The Pope and the Pill: how Catholic women got creative with the Church’s teaching on sex

Young married Catholic couples in the 1960s were subject to strict religious teachings that decreed artificial contraception unacceptable. Shutterstock

The swinging 60s may be remembered as a time of blossoming sexual freedoms, but the decade didn’t swing for everyone. Catholic women were caught in a precarious position – the Church prohibited use of all artificial contraception, including the newly available pill. They were left to find creative ways of negotiating spiritual and sexual demands at a moment when the two seemed incompatible.

Amid the heated debates that surrounded Humanae VitaePope Paul VI’s controversial rejection of widespread calls to allow use of the pill in 1968, little attention was paid to the experiences of those most affected: “ordinary” Catholic women.

Pope Paul VI. Shutterstock

The research that underpins my book The Pope and the Pill looks to uncover Catholic couples’ everyday experiences of sex and religion during the 1960s. Based on intimate personal testimony and unpublished Vatican papers, the findings are moving, surprising and deeply significant for the Catholic Church.

Humanae Vitae took the world by surprise. It ignored the recommendation of a secretive Papal Commission for birth control, set up by the previous Pope John XXIII in 1962 to advise him on all aspects of birth regulation following the introduction of the pill in 1961.

My grandfather, Professor John Marshall, a neurologist and self-proclaimed Catholic “sexpert”, was one of the commission members who signed off on this report where the majority agreed and recommended a change in the Church’s teaching.

For the lay experts on the commission, there appeared no moral difference between using the pill and natural family planning (NFP) the only form of birth regulation that was and still is endorsed by the Vatican. This method involved calculating cycles of fertility and abstaining from sex during this “unsafe period” – easier said than done, of course.

Frustration, teddy bears and growling dogs

Catholic women’s overriding memories of marriage were of grappling, often unsuccessfully, with NFP. They described great frustrations and pains when trying to uphold the periods of abstinence, and then a resulting pressure or lack of spontaneity in the “safe period”. For many, the method scuppered attempts at intimacy – leading to instances of impotence, premature ejaculation and a failure of both parties to climax.

These physiological issues often held psychological consequences for a couple’s relationship. One woman I interviewed told me:

It sort of affected our relationship … [bursts into tears] it’s been a great sorrow really, a sorrow about what might have been, because when you were in bed together, and you want to have sex and you can’t have sex … then you, or certainly we, moved to a stage when it’s easier to cope with if you don’t get close … it’s a self- protection.

In the face of these pressures, Catholic couples pursued creative “tactics” for negotiating spiritual and sexual demands. Prayer and confession were two such means of overcoming the challenges of NFP. But few interviewees felt comfortable praying, let alone confessing, about matters of sex.

One interviewee explained that if she did intend to discuss sexual issues in confession, she chose her confessor carefully: “The word around was … you went to Father Andrew. Franciscan, he was easy when it was a ‘How far can you go?’ sort of thing!”

The most commonly used tactic was seeking alternative forms of sexual release. “Heavy petting” was spoken of by a number of the interviewees – this appeared to mean different things to different people. Mutual masturbation and oral sex were common – although technically still an illicit “spilling of the seed”, they were seen as lesser crimes.

A handful of interviewees even tried anal sex in the unsafe period, or “sodomy” as it was termed by one interviewee. Ironically, the Church’s dictat on contraception was encouraging the practice of sexual activities that were equally, if not more, sinful in the eyes of the Church.

Catholic couples also pursued rather unexpected tactics for dealing with the strains of the unsafe period. One Catholic woman recalled placing a giant teddy bear – “the type you win at a fair ground” – between her and her husband in bed. She explained that the physical barrier helped, even offered something to cuddle, but it was mainly “just a laugh” – the humour alleviating any bedtime tensions. Another interviewee recalled that one neighbour “trained her dog to growl at her husband when he approached her at ‘unsuitable’ times”.

Authority and control

Unlike the sexual tactics, giant teddy bears and growling dogs had the benefit of not being prohibited by official Church teachings. These creative tactics offered Catholic couples a way of staying together and staying “Catholic” at a time when many were struggling to do either.

Pope Francis. Shutterstock

Many of the interviewees eventually chose to ignore the Pope’s teaching on contraception and take up the pill, but not before a period of agonising soul searching.

Recently leaked Vatican papers suggest that Humanae Vitae had little to do with the morality of the pill itself, and everything to do with the Church’s own claims to authority. A clandestine report, drafted by two commission members and slipped to the Pope in the days after the commission closed, was based purely on the idea that the Church could not admit to having been wrong in the past:

If the Church could err in such a way [change its teaching], the authority of the ordinary magisterium in moral matters would be thrown into question. The faithful could not put their trust in the magisterium’s presentation of moral teaching, especially in sexual matters.

Humanae Vitae invoked the question of authority to trump the question of sexual morality. While the Catholic birth control debate that ripped through the 1960s appears to have been put to bed (there was no mention of it at all when Pope Francis visited Ireland in 2018), perhaps it’s time to approach the subject from a different angle in the 21st century. My book asks whether the voices of ordinary Catholic women might encourage the Church to rethink its restrictions on sex, contraception and the body.