07 November 2019, The Tablet

How far did they go? Challenging assumptions about Catholic women and the pill

How far did they go? Challenging assumptions about Catholic women and the pill

How the cartoonist John Ryan saw one of the moral challenges of the 1960s


Amid heated theological debates surrounding Humanae Vitae, little attention has been paid to the experiences of Catholic women trying to balance desire for intimacy with religious faith. A new study challenges assumptions about their attitudes to sex and religion

Published in the heady summer of 1968, Humanae Vitae – Pope Paul VI’s controversial rejection of widespread calls to permit use of the contraceptive pill – continues to shape and divide Catholics to this day. The encyclical created a deep divide within the Catholic ­community and set the Church against the insistent stream of sexual liberation. 

My interest in how Catholics had responded to the Pope’s encyclical was inspired by my grandfather, John Marshall. “Grandjohn”, as his family knew him, was a neurologist who made a major contribution to stroke medicine. He was also a lifelong Catholic who worked voluntarily as the medical adviser and director of the natural family planning service of the Catholic Marriage Advisory Centre (CMAC) – now Marriage Care – for over 40 years. He would mischievously claim to have “invented the rhythm method”. What he did do was to carry out the first medical trials on the basal temperature method of calculating fertility cycles. The rhythm method, which involves abstaining from sex during the so-called “unsafe” periods of fertility, had been approved by Pope Pius XII in 1951. Grandjohn served on the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control between 1962 and 1965 – the body initially established by Pope John XXIII to advise him on all aspects of birth control following the introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1961.

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