"Birth control is the Pope's Viet Nam."
Thus did an unnamed "American scholar in Rome"--quoted in this TIME magazine cover story-
-characterize the quagmire that Pope Paul VI found himself mired in during 1968, and for many years after.
On July 29, 1968, the Pope issued an encyclical-- or papal letter-- called "Humanae Vitae," or "Of Human Life," in which he reaffirmed the Church's long-standing opposition to artificial contraception, including oral pharmaceutical contraceptives--or "the Pill,"
which had been on the market since 1960. The Pope's predecessor, John XXIII, had set the process in motion by establishing a commission to study birth control and the worldwide overpopulation crisis. But Paul was a much more conservative leader, and he emphatically rejected the recommendation of the commission's majority that the Church approve at least some form of contraception for married couples (who, of course, were the only ones who were supposed to be having sex).
Birth control was widely seen as a way to raise the standard of living in poor, third-world countries, especially in largely Catholic Latin America. WIth the advent of safe and effective oral contraceptives, this goal seemed within reach. "Humanae Vitae" threw up an impermeable barrier to these efforts. (Except, of course, for the fact that many millions of Catholics just ignored the Pope's strictures.)
LIFE magazine's John T. Elson, in an August 1968 editorial called "The Pope's tragic error," wrote: "Pope Paul's new encyclical, condemning all means of birth control except rhythm, can only be described as a tragedy: for the world, possibly for the Roman Catholic Church, certainly for the Pontiff himself."
By November 1968, when this TIME magazine article was published, there was a steadily mounting sense of crisis in the Church, with hundreds of priests, laymen, and theologians a statement affirming "that couples had the right to practice contraception if their consciences dictated," and with thousands of priests leaving the priesthood around the world. As TIME declared: "Today there is hardly a dogma of the church that has not been either denied or redefined beyond recognition by some theologians."
"Catholic dissent" had become the order of the day.