Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The Battle over Contraception

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 03, 2011 | In Reviews

In addition to the Second Vatican Council, the Vatican was dominated in the 1960’s by concern about contraception, which was sweeping the Western world with the advent of the Pill. Pope Paul VI did not want to deal with such a sensitive and complex topic at the Council itself, so he empowered a Commission to make recommendations. Most of this work was done after the Council closed. In the end, the majority of the Commission reported that the Church’s teaching against contraception was reformable, and recommended that contraception be declared licit.

Meanwhile, a minority of Commission members led by the Jesuit John C. Ford were convinced that the Church’s teaching, already articulated by Pius XI and Pius XII, could not be changed. Pope Paul VI himself had doubts about the position of the majority, and Cardinal Ottaviani, who was then the head of the Holy Office, was determined to put the necessary counter-arguments in the Pope’s hands. For this purpose, he turned to Fr. Ford, who in turn enlisted a lay moral theologian he had been working with, Germain Grisez.

Pope Paul was persuaded by the arguments of Ford and Grisez. The result was Humanae vitae, issued in 1968, which caused an immediate storm of protest among theologians—theologians who had been led by the effective marketing of the so-called Majority Report to believe the Church’s teaching would change.

The explosion of dissent, led by Fr. Charles Curran and centered at Catholic University, put Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of Washington in a difficult position. The Cardinal immediately took steps to properly instruct the people of the Archdiocese and to argue against the dissenters, seeking their retraction. For these purposes, like Cardinal Ottaviani before him, Cardinal O’Boyle turned to Ford and Grisez. Their pastoral booklet was distributed to every family in the Archdiocese, but unlike O'Boyle the majority of the bishops on the Board of Catholic University deemed it prudent to tolerate the reigning theological dissent.

Fr. Ford died in 1989, but Germain Grisez is still with us, known around the world as the author of The Way of the Lord Jesus, a comprehensive four-volume guide to moral theology which the author has made freely available on his web site, But now Grisez has added to his site a brief biography of Fr. Ford centering on the contraception controversy. He has also posted the key documents issued by the Commission, along with those that Ford and Grisez authored in the 1960’s to help Cardinals Ottaviani and O’Boyle, and especially Pope Paul VI, to preserve and advance traditional Catholic teaching.

The documents often appear in the languages in which they were officially submitted—normally Latin or French—though a significant number of them are available in English. Ford's “Memorandum on The Mentality of Those Who Would Approve Contraception” is a case in point. It was presented in response to Cardinal Ottaviani's concern that the Pope might not rule against the majority if he could not understand why so many of these men could have come to the wrong conclusion.

Moreover, the biographical material is a treasure in itself. Here we have an account of the central role played by Ford (with the help of Grisez) in defending Catholic doctrine against what would rapidly become the root moral scourge of our time. Even for those who cannot read all of the documents, this is an insider’s view of one of the most dramatic theological episodes in modern Catholic history.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Aug. 19, 2017 12:16 PM ET USA

    A very fine explanation of some very great truths. Many thanks to Dr. Mirus.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Jul. 28, 2017 4:52 PM ET USA

    And if that were not clear enough (but it is), we have Jesus saying "He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me" (Jn 14:21; also 14:15). What must be proclaimed from the rooftops and pulpits is that OBEDIENCE is the measure, expression and sacrament of our love, not feeling.

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Feb. 06, 2011 8:53 PM ET USA

    PP Paul VI was advised, not once but twice [if memory serves], by the smartest folks around in Roman collars, mostly of his own choosing, that contraception should be "green lighted" by the Catholic Church. In my lifetime [only 63 years] I cannot find a more powerful testimony to my certainty that the Pope [no other] is protected from error when teaching on Faith & Morals. Think about it. Humanae Vitae was modern day Prophesy about our future… the world we now see all around us. Jezu ufam Tobie

  • Posted by: pannw - Feb. 06, 2011 1:58 PM ET USA

    "Right or wrong, focus on the issue serves to alienate members who feel they are never going to be good enough for the Church." Jesus said He didn't come to bring peace, but a sword, that His teaching would set people against one another. He also said the light was not meant to be put under a bushel. The Truth does not alienate people; they alienate themselves from Christ by denying His Truth as taught by His Church, which has the authority (and DUTY) to teach granted by Him.

