It’s been 50 years since Pope Paul VI signed an encyclical reaffirming the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on artificial contraception. The papal document, known “Humanae Vitae” and publicly released on July 29, 1968, is still seen as a foundational text for understanding Catholic teachings about the sanctity of human life.
American Catholic institutions and dioceses around the country eagerly started celebrating the milestone anniversary months in advance. There have already been special Masses, conferences, picnics and potlucks this year, with many more festivities planned throughout the fall.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops designated this week ― marking the golden jubilee of the papal encyclical ― as Natural Family Planning Awareness Week, hoping to spread awareness about church-sanctioned methods for postponing pregnancy.
But despite the fervor with which bishops are celebrating the anniversary, it will probably have little relevance to the lives of the average Catholic woman. Most will likely mark the milestone by doing what U.S. women in the pews have been doing even before 1968 ― listening politely to the opinions of the celibate man in the pulpit, then going home to make their own choices about their reproductive health.
As a result, while the 50th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae” is a cause for celebration in some Catholic circles, it’s also an occasion that succinctly encapsulates the growing fissure between the American Catholic hierarchy and lay Catholic women.
“Most priests were taught three models of female sexuality: the pure and holy virgin, the chaste mother who only engages in sex for the sake of conceiving a child, or the wanton woman who is in need of repentance and the directive to ‘sin no more,’” Jamie Manson, an editor at the National Catholic Reporter, wrote in an opinion piece. “These men were never expected to imagine what a women’s real life was like, what kinds of complexity she faces in her decision-making and what capacity she has to make judgments about her own sexuality.”
In “Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI argued that each and every sexual act must remain open to the possibility of procreation. In principle, that meant the prohibition of a wide range of contraceptive methods within Catholic marriages. The church officially condemns everything from sterilization, condoms and withdrawal, to the birth control pill and other medically prescribed methods.
In publishing the encyclical, Paul essentially ignored the advice of a pontifical commission on birth control assembled several years earlier by his predecessor. Several married women allowed to participate in that commission testified to the group about how burdensome the church’s ban on artificial contraception was for them.
Dr. Mary Henold, a Catholic historian at Roanoke College, told HuffPost that by 1966, even moderate Catholic women had already come to reject the church’s artificial contraception ban. A group of active women leaders regularly voiced their opinions about the issue in national Catholic publications. Because they were respected in their communities, these women’s voices were influential.
The Catholic women speaking up during this period were not necessarily feminists who wanted to be able to freely express their sexuality, Henold said. Most were traditional, married Catholic women talking about wanting to limit the size of their families and space out their children, as well as seeking more flexibility on when to have sex with their husbands.
The church was encouraging Catholics to use the rhythm method, which asked couples to schedule sex according to women’s menstrual cycles. Women were discouraged from having sex when they were ovulating, which is typically a time when women’s sexual desire increases.
Catholic women of that time were also typically getting married in their late teens and early 20s, and without a reliable contraception method, they ended up having huge families.
“They couldn’t handle it financially or emotionally,” Henold said. “And when they turned to their spouses for comfort, they were told they had to have sex on a schedule. It drove them crazy. They felt like they expectations the church was placing on them were too difficult.”
After listening to the women’s testimonies and considering other aspects of the debate, the pontifical commission on birth control voted to overturn the church’s ban on artificial contraception. The decision was leaked to the press in 1967. The American women who had been speaking up against the ban in the press became optimistic that their voices were finally being heard.
But Pope Paul VI overruled the commission’s conclusions with the publication of “Humanae Vitae.” The encyclical also essentially closed the door for further debate ― and devastated the lay Catholic leaders who had been so hopeful for change.
“They were trying very earnestly to tell these men in the church why this restriction was a problem for them and they were not heard. And then they were told the conversation was over,” Henold said.
“That’s why women said, ‘Okay, we’re going to make these decisions in the privacy of our own homes.’”
Researchers found that by 1973, two-thirds of all Catholic women were using contraceptive methods disapproved of by their church. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that among Catholic women and men, 45 percent of those attending Mass weekly said contraception is morally acceptable, 42 percent said it’s not a moral issue at all, and just 13 percent considered the practice morally unacceptable.
Catholics for Choice, a liberal interest group that supports women’s right to make decisions about their reproductive health, recently teamed up with the polling firm YouGov to conduct a survey on how American Catholics feel about contraception. The online survey of 1,000 Catholics conducted in February found that about 67 percent disagreed with the Vatican’s ban on birth control. Seventeen percent agreed with it, while 16 percent were not sure.
The survey had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.6 percentage points.
To this day, U.S. Catholic dioceses dedicate considerable resources to instructing parishioners about Natural Family Planning, which teaches couples how to track a woman’s natural fertile and infertile periods to avoid pregnancy.
Although many Catholic women disagree with the church’s teaching on contraception, they struggle today because there isn’t a forum for them to express those views. The church’s power structure doesn’t allow for women’s voices to be heard easily, Henold said.
Instead, Catholic women are doing what they’ve been doing for years ― deciding for themselves how to manage their own reproductive health.
“Fifty years ago, I think a lot of Catholics in this country came to the conclusion that they simply did not agree with what the pope had to say,” Henold said. “And they decided to act accordingly.”