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 It uses the unpublished papers of papal commission member John Marshall (the author’s grandfather) to document the covert debates and discussions that led to Humanae Vitae.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.

in The Pope and the pill
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The conclusion of this book moves through the various layers of intervention that it has advanced, situating these arguments in the context of present-day discussions about sex, Catholicism and history. The material in the book suggests there was indeed a rupture in the relationship between sex and Christianity in the post-war decades, but rather than being simply about an emancipation from the confines of ‘traditional’ religious subjugation, a deeper, conceptual separation between the religious and the sexual opened up in decades after the war. This chapter considers how the changes described in the book relate to contemporary issues about sex and Catholicism within the Church and beyond. It reflects on the emergence of the child abuse scandals, and how this has been placed in a trajectory with the prohibitions of Humanae Vitae. It ultimately outlines the significance of the book for historians of sex, religion and social change.

in The Pope and the pill

Early life is treated as both a life-cycle stage which Catholic women lived through as well as a subject which has been debated, defined and understood by different individuals and institutions. The chapter begins with a discussion of the sexual education that was available to Catholic women in the post-war decades. The second section looks at the way ideas of gender shaped Catholic women’s experience of courtship and sexuality. It explores the way they made sense of their early sexual desires – how expectations of ‘pious femininity’ affected their thoughts and actions. The final section moves on to consider the how psychoanalytical interpretations of childhood and religion affected the interviewees’ approach to parenting. It deconstructs the infantilism hypothesis which has gained currency in the post-war decades – the idea that religious belief is merely a product of childhood indoctrination.

in The Pope and the pill
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This chapter introduces the central arguments that the book presents in relation to sex, religion and memory. It opens with an extract from an interview: an emotional account of a Catholic women explaining how ‘the sexual revolution let the cork out of the bottle’ on her beliefs about sex and contraception. This quotation is used as a springboard from which to introduce the overarching themes and issues of the study – the link between sexual and religious change in personal and collective life stories, the role of the interview in providing a space for these stories to be told and the implications these changing stories held for the way individuals made sense of their existence. The chapter traces the development of debates about sex, gender and body within the Catholic community during the twentieth century. It shows how the sex lives of Catholic women, as well as the histories of both sex and religion more broadly, have generally been interpreted through the lens of ‘power’. The interviewees’ testimonies encourage historians to look beyond traditional, top down narratives of shifting power relations. The chapter argues that sex and religion became re-categorised along material lines in the post-war decades. The final subsection of the chapter outlines how and why the book is structured as it is, with chapters reversing the chronology of the Catholic women’s lives.

in The Pope and the pill
Sex, Catholicism and women in post-war England

On 25 July 1968, Pope Paul VI shook the world. His encyclical letter Humanae Vitae rejected widespread calls to permit use of the contraceptive pill and deemed artificial contraception ‘intrinsically evil’. The Catholic Church is now commonly identified as the antagonist in a story of sixties sexual revolution – a stubborn stone resisting the stream of sex-positive modernity. There has been little consideration of how Catholic women themselves experienced this period of cultural upheaval. This book is about the sexual and religious lives of Catholic women in post-war England. It uses original oral history material to uncover the way Catholic women negotiated spiritual and sexual demands at a moment when the two increasingly seemed at odds with one another. The book also examines the public pronouncements and secretive internal documents of the central Catholic Church, offering a ground-breaking new explanation of the Pope’s decision to prohibit the pill. The materials gathered here provide a fresh perspective on the idea that ‘sex killed God’, reframing dominant approaches to the histories of sex, religion and modernity. The memories of Catholic women help us understand why religious belief does not structure the lives of most English men and women today in the way it did at the close of the Second World War, why sex holds a place of such significance in our modern culture, and crucially, how these two developments related to one another. The book will be essential reading for not only scholars of sexuality, religion, gender and oral history, but anyone interested in post-war social change.

Early marriage is defined as the years between marital engagement and the end of childrearing. The interviewees’ memories of early marriage were defined by a tension between the physical desires of sexuality and the transcendent codes of religious beliefs. The most pointed example of this was in attempting to grapple with Natural Family Planning (NFP) – the only form of birth regulation endorsed by the Church. The second section of this chapter uses the interviewees’ testimony alongside contemporaneous letters sent from newly married Catholics to doctors and Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (CMAC) counsellors to reconstruct Catholic women’s everyday experience of using NFP. It offers an insight into the range of creative tactics that Catholic women used when trying to abstain from intercourse, including masturbation, oral and anal sex, prayer and positioning large teddy bears as bedtime barriers. The chapter also addresses the understanding of female sexuality that was constructed by the CMAC.

in The Pope and the pill

This chapter explores the sexual experiences of Catholic women during ‘later marriage’ – broadly defined as the years of sexual activity that came after the daily demands of childrearing had diminished. The parameters of this life-cycle stage varied from person to person, but generally ran from the interviewees’ mid-thirties to sixties for those married in the immediate post-war years, beginning a little later for those married after the 1960s. It explores how and why ‘liberal’ Catholic women rejected the Pope’s prohibition of the pill, uncovering how these decisions were underpinned by a re-categorisation of the religious and the sexual. The memories of Catholic women indicate that that it was often not until the busyness of early marriage had diminished that they had the time and space to consider these decisions. The chapter also examines ‘orthodox’ Catholic women’s critique of the concept of ‘female emancipation’. The chapter moves on to explore Catholic women’s changing views of the Church’s moral authority in matters of sex.

in The Pope and the pill

This chapter discusses the sources, methods and approach that are used in the book. It begins by outlining the significance of the ‘personal’ for the study. I speak about my own religious, sexual and familial background and the effect this has had on the project. I argue that an open, reflexive approach places the reader in a privileged position from which to evaluate the testimony of the interviewees. A new Catholic-feminist methodology is advanced which emphasises the need to take Catholic women seriously as authors of their own life stories. The chapter then moves on to offer important information about the way the oral history material was gathered. In this section of the chapter, how the interviewees were recruited, the interview process and the question of ‘representivity’ are addressed. It argues that rather than seeing the subjective nature of spoken testimony as a limitation, it is this very attribute which can help reframe understandings of ‘the personal’ within Catholicism.

in The Pope and the pill
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Condemnation of Wyclif’s teaching
in John Wyclif

Wyclif’s political theory was defined by a basic concept, a theory of lordship (dominio) that began in God’s perfect governance of the created world and ended in his creatures’ just lordship over each other. This relationship between the divine and the human is introduced in On Divine Lordship, Wyclif’s first extended treatment of this topic, and he provides an extended analysis of lordship in the created world in its massive sequel, On Civil Lordship. He suggests there that civil lordship (such as that enjoyed by a monarch) presupposes natural lordship, which could exist only in a lord who was in receipt of God’s grace. The gift of grace, of course, was something of which its recipient could hardly be aware, but the likelihood of grace being bestowed upon a corrupt or unrighteous individual seemed less than negligible, which meant for Wyclif that neither popes nor ecclesiastics could wield authority with any certitude. Wyclif believed that the sinful nature of papal endowments effectively rendered the papacy ineligible to receive God’s grace, an idea that became prominent in his later writings.

in John Wyclif