The Catholic 1968: Humanae Vitae and the Global Shift from East-West to North-South

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 2:30 PM
New York Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Piotr H. Kosicki, University of Maryland at College Park
Even in the wake of the global turn, historians have continued to narrativize 1968 as the annus mirabilis of students and social protest on the one hand and Vietnam and the beginnings of détente on the other. Yet there is one crucial vector of the global history of 1968 that has gone virtually unexplored: the promulgation by Pope Paul VI of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which articulated a clear and uncompromising rejection of Catholic use of contraceptive methods. The significance of this event is clear in the debates that it generated along transnational vectors traveling East-West (across the Iron Curtain) as well as between East and West alike and the Global South.

This paper will highlight one case of each. In July 1968, Catholics from around the world – Poland and the Philippines, Brazil and France – gathered at an international congress of the Swiss-based Catholic network PAX ROMANA to discuss the newly promulgated Humanae Vitae. In a row that almost destroyed the organization, activists from the Global South and from behind the Iron Curtain joined forces to protest the other countries’ insistence that PAX ROMANA publicly condemn the document. Just two weeks later, French Catholic students belonging to a movement called La Vie Nouvelle traveled to the Polish People’s Republic, proud of their May ’68 protests (and ignorant of the Poles’ own protests in March), declaring their adamant opposition to Humanae Vitae. The Poles’ incredulity in the face of both stances convinced the French to undertake a fundamental reevaluation of how a Catholic Left should look. Together, these cases show the wide-ranging global consequences of the encyclical’s promulgation, embedded in the transformation of the Global South and the Cold War alike.

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