NPR

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.
Father Larry Chapman, the parish priest at St. Sebastian in Milwaukee, said he now takes a looser approach when he explains church teachings. Source: Tom Gjelten/NPR

A papal encyclical issued 50 years ago this summer marked a turning point in the way Roman Catholics view the teachings of their church.

On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI stunned Catholics around the world with his announcement of Humanae Vitae, "Of Human Life," a document in which he forcefully reaffirmed the church's previously stated position on the use of artificial birth control, calling it "intrinsically wrong."

"We are obliged once more to declare that [methods for] the direct interruption of the generative process," the pope wrote, "... are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children."

Humane Vitae came as a surprise to many Vatican observers. Though an encyclical issued in 1930 already prohibited birth control, a papal commission had been assembled to revisit that ban, and a majority of the commission members suggested that it be dropped. Moreover, a Vatican II document stipulated the right of man "to follow his conscience."

Indeed, Catholics were already using contraception. The birth control pill had been legalized by a Supreme Court decision, and of Catholic women found that more than half were using some forbidden contraceptive method. By 1973, to be relying on birth control to avoid pregnancy. The Humanae Vitae encyclical apparently had had little effect.

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