By Abigail Patricio, Lisette Hernandez, Hannah Malench, and Cierra Hunt


On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical letter titled Humanae Vitae. This letter spoke about the regulation of birth control and sparked much debate with its rejection of the use of contraceptives and opened discussion on abortion. The articles Anglican Calls For Reappraisal of New Abortion Legislation and Catholic MDs of Chicago Back Papal Ban give an inside look at the debate that was going on at the time since both articles were written a couple months after the Humanae Vitae was issued. The articles also give a look at the debate from a Chicago viewpoint. One news article speaks of a gathering of Catholic priests at the O’Hare Hotel Inn Conference in Chicago. The other article speaks of an anti-birth control view from a Chicago group called Catholic Physicians Guild of Chicago. In both of these articles we see Catholics’ strong Pro-Life stance on abortion.

Even within the Catholic community, there is debate. These two articles show the Pro-Life stance, but some Catholics however are Pro-Choice according to the situation. These two opposing views show that Catholics in the United States are divided into two cultures, a Pre-Vatican culture and a Post-Vatican culture. A Pre-Vatican culture, also known as Culture One, is very traditional and follows Church doctrine word for word, and “stresses obedience to the church authority” (Pogorelc and Davidson, 4). The Culture One stance during the debate caused by Humanae Vitae was anti- abortion and anti-birth control for these Catholics who were strict following Catholic doctrine.

These types of Catholics are the ones seen in the articles Catholic MDs of Chicago Back Papal Ban and Anglican Calls for Reappraisal of New Abortion Legislation. Regarding abortion, Culture One would rather have you change your situation and keep your morals, instead of changing your morals to fit your situation. In the article, Catholic MDs of Chicago Back Papal Ban, the Catholic Physicians Guild of Chicago would agree with the above statement as they believe “no method of birth control is without its serious problems. The oral contraceptives have been clearly shown to be related to thromboembolism and other serious medical side-effects.” Therefore, saying using birth control is unacceptable under any case. Culture One’s stance is also visible in the article Anglican Calls for Reappraisal of New Abortion. They metaphorically compare the unborn child to Jews during the Holocaust. They stated in the conference that Jews were seen as “necessary and expendable guinea pigs to be experimented upon and destroyed for the future good of mankind.” This is equivalent to “taking a relaxed view about the personal rights of the unborn.” Culture One Catholics have been taught to follow whatever the Catholic hierarchy thinks is right or wrong. Other Catholics were a little more lenient.

A Post-Vatican culture, also known as Culture Two, is more liberal and believed in the doctrine more loosely. For Culture Two Catholics the church is more like a large family than a structured institution. John F. Kennedy is known to be a Culture Two Catholic. When he ran for presidency, he did not want to be judged because he was Catholic. He said “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens to be Catholic. I do not speak from my church on public matters.” Culture Two is raised to look at their conscience, and not adhere by the hierarchy. A term that could be used to describe Culture Two is known as “Cafeteria Catholics”. This was the belief that some Catholics would pick and choose what to believe in, just as picking out what to eat from a cafeteria. John F. Kennedy could be seen as a prime example of a “Cafeteria Catholic”.   He was a strong Catholic that still believed in a woman’s right to choose, and also believed that the government shouldn’t be able to interfere. In opposing views, John C. Ford disliked the idea of the use of contraceptives; his common phrase was “under any circumstance, contraception is not ok.” People who attended the conference at the O’Hare Inn or are a part of the Catholic Physicians Guild of Chicago would agree with Ford’s quote because they too were strictly following the doctrine, and were clearly Culture One Catholics. There are numerous terms to refer to Catholics and their different views on abortion. Another term for Culture One and Culture Two would be Pro-Life and Pro-Choice.

What’s the difference between being Pro-Choice and Pro-Life? Pro-Life is the belief that life is sacred and starts at conception. People who believe in this oppose the legalization of induced abortions. In their opinion human life is sacred, and should not be taken away. Pro-Choice is advocating a woman’s right to control her own body, especially for her right to have an induced abortion. The Catholic hierarchy’s view on abortion is very strongly Pro-Life, while with the Catholic laity after Humanae Vitae, more people believed in a woman’s right to choose. 

In a survey done by the Journal of Scientific Study of Religion that was conducted in both Pre-Vatican 1962 and Post-Vatican 1975 era, there was an undeniable shift in beliefs. In the 1962 survey about Catholic opinion “61% agreed with abortion if there was a risk to the mother’s health, 39 % if there was a risk to the child’s health, and 12% if there was financial burden. Once the debate over abortion began, people’s beliefs began to shift. The shift can be seen in the survey done in 1975, Post-Vatican era, where 88% agreed with abortion if there is a risk to the mother’s health, 77% if there was a risk to the child’s health, and 44% if there was a financial burden.” (McIntosh and Alsten, 4) When comparing the two surveys, it is clear to see that there is a significant difference in stance; the stance between liberals and traditionalists. The Humanae Vitae as noted in Catholic MDs of Chicago Back Papal Ban widened the split between the liberals and traditionalists. As a result of these debates, the government allowed the passing of Roe v. Wade in January 1973. This allowed women to be to entitled to have an abortion until the end of the first trimester, or if the pregnancy was detrimental to the mother’s life. Although Roe v. Wade was passed, there is still a large debate and difference in opinion.

The opposing views on abortion are even seen in politics today. When looking at the last Presidential election, the issue on abortion was a huge debate between the Vice Presidential candidates, and the divide between Culture One and Culture Two was clearly seen. We see Joe Biden, a Democratic Catholic, who believes that “life starts at conception, but he shouldn’t have the right to form other people’s beliefs.” He is an example of a Culture Two Catholic. While, Paul Ryan, a Republican Catholic, also believes life starts at conception, but abortion shouldn’t be an option unless in cases of rape and incest. This is a good example of how the definition of Pro-Life and Pro-Choice has changed over time. Paul Ryan is Pro-Life, but not in the same sense as seen in the 1960s and 1970s. Pro-Life has become more lenient on what they see as acceptable, and the Pro-Choice of today has changed where it’s the woman’s right to have an abortion under any circumstance. A woman can even terminate her pregnancy for a reason as simple as her not being ready to be a mother.

In the end, there is no clear cut stance on the Catholic laity view on abortion and birth control at this time. As with the Catholic hierarchy, their stance is Pro-Life without question or doubt. With laity however we find, there is a divide between Pro-Life and Pro-Choice supporters. The articles we analyzed show the Pro-Life and anti-birth control stance. This debate even after 40 years continues to affect the church today and society, and it expands beyond church issues.

Further Reading:

Anthony J. Pogorelc and James D. Davidson, "American Catholics: One Church, Two Cultures?” Religious Research Association 2, no. 42 (2000): 146-58.

Alex McIntosh and Jon P. Alston, “Acceptance of Abortion among White Catholics and Protestants,” 16. (1977): 295-303.