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Fifty years ago, in July 1968, the Vatican issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, “Of Human Life,” which prohibited virtually all forms of artificial contraception for Catholics. This has a claim to rank as one of the most important events in Christian (not just Catholic) history in the second half of the twentieth century, and perhaps the whole century. While the anniversary has received some attention, the fact that it is not better noticed today can actually be seen of just how important it was. I’ll explain that cryptic remark.
By way of background, the encyclical arrived in the aftermath of the second Vatican Council of 1963-65, which opened the door to far-reaching reform in Catholic life, practice and worship. I do stress “opened the door” as the full effects of the various decisions often took several years to implement, in a patchy and sporadic way. Rightly or not, there was a widespread impression that the Vatican would have no option but to change its firm stance against contraception. The Pill debuted in 1960, and in 1963, Pope John XXIII appointed a commission to explore the various issues. In 1966, an expanded Commission wrote a majority report recommending the approval of at least some kinds of contraception for married couples. “Everyone knew” that this liberalized position would become the Church’s official stance through some kind of new statement or encyclical, and all those informed people were stunned at the actual document that emerged.
Sheer - Numbers - Part - Story - Quantity
So why is this important? Sheer numbers are a large part of the story: quantity has a quality all of its own. Whenever we study Christian history in modern times, it always helps to recall that the Roman Catholic church has for many decades been by far the largest component of the Christian community worldwide. Catholics have also been the...
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