There are so many aspects of the question that one hardly knows where to begin. For one thing, the debate about birth control then was couched differently than it is today. In 1964 the bishops were faced with a problem arising from the ground up, the concerns of Catholic couples who were in good faith seeking pastoral advice about how to maintain conjugal unity while living within their means and adequately providing for their families. Catholics, it should be remembered, were already morally permitted to regulate the size of their families; several popes of the early twentieth century had approved of periodic abstinence during the fertility time of a woman’s cycle; popularly known as “the rhythm method” years ago, the official phraseology used by the Church today is Natural Family Planning, described here at the USCCB site.
The Church permitted periodic abstinence on the grounds that it was “natural.” The nature and integrity of the sex act was defined such that every act between husband and wife was neither interrupted (as in coitus interruptus) nor impeded by mechanical device such as a condom. (One of my early 60’s seminary professors put it artistically: “A husband and wife engaged in intercourse where the husband uses a condom are guilty of mutual masturbation.” I met him years later and quoted this back, much to his embarrassment.) The Church did not condemn the intention of limiting children, but rather unnatural means in the effort to do so. However, the new progesterone or birth control pills were now available in the United States and elsewhere, and the pill immediately fell under the prohibition cited above. Married Catholics of the best intentions strained to see this rather metaphysical distinction between natural and artificial, if the intent itself was permissible. I cannot precisely state a date—for obvious reasons—when many priests began advising married persons in confession or parlor to use their own consciences on the use of the pill, but this indeed was the case in parishes across the country.
Those who defended the present prohibition of artificial birth control replied that for the Church to change its teaching of centuries on the nature and morality of sexuality would mean that the Church had failed or erred; like falling dominoes, the reasoning went, the Church’s other teachings would topple, and the very nature of Christ’s Church would be compromised. This is not an argument without merit in some respect in terms of Church order, but as Rynne pointed out, the philosophy of marriage and sexuality was worthy of re-examination given that the prohibition of artificial birth control was hardly traceable to apostolic times and owed more to the positions of major Roman seminaries and universities. Cardinal Leger of Montreal put it best when he hoped that a renewal of marriage teaching “would enhance the holiness of marriage by a deeper insight into the plan of God” and to find out what contribution recent biological, psychological, and sociological discoveries could make to a solution of marital problems. Sexuality in marriage is intended for procreation, to be sure, but might there be other purposes for sexual intimacy in the ever evolving nature of a couple’s relationship? And from the position of sacramental theology, is not sexual joy a sacramental foretaste of the eternal joy of the heavenly kingdom?
It was clear in 1964 that Pope Paul saw a gathering storm ahead. He had already indicated that the final decision on the birth control question would come from him, and he withdrew the idea of a vote from the Council agenda. The Curial floor managers permitted only two days of discussion to the issue of marriage and family, but this did not stop the Council from producing a brilliantly worded formula in the final proof of schema 13, Gaudium et Spes regarding the ends or purposes of marriage: as procreative and unitive. This formula marked a sea change in future theological discussion, as until Vatican II the “procreative” aspect was seen as the prime purposes of marriage and, logically speaking, sex. My graduate professors used the GS formulation in my classroom and research work on the marital sacrament.
This late October debate of 1964 is as close as the Council would come to addressing the contraception question head on. In July 1968 Pope Paul issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae which reaffirmed the standing position against any form of artificial birth control. (Full text.) I had to smile as I noted how Wikipedia defended itself against bloggers that it had discussed the encyclical uncritically and without sufficient recognition of the opposition. In 1968 and beyond, there was plenty of opposition. Among the contentions was the feeling that the papal decision had not been undertaken in the spirit of collegiality just expressed in Vatican II and had not considered the will of the Council Fathers by limiting debate to two days. In the final analysis it would seem that Pope Paul rested his decision on the tradition of the Church and the school of moral thought which supported such an interpretation. An excellent source on the Church and the contraceptive question is John Noonan’s Contraception (1967, 1986 revised).
Over the past half century the contraception question has passed from a marital/moral issue to that of test case of orthodoxy, a factor which has made open theological writing and discussion rather difficult. The pontificate of John Paul II established obedience to Humanae Vitae as a bellwether of loyalty to all Church teaching, particularly among priests. Pope Francis to my knowledge has not addressed the question to date. Constant polling over the years indicates that about 75% of Catholic women practice artificial contraception in the United States and presumably elsewhere in the West. Where this leaves Humanae Vitae (and Gaudium et Spes, for that matter) is very hard to say. I just know that when I go to Mass tonight there will be a lot of two and three children families in line ahead of me for Holy Communion.