In 1985, I interviewed my grandmother, Cecilia LaHood, for an article I wanted to write about her life. Her children were planning a big 75th birthday party for her — she was born in 1910 — and I wanted to share her life story with everyone who attended the party.
While I was interviewing my grandmother, she told me that when she started having children in the 1930s, most of her Catholic friends were using a new birth control device to limit the size of their families. She said that although she and my grandfather stayed faithful to the teachings of the Church — and subsequently had six children — most of her friends used the new birth control device to limit the size of their families to two or three children.
Although I was well aware of the widespread use of the birth control pill which began in the 1960s, and the medical sterilization procedures that became popular during the 1970s, I had no idea that Catholics were disregarding the teachings of the Church as far back as the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.
I asked my grandmother what birth control device her friends were using. She didn’t want to tell me. She couldn’t bring herself to say what it was. After I pressed her for an answer, she finally said, “You know what I’m talking about don’t you? It’s that thing that they’re starting to hand out to kids in high school.” At first, I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about, but then it hit me. I said, “Oh, are you talking about the condom?” “Yes, that’s what I’m talking about, that thing!” She still couldn’t bring herself to say the word.
After doing some research, I discovered that the latex condom was invented in 1920 and turned out to be superior to — and less costly than — its predecessor, the rubber condom. In addition, as a result of the industrial revolution, the first fully automated assembly line for latex condoms was patented in 1930, allowing manufacturers to mass produce the newly improved birth control device. Prior to that, all condoms had to be individually hand-dipped by skilled workers.
In an attempt to keep up with the times, in 1930, the Anglican Church’s Lambeth Conference gave its approval to married couples to use birth control. The church’s decision was a complete reversal of the Lambeth Conference’s condemnation of all “unnatural means for the avoidance of conception,” which took place only 10 years earlier (in 1920).
Up until 1930, all Christian religions condemned the use of unnatural birth control devices and practices. In other words, for one thousand nine hundred and thirty years, all Christian religions taught that all forms of contraception were evil. (As a side note, the earliest recorded condemnation of the use of “coverings” — later known as condoms — was in 1605.)
In December 1930, Pope Pius XI, issued the encyclical Casti Connubii (“of chaste wedlock”) which condemned the use of all contraception.
In 1931, a committee of a U.S. Christian organization, the Federal Council of Churches, approved “the careful and restrained use of contraceptives by married couples.” The day after the Federal Council of Churches voted to approve “careful and restrained” use of contraceptives, the Washington Post published, in part, the following editorial:
Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee’s report, if carried into effect, would sound the death-knoll of marriage as a holy institution by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraceptives would be “careful and restrained” is preposterous.
The acceptance and use of the widely available latex condoms to avoid having children increased dramatically during the 30s, 40s, and 50s. When the pill was introduced into the marketplace in 1960, the use of contraception to avoid pregnancy and limit the size of families became universal. After that, new technology gave men and women the option to become permanently sterilized, which allowed them to exercise much greater control over their lives and the size of their families.
During the 50s and 60s, more young Americans were going to college and were more educated than any previous generation. They began questioning the restrictions that had been placed upon them by society and religion. When they weren’t satisfied with the explanations they were receiving, they made demands for reform of the Catholic Church. (Until then, Catholics were generally willing to accept the teachings of the Church, but because they were better educated and more worldly, they insisted on logical and rational answers to their questions. Unfortunately, the technology, morals, and mood of society were changing so quickly, the Church wasn’t able to keep up with the changes and provide answers to the questions that were being asked.)
During the 1960s, rumors were circulating within the institutional structure of the Catholic Church that it was only a matter of time before the Church would lift its ban on artificial contraception and celibacy among priests. By the mid-1960s, most of the Catholic universities were teaching that the use of contraceptives was permissible in certain cases. In addition, a large number of parish priests were telling Catholic couples that the Church was going to be modifying its rules, and that it was acceptable for couples to follow their consciences concerning the use of contraceptives.
I thought about my grandmother and the history of contraceptives last week when I read that July 25, 2018, was the 50-year anniversary of the release of the encyclical, Humanae Vitae (“of human life”), by Pope Paul VI. The release of Humane Vitae on July 25, 1968, sent shock waves throughout the world, because the vast majority of people thought that the Catholic Church was finally going it “get its act together” and change with the times.
Humane Vitae upheld the long-standing position of the Catholic Church that condemned contraception as being intrinsically evil. In the encyclical, Pope Paul VI stated that there was an inseparable connection established by God between the “unitive significance and the procreative significance,” which are both inherent in a sexual union between a husband and a wife.
The encyclical acknowledged that there could be well-grounded reasons for avoiding pregnancy, but that could only be accomplished by taking advantage of the natural cycles of the reproductive system and abstinence.
After the release of Humanae Vitae, there were numerous Catholic priests and bishops throughout the world who disagreed with and publicly chastised the pope. The most vicious attack came from Father Charles Curran, who was a member of the theology faculty at the Catholic University of America. Curran used the media and his influence to organize a campaign against Pope Paul VI. He was able to get more than 600 theologians to sign a statement of dissent that he had written against the pope and Humanae Vitae.
In Humanae Vitae, the pope predicted that if the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception was ignored, the end result would be the objectification of women, infidelity among married couples, a moral decline of society, sexual promiscuity, abuse of power by public authorities, and the devaluation of children. Unfortunately, all the predictions of Pope Paul VI eventually came true.
Today, 50 years after the release of Humanae Vitae, polls show that 89% of practicing Catholics do not have any problem with contraception. These Catholics are either completely unaware of the teachings of the Catholic Church (which is probably not the case), or they are in direct defiance of the Catholic Church.
In most developed countries today, the birth rate is 2.1 children (or less) per family, which is not enough children being born to sustain a nation. Of course, the widespread acceptance and use of contraception ushered in abortion on demand, which is the ultimate and final form of birth control.
In October of this year, Pope Paul VI will be canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church. You may want to pray to this new saint that he will intercede on our behalf and on behalf of our country.