50 Years Ago: The Catholic Church and the Pill

Mussolini’s massacre of the Abyssinians, Hitler’s systematic murder of the European Jews, the American slaughter of Vietnamese—none of these atrocities, or others like them, caused more than mild rumblings in the Roman Catholic Church—and yet Catholics were deeply involved in all three. But the use of ‘the pill’ has caused a series of explosions which threaten to blow it apart at its rotten seams. The contrast would be laughable if it were not so tragic. The Pope’s ruling on oral contraceptives has caused more Catholics to question the authority of their church than any other event this century. It has called forth more jokes than the Profumo affair. And the jokes and arguments have arisen because people are struggling to understand and digest a seemingly absurd situation. For thousands of Catholics it was a shock situation, because the pill seemed to offer the answer to all the objections that the church had raised to mechanical or chemical contraceptives. Many of them were already using the pill in expectation that the Pope would bless it, and there was a powerful lobby of bishops and influential lay Catholics urging the Vatican to take this decision. When finally, after long delay, and against the majority advice of his own Commission, Pope Paul’s encyclical forbade its use by Catholics, the reaction by Catholics and non-Catholics alike was close to incredulity.

That was seven months ago. Many non-Catholics have already forgotten it—or at least they would have done if it had not been for the way Catholics are still reacting. For many, particularly in countries like Holland, France and Britain, the resentment and disappointment have led to a continuing series of minor rebellions on other issues such as the celibacy of priests, the virginity of Mary, and the dominance of Rome. It is plain now that the Vatican must prepare for many years of dissent and controversy.

(Socialist Standard, March 1969)