  • Posted by: pba4155 - Feb. 05, 2011 6:05 PM ET USA

    rfwilliams says this issue alienates. This issue is the root cause of so much of the mess we are in. NFP is practical and life giving. NFP couples have a very low rate of divorce. It is time to spread the word and offer those in the pew an authentic Catholic way of life.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 05, 2011 10:50 AM ET USA

    Interesting that Ottaviani was dealing with the issues of contraception and the novus ordo at the same time. I guess the official score card reads Ottaviani on contraception, good, BUT, Ottaviani on the novus ordo, bad. Any explanation on how it worked out that way? Anyone?

  • Posted by: - Feb. 05, 2011 5:40 AM ET USA

    "Right or wrong, focus on the issue serves to allienate members who feel they are never going to be good enough for the Church." Soo.. I take it you would wish for the Holy Father and everyone else to clam up about the Church's teachings? Aren't we supposed to educate those who don't know? Aren't we to challenge and encourage those who may be committing some measure of sin?

  • Posted by: jacobtoo - Feb. 05, 2011 5:38 AM ET USA

    "...focus on the issue serves to alienate members who feel they are never going to be good enough for the Church." That's a risk the Church has to take or the slaughter of the young will never end because the wages of sin is death.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 05, 2011 1:44 AM ET USA

    Dear rfwilliams2938, While I acknowledge that teaching with gentleness and compassion is of the upmost importance, ignoring this issue because "most" Catholics disagree is not going to help anyone. Contraception has ravaged Western society and culture. It has destroyed the family and destroyed the beauty of the marital act. Contraception is intrinsically evil. With your line of thinking, the Church should stop preaching on sin altogether, so as to not alienate any sinner.

  • Posted by: Obregon - Feb. 05, 2011 1:40 AM ET USA

    Wow! After so many years we finally get to know the "full" truth of what took place so many years ago! We were very close to advocate falsehood by vote as the Anglicans did regarding contraception, and as most non-Catholic churches do today in the name of progress. Christian churches that accomodate themselves to modern relativism empty themselves of the truth. What a pity!

  • Posted by: cvm46470 - Feb. 04, 2011 11:36 PM ET USA

    Re: rfwilliams. You are correct that we are all sinners, but we deserve the chance to move into the light. As one who was advised by a priest friend that contraception was acceptable for some (including me), I will ever be grateful to a second priest who invited me to hear Janet Smith. Hearing the true Church teaching for the first time, I saw the beauty and rationality of it all. I would suggest we need to respect those in the pews to let them hear more (any?) on the subject.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Feb. 04, 2011 10:43 PM ET USA

    The late Father Hardon said chastity is impossible without frequent Confession and frequent Holy Communion. With confessionals practicaly empty many Communions are sacriligious which means they do not grant any grace towards chastity. Only when Confession and Holy Communion with the proper disposition comes back will Catholics recieve the grace to turn away from sins of impurity. Many priests do not preach the necessity of Confession anymore so the contraceptive crisis is no surprise at all.

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Feb. 04, 2011 7:48 PM ET USA

    ... just Stellar. Thank you so much, Dr. Mirus. Now 18% completed of free trial download [Harmony]. In 1968 I had been married one year. It was the first Encyclical I ever read cover to cover. I remember thinking at the time, this is going to be a problem [stumbling block] for a lot of Catholics. My understatement of the decade. Thanks again.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Feb. 04, 2011 3:02 PM ET USA

    This really is a fantastic read; it should get increased coverage now that many of the first-person 'revisionist' histories of that period in our holy religion emerge for the first time: But when I said to Pope Paul, “Are you ready to say that Casti Connubii can be changed?” Paul came alive and spoke with vehemence: “No!” he said. He reacted exactly as though I was calling him a traitor to his Catholic belief. I have never before told that story publicly.

  • Posted by: rfwilliams2938 - Feb. 04, 2011 7:52 AM ET USA

    Despite what theologians have written, the church, i.e. the congregation has overwhelmingly decided to use contraception. Look around the pews. Are there any families with more than 3 children? I am not saying this is right in God's eyes, but we are all sinners on a faith journey, so to speak...we have not arrived. Right or wrong, focus on the issue serves to allienate members who feel they are never going to be good enough for the Church.

  • Posted by: jacobtoo - Feb. 04, 2011 6:26 AM ET USA

    I have a close priest friend who is typical of those ordained in the '50s. He taught for a while at St. Mary's. He didn't think much of Grisez. Now I know why.