The Roman Catholic Church and reproductive health

I wrote this in reaction to the growing control of health care by Catholic organizations (41% or more of facilities in Washington State), most recently the merger of Virginia Mason and CHI Franciscan. Access to birth control healthcare is increasingly limited. Inaccessible and illegal are indistinguishable.

Kuttner on TAP reports that Oberlin college has outsourced the campus health service to a Catholic-owned provider. 40% of student visits were about sexual health. Many received birth control or emergency contraception.

I am firmly convinced that the Catholic Church’s position on contraception and abortion is theologically unfounded and morally wrong, by their own accounting, as evidenced below.

I don’t know if they have clear definitions of what constitutes a forbidden abortion, but clearly Republican state legislatures do not, so what risks do pregnant women face? If a woman with an ectopic pregnancy goes to a Catholic-owned ER what will happen? We desperately need a woman’s autonomy law.

More generally, we need a law or regulation that says the only consideration in health care is what is objectively best for the patient from the patient’s point of view. No-one else’s spiritual beliefs should have any influence.

So what follows is the documentation.

Tony Williams

1963 – 1966 The question of contraception was raised at the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXII established an international commission of experts to study the question. Pope Paul VI extended the commission to 72 members from five continents. The commission concluded [with a majority of 68 to 4!] that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves about the methods to be employed.


At the Second Vatican Council in 1965, on the day the Bishops were to debate birth control, a message was delivered saying that Pope Paul VI had reserved the issue to himself and asking that the Bishops move on without dealing with the important question of contraception. The Bishops applauded.

Later that day at a press conference held by representatives of the U.S. Bishops, a religious affairs correspondent (I believe from Time magazine) asked why the Bishops had applauded. The Bishops present simply hung their heads and fumbled an unconvincing response. (I was present at St. Peter’s in Rome assisting Bishop Thomas J. Drury of Corpus Christi, Texas, as peritus,a Roman Catholic theologian giving advice at an ecumenical council.)

The Pope’s letter had made an unwarranted entry into Conciliar deliberations, since an ecumenical council is meant to be the highest teaching authority in the Catholic Church. But a conservative curia did not accept that view. The Pope’s intervention has since proven to be a major mistake that still causes suffering for Catholics and the Church.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI compounded the mistake by going against the view of the majority of his advisers and issuing a letter in which he asserted that every act of intercourse must be open to new life, meaning no birth control by artificial means.

The letter while authoritative was not infallible, as the pope himself pointed out. Many Catholics including theologians and priests dissented from the teaching. Bishops in national conferences intervened, but they too were divided. Some agreed with the pope, while others (about one-third of national conferences) stressed the legitimacy of dissent from the papal position.


HomeInsights & Resources Humanae Vitae

Humanae Vitae

The Birth Control Commission

[I added a few annotations in red]

[I added bold emphasis]

In 1963—during a time when many developed countries were undergoing significant cultural shifts around gender and sexuality— a papal commission began working on a new statement on marriage as part of the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII to update the teachings of the Catholic church. Some of the conservative members of the pope’s staff were afraid that the more liberal members of the commission would use the occasion to reopen discussion about the hierarchy’s prohibition on “artificial” methods of contraception, such as condoms and diaphragms, which the hierarchy had banned in the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii. Although the hierarchy taught that only the “rhythm” method of timing intercourse for a woman’s infertile period was acceptable to limit births, the contraceptive pill had recently been developed. There was talk of the hierarchy sanctioning its use for Catholic couples because it used naturally occurring hormones to mimic the infertile period of pregnancy.

Pope Paul had completely ignored the work and recommendations of his own commission, despite five meetings over three years and a vote by 30 of the 35 commission’s lay members, 15 of the 19 theologians and 9 of 12 bishops that the teaching be changed.

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