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Humanae Vitae

The Legacy of Humanae Vitae

Humanae Vitae marked a turning point. The vibrancy and forward-looking attitude that characterized the church in the wake of Vatican II was ended by the encyclical and the efforts that followed it to stifle an ever-widening circle of dissent within the church. Father Curran, who would battle the Vatican for years about its stance on birth control before being forced from his teaching position at Catholic University, recalled: “Even those who lived through the heady days of the Second Vatican Council have difficulty recapturing the spirit of those times. We are optimistic about the life and future of the church.” At Catholic University, Curran recalled, “students were enthusiastic; lectures were overcrowded; laypeople took a much greater interest in theology and religious education than they had before; priests and religious were eager to find out about the work of the council.”[i] But Humanae Vitae hit like a storm that dashed the hopes of millions of Catholics. “All the hope and enthusiasm, all the sense that things had changed and that the birth control teaching could change, were crushed by the document,” he recalls today.

The very thing that Pope Paul had feared most—that changing the teaching on birth control would erode the hierarchy’s authority on other matters of sexual morality—happened precisely because the teaching was not changed.

Beyond the sense of betrayal felt by many who had invested their energy and hopes in transforming the church, Humanae Vitae also altered the relationship between Catholics and the hierarchy, says Curran. “In a sense, there was one positive outcome from the encyclical in that Catholics realized that they could disagree with the pope on non-infallible issues and still remain a good Catholic. However, the negative outcome was that it created a lot of tension regarding the credibility of the church,” he says.

Statistics on papal authority bear Curran out. In 1963, 70 percent of Catholics believed that the pope derived his teaching authority from Christ through St. Peter; by 1974, only 42 percent believed the same thing.[ii] By 1999, more than 70 percent of Catholics believed that a person could be a good Catholic without obeying the church hierarchy’s teaching on birth control.[iii] Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley noted in 1985: “Certainly never in the history of Catholicism have so many Catholics in such apparent good faith decided that they can reject the official teaching of the church as to what is sexually sinful and what is not, and to do so while continuing the regular practice of Catholicism and even continuing the description of themselves as good, strong, solid Catholics.”[iv]

The effect of the encyclical was particularly strong on women directly affected by the ban on reliable, modern contraceptive methods. “Humanae Vitae was just a further manifestation of the unequal role that women already had in the church” notes Sheila Briggs, theologian and associate professor of religion and gender studies at University of Southern California, Dornsife. “For many Catholic women, this was the first time they realized that the Church did not trust them with their own bodies. As a result, many women decided to follow their own consciences.”

In fact, the tacit disobedience fostered by Humanae Vitae soon spilled over into other areas of the church, with Catholics increasingly making up their own minds on a host of other issues, including abortion, premarital sex and homosexuality. By 2011, only 19 percent of Catholics thought church leaders were the final moral authority on abortion and only 16 percent thought they were the final moral authority on premarital sex and homosexuality. Only 10 percent of Catholics looked to the hierarchy to be the final moral authority on the matter of contraception.[v] The very thing that Pope Paul had feared most—that changing the teaching on birth control would erode the hierarchy’s authority on other matters of sexual morality—happened precisely because the teaching was not changed.

Humanae Vitae also precipitated a sharp decline in Mass attendance.[vi] In 1963, some 75 percent of Catholics in their twenties attended church three times a month or more; by 1972 that number had fallen to 45 percent.[vii] A 1976 survey of Catholic attitudes concluded that Humanae Vitae “seriously impaired the credibility and authority of the papacy, leading to a sharp decline in mass attendance and a sharp increase in apostasy in the years immediately after the encyclical.”[viii] By 2016, only 14 percent of millennial Catholics attended Mass weekly.[ix]

