“1968 youth need 1968 priests”, read one of the banners outside Westminster Cathedral, carried by marchers from a south London parish as part of a coordinated series of ‘pray-ins’ and protest meetings at cathedrals across the country. Progressive Catholic activism in the summer of 1968 took a variety of forms, including large-scale public gatherings, monster petitions, parish boycotts, grassroots collectives and widespread, sensationalized media coverage.

The stimulus to this dissension, in Britain as across Europe and North America, was Pope Paul VI’s infamous encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, which was published on 29 July 1968 and condemned the use of ‘artificial contraception’. At the heart of this ‘spiritual ‘68’, which is remarkably unstudied and now little remembered, were contestations over moral authority, institutional authoritarianism, and a socially-progressive and theologically-innovative worldview. Reformist rather than revolutionary, Catholic progressives engaged with and mobilized a radically different constituency to those usually associated with 1968 activism. If restless firebrands of the secular Left tended to be cosmopolitan intellectuals and avant-garde youth, the Catholic ‘counterculture’ was thoroughly conventional, respectable and mostly middle class. Nevertheless, they often mobilized (and customized) the activist tactics of the decade and were committed, through their own interpretative lens, to idealist aspirations for a transformed social order.

The Humanae Vitae ‘Crisis in the Church’, as the prominent British Catholic weekly The Tablet dubbed it, was first and foremost a catastrophe for the laity who had eagerly anticipated an official liberalization of the Church’s position on birth control, with due encouragement from the so-called ‘Majority Report’ of Vatican-appointed medico-moral experts which was leaked to the press in 1966. Yet it also disturbed reformist theologians and pastorally-minded clergy. One of these was Father Paul Weir, a charismatic 31-year-old South London curate whose suspension from ministry prompted a youth group from his suburban parish in Cheam to march across London with their ‘1968 priests’ banner. Dubbed ‘the rebel priest’ in extensive coverage in The Times and The Daily Mail, Father Weir’s high profile opposition to the encyclical in the pulpit and the press was symptomatic of a cause that conjoined priest and people in collective assertions of ‘freedom of conscience’ and prompted cathedral occupations mirroring LSE sit-ins.

The dissension was not, of course, confined to Britain, though some newspapers did go so far as to claim ‘UK reaction most intense’. Galvanized by a vibrant transnational exchange of news, print protest and sometimes personnel, Catholics across Europe forged solidarity with the 600 men and women in Washington who ‘walked out’ of Mass in protest at the reactionary stance of Archbishop O’Boyle. Prompted by his stern sermon condemning deviation from the Vatican position, while also rejecting his strict disciplinary action against dissenting priests, the protestors staged their exit from the Cathedral singing ‘We Shall Overcome’. Their action therefore symbolically conjoined Catholic conscience and freedom of speech to the civil rights movement.

The anguish and bitterness unleashed by the Papal adjudication also found a ready outlet in the comments pages and letters columns of European newspapers throughout August and well into September 1968. At the same time, in urban centers across Europe, there was a spiritual ‘manning of the barricades’ and vociferous articulations of discontent. These included an evening ‘teach-in’ on 13 September, attended by over 1,000 Catholics in Central Methodist Hall, London, which brought together erudite commentary from advocates and critics of the encyclical. More radical defiance was displayed by 2000 laypeople gathered at the annual, three-day Katholikentag (or Pastoral Congress) in Essen. Hastily reworking their study agenda to incorporate extended debate on the encyclical, delegates voted unanimously on a hard-hitting resolution to reject Humanae Vitae wholesale. As photographs from this tumultuous gathering illustrate, linking perceived religious authoritarianism to the near past under the unflinchingly sardonic banner ‘Submit and Procreate’ (Sich Beugen and Zeugen), German Catholics defiantly proclaimed their right to debate and criticize:

We share with Pope Paul VI his concern for a right understanding of the nature of marriage, but in conscience we reject the governess-like attitude of [the Vatican], which tries to regiment faithful and adult Christians into the role of mute receivers of order.

