The Birth Control Commission
In 1963—during a time when many developed countries were undergoing significant cultural shifts around gender and sexuality— a papal commission began working on a new statement on marriage as part of the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII to update the teachings of the Catholic church. Some of the conservative members of the pope’s staff were afraid that the more liberal members of the commission would use the occasion to reopen discussion about the hierarchy’s prohibition on “artificial” methods of contraception, such as condoms and diaphragms, which the hierarchy had banned in the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii. Although the hierarchy taught that only the “rhythm” method of timing intercourse for a woman’s infertile period was acceptable to limit births, the contraceptive pill had recently been developed. There was talk of the hierarchy sanctioning its use for Catholic couples because it used naturally occurring hormones to mimic the infertile period of pregnancy.
Pope Paul had completely ignored the work and recommendations of his own commission, despite five meetings over three years and a vote by 30 of the 35 commission’s lay members, 15 of the 19 theologians and 9 of 12 bishops that the teaching be changed.
A new generation of theologians, led by Dr. Hans Küng of Switzerland, was arguing that there was no good theological basis for the ban. So conservatives decided to take the issue of contraception off the table for the Second Vatican Council and convinced the pope to establish a separate commission to discuss contraception. This commission consisted of six people; four of them laymen. After Pope John XXIII died, the commission was continued by his successor, Pope Paul, who expanded it to 13 members and later 58, including five married women as part of its contingent of 34 lay members.
In retrospect, it is not entirely clear why Pope Paul continued the commission. Historian Garry Wills notes that the commission—whose existence was kept entirely secret—gave the pope “options for maneuver” on the issue of family planning, principally by removing it from discussion by the Second Vatican Council. The findings of the commission were to be handed over to the pope, who, Wills notes “could use or suppress them at his discretion.” In addition, because the lay members selected to participate on the commission were conservative Catholics in good standing and because the Vatican believed deeply that the prohibition on contraception was correct—even if some of the reasoning used to support it in the past was faulty—the idea of a “runaway” commission probably never crossed the pope’s mind.[i]
The commission, however, took its job seriously. It studied the history of Catholic teachings on contraception and found that many of the scientific and theological underpinnings of the prohibition on contraception were faulty or outdated. Lay members presented the findings of surveys they had conducted of devout Catholic couples about their experiences with the rhythm method. Some of the women present testified about their own use of the method. What the commission heard challenged their thinking about the role of fertility and contraception within marriage. Contrary to the assertion of the hierarchy that natural family planning brought couples closer together, they heard that it often drove them apart. They heard of couples who became obsessed with sex because of the restrictions on spontaneous demonstrations of affection. And they heard women speak of childbearing as one of many roles they played as wives, mothers and partners and of the importance of the non-procreative sexual bond to marriage.
The commission voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the church rescind its ban on artificial contraception. The members declared that contraception was not “intrinsically evil” nor the popes’ previous teachings on it infallible. But to conservatives in the Vatican, it was impossible that the teaching on birth control could change because this would acknowledge that the hierarchy had been wrong on an issue it had elevated over the years to a central tenet of its teachings. For the last meeting of the commission in the spring of 1965, the Vatican demoted the commission members to “experts” and brought in 15 bishops to make the final report. What followed was a series of contentious meetings, as the increasingly impassioned pro-contraception forces squared off against a minority of members determined to hold the line for the Vatican. When Father Marcelino Zalba, a church expert on “family limitation,” asked the commission in undisguised horror what would happen “with the millions we have sent to hell” if the teaching on contraception “was not valid,” commission member Patty Crowley shot back: “Father Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?[ii]
In the end, even the bishops were swayed by the logic of the case for contraception. They voted nine to three in favor of changing the teaching (an additional three bishops abstained). The official report of the commission said the teaching on birth control was not infallible; that the traditional basis for the prohibition on contraception—the biblical story of Onan and his spilled seed—had been interpreted incorrectly in the past; that the regulation of fertility was necessary for responsible parenthood and could properly be accomplished by intervening with natural processes; and finally, that the morality of marriage was not based on “the direct fecundity of each and every particular act,” but rather on mutual love within the totality of marriage.[iii]
While there was only one official report of the commission, the dissenting members prepared what would later be known as the “minority report.” This report said that the teaching on contraception could not change—not for any specific reason, but because the Catholic hierarchy could not admit it was wrong: “The Church cannot change her answer, because this answer is true…It is true because the Catholic Church, instituted by Christ…could not have so wrongly erred during all those centuries of its history.” It went on to say that if the hierarchy was to admit it was wrong on this issue, its authority would be questioned on all “moral matters.”[iv]
By this time, the existence of the commission and its report recommending that the teaching on birth control be changed had leaked to the public, creating great expectation among Catholics that the Vatican was preparing to rescind the ban on artificial birth control as part of the general modernization of the church that accompanied Vatican II. Lost to most Catholics was the fact that the Vatican had established the commission as a way of containing the problem of the birth control discussion. It was a shock to Catholics—and indeed most of the world—when the encyclical Humanae Vitae was finally released by the pope on July 29, 1968, proclaiming the teaching on contraception unchanged and unchangeable.[v]
Pope Paul had completely ignored the work and recommendations of his own commission, despite five meetings over three years and a vote by 30 of the 35 commission’s lay members, 15 of the 19 theologians and 9 of 12 bishops that the teaching be changed. Instead, he latched onto the so-called minority report and declared that since the finding was not unanimous—and since the positive finding on contraceptives disagreed with previous teaching—the teaching could not be changed, a requirement that had not existed for any of the other issues discussed by the Vatican Council.
Incongruously, the encyclical did not deny the value or necessity of family planning; it just said that couples could not directly prevent conception—in other words, use modern contraceptive methods—a distinction that baffled most people. It declared that the totality of the marital relationship did not outweigh the necessity that every act of sexual intercourse embody the procreative function of marriage, the exact opposite of the finding of the birth control commission.[vi]
[i] Garry Wills, Papal Sin, New York: Doubleday, 2000.
[ii] Robert McClory, Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1995.
[iii] “Reveal Papal Birth Control Texts,” National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 1967.
[v] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, July 25, 1968. http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html