Despite unprecedented dissent and disobedience, the Vatican refused to seek an accommodation that would recognize the reality of widespread contraceptive use, particularly after John Paul II became pope. A refusal to tolerate any public dissent from Humanae Vitae became one of the hallmarks of his papacy. John Paul II raised the teaching on contraception above almost all else in the church, using language that confirmed it was absolutely inflexible and frequently equating it with abortion. In 1983, he issued a statement that said: “Contraception must objectively be judged so illicit that it can never for any reason be justified,” in response to several national bishops’ conferences that had suggested that contraceptive use was not a grave offense in situations such as when a pregnancy threatened a woman’s health.[x] In 1988, he told Catholic theologians that they could not question the ban on contraception and to do so would be like questioning “the very idea of God’s holiness.”[xi] In 1989, he sidestepped the fact that the teaching had never been declared infallible by proclaiming that Humanae Vitae had been “written by the creative hand of God in the nature of the human person.”[xii]

Efforts to repair the damage done by Humanae Vitae were short-circuited by Vatican campaigns to stifle public dissent on the issue of contraception. In 1980 at a synod in Rome, Archbishop John R. Quinn, the head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, called on the Vatican to reopen the birth control discussion in light of the fact that more than 75 percent of Catholic women in the United States used banned contraceptive methods and that only one-third of US priests believed contraceptives were immoral.[xiii] The US bishops were quickly rebuffed by the Vatican and forced to issue a statement clarifying that they did not “reject or challenge the doctrine of the Catholic church on contraception.”[xiv]

In one of the most high-profile showdowns, in 1986 the Vatican stripped Father Curran of his teaching post at Catholic University and his right to teach Catholic theology because he refused to retract his view that using contraceptives was not inherently wrong. Curran had maintained his right to dissent on issues such as birth control and other areas of sexual morality that had not been declared infallible by the pope.[xv]

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Humanae Vitae has been ineffective in convincing Catholics not to use contraception. Catholics in the developed world have largely followed their own consciences on contraception or remain largely unaware of Humanae Vitae at all. In the United States today, 99 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning, which is the only method approved under Humanae Vitae. Approximately 71 percent of Catholic Americans have never heard of Humanae Vitae and only 14 percent know it affirms the Vatican ban on birth control. Only 17 percent agree with the ban.[xvi] Globally, 78 percent of Catholics support the use of contraceptives, and this support is evident throughout South America and Europe: 90 or more percent of Catholics in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Spain and France support the use of contraception.[xvii]

[i] Charles Curran, “Encyclical Left Church Credibility Stillborn,” National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1993.
[ii] Andrew Greeley, The American Catholic: A Social Portrait, New York: Basic Books, 1977.
[iii] William D’Antonio, “The American Catholic Laity in 1999,” National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999.
[iv] Andrew Greeley, American Catholics Since the Council: An Unauthorized Report, Merrimack: Thomas More Press, 1985.
[v] “Right and Wrong: Who Has Final Say,” National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 2011.
[vi] Peter Steinfels, “Papal Birth-Control Letter Retains Its Grip,” New York Times, August 1, 1993.
[vii] “Catholic Churchgoing Off; Birth Control Stand Cited,” New York Times, October 15, 1975.
[viii] Kenneth A. Briggs, “Papal Birth Stand Found to Hurt Church,” New York Times, March 24, 1976.
[ix] “Sacraments Today Updated,” Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, August 16, 2016,
[x] “Pope Takes Firm Stand on Contraception Issue,” National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 1983.
[xi] “Pope Warns Theologians Not to Question Ban on Contraception,” Wanderer, November 24, 1988.
[xii] Bernard Häring, “Does God Condemn Contraception?” Commonweal, February 10, 1989.
[xiii] “U.S. Bishops Urging Rome to Re-examine Birth Control Issue,” New York Times, September 30, 1980.
[xiv] “U.S. Bishops Back Rome on Birth Control Issue,” Washington Post, October 2, 1980.
[xv] Joseph Berger, “Priest Is Told to Retract His Views on Sex Issues,” New York Times, March 12, 1986.
[xvi] “2018 Survey of Catholics in the United States,” Belden and Russonello, March 2018, conducted February 13-18, 2018.
[xvii] Bendixen & Amandi for Univision, “The Voice of the People,” February 2014, conducted December 2013-January 2014.