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Catholics and Contraception: An American History
Catholics and Contraception: An American History
Leslie Woodcock Tentler
Cornell UP, 2004
352 pp., 66.50

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Jenell Williams Paris

Community and Conscience

Catholics and contraception.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, a long-awaited encyclical that followed the Second Vatican Council. The Council, which met in four sessions between 1962 and 1965, made remarkable changes in the church, mostly toward openness. Vernacular languages and increased lay participation were approved for masses, the Vatican acknowledged fellow believers in other Christian traditions, and the Council itself allowed some laypersons to observe its proceedings. In 1966, an advisory commission even recommended that the pope allow Catholics to use contraception.

Both the secular and religious climates seemed favorable for change, but Humanae Vitae disappointed most American Catholics by rigidifying the church's stance against birth control. After a discussion of natural law and the meaning of marriage, the pope wrote,

God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.1

In Catholics and Contraception: An American History, Leslie Woodcock Tentler treats American Catholic culture across the 20th century. From Humanae Vitae, Tentler reaches back to the early 20th century and forward to the 1970s, describing ways in which Catholic lay people and clergy understood the meaning and practice of birth control. Tentler uses the generation that came to adulthood in the late 1960s as a focal point, arguing, "It was precisely in the context of birth control, an issue that intimately affected nearly all adult Catholics, that a remarkable generation—better educated and perhaps more devout than any before it—came to a sense of moral autonomy." In addition to providing well-researched detail about contraception, the book's most valuable contribution is a description of the shift from corporate moral decision-making to individual moral autonomy.

These are worthy purposes, but Tentler claims even more. The book claims to treat the American experience of rethinking sex in the 20th century, though it is almost entirely restricted to Catholicism, understood within national political and social contexts. In addition, Tentler seems at times to be too close to her subject. While she relies mostly on archives, she also interviewed 56 priests, whom she describes as, "to a man, gracious and intelligent; nearly all were widely read; most were psychologically astute. They had splendid senses of humor, too, usually of the dry variety." Such judgments bespeak a generous spirit; they also suggest a certain coziness that can be distracting. But these are small nuisances in a solid scholarly study rich in implications for all Christians and not for Catholics alone.

Traditional Catholic teaching had treated sexuality mostly as evidence of fallenness. Sex was necessary for procreation, but the sexual impulse should not be indulged. Some priests encouraged abstinence during Advent, Lent, and church feasts, implying a levitical sort of uncleanness associated with intercourse. Though most Christians before the 20th century, Catholic and Protestant alike, allowed early abortion (understood then as "menstrual induction") as well as contraception, such practices occurred under official silence and with little doctrinal elaboration. Without scientific information about conception, pregnancy, especially in its early stages, was a realm of knowledge left to women. Women shared knowledge about how to "induce a late menstruation" with herbs or other substances, or prevent conception with spermicidal substances or periodic abstinence. Even after mid-century scientific discoveries about conception, women took advantage of pastoral reticence to continue health practices they deemed to be in their best interest.

In 1930, the Anglican church was the first major religious body to officially approve of birth control. The Lambeth Conference approved contraception as a guarded blessing to be used only in certain circumstance, warning against its immorality if used for selfishness, luxury, or convenience. Around the same time, the Universalist General Convention, the American Unitarian Association, and the New York East Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church agreed that contraception is morally acceptable.

Also in 1930, but in sharp contrast, Pope Pius XI issued Casti Connubii, an encyclical on Christian marriage. In it, he pronounced that any use of contraception is wrong, and encouraged priestly teaching in confession and premarital instruction to eliminate the well-used excuse of ignorance. The encyclical was unambiguous in its moral judgment: "Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious."2

The beginning of the Great Depression was an unfortunate time to issue such a statement. Surveys show that during the 1930s, some Catholics were using the rhythm (or calendar) method, which involved approximating the infertile days based on typical cycle length. Others delayed marriage to avoid pregnancy, or used water douches or withdrawal. Ten years later, a survey showed 43 percent of Catholics using these methods, as well as condoms, antiseptic douches, jellies, and diaphragms. Nonetheless, the church continued to emphasize the immorality of birth control in any form. Even the ineffective rhythm method could only be used in exceptional circumstances, and without a "contraceptive mindset."

