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Pope Pius XI in 1930 and Pope Paul VI in 1968 had opportunities to extract the Catholic Church from the debate on birth control options for women. Both Popes had religious councils that suggested women using contraception should be allowed under some circumstances. Both Popes rejected those opinions and strictly forbade women having medical options in preventing pregnancy. 

Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini, ordained 1920

Pope Paul VI as a new Catholic priest

By Brescia Photo – Instituto Paolo VI, Public Domain, Link

1930 – The Church Takes A Stand

In 1930, the Anglican Communion (the alliance of Churches associated with the Church of England) held their seventh conference known as the Lambeth Conference. This Conference, held once each decade, brought together representatives of the Anglican Churches around the world to discuss religious issues.

At the 7th Lambeth Conference the representatives, by a 193 to 67 (47 abstentions,) passed Resolution 15 that would allow certain methods of contraception provided it was, “…done in the light of the same Christian principles.”

The Catholic Church was not affected by this Resolution; however, Pope Pius XI felt he had to respond to the Conference’s Resolution with his own proclamation on New Year’s Eve the same year. For the first time in Church history, the Pope insisted that the only justifiable reason for sexual relations was for procreation. He said that anytime, “…the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature..” 

Pope Pius XI reaction to the Lambeth Conference was obviously his belief of the moral superiority of the Catholic Church, but 38 years later Pope Paul VI was not attempting to respond to actions of other churches. Instead, he was squelching his own committee that had been called to review the teachings of the Church.

Birth Control Guided Away From Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) was convened in October 1962 and ended in December 1966. It was established to assess the role of the Church in modern life. The decisions of the Council resulted in many changes to the Church doctrine, but women’s use of contraceptives was not one of the issues discussed. 

Some in the Church wanted to bring the issue of contraception methods into the discussions during Vatican II, but instead, Pope John XXIII established a commission in 1963, that reported directly to him. The task of the commission was to study questions of birth control and population. Pope John XXIII died later that year and Pope Paul VI continued the commission to its completion in 1966.

The commission, by a 64 to 5 vote determined that the use of medical contraceptives was an extension of the method of monitoring a woman’s fertility cycle and was not inherently evil. Information about the report was leaked to the media prior to publication and Catholics around the world began to believe the Church was about to liberalize the teachings regarding the use of birth control.

A Handful of Men Kill Women’s Choice

Despite the findings of the study, a minority report by four priests vehemently opposed the decision. They stated that if the Church’s position was reversed, it would mean the declarations of Pope Pius XI and other church leaders of the past would be seen as false teachings.

Pope Paul VI chose to follow the minority report and rejected the commission’s findings. He reaffirmed the Church’s position that women should not be able to prevent a pregnancy with contraceptives.

Why Did Pope Paul VI Reject the Findings?

The four most likely factors contributing to Pope Paul VI’s rejection are as follows:

  1. The Catholic Church has been consistent in discouraging the idea that worshipers have a personal relationship with God. The Church has preferred that personal choices should be made using the Church to guide them.
  2. A historical perspective in the Church that women are subservient to men and not worthy of positions of religious leadership; therefore, a woman’s choice to want to avoid pregnancy is irrelevant.
  3. Pregnancy is an act of God, not of humans.
  4. Pope Paul VI was not a woman, never married, and rumored to be gay.

It is unlikely that any Pope will ever reconsider the issue of birth control. Note that when Pope Paul VI made his declaration in 1968, the population of the world was 3.5 billion people. The world population is now 7.6 billion.