Catholic women’s 1968 responses to Humanae Vitae

La Croix International (web site) Home, Friday, July 20, 2018 941 mots

Catholic women’s 1968 responses to Humanae Vitae The demand for conjugal intimacy and the rejection of an inquisitorial approach to sexuality on the part of the priest are clearly visible Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner France

Sociologist Magali Della Sudda, a research fellow at the Emile Durkheim Center in Bordeaux, has studied 100 letters sent to the Women’s General Catholic Action (ACGF) movement following the publication of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. The women – and a few men – describe their struggle with their daily experience and the teaching of the magisterium. The letters were sent to the movement’s journal between October 1968 and February 1969 in the wake of the publication of Humanae Vitae. Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner for La Croix interviews Magali Della Sudda.

La Croix: What do these letters say?

Magali Della Sudda: The October 1968 edition of L’Echo de notre temps (The Echo of Our Time), the bimonthly publication of the ACGF, commented on the encyclical Humanae Vitae and invited readers to respond.

Out of the 2,958 responses received by the movement following its appeal, only 98 letters are still preserved in its archives. Most — 76 — were written by women, four by couples, 17 by men and one by ‘a group of Christian households.’

The letters, which record very concrete and sometimes extremely intimate experiences – albeit with reserve – reveal the extent to which the authors were torn between their attachment to the church and doubts over their ability to implement its teaching.

They express their regret at not receiving the support they were looking for from the church.

What are their arguments?

Most argue from their own situation as mothers of families, although some also base themselves on their experience as doctors or nurses, expressing either frank disagreement or doubt.

They cite health problems, including “nervous depression” linked to “numerous births,” caesarian births, irregular cycles and financial concerns, particularly in working class families.

Many women also referred to “conjugal duty,” “charity” regarding their spouses. They cannot see how to “say no” to their partner without pushing him into adultery.

One husband, who had five children, of whom the last one was an Ogino baby [The Ogino method is a calendar-based method of avoiding conception, named after Kyasaku Ogino] wrote of the need for a couple to experience a fulfilling sexuality.

‘We think that the current successor of Peter is not very well informed from a practical point of view,’ he wrote. ‘He writes abstractly and from a legalistic perspective.’

However, several older women completely defended the document. So too did the only priest who contributed, a movement chaplain, who was furious that the magazine dared to present the encyclical as a subject for debate and ask readers to express their views!

Finally, one woman expressed her rupture with the church over the issue of sexuality and access to contraception.

What do the letters indicate about the state of mind and marital life of Catholic women during the 1960s?

This is a completely unprecedented voice of women dating from a period when letters from readers, e.g. of the magazine Marie-Claire or Ménie Grégoire’s TV program on RTL, became a vital means of expression, emancipation or at least affirmation of oneself and one’s femininity, both inside and outside the church.

It is interesting in two respects, first because the ACGF was the most important women’s movement of the time, and secondly because this period is now little known.

The women of those years were always suspect in the eyes of those who came later of having been too conservative and not feminist enough.

However, these archives demonstrate that change was already under way. The letters written by the men are also interesting on the issue of equality between the spouses.

There is a radical change here from the “Letters to Fr Viollet” written during the 1920s and 1930s. [Martine Sevegrand, L’Amour en toutes lettres : Questions à l’abbé Viollet sur la sexualité, 1924-1943, Albin Michel, 1996]

At that time, women – and sometimes their spouses – wrote to ask for advice. Thirty years later, the tone had changed.

The demand for conjugal intimacy and the rejection of an inquisitorial approach to sexuality on the part of the priest are clearly visible.

Several letters also mention the desire to take a decision ‘in conscience’ and highlight the contradiction with the emphasis placed on this point by Vatican II.

The call to responsibility by the faithful lay at the center of aggiornamento of those years.

Some Catholics expected that this would also apply to the field of sexuality. Thus, Humanae Vitae seemed to them to treat people like children.

‘For the last two or three years, they have invited us to become adults, to take decisions ourselves without constantly asking what is permissible and what is prohibited,’ wrote one married woman with six children.

‘Now that Paul VI has spoken, we need to make love on command and not when we desire,’ she wrote.

Another couple made reference to a decision ‘taken in full conscience which appears to us to be the only one possible.’

The ACGF did not take a stand itself.

However, the very fact that it opened its columns to debate and allowed dissent to appear scandalized some readers.

Moreover, the publication of certain extracts, which are quite representative of the whole, illustrates that the leaders and chaplains of the movement wished to give a voice to women.

None of the women claimed sexual freedom outside of marriage. They simply wished to articulate the injunctions of the magisterium with their desire for a fulfilling sex life, which was not necessarily procreative. This article was published in La Croix International (web site)