Protestants often caricature the Catholic church as boosting its numbers by denying birth control to its members, but Catholic doctrine was more complex. Grounded in social reasoning, this theology promoted family solidarity and procreation as contributions to society and to God's kingdom. For the good of church and nation, individuals should exercise duty and self-sacrifice, and even suffer domestic and financial difficulties. Even many Catholics who used birth control adhered to these values.

Tentler describes Catholics during 1941-1962 as absorbing the broader American romance with domesticity which is said to have flourished during this period. She focuses on how Catholic ethnic identities waned, and a stronger religious identity emerged, seen in high rates of mass attendance and sacrament participation. Popular theology in these decades described marriage and sex in increasingly romantic terms. Marital sex was "a form of prayer, productive of grace, a means of profoundly intimate communion with one's spouse and with God." Correspondingly, Catholics married earlier and had more children.

Despite this glowing picture of devoutness, at least 30 percent of Catholics reported contraceptive use in the mid-1950s. Deviance research suggests that once a threshold of 15-20 percent is passed, a "deviant" behavior becomes normal (consider children referring to adults by first name, or informal dress at church). Indeed, in addition to their religious devoutness, Catholics were also enjoying more individualism and materialism, participating in the middle-class American value system.

This trend continued and, along with the tumultuous 1960s, provided the context for the unhappy reception of Humanae Vitae. Clerical fallout included clergy resignations and subsequent marriages. Lay assertiveness increased, including even questioning of papal decisions. Catholics attended confession less, and increasingly asserted individual moral decisions based on experience and conscience: "Obedience, it was often suggested, was a less genuinely Christian virtue than the courage required by independent moral choice."

As a result, Tentler says, lay people today are exercising individual moral authority without communal shaping influences. She believes there is too much silence on sexuality from bishops and priests. Bishops speak little about contraception and sexual matters other than abortion. Priests' moral authority is reduced due to sex scandals and related cover-ups, and their lack of marital experience. I was surprised, however, that Tentler did not consider Catholic premarital education and natural family planning instruction, which provides more sex education and marital theology than many Protestant churches.

With respect to Humanae Vitae, Tentler argues that "maintaining the prohibition on contraception in marriage was self-evidently necessary, in the view of many worried observers, as a kind of hedge against tolerant attitudes toward abortion, not to mention sexual permissiveness." While this may be true, it is also the case that the pope provided several well-reasoned arguments about the dangers of contraception. He offered four, the first of which was the lowering of sexual morality, which is the point Tentler emphasizes. In addition, he expressed concern for the marital relationship, ways in which contraception could allow men to distance themselves from the consequences of their sexual choices, and couples to pursue lives of material luxury and convenience over marital and family responsibility. Third, he argued that contraceptive technology allows governments to oppress the weak by use of family planning and sterilization programs, which occurred not only in Nazi Germany but in other European nations and in the United States, and is an ongoing concern when funding is tied to family planning program requirements for developing nations. Last, he warned against self-delusion, concerned that contraception can lead people to falsely believe they can control their own lives, disregarding the natural limitations of both the body and of technology. In addition to the pope's possible instrumental purposes, these explicit concerns ought to be included in considerations of his decision. Protestants and Catholics alike would do well to consider the personal and global dimensions of their intimate choices.

This type of considered moral reasoning, taking place within Christian communities, is just what Tentler advocates. In her view, even Catholics who disagree with the Church's teaching on contraception want pastoral leadership and a corporate identity as Catholic, not just American. "Desires like these," Tentler concludes, "ought to form the substance of ongoing communal reflection—of conversations that involve every constituency in the church. How ironic, not to say tragic, that birth control gets in the way."

Jenell Williams Paris is associate professor of anthropology at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is the author of Birth Control for Christians: Making Wise Choices (Baker) and numerous articles about sex and contraception.

1. Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae: Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Regulation of Birth, 1968.

2. Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii: Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on Christian Marriage, 1930.

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