By Jennifer Cuevas, Lindsay Karson, and Kelly Ostler


Birth control may feel like an innocuous issue in today’s society, but within the Catholic Church, birth control remains a disputed problem.  The birth control debate led to a discussion of the woman’s right to choose the ultimate method of birth control, abortion.  Because of Catholic doctrine, which aims to protect the sanctity of all human life, the Catholic Church opposes the use of unnatural birth control and strongly opposes the practice of abortion.  Many people, both Catholic and non-Catholic groups, have deliberated over the issues; as a result of this debate, personal decisions and policies regarding birth control were made.

One such group, The National Abortion Rights Action League of Illinois (NARAL), prepared the document, “Catholic Attitudes Toward Abortion,” detailing the Catholic Church’s history of religious dogma regarding abortion.  NARAL was made up of doctors, activists, and religious leaders who advocated for legal abortions for women, believing that the decision should be made by a woman after consultation with her doctor.

The Church’s policy is mentioned in the document: “The Church contends that when a woman is threatened by a pregnancy, the natural death of woman and child is a lesser evil than the death of fetal life through abortion.” In its history, the official Catholic position had allowed abortions to be done within 40 days of conception from 1588 until 1869, except for three years during this time period where abortions were not allowed. Many diverse minority and unofficial opinions have been voiced throughout church history. While the first pages of the document lay out a long history of Catholic theological teaching and statements regarding abortion, the final page uses statistics to show that Catholic women largely ignored the Church’s teaching in America and in other countries where Catholics make up a large part of the population.

Protestant groups, which had been more strident in their opposition to birth control than the Catholic Church prior to the 1900s, no longer voiced vigorous dissent by the time Humanae Vitae was released in 1968. Many groups, besides NARAL in Illinois, opposed the Catholic Church’s pronouncement on birth control and abortion. During the mid-twentieth century, key figures like Margaret Sanger continued to push for federal protection for a woman’s right to use birth control and to seek out an abortion.  The group “Planned Parenthood Federation of America” which established a nationwide network of birth control clinics had a large, generally accepted presence in America with 400 clinics.

The history of this discussion begins with artificial contraception.  Popular opinion of birth control has shifted multiple times from the early 1900s to the present.  Many states imposed legal restrictions on birth control.  In the 1940s, 70 percent of Catholics claimed not to use birth control.  Despite the laws and the Church’s ban, a 1971 survey of 73 devout Catholic women could not find a single person, under the age of 35, who opposed the use of birth control.  It seemed that American Catholic women had made their decision on the morality of the Pill long before the Pope did.  How did the twentieth century Church approach the topics of birth control and abortion?

Beginning in 1962, the Second Vatican Council was initiated.  Due to the controversy concerning the use of birth control, the Church established a separate Birth Control Commission, primarily made up of lay people, to discuss the teaching on the subject.  Church hierarchy was flabbergasted at the commission’s majority decision; the council recommended overturning the current ban on birth control.  Although the Church acknowledged the 58 member panel decision, the Church hierarchy was not swayed by the panel’s opinion.   In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae which forbid the use of unnatural birth control as part of Catholic doctrine.  Humanae Vitae supported abstinence and the rhythm method, when a woman may abstain from sex while she is at her most fertile.

According to the Princeton survey reported in the March 1976 Chicago Tribune document, the Second Vatican Council of 1962 was seemingly one of the greatest religious successes in history. A total of 87 percent of all Catholics approved of the changes in liturgy coming from The Second Vatican Council. Two thirds even approved of diverse changes such as the peace hand shake, nuns wearing normal clothing, and sex education in Catholic schools. Only one-fifth of the Catholic population thought the changes coming from the Second Vatican Council were for the worst. In fact, most Catholics not only approved the changes coming out of the Second Vatican Council; they were eager for more. That is until 1968, when Pope Paul VI released Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical on birth control.

Greeley’s 1976 Tribune article document continues on with its description of the effects of the papal encyclical.  The decline of approval from Catholic laity toward their Church began. According to an eleven year national computer survey of 2,000 Catholics by the University of Chicago, the laity rejected many elements of Church doctrine after the issuance of Humanae Vitae.  In his 1976 Tribune article, journalist Andrew Greeley also cites a flood of resignations from the priesthood, and a decline in weekly church attendance.  In addition, Greeley also stated, “Women during the 1960s and 1970s believed that birth control was not sinful even before the encyclical was issued, and once issued, it did not cause them to reverse their decision.” The document states that nearly a quarter of all Catholics under the age of 30 renounced their faith. In addition to this, only two out of five Catholics thought that the pope was truly infallible. Enrollment in Catholic schools and weekly mass attendance was at an all-time low, and the number of parents who said they would be “very pleased” if their son became a priest was down 16 percent. This Tribune document also states that a majority of Catholic laity rejected the Church’s teachings on divorce, and only 15 percent agreed with the Church’s stand on birth control.  A growing rift between lay Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy concerning the recommitment to the ban on birth control soon became apparent.  As historian Leslie Woodcock Tentler has written, “The birth control crisis and its protean aftermath meant for [the clergy] a diminution of confidence and moral authority.” Humanae Vitae also heralded debates on abortion.

The relationship between the Church’s teaching and laity especially on abortion often seemed tense: a “don’t ask, don’t tell” scenario with some form of punishment for those who openly criticized the Church’s position.  What would you do if your parish priest refused to baptize your child because you supported abortion?  This happened in Massachusetts to new mother Carol Morreale, according to the New York Times article by Edward Fiske.  In this document, Morreale is reported to have publicly supported William Baird, “a birth control and abortion rights crusader”; so her parish pastor refused to baptize her newborn.  The news article reports that she traveled to another state where a Jesuit priest finally agreed to christen her child.

Many disagreements over the birth control and abortion issues existed between and among priests and laity in the 1960s and 1970s.  Although protests and punishments are unheard of fifty years later, the chasm of differing opinions has not been breached.  The Catholic Church’s teaching regards artificial birth control and abortion as illicit and sinful.  The United States and the state of Illinois protect a woman’s right to use birth control and to choose abortion.  Many Catholic women and men support the opinions of their government over their religion; and they act accordingly.

Further Reading:
Charles E. Curran, Contraception: Authority and Dissent (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969).

Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002).

John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003).

Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Catholics and Contraception: An American History (New York: Cornell University Press, 2004).