The Catholic Church’s understanding of female sexuality
in The Pope and the pill
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This chapter explores the relationship between the Catholic Church and ‘sexual liberation’ via the subject of female sexuality. It looks at the way female sexuality was understood in public and private discussions within the Church during the post-war decades, notably Pope Paul VI’s rejection (Humanae Vitae, 1968) of the Papal Commission for Birth Control’s suggestion to overturn the Church’s prohibition of contraception. It uses the unpublished papers of papal commission member John Marshall (the author’s grandfather) to document the covert debates and discussions that led to Humanae Vitae. It demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, HV was not simply the failing of ‘conservative’ opponents of change, but was also written into the way ‘liberal’ commission members approached female sexuality. At no point in the commission’s discussions were ‘ordinary’ Catholic women asked to speak about their sexual experiences. The chapter argues that a conceptual divide between the religious and the sexual underpinned both Humanae Vitae and the ‘liberal’ case for change.

The Pope and the pill

Sex, Catholicism and women in post-war England