For the philosopher Ralph McInerny, 1968 was “The Year the Church Fell Apart”. For Peter Steinfels, it saw the beginning of “the Vietnam War of the Catholic Church”. These apocalyptic descriptions – there are many more – refer to a single event: Pope Paul’s release on July 25, 1968, 50 years ago this week, of his encyclical on contraception, Humanae Vitae.

Some writers have held Humanae Vitae responsible for the decline in Catholic practice over the past half-century: people either boycotted Mass in protest, or else became so frustrated and disillusioned with an institution (officially) committed to upholding its teaching that they ultimately gave up and left. Others suggest that Catholics drifted from the faith because of the unwelcoming reception the encyclical received from some bishops, priests, theologians and journalists. That “culture of dissent”, as Russell Shaw called it, is said to have weakened Catholic identity, and with it belief, practice and affiliation.

There is, however, another way to look at the aftermath of Humanae Vitae. But to understand the encyclical’s impact, we have to briefly revisit the events leading up to it.

In 1930 the Anglican Church’s Lambeth Conference permitted, albeit with heavy qualifications, the use of contraceptives. Meanwhile, growing numbers of American Protestant denominations did the same, often motivated by explicitly eugenic motivations. They began making their peace with contraception, if not for their own members, then at least for other, “undesirable” groups. In response, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii bracingly reaffirmed that

… the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defence of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offence against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin [my italics].

Three decades later, though, the issue had failed to go away. The growing women’s movement and the first stirrings of a sexual revolution; the invention of the Pill; increasing worries about Third World overpopulation; more publicity for the often tragic plight of Catholic parents faced with severe medical, domestic and/or economic pressures; greater social integration of Catholics with non-Catholics: it all meant that the pros and cons of birth control were much talked about by Catholics.

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