In the mid-1960’s, Catholic women in Ireland would walk into confessional, sit down in the booth, and cry.

“Quiet sobbing,” as a priest in his 70’s put it.

The women didn’t want any more children, but were scared if they didn’t have sex their (often drunk) husbands would treat them like shit. Essentially, the women were trapped.

Even if the wives weren’t constantly walking into doors, these women often saw their marriages turn stone-silent by their third child. And the priests would tell these women (in so many words): they made their beds, and they would have to lie in them.

“It was inhumane,” says Father Tony Flannery.

But there was a great sense of impending change. After all, this was the 1960’s, and if I’ve gathered anything from financial services television commercials , it’s that the 60’s were a special time of new ideas, challenging authority and hanging out with bearded friends in your VW Bus.

And the Catholic Church was changing. There was the Second Vatican Council. Initiated by Pope John XXIII (the Michael Jordan of Popes), the Second Vatican Council is often described as the re-introduction of the Church to the modern world.

The 1960’s also saw the widespread introduction of the pill. Meanwhile, the Anglican church endorsed birth control almost thirty years earlier. So, Pope John assembled a council on contraception. But then Pope John died, and everyone sadded.

His successor, Pope Paul VI, is known as a guy who tried to steer the Church into the modern world by taking a middle of the road course. In some ways, he was truly progressive. For example, Pope Paul expanded the contraception council from six to almost 60 members, and he included married couples and women in the council, along with theologians and bishops. One of those new members included Bernard Haring (the ‘a’ in his surname should have two dots over it, German style.)

Courtesy Google Images

Haring (the guy pictured on the left) was a hugely influential and respected theologian known for his work on the Second Vatican Council. You know in the movie Ghost, when Patrick Swayze helps Demi Moore shape the clay? During the Second Vatican, Haring was like Swayze, shaping that Second Vatican.

In the birth control council, Haring signaled his support of contraception. He did this with a deft and compelling theological argument. Haring said that sex serves two holy purposes: Making babies AND deepening the love between husband and wife (sorry singles and gays, it’s still only the 1960’s, y’all shouldn’t be humping). After all, Haring argued, if matrimonial love is a gift from God, a husband and wife should express that love, free of duress or worry or even a threat to the wife’s health.

When Haring made this argument, many Catholic clergy expected the Church to endorse birth control. The argument was strong, and it represented a new modern course for the Church during a time of great societal and scientific change.

For some priests, it seemed like such a sure thing that some of them began telling those quiet sobbing women in confessional to be patient, that a change was coming. “We never said sex, or birth control, or any of that,” that 70-year-old priest says. “But in the way you can imply…” he would tell the women to just bear with the marriage.

Fr Tony Flannery says the Haring’s endorsement of contraception gave him hope that the Church could change to a more “modern” institution. Flannery tells the story of a religious professor he knew. This professor was so sure the Church would endorse contraception, he began instructing his students how to minister about sex in a respectful and holy way. Flannery says to hear a Catholic professor talk about sex at that time was unheard of.

But while Haring’s position was blowing up like a radioactive Chia Pet among the clergy, another member of the council was quietly writing an argument against contraception. He was a young Polish bishop named Karol Wojtyla. He was a charismatic man, who also played an important role in the Second Vatican Council. In writing against contraception, Wojtyla argued that sex between husband and wife is an expression of God’s love and divine plan, but it doesn’t necessarily deepen that love.

Wojtyla went on, arguing (and this is paraphrasing) that if husband and wife are going to bump and grind, their two bodies are essentially becoming one through sex. It’s only then that they have the capacity to make a baby. And, the reason they have the capacity to make a baby, Wojtyla argued, is because God wants to make visible what is invisible, ie: babies are God’s love in physical form.

When framed that way, proponents of contraception might as well argue to the Church they’re trying to block God’s love from manifesting.

Wojtyla’s argument to preserve the Church’s contraceptive status-quo seemed, at the time, to be a minority perspective, a throwback to religious conservatism that didn’t fit with the direction Catholicism seemed headed in. It also was a direct contradiction and challenge to the Communist regime that ruled Poland in the 1960’s. The Communists allowed birth control and abortions. Ironically, as the contraception council wrapped up, the Polish government detained Wojtyla, and he couldn’t present his argument to Pope Paul in person.

So here’s where we are at this point: It’s the 1960’s. Western society is getting weird. Women want to have some say over their bodies, improve their marriages, and still be good Catholics. Many young clergy members are vocally pushing for change. The Pope seems like a fairly progressive guy. The leader of the pro-contraception movement in the Church is total Swayze. Women have input in the Church’s deliberations on contraception. And the guy arguing against a change is a Polish Bishop who can’t leave the country.

Via the center for Morality in Public Life.

Via the center for Morality in Public Life.

(<—That’s a picture of Wojtyla shaving.)

Anyways, Paul VI looked at the arguments, and he looked at the Church, and he went with the Polish Bishop. Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (Latin for Of Human Life) argues (and again, I’m paraphrasing) that when husband and wife make love, it’s a union between the two and God. And that God decides, in this union, when to pass on the gift of life. To put an artificial barrier between God’s plans is wrong.

