Released as the album's second single in mid-1986, the song was a commercial success. It became Madonna's fourth number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100, and performed well internationally, reaching the top position in the United Kingdom and Australia. It was well-received by music critics and was frequently cited as a highlight in the album. The music video, directed by James Foley, shows Madonna's second image makeover, featuring her with a more toned and muscular body, and cropped platinum blonde hair. It portrayed a storyline, where Madonna is trying to tell her father about her pregnancy. The images are juxtaposed with shots of Madonna dancing and singing in a small, darkened studio, and spending a romantic evening with her boyfriend.
Shortly after its release, the song caused heated discussions about its lyrical content. Women's organizations and others in the family planning field criticized Madonna for encouraging teenage pregnancy, while groups opposed to abortion saw it as a positive pro-life message. Madonna has performed "Papa Don't Preach" in three of her world tours. The song also caused her first conflict with the Vatican, as she dedicated it to Pope John Paul II, who urged Italian fans to boycott her concerts during the Who's That Girl World Tour in 1987. In 2002, the song was recorded as a hard rock version by British singer Kelly Osbourne, and was included as a bonus track on her debut album Shut Up.