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Jenell Williams Paris


Community and Conscience

Catholics and contraception.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, a long-awaited encyclical that followed the Second Vatican Council. The Council, which met in four sessions between 1962 and 1965, made remarkable changes in the church, mostly toward openness. Vernacular languages and increased lay participation were approved for masses, the Vatican acknowledged fellow believers in other Christian traditions, and the Council itself allowed some laypersons to observe its proceedings. In 1966, an advisory commission even recommended that the pope allow Catholics to use contraception.

Both the secular and religious climates seemed favorable for change, but Humanae Vitae disappointed most American Catholics by rigidifying the church's stance against birth control. After a discussion of natural law and the meaning of marriage, the pope wrote,

God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.1

In Catholics and Contraception: An American History, Leslie Woodcock Tentler treats American Catholic culture across the 20th century. From Humanae Vitae, Tentler reaches back to the early 20th century and forward to the 1970s, describing ways in which Catholic lay people and clergy understood the meaning and practice of birth control. Tentler uses the generation that came to adulthood in the late 1960s as a focal point, arguing, "It was precisely in the context of birth control, an issue that intimately affected nearly all adult Catholics, that a remarkable generation—better educated and perhaps more devout than any before it—came to a sense of moral autonomy." In addition to providing well-researched detail ...

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