How ‘Humanae Vitae’ crushed the hopes of millions of Catholics

Fifty years ago encyclical laid down terms of church’s ban on artifical contraception

Fifty years ago this week, former government minister Mary O'Rourke was a teacher in Athlone while studying for a H Dip in Maynooth as Pope Paul VI published his Humanae Vitae encyclical in Rome.

“I clearly remember the sense of hope not being realised,” says the former Fianna Fáil politician, speaking about the encyclical which laid down in categorical terms the Catholic Church’s ban on artificial means of contraception.

The women she knew “didn’t pay a bit of heed” to it: “And there was the rhythm method, as well as priests and doctors who agreed with prescribing the pill as a regulator. It was an Irish solution to that problem.”

It could have been so different. With the arrival of the pill in 1960 there had pressure for change. In 1963, Pope John XXIII set up a commission to investigate. It split, but a majority report calling for the ban to be dropped was leaked in 1966.


“Everyone thought there would be a flowering, an opening-up of all those hard questions about marriage, divorce, contraception. But it didn’t address any of those,” O’Rourke says.

Having seen the speculation informed by false hope dashed, O’Rourke recalls: “I remember feeling very let down. People our age, women friends, felt so let down. The early reports had been erroneous.”

Humanae Vitae provoked the greatest challenge to papal authority since the Reformation. However, its 50th anniversary this week is destined to pass without whisper where the Catholic Church is concerned.

The encyclical provoked a ferocious reaction among millions of practising Catholics. So intense was the reaction, it led to Pope Paul not publishing another encyclical in the remaining 10 years of his pontificate.

Faded importance

With just a month to go before the visit of Pope Francis to Dublin and Knock, Humanae Vitae is invisible. It features nowhere in the programme for the World Meeting of Families pastoral congress at the RDS in a month's time

Not so in 1968, when the then archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, launched the document at a press conference at Clonliffe College, seminary for Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese.

Despite the influence then of the Catholic Church in Ireland, there had been an expectation even here that teaching on artificial contraception, in particular where the pill was concerned, would be relaxed

No copies of Humanae Vitae were handed out: "He wafted in and out. He was on a home run. He introduced the speakers and he left again," recalled John Horgan, then religious affairs correspondent of The Irish Times.

Having introduced Maynooth's Rev Dr Francis Cremin, who had accompanied McQuaid to Rome as his peritus (expert) throughout the Second Vatican Council, the archbishop left.

What followed was "absolutely, a vanity performance" by Msgr Cremin, a keen supporter of Humanae Vitae, Horgan remembers: "He was like the cat with the cream."

"By the end of it, we were all well and truly winded," he said, but "the basic message was unmistakable and, for its defenders, unchallengeable: Roma locutus est [Rome has spoken]."

Most people, he remembered, put their heads in their hands, while the cognoscenti "went dumb". It was left to Canon JG McGarry to publish critical pieces in the Furrow magazine

Despite the encyclical, Horgan remains positive about Pope Paul VI, who will be canonised by Pope Francis next October. “The son of a newspaperman, he was most engaging.”

‘Terrible dampener’

Dr Catherine McCann was then a Sister of Charity and teaching in the US when it was published. There, the reaction was “absolutely huge”, she recalls. “Sisters in the US were more open than back in Ireland.”

Following the Second Vatican Council and a “climate of freedom in the Catholic Church, there was this crash. It was a terrible dampener. We thought things were opening up. But it was back to the old thing of papal authority.”

She had been in Rome during much of the Second Vatican Council, one of the most exciting periods in the church’s history. “I was so lucky to be there for all that.

"[Humanae Vitae] was a throwback, there was a lot of anger and disappointment. It was a terrible comedown after the council. The church didn't really 'get' the thrust of the council, didn't 'get' where the people were at."

Former abbot of Glenstal Abbey Fr Mark Patrick Hederman believes Humanae Vitae "was decisive in dispelling belief in the infallibility of the pope in questions of morality".

The Second Vatican Council had emphasised collegiate decision-making and independent birth control experts, yet the encyclical opened “with an assertion of the competency of the church’s Magisterium [teaching authority] to decide questions of morality,” he recalls.

In Fr Hederman’s view, the encyclical became “the breaking-point between two worlds” because “it prescribed and proscribed for sexuality within the precincts of marriage itself”.

Recalling the Dublin launch of the document as a public relations disaster, Fr Vincent Twomey, former professor of moral theology at St Patrick's College Maynooth, had been among those seeking reform.

“I, too, was hoping for a change, as indeed, many of the professors seemed to be. Though their arguments were not always convincing, in the end compassion for the hard cases won out. The news came as a blow.”

Vividly remembering his first reading of the text sitting in the Divine Word congregation’s house in Booterstown, Co Dublin, Fr Twomey said: “Two things struck me, almost with the force of an inner light: this is the truth and the pope is the successor of St Peter, the Vicar of Christ.

Death knell

“How many read the document at the time, I do not know. I only know that, at the time, or indeed since, I met few who did. The ‘no change’ at the press conference deadened sensibilities. It was like a death knell that marked the end of an era, which it did.”

It marked a new battle in the church between liberals and conservatives: “The core issue, in fact, was not birth control but the nature of morality itself – more precisely, whether or not morality could change.”

Fr Twomey’s predecessor as professor of moral theology at Maynooth, Fr Enda McDonagh, felt differently. He believed the church’s ban could not be applied within marriage, “especially as we were accepting that families could be planned, should be spaced”.

More broadly he felt the eagerly-awaited Humanae Vitae was a turning point "not just in terms of that particular sexual teaching but maybe more broadly in regard to the exercise of authority generally".

Economist Finola Kennedy had married two years before. Then, the priest had told her and her late husband Kieran that contraception was “going to be sorted”, that change was coming.

In the end, nothing changed. But it made few impacts on Kennedy: "We were both Catholic. It worked brilliantly. I just have fabulous children. I have no regrets. Je ne regrette rien. It worked brilliantly for me."

For Mary O’Rourke and her husband, Enda, the biggest question in their eight-year-old marriage then surrounded fertility issues, but she felt the “great sense of disappointment and, yes, anger too among ordinary Catholics”.

Most Catholics ignored it, she says. Those who wanted the pill had ways of getting it." Hibernia magazine carried an advertisement for condoms: "It gave an address and if you sent £1 they'd be sent to you."

She gave a copy of the magazine to one harassed woman with the advertisement circled. The woman “was 29. She had six children and she came to me after her husband had beaten her” when she refused him sex.

"She stayed with me for the night and the next day I gave her Hibernia and ringed the advertisement. She passed it around to everyone [locally]." Her action had consequences.

O'Rourke was then teaching at St Joseph's College, Summerhill, in Athlone. One day "there was a knock on the schoolroom door. It was a local priest."

He said to her: “I hear you’ve been distributing birth avoidance information.

She responded: “Well, what would you do?”

He said: “Marriage is for procreation.”

She said: “Don’t be silly. How is she [woman who had come to her] going to continue her married life?”

The priest said: “You stick to teaching and I’ll stick to the church’s moral laws.”

He left. “The funny thing is he was a lovely, open man but the church got so rigid,” she said, looking back.


Humanae Vitae sustained church teaching banning the use of artificial means of contraception including the pill, the first oral contraceptive. A majority 64 members of a commission set up to look at the issue (made up of married couples, laywomen, theologians and bishops) recommended to Pope Paul VI that church teaching be changed to allow the use of artificial means of contraception including the pill. A minority of four recommended no change in their report to the pope. The majority report was leaked in 1966 creating an expectation of change. It did not happen.