Did you know a devout Catholic invented The Pill?

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 profile of John Rock, inventor of The Pill, begins:

John Rock was christened in 1890 at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and married by Cardinal William O’Connell, of Boston. He had five children and nineteen grandchildren. A crucifix hung above his desk, and nearly every day of his adult life he attended the 7 a.m. Mass at St. Mary’s in Brookline. Rock, his friends would say, was in love with his church. He was also one of the inventors of the birth-control pill, and it was his conviction that his faith and his vocation were perfectly compatible. To anyone who disagreed he would simply repeat the words spoken to him as a child by his home-town priest: “John, always stick to your conscience. Never let anyone else keep it for you. And I mean anyone else.”

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This is a fascinating and in my opinion, under-reported aspect of the Hobby Lobby case that is about to come before the Supreme Court. The Pill was developed by a devout Catholic who was absolutely convinced the Catholic Church would endorse this as a natural method of preventing pregnancy, not unlike the rhythm method! Note: The rhythm method has since been replaced by ‘natural family planning‘. Indeed, Gladwell notes the following:

Not long before the Pill’s approval, Rock travelled to Washington to testify before the F.D.A. about the drug’s safety. The agency examiner, Pasquale DeFelice, was a Catholic obstetrician from Georgetown University, and at one point, the story goes, DeFelice suggested the unthinkable–that the Catholic Church would never approve of the birth-control pill. “I can still see Rock standing there, his face composed, his eyes riveted on DeFelice,” a colleague recalled years later, “and then, in a voice that would congeal your soul, he said, ‘Young man, don’t you sell my church short.’ ”

Of course, in the end it was John Rock who was mistaken. He had good reason to believe that he was on firm ground, however. In Human Vitae at 45: A Personal Story, Frank Maurovich of the National Catholic Reporter relates the story:

During Vatican Council II, Pope John XXIII set up a commission to study the issue of birth control which was the source of much inner conflict for many Catholics. After John XXIII’s death, the new Pope Paul VI broadened the membership of the commission to include married couples and physicians. The very fact that a special commission was set up by the Pope to study the birth control issue caused many Catholics to expect a change in the Church’s teaching which, until then, had condemned all forms of artificial birth control as morally wrong, except for medical reasons (Humanae Vitae, Article 15).

By June, 1966, the commission completed its work and presented the Pope with a majority report and a minority report. The majority report recommended that the Church changes its position on birth control and permit couples to use artificial forms of contraception under certain circumstances. The minority report recommended that the Pope hold fast to the traditional teaching. [Note: an unofficial tally showed 52 to 4 in favor of reform with two abstentions.] As the news leaked out that the majority report recommended a change in teaching, Catholics and, in some cases, their pastoral leaders started to expect and prepare for a change. Within this climate of anticipated change, many Catholics started to use some forms of contraception (mainly, the “pill”).

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In July, 1968 (two years after receiving the two reports of the commission), Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. While the Pope carefully examined the majority view, he decided that the truth resided in the minority view. Almost immediately, there was an uproar amongst Catholics, including well-recognized theologians and priests, who expected the Pope to adopt the majority view. Many theologians and priests publicly dissented from the teaching of the Pope. Needless to say, the public dissent of theologians and priests from Humanae Vitae didn’t encourage Catholics who were already using birth control to reconsider their position in the light of Humanae Vitae.

I find this amazing and I’m surprised more people haven’t highlighted this as an interesting (if inconsequential) aspect of this lawsuit. I’ll have more to say about this case in the near future, but John Rock and the impact of his faith on his work is really interesting to me.

Equally as interesting and under-reported in this debate is how the Catholic Church came to have this position in the first place. Current advocates seem to imply this position is now and has been forever unchanged. I wonder how much different the world would be now if the Catholic Church had followed through on this change in the view of birth control in the 60’s.

  • How might Africa have dealt differently with the AIDS crisis?
  • How might we now view women’s reproductive health differently?
  • How would the role of men in relationships be perceived differently?

The Catholic Church plays a tremendous role in determining societal norms and behaviors, affecting far more than its own members. It’s unfortunate that it had an opportunity to help people navigate the reproductive decisions made possible by new technology and instead chose to abstain.

TL;DR: The Pill was developed by a devout Catholic who believed the Church would endorse it. Instead, the Church rejected the majority opinion of its commission and that decision has caused a lot of people a lot of grief.