Defenders of Humanae Vitae tended to dismiss the overwhelmingly negative published commentary and complex deconstruction of the encyclical that dominated such forums as the bleating of long-haired intellectuals and youthful clergy seduced by the spirit of the age. Yet, it quickly became clear that those agonized or angered by the ruling that ‘each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life’ included mainstream, church-going, married couples. For this contingent, their preferred form of opposition was not a public platform or news column, but quietly to make up their own minds about whether to use ‘artificial’ or ‘natural’ means to plan their families (for while the Pill was banned, the use of the ‘safe period’ was permitted by the encyclical, in a distinction many theologians found implausible). Many laity drifted from the Church as a result – a quiet revolution resulting in emptier weekly pews over the next decade. But for those who stayed, and who agitated for reform, a vision of a modernized, post-Vatican II Church was at stake. Could one dissent in conscience from the teaching of the magisterium and still be a Catholic?

The scale of this democratic revolt, encompassing laity and clergy, was transnational in reach yet local in action and drew on tight-knit parochial, professional and educational networks. Pamphlets dissecting the encyclical circulated, for example, through shared print cultures across the Francophone world, linking sites and modes of discontent in Paris, Geneva and Montreal. Catholic medical professionals in profoundly differing health care settings like Ireland, Britain and Belgium were unified by the international ‘Guild of St Luke’ sodality for Catholic doctors. These medical professionals exchanged advice with marriage guidance volunteers, psychologists and theologians through forums like the International Sexological Colloquia convened from 1959 onwards at the University of Leuven.

The concerted opposition of some Catholic medical professionals favoring birth control liberalization in Francoist Spain or Salazar’s Portugal fostered an unlikely alliance with socialist leftist movements advocating for women’s rights and regime change. In these contexts, where there was an unholy entanglement between Church and State, dissent from the Papal teaching was deemed subversive and tantamount to anti-regime agitation. At the other end of the political spectrum, state socialist Hungary was happy to co-opt the loyal assent of Catholic clergy (in a rare show of religious tolerance) in a counter-intuitive but common commitment to pro-natalist policies.

Undergirding public calls around the Catholic world for participatory democracy and refashioned understandings of Church authority, there emerged a strand of theological experimentation after World War II culminating in ‘situation ethics’ and new forms of Christian socialism which were in synchrony with some of the utopian aspirations of the secular left. Expressed in the French worker-priest experiments and the Nouvelle Théologie’s reworkings of Thomistic ethics, a liberal, ‘personalist’ theology empowered Catholic progressives to abandon legalism and proclaim the cardinal virtue of love. While adapted to differing national and socio-political circumstances, this energizing theological program centered on humanism, social justice and relational fulfillment as fundamental tenets in ‘making all things new’ to inaugurate the ‘kingdom’. In South America – though detached from opposition to Humanae Vitae due to the neo-colonial, eugenic overtones of some US-auspiced contraceptive programs – this theological trend would culminate in the radicalism of liberation theology. In Italy, sloughing off the legacies of the Concordat and Mussolini’s fascism, the Florentine worker-priest Don Enzo Mazzi rallied his working-class Isolotto parishioners to engage in mass protests and proclaim Christ as the ultimate social agitator, as Gerd-Rainer Horn has explored in fascinating detail.

Meanwhile, in more conciliatory Britain – spurred on by the growing ecumenical movement and the Church of England’s longstanding sanction of marital contraception – English Catholics told the media: ‘we want to remain within the Catholic Church; but we want the Church to become more mature and more Christian’. As a spokeswoman for hundreds of Catholics gathered at the Cathedral ‘pray-ins’ in August explained: ‘We believe that love has the first place in marriage, that Humanae Vitae is by no means the last word on the Christian view of sex and marriage, and that the yoke of Peter should not be heavier than the yoke of Christ.’ For these unlikely Catholic dissidents, as those within the counterculture who found a mantra for their movement in The Beatles’ 1967 hit song, there was a passionate belief that, alongside protest and prayer, to inaugurate change, ‘all you need is love’.

Dr Alana Harris is a Lecturer in Modern British History at King’s College London. Her new book, The Schism of ’68: Catholics, Contraception and Humanae Vitae in Europe, 1945-1975 is published by Palgrave Macmillan. This article was originally published by History Workshop.