Also, Paul basically wrote contraception will turn society slutty (again, my paraphrase.)

While the conclusion on contraception is the same, Pope Paul’s arguments are not as forceful, or even as appealing as the ideas Wojtyla puts forth. The Polish Bishop speaks of conception as the symbol of God’s love, while Pope Paul speaks of a divine plan. Wojtyla’s God is full of love, and wants to share that with husband and wife with the promise of a baby. Pope Paul’s God has a plan for the husband and wife’s life and is with them supervising the whole thing when Barry White is playing in the background.

Flannery and that 70-year-old priest I spoke with describe the decision as a surprise to their colleagues. Remember that Catholic professor who was teaching his students about how to talk all things sex? When the Vatican announced they no te gusta-ed sexy fun time, that professor freaked out, worried he would be expelled from the order, and took a three-month long break. When he came back, Flannery says, the professor never strayed from an orthodox perspective again. Meanwhile, the 70-year-old says the first time he noticed a dip in Irish attendance was during the 1970’s, and he believes it’s because many women lost faith that the Church could help answer the real challenges of their lives.

“When the women lost faith, there was a decline for a bit,” he says, chuckling. “It’s not often you see the husband’s dragging the family in [to church].”

Rev. Bernard Haring status as the Swayze of the Catholic Church would fade, but he did remain influential with liberal clergy. He famously dissented from Humanae Vitae, and the Vatican investigated and harassed him for years. Haring would get cancer of the throat, and speak through a voice box towards the end of his life.

“The joke was God had finally answered the Pope’s prayers and shut him up,” the 70-year-old priest says.

Haring moved to the states and taught at Brown and Yale. He died in 1998.

Humanae Vitae was published in 1968, and Pope Paul VI would defend his decision throughout his papacy.

Based on the descriptions I’ve heard, I think of Pope Paul as this guy who wants to be modern. Like he wants to take the Church to the space age. He even dresses up as an astronaut, and talks a long time about taking Catholicism to the moon, but when it comes time to get on the ship, he hops on a donkey and whips the shit out of it. It seems he wanted to the Church to be popular in the modern world without conforming to modern mores.

Anyways, Pope Paul died in 1978, ten years after Humanae Vitae was released. There was some hope his successor, Pope John Paul I would revisit contraception. Some Catholic scholars still argue about it, but it’s all academic, as John Paul I died shortly after his election.

In the ten-year period between Humanae Vitae and the death of John Paul I, there was a significant worry the Irish Church that Catholicism was on the decline. Whether coincidentally or not, there was a decline in churchgoing during the 1970’s, according to Fr Flannery and the unnamed priest. The decline coincided with a hardening of conservative attitudes in Ireland.

Not only did the Church forbid contraception, but so did the Irish government. During the 1970’s, there were talks between the Church and the Government to ensure Ireland did not liberalize contraception laws, as other countries had done, including the United States.

For people who did talk about sex and contraception in public, they were shamed as loose and immoral.

But there was a slight renewal in the Irish Church during the 1980’s. Ironically,Karol Wojtyla, the man who developed the central argument against contraception, sparked the renewal. He came to Ireland in 1979, Wojtyla channeled the love of God that he had so famously wrote about ten years earlier, and exclaimed to cheers, “Young people of Ireland, I love you!”

Of course, at that point, Wojtyla was no longer just a Polish bishop. And the Irish didn’t know he was the man who successfully persuaded the Vatican to reject the call for modernity, and forbid contraception. When he arrived in Ireland, and came off the plane, and kissed the ground to cheers, Wojtyla was Pope John Paul II, perhaps the most popular Pontifex ever.

Fr. Tony Flannery was a young priest when John Paul came to Ireland. Flannery stood near the Pope during that speech, and he describes the crowd as adoring. Flannery says the crowd was drawn to the Pope’s charisma and gentle nature, and that he was optimistic as well: the liberal priest knew little about John Paul, and hoped his enthusiasm and optimism was the sign of a more progressive direction for the Church.

But as Flannery listened to the Pope’s speech, he grew concerned about the traditionalist tone John Paul took. And remember, this is Pope, and all the popes that came before were really stuffy, and had an air of mystery and decorum and all that. So, when the Pope exclaimed, and it was an exclamation, that he loved the young people of Ireland, it was a huge symbolic break with the past.

But when Flannery heard it, he says his “blood turned cold.”

“The people were cheering because they thought it was a change,” Flannery says. “It was a change in presentation, and nothing more.”

(NOTE: This post is based on conversations I’ve had recently with members of the Irish clergy and a former aide to an Irish politician. Those conversations came as I was working other stories about the Catholic Church in Ireland. For the several people living inside the Vatican who keep checking this blog with crazy regularity, give me a holler sometime. Yes, I can see you clicking on the site. Also, I take no position on the Church’s position on contraception. Also, I had a vasectomy.)

2 thoughts on “When the Catholic Church Almost Endorsed Contraception, and the Man Who Stopped It

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