It is Monday July 29 1968. I have a business meeting north of Marble Arch. At the station I see the Evening Standard placard: “POPE SAYS NO TO BIRTH CONTROL” I have no time to buy a paper but, throughout my meeting, those five words run around inside my head. You will probably need to be in your 70s to remember the day when the final decision of Humanae Vitae was published.
I found myself in the eye of the storm. In our early 30s, we had five children and a miscarriage. My wife has been warned that further conceptions would be dangerous for her. You will not be surprised that seeing that placard nearly fifty years ago remains a vivid physical memory in my mind. I was not the only one in shock. For a long time the Catholic community had assumed that the verdict would be different. Indeed many of them had anticipated it.
The matter had been raised at the Vatican Council but reserved by Paul VI, with no further discussion. In 1963 a Papal Commission was set up to examine the whole question; its aim was to examine population problems and to confirm Catholic arguments based on demographics and modern science. The members quickly discovered that the issues were more fundamental than had been supposed, and so the group was strengthened by top moral theologians. By the final general meeting in 1965 there were 58 members including married couples.
The laity had grown in optimism. While previous teaching had focused on barrier contraceptives, the pill, which did not interfere with the marriage act, was now available – with the additional advantage that women could be in control. It was thought to raise a different moral issue. As the Commission’s sittings continued, rumours began to trickle; it seemed likely that it would recommend change. And once it was known that the Commission had formally recommended this, it was all over bar the shouting. While the detail was not generally known, the six cardinals, 13 archbishops, one bishop and the Pope’s theologian had accepted, by a substantial majority, that contraception was not intrinsically evil and that this verdict was in basic continuity with tradition and the teaching of the Magisterium.
Then there was an 18 month gap. This no doubt led to more Catholics anticipating the result. As Cardinal Heenan said to the late Professor Marshall (a member of the Commission from the beginning) “It does not matter now what the Pope says. It is too late. The people have made up their minds.” However Mgr McReavy, a theologian of repute, argued in the Clergy Review (September 1967) that, although the traditional doctrine was in doubt, statements by Paul VI in 1964 and 1966 required that the existing prohibition must be observed during the interim. Rosemary Haughton, a popular author, wrote a compassionate pamphlet preparing Catholics for a possible change.
On the day of publication the word “hullabaloo” is not, I think, too strong. The first ecclesiastical comment I heard was from Archbishop Roberts SJ (a loose cannon to some, a saint to others): “The encyclical was dead before it hit the ground.” The Economist’s variation was “intellectually deader than the dodo bird”. More constructively, Bishop Butler, a fine theologian, pointed out in the Sunday Times that, since the encyclical was not presented as infallible it was in fact fallible. He accepted that his view might not be popular but that it was theologically true.
The papers were full of it for days with a range of comment articles. A number of priests felt they had to express their disagreement publicly. I have in front of me a letter to the Times signed by over 60 priests expressing their disapproval. The Catholic Herald ran a front page story headlined “Tension mounts as priests face suspension”. Southwark’s letter to parishes referring to “poor simple people misled by disobedient priests” raised an eyebrow. Diocesan bishops published letters to their flocks. For instance, Cardinal Heenan, who had voted for change, loyally accepted the teaching, while exhorting those who disagreed to use the sacraments. Similar letters from dioceses and episcopal conferences varied in emphasis but implicitly established that using contraception in good faith did not exclude one from the Church.
I am concerned here with the history of a short if dramatic period: but it leaves us asking how the future might have been if the decision had been different or if the Catholic population had been obedient. Would Catholic sexual teaching have been seen as more or less relevant to the moral values in society? Would there have been the notable decline in American Catholicism triggered by the encyclical? In this country, would we have seen the number of Catholic marriages per Catholic population dropping from 12 per thousand to 2½ per thousand between 1968 and 2010? How did we lose the children?