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How the Catholic Church almost accepted contraception

The Vatican’s position on artificial contraception would not ordinarily be grist for our mill on this blog were it not for the recent political controversy over birth control.

But in light of that flap, THIS ARTICLE is of particular interest:

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.

As momentum built for the church to reconsider its position, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of thousands of bishops from all over the world, in 1962. The conference, known as Vatican II, resulted in a number of reforms that modernized church practices. Many believed that afterward, the church’s position on contraception might be relaxed. In fact, Pope John was putting together a committee to consider the matter shortly before he died. It then fell to Pope Paul VI to resolve the issue.

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…

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.

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.

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