In the end, most Catholic laypeople solved the birth-control problem on their own. On the eve of Humanae vitae, promulgated in July 1968, a majority of Catholic couples in their childbearing years were already using forbidden means to limit the size of their families. Paul VI’s encyclical prompted every such couple, and also those who were teetering on the brink of disobedience, to some hard thinking about church authority. Most concluded, and in remarkably short order, that at least on this intimate matter individual conscience reigned supreme. In that limited sense, the birth-control crisis was over—resolved, for all practical purposes, by the laity who had forced it in the first place. Lay rejection of the teaching on contraception actually accelerated in the wake of Humanae vitae, especially among the young. Fully 78 percent of Catholic married women aged twenty to twenty-four, according to a study done in 1970, were limiting their families by a means other than abstinence or rhythm. It would not be long before Catholic contraceptive practice differed hardly at all from that of other Americans.
But as every thoughtful Catholic knows, the birth-control crisis had tremendous fallout. If the laity were emancipated by Humanae vitae, as certain radical commentators had it, some were also embittered by its seeming rejection of the laity’s public witness. Only a relative handful, in all likelihood, left the church as a direct result of the encyclical. Much larger numbers seem to have distanced themselves from the institutional church in a psychic sense. Even hitherto “core” Catholics became less regular in their attendance at Mass. Growing numbers went infrequently to confession, or even gave up on the sacrament entirely. (The decline in confession preceded the encyclical, but still had a great deal to do with contraception.) The collapse of confession meant that fewer and fewer Catholics had one-on-one contact with their priests, a problem exacerbated by a growing shortage of clergy.