Catholics and Contraception: An American History.
The Catholic church stood at a critical juncture in the summer of 1968. It had recently emerged from the Second Vatican Council committed to dramatic and significant reform and was confronted with a serious implication of this new direction. Scientific and theological developments combined with overwhelming popular sentiment to push church leaders toward revising their long-standing official opposition to birth control. Pope Paul VI had put off addressing this at Vatican II by appointing a special commission to advise him on the matter. The commission's official report urging the pope to lift the ban came out in the press before Paul VI responded to it publicly. Finally, on July 29th, 1968, Pope Paul issued an encyclical rejecting his commission's recommendation and upholding the ban. That encyclical, entitled Humanae Vitae, may have had as much impact on American Catholics as the reforms that the Council introduced. Leslie Woodcock Tentler has written a thorough and insightful history of the Catholic struggles with birth control in the century leading up to that moment, with a special focus on the experience of priests throughout the period. Her particular contribution to this history is her extraordinarily complete exploration of the clerical experience of contraception in the period.
Readers may find this focus on priests and birth control to be a curious perspective at first thought. What experience of contraception would a celibate clergy have worth studying? But Tentler seems to end up here for two reasons. The first is that the priestly history is more easily accessed than the lay experience. Neither the laity nor the clergy seems to leave rich sources regarding contraceptive use that turn up in any of the many archives that Tentler visited. But she was able to find evidence of a Catholic discourse on contraception in works used to instruct seminarians and clergy on moral theology, in strategies that mission preachers employed when visiting parishes, in mandated sermon outlines that came from some diocesan bishops to their priests, and in guides to marriage preparation that priests consulted when counseling engaged couples. This discourse consists entirely of clerical voices. Most significant, Tentler interviewed fifty-six priests to learn their theological training and pastoral practices regarding birth control. The second reason that Tentler focuses on priests is that they mediated the hierarchy's strict rules prohibiting contraceptive use with the laity in various venues, such as confessionals, mission sermons, marriage preparation, and Catholic publications.
The lay beliefs, attitudes toward, and practices of birth control remain elusive throughout all but the last handful of years of Tentler's study. But a relatively clear story emerges regarding priests. They learned in their seminary training to oppose birth control during the late 19th century, and did so uniformly as far as Tentler can determine. But diocesan priests, those priests who served parishes under the local bishops' direct supervision, understood that birth control was a sensitive topic because it involved highly private and intimate behaviors and because the laity might resent parish priests for addressing the issue directly and forthrightly. They therefore left the subject to itinerant mission priests who visited parishes once a year or so to generate religious fervor and warn of hell's eternal suffering. Mission preachers were unrelenting in their condemnation of birth control, but they too approached the subject carefully--in groups segregated by gender and age.
Protestant ministers once joined Catholic priests in condemning contraception, but began to waver in the early 20th century. By the 1930s, Catholic church officials saw themselves as standing largely alone in their anti-birth control crusade, and opposition to birth control began to mark a distinctive Catholic identity. Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti Connubii at the end of the 1930s that reiterated the church ban on birth control and urged priests to be more aggressive in condemning lay use. But he opened the door to seeing sex serving two purposes in marriage: the long-held emphasis on procreation and the emerging value of strengthening the partners' love for each other. Priests addressed birth control more assertively in the confessional after the encyclical, but seemed largely uneasy with this greater emphasis--especially in a period of great economic hardship during which Catholics sought successfully to limit the number of children that they bore.
Priests embraced the emergence of a medically accurate method of intermittent abstinence (the rhythm method) that promised to enable lay men and women to limit family size within the bounds of theologically acceptable practices. Bishops worried that natural family planning would serve as a gateway practice to other forms of banned birth control, and so discouraged priests from endorsing this method too publicly. Lay men and women found the rhythm method to be frustrating and unreliable, but a welcome departure from condemnation of all birth control practices.
The development of the birth control pill in 1960, which allowed greater control over a woman's cycle of fertility, seemed to many Catholics to be a more refined and effective version of the rhythm method. It appeared to be both theologically acceptable and biologically efficient. At this very moment lay voices emerge in the public discourse on birth control and allow Tender to provide the most rewarding section of her book for social historians. The laity voiced their struggles with large families and called overwhelmingly for a lift on the birth control ban.
Paul VI's later insistence on upholding the traditional ban on all forms of birth control, including the pill, had significant consequences for lay Catholics. Tentler argues persuasively that the laity ceased to value church officials' moral judgments once the pope rejected his own commission's determination that continuing the ban was theologically untenable. The pope appeared to make a decision based upon his fear that overturning the ban would undermine papal authority. Changing church teaching would implicitly declare that so many popes have gotten this so wrong for so long. But in so doing, Paul VI hastened that which he hoped to forestall. The laity sided with the theologians, both because the theology was persuasive and because their lived experience taught them that they would be better spouses and parents if they controlled their family size. Church officials recognized the tension that Humane Vitae caused, and so have remained largely silent on the issue for forty years. The consequence is that the laity have come to develop their own judgments about this and other moral issues, and church officials have become increasingly irrelevant in the process.
Catholics and Contraception is a welcome exploration of the Catholic discourse on birth control over the century leading up to 1968. Tentler's work is thorough, nuanced, and engaging. Her argument about the centrality of birth control practices in lay lives and the significance of Humane Vitae in the church's history is so persuasive and well-supported that her work stands as a definitive history of contraception and a major contribution to our understanding of the broader American Catholic history in the twentieth century.
Saint Vincent College
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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