50 Years Ago, The Pope Called Birth Control 'Intrinsically Wrong' U.S. Catholics largely ignored a 1968 papal encyclical on birth control. But it prompted many more to broadly question their "pay, pray, obey" mindset.

50 Years Ago, The Pope Called Birth Control 'Intrinsically Wrong'

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Fifty years ago this summer, the pope at the time, Paul VI, stunned Roman Catholics around the world by issuing a new ruling, a new papal encyclical. He called it, "Humanae Vitae" - of human life. In it, he forcefully restated church doctrine Catholics cannot use birth control.


POPE PAUL VI: (Through interpreter) It is not only a negative law prohibiting whatever makes procreation impossible. Beyond that, it's a positive expression of conjugal morality.

KING: That's from the papal archive at Vatican Radio, and it is not what many Catholics wanted to hear. David Greene spoke to NPR's Tom Gjelten, who covers religion, about that famous encyclical.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: So take us back to the summer of 1968.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: That famous summer, David. Free love, the sexual revolution in full swing, the pill was legal. Catholics were using it, and Paul VI did not approve.

GREENE: It wasn't that he just did not approve. I mean, he said birth control was a sin, right?

GJELTEN: A mortal sin. Now, natural family planning, aka the rhythm method, that still OK, but not artificial contraception. And, you know, birth control had already been prohibited for Catholics decades earlier, but a special papal commission had said that ban should be dropped. So when the pope actually reaffirmed it, there was an outcry. Mark Massa, the dean of theology at Boston College, for that reason sees that as a turning point.

MARK MASSA: I think what it did in the minds of a lot of Catholics, it simply said, we're not going to pay any attention to this, the church doesn't know what it's talking about on bedroom issues.

GJELTEN: One recent survey, David, found 83 percent see no conflict between using birth control and being a good Catholic.

GREENE: OK. So you have a lot of Catholics basically ignoring instructions from the pope. What does that mean for the relationship these Catholics have with their church?

GJELTEN: Well, I was in Milwaukee recently exploring that very question. One of the parishes that I visited was Saint Sebastian. The parish priest there, Father Larry Chapman, was saying a mass the day I visited. And one of the things that struck me in his homily was how he talked about church teachings.

LARRY CHAPMAN: Back when I was in school, we learned religion by learning questions and answers. Didn't have a whole lot of other things to do, but we did learn questions and answers.

GJELTEN: In an interview, Father Chapman said he takes a looser approach now in talking about church teachings.

CHAPMAN: I can come out and say, this is what you have to believe. Or, I can come out and say, let me invite you to consider this.

GJELTEN: This is one way the Catholic Church has changed since "Humanae Vitae," and maybe because of it. Among the parishioners in the social room at Saint Sebastian that day was Krista Sanders (ph). She talked about a church workshop she and her husband attended to prepare them for marriage.

KRISTA SANDERS: One of the sections they have is about natural family planning. And I know that's what they preach and teach. And they give you handouts about, you know, all these different testimonials from different couples who have done it.

GJELTEN: But Krista didn't buy it.

SANDERS: It's kind of like, OK, that's a nice suggestion. I appreciate the information on that. But in this current day, I don't know if it's as relevant for couples like us starting out their marriages in the Catholic faith.

GJELTEN: Now, using birth control is officially still a mortal sin, but a lot of Catholics have a hard time accepting that. Jerry DeMers (ph) worships at another Milwaukee parish, Saint Anthony on the Lake. He's 61 years old, raised and educated to be a good Catholic.

JERRY DEMERS: One of the things that I learned in high school from a Jesuit is that mortal sin is that you are making a fundamental option to turn from God. And contraception didn't seem to fit that. It didn't make sense.

GJELTEN: Now, this is significant - a devout Catholic saying a core teaching of the church doesn't make sense. And yet, the story is more complicated. Even though Jerry DeMers and his wife used birth control, he says he understands why the pope did not approve.

DEMERS: Actually, I get the point, the prediction that he makes - that if we practice contraception as a society, we will have a breakdown of the family because we have separated sex from marriage.

GJELTEN: In fact, some of the things Paul VI said in "Humanae Vitae" find an echo in contemporary concerns about sexual relations. He said, for example, that a man accustomed to using contraception may reduce women, quote, "to a mere instrument of his own desires." And a conservative minority is saying the widespread use of birth control did lead to promiscuity. In that group is the Catholic writer Mary Eberstadt. She spoke recently at a conference on "Humanae Vitae," saying, if we knew 50 years ago that the sexual revolution would bring more broken marriages, even abortions, fewer Catholics might have objected to the encyclical.

MARY EBERSTADT: Those of us living today now have access to something they didn't - 50 years of sociological, psychological, medical and other evidence about the revolution's fallout.

GJELTEN: In an interview after that speech, she said she finds the "Humanae Vitae" encyclical richly prophetic.

EBERSTADT: This document that has been so controversial and in many places reviled actually called the shots on what the future would look like better than any other single source I could think of.

GJELTEN: Now, married Catholic couples feel strongly about being able to control the size of their families. And, David, the vast, vast majority still use birth control in defiance of their church's teaching.

GREENE: That story coming to us from NPR's Tom Gjelten, who covers religion and is with us. Is there a larger lesson from these last 50 years as you've looked back?

GJELTEN: I think, David, it's that church authority is weaker. Father Mark Massa at Boston College, whom we heard from earlier, says when people see a law as flawed, it can breed contempt for law in general.

MASSA: People started to say, well, maybe the church's position on a whole realm of other things was equally mistaken. So I think a lot of historians, including myself, are looking at this event, saying, a lot of what has happened in American Catholicism in the past 50 years can be laid at the feet of "Humanae Vitae."

GJELTEN: So the "Humanae Vitae" encyclical was a turning point. Catholicism today is looser, more Catholics challenging church teaching, leaders accommodating, more dissent.

GREENE: All right. Sounds great. Tom, thanks a lot.

GJELTEN: You bet.

GREENE: That is Tom Gjelten, NPR's religion correspondent, with another of our stories on the events of 1968, that momentous year.

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