One other thing we miss is the impact of the controversy on basic aspects of religious behavior, and especially confession, which for centuries had been a fundamental component of Catholic practice. Rates of confession plummeted in the mid-1960s, and especially in the single year 1966. Humanae Vitae proved a coup de grace. Or to quote Bullivant again,
Priests took drastically different approaches, which reinforced the sense that the topic could not really be a matter of profound, salvation-or-damnation moral gravity. How could something be an absolutely forbidden mortal sin in the confessional at 9.58am under Fr O’Malley, but at 10.02am, on Fr McMahon’s shift in the same confessional, be a topic left up to the couple’s own conscience and discernment?
That in turn revolutionized attitudes to the reception of the Eucharist. And so on.
So yes, this was a revolution, and should be remembered as such.
There are a great many books on all this, but one excellent resource on Catholic culture and attitudes in the era is the satirical novel How Far Can You Go?, by David Lodge (1980). See also Hugh McLeod, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (2007).