This is a follow up to Robert Levine’s excellent post below on American Puritanism. A very good article in The Washington Post a couple of weeks ago has not received the attention it deserved, How the Catholic Church almost came to accept birth control. The Catholic Churches’ objection to birth control is recent.
Contrary to widely held assumptions, the Catholic ban on birth control is relatively recent and has not been consistently supported by the clergy and the laity. Prior to the 1930s, the church had no official position on contraception. But on Dec. 31, 1930, Pope Pius XI issued a papal encyclical, Casti Connubii (Latin for “Of Chaste Wedlock”), which for the first time explicitly prohibited Catholics from using contraception.
It was a Catholic Doctor, John Rock, who developed the birth control pill thinking it would answer Church objections to birth control. He was both right and wrong.
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.
The decision was not popular.
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.
I guess we should not be surprised that a group of theoretically celibate men are out of touch with reality but out of touch they are as indicated by the fact that Catholic Church pews are filled with families consisting of one or two children.