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.

Britain, 1945–90

Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age examines the changes in religious life for women religious in Britain from 1945 to 1990 identifying how community and individual lives were altered. This work is grounded in three core premises: women religious were influenced by and participated in the wider social movements of the long 1960s; women’s religious institutes were transnational entities and part of a larger global happening; and the struggles of renewal were linked to competing and contradictory ideas of collective, institutional identities. The work pivots on the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), but considers pre and post Vatican II social, cultural and religious events and social movements of the 1960s as influencers in these changes. It interrogates ‘lived experience’ by examining the day-to-day lives of women religious. Though rooted in the experiences of women religious in Britain, the book probes the relationships and interconnectivities between women religious within and across national divides as they move from institutions embedded in uniformity to the acceptance of cultural plurality. It also engages with the histories of the social movements of the long 1960s. For too long, religion has been relegated to its own silo, unlinked to the ‘radical sixties’ and depicted as ultimately obstructionist to its social movements. To contest this, female religious life is examined as a microcosm of change in the Catholic Church pointing to the ‘new thinking and freer lifestyles’ that allowed for the questioning of institutional cultures.

Abstract only

In concluding this book, I would like to invoke an admittedly lengthy musing from David Lodge, included in the afterword to the 1981 edition of his book The British Museum is Falling Down (first published in 1965). The size of the quotation is justified by its profoundly poetic capacity to crystallise both the theological quagmire faced by many post-war Catholics, and

in The Pope and the pill

two – the personal, lived experiences of young Catholic women and the broader, intellectual understandings of the life-cycle stage. Early life, whether described in terms of childhood, adolescence or youth, has been endowed with an inflated significance by academics assessing personal religiosity in the post-war. In academic texts and the wider imagination, childhood has been placed at the centre

in The Pope and the pill
Abstract only

many non-Catholics living in post-war England. The absolute authority of the Catholic Church was shaken in this period as Catholics began questioning its official teachings about sex, gender and the body. If the Pope was wrong about birth control, what else could he be wrong about? In a broader sense, growing affluence in wider society saw an increase in personal freedoms, but this licentiousness was

in The Pope and the pill
Abstract only

with hallowed traditions that had stood the test of time for hundreds of years, was difficult, confusing and painful. Catholic Nuns and Sisters in a Secular Age tells the story of the excitement of the renewal of religious life. It also tells the story of the despair of that same renewal. The post-war world is this book’s starting point, as the Second World War provided an important watershed, launching a new world order where the social and cultural landscape shifted dramatically for Britons. 13 The war years were disruptive for Catholic nuns and sisters

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age

to eighteen). Women interviewed for the book entered religious life from age fifteen to fifty-eight, though with a median age of twenty-one. 23 The aspirant to religious life was often linked with the ‘modern world’, a post-war world, as noted in the previous chapter, that often fell short of Catholic ideals which centred on faith, family and the parish community. Catholic Modern Girls in print Nineteenth- and twentieth-century published histories of religious institutes or founder biographies were usually promotional, often triumphalist texts heralding the

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age

Later marriage was a life-cycle stage peculiar to both Catholic women and a particular historical moment. A distinctly ‘modern’ life cycle emerged in the decades after the Second World War – demographic statistics suggest that by the 1970s, British women were ending their period of childrearing at a considerably earlier stage than ever before. In the mid-nineteenth century

in The Pope and the pill

signified a broader dispute that had emerged within Catholicism during the post-war years – what, or more pointedly who, constituted the ‘Church’? This question continues to represent a point of dispute amongst members of the Catholic community, but is only beginning to be engaged with by historians of religious change. As such, this chapter will adopt a broader, historically accurate, definition of the term

in The Pope and the pill

insular worldview was evident in the report sent by the bishops of England and Wales for the preparatory stage of the Second Vatican Council, which, according to Kesper Aspden, was concerned with internal Church matters and ignored the ‘role of the Church in the surrounding world’. 7 At the same time studies of Catholic lived histories suggest that there were more interactions between Catholics and the modern world than this high clerical discourse suggests. Alana Harris contends that Catholic identity formation and decision-making in the pre-war period was less

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age