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Sex and Birth Control in West Germany : Reacting to Pius XII’s Speeches on the Rhythm Method

Pius XII’s Addresses to the Catholic Union of Midwives on October 29, 1951 and the National Congress of the Family Front and the Association of Large Families on November 27, 1951 were a pivotal moment in the history of sexuality in the Catholic Church because the pope permitted the use of the rhythm method for the purposes of family planning. They occurred at a moment of transition between Pius XI’s condemnation of contraception and abortion in 1930 and Paul VI’s denunciation of the birth control pill in 1968. This essay argues that these two speeches require greater scholarly attention and that West Germany represents a compelling case study for their reception. Other scholars document well the importance of Germany to the life and papacy of Pius XII, but little light has been shed on how Central European Catholics responded to his views about sex. In a fresh reading of the papal intervention, this essay suggests that the speeches only endorsed practices that had been common since the 1930s. In the midst of changing norms about sex and increased access to birth control as well as anxiety about rapid social change, Pius XII’s attempt at conciliation was significant but ultimately failed.



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