Remembering Another Time the Media Predicted the Church Would Change: 1968

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Over the last few months, especially with upcoming Synod on the Family this Fall, lots of rumors are swirling about what the Church will or will not say.  Chief among those is a speculation in some circles that the Church must, should, and is bound to adopt a new policy legitimizing communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitation as a legitimate good, and the hot-button issue of the day, a positive evaluation of homosexual unions of some sort.  Not so long ago, in the 1960s, a similar set of rumors was ruling the press of the day that the Catholic Church would join other Christian groups in recognizing a legitimate use of contraception for married couples.  I think it’s well worth pointing out some of the high points of that era to help navigate through the headlines of today.

In 1963, while Pope St. John XXIII was still alive, he initiated a special commission to study the issue of contraception. The group was called the Commission on Problems of the Family, Population, and Natality  Members of the commission included clergy, people from the medical and psychiatric fields, as well as married couples.  Their work continued even after John XXIII died, and when they had finished their study and completed their final report, it was submitted to Pope Paul VI, in 1966.  This is where the story of Humanae Vitae gets really juicy.

In what is now a classic story, the report of the commission actually recommended that the Church could adopt a policy which allowed for married couples to use contraception.  They argued from a principle of totality, stating that the use of contraception in a marriage in some instances, while leaving the sexual act open to conception in the long term, and with the plan of having children during their marriage, would be morally acceptable.  There are, of course, more points to their report, but this was the critical argument.  As fate would have it, their report, or at least a part of it, was released to the press before Paul VI had issued a response.

George Weigel notes in his biography of John Paul II that while Paul VI was preparing to write Humanae Vitae, he was known to be carrying around a copy of a moral theology book written by a Polish prelate named Wojtyla. The title?  Love and Responsibility, which was a reflection by Wojtyla on sexual morality written after years of regularly meeting with young adults and married couples.  In fact, Wojtyla was supposed to be a part of the final meeting of the commission, bu this government refused to give him permission to leave the country.  Instead, he and some other Polish priests gathered and had their own commission, and wrote their own report, which affirmed the Church’s long-standing teaching on contraception.  Later, Pope St. John Paul II would give a long series of reflections on Humanae Vitae, confirming the teaching and expounding upon it at length.

In the two years between the commission’s final report and the release of the encyclical by Pope Paul VI, rumors started flying, and as the months went on, the assumption by many people was that the Church would open the door to contraception, at least by married couples.  All of this sets the background for the controversy that followed when Paul VI released his final answer to the question.

As I’ve shown in previous posts, the teaching Paul VI gave was nothing new.  It had been the teaching of the Church, was based on Scripture, had been taught in Canon Law, and no single Catholic theologian in the history of the Church had ever expressed an opinion to the contrary.  What set off the real firestorm was the leaking of the commission’s report as well as the speculation that, along with all of the other changes resulting from Vatican II, the contraception question would be just another piece of the puzzle.

A group of theologians from the Catholic University of America kick-started the dissent in America, but statements of questionable orthodoxy were sent out all around the world.  Interestingly, even according to the presentation of some of the lead dissenters (Charles Curran’s group), no group of Bishops explicitly rejected the teaching, much to the chagrin of many who had been hoping for a change.

In the end, as history now is bearing out, Paul VI’s teaching stands as the correct one. From a certain perspective it seems almost miraculous.  He had a commission study the issue, they argue for a change, and everyone in the world was heading down the same path to accepting the morality of contraception.  He had to know the controversy he would face.  And indeed, not too many people follow the teaching today.  But, his predictions about the fallout are starting to really loom large in the discussion of the issue today.  In any case, now, those of you who have read all these posts, you know the rest of the story.



Luke Arredondo

Luke Arredondo

Luke is a married father of three. He works as the Director of Religious Education at Divine Mercy Parish in Kenner, LA and has a Master of Arts in Theology from Notre Dame Seminary. He blogs at Quiet, Dignity, and Grace

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6 thoughts on “Remembering Another Time the Media Predicted the Church Would Change: 1968”

  1. Avatar


    I agree that the official teaching did not change but my fear is that when a Pope opens up a clearly defined doctrinal issue for discussion it matters little what the official declaration from the Pope says, the message sent is that the Church is uncertain and adherence to the doctrine diminishes or disappears.

    Pope Francis, by not tamping down open dissenters of doctrine and in some cases, Cardinal Kasper,

  2. Avatar
    Fr. John Higgins

    Let’s remember that this is a Synod, not an Ecumenical Council of the Church. Even an Ecumenical Council cannot change Church doctrine. While the Pope may issue an opinion on something, without an Ecumenical Council it remains an important, but not binding statement, whether it is regarding faith and morals or a practical matter of Church discipline. So, let’s say that the Pope says that he has no problem with divorced and remarried people receiving Holy Communion, or if he says that Nancy Pelosi should be honored for her work in preserving life. It still would be his tiny opinion.

    1. Avatar

      Father Higgins,

      I thought a Pope could issue ex cathedra statements without needing to consult others. That, at least in part, was the point in having one person who ultimately makes the call. If he needs a council to approve his doctrinal or dogmatic statements would that not just make him a Bishop with a nicer diocese?

      If you have any documents to point me too which clarify this for me it would be apppreciated.

      Thank you Father

  3. Avatar

    It has changed… The Enlightenment revolution had finally reached The Church in Vatican II…
    Modernistic storm has engulfed The Church…

  4. Avatar

    Sadly, these debates are destroying the faith of millions of Catholics. God and his teachings are not democratic but these ‘debates’ tell Catholics that it is a democracy. Basically, as a democratic Church, you make up your own mind to what is right and wrong. But, I ask, if you can’t go against what Jesus Christ, the second person of the Godhead, why is there any question, why the debate? If you were trying to destroy the faith of Catholics, you couldn’t pick a better way of doing it. Our modernist bishops have made the church a virtual democracy as they open these long held teachings up to debate. Most Catholics don’t follow or agree with the teachings of their own Church, not because they are a bunch of rebels, but because they are never taught from the pulpit the truths of the faith and how important they are to our souls and our acceptability to God.

    It appears to me that the Papacy of Francis will lead to the next great defection from the Church and like the posts Vatican II period, it won’t be pretty.

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