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.
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.
subjectivities as well as their interactions with society and the church. Third, this project raises the standard of knowledge about Catholicism by telling the story of socialchange in a different way, through lived history. It complements the event-based histories of the Second Vatican Council and the scores of theological or sociological studies of the Council and its aftermath, by utilising social and cultural history methodologies to evaluate the changes in religious life as part of the social movements of the 1960s, but like other social movements with a noteworthy
economic, and socialchange, and even within a culture of intensified
patriarchy, women persisted in occupying a central position in religious life throughout the period.
This book investigates the roles that lay women played in Irish
Catholic life from 1850 to 1950. Nuns, for the most part, have not
been incorporated into this study because their religious, material, and
physical conditions differed from those of most lay women. Additionally, while several historians have investigated Irish women religious, lay women’s roles remain almost entirely overlooked.5 This
rarely seen as a factor in histories of socialchange, owing in part
to what Jeffrey Cox describes as the master narrative of secularisation.20
Industrialisation, science and technology can provide logical and rational
explanations used to explain economic, political and cultural change.
However, religion, judged as irrational and not part of modernity, has been
20 Jeffrey Cox, ‘Audience and Exclusion at the Margins of Imperial History’,
Women’s History Review, 3 (1994), 501–14 (pp. 501–2).
marginalised as a reason for socialchange in the modern
their eyes a holy vocation.
57 Susan Morgan, A Passion for Purity: Ellice Hopkins and the Politics of Gender
in the Late-Victorian Church (Bristol: University of Bristol, 1999), p. 89. Sue
Morgan posits that churchwomen’s agenda for socialchange was their
expression of religious feminism and should not be denigrated for its adherence
to orthodox values.
Figure 1 Society of the Holy Child Jesus novices gathering greenery in Mayfield.
Reproduced by permission of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus.
Figure 2 Sisters of Mercy, Liverpool novitiate.
and continuities in women’s
religious lives, gender norms, and modern Irish print culture. From
1850 to 1950, notable political, economic, and socialchanges occurred.
In the mid-nineteenth century, famine transformed rural areas; in
Dublin, meanwhile, urbanisation created a more populous working
class. Across Ireland, marriage rates declined and emigration persisted.
By the early twentieth century, after rebellion and war, a new Irish
nation came into existence and the Catholic Church assumed a central
role in Irish society and culture; by the 1930s, Ireland was a
and authority within convent spaces. 2 Religious communities reorganised themselves. The convent, considered by many Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a conservative site of religious piety, became a place of radical engagement, socialchange and dissonance when shifts from hierarchical to participatory governance challenged embedded feminine hierarchies and matriarchal structures. The context for the shifting parameters of religious life is the tumultuous landscape of the long 1960s and the emancipatory impulses of the events of ‘1968’. 3 Admittedly, this is
activity and, significant to this chapter, interpersonal relations. 85 Looking specifically at religious belief, Hugh McLeod sees affluent youth as key to encounters across sectarian divides and as among the most religiously active groups in the population. 86 Callum Brown associates the 1960s generation (and particularly the decline of ‘pious women’) with the ‘death of Christian Britain’. 87 But others like Arthur Marwick have suggested that historical actors participating in socialchange had a more intergenerational complexion. 88 Anna von der Goltz’s critique of
influence of religious and socialchange in the destructuring and restructuring of Catholic female religious life.
Women’s Catholic religious institutes participated in Arthur Marwick’s ‘tapestry of interweaving movements challenging existing authorities and conventions’. 8 As part of their own social movement, female religious used their collective power in united (though not unanimous) action to implement systemic changes as a means of addressing grievances regarding convent life. 9 We can see this happening in the development of new governance structures that