Catholics and Contraception: An American History.

Janet E. Smith
By Leslie Woodcock Tentler
Cornell University Press. 335 pp. $29.95
Reviewed by Janet E. Smith
Reproduced with Permission

Leslie Woodcock Tentler maintains that as Catholics become more mature, they reject their Church's teaching on contraception. Indeed, in her recent Catholics and Contraception: An American History, she holds that greater sensitivity to the realities of marriage and sexuality will eventually lead the Church to abandon that teaching.

Is it a tribute to a book that readers are led, by the facts it presents, to conclusions quite the opposite of those advanced by the author? Much of Catholics and Contraception indicates that the Catholic Church at one time, even in the face of a hostile cultural climate, successfully formed Catholics in accord with its teaching. Tentler ably demonstrates that in the first half of the twentieth century there was a concerted effort by bishops and priests to promote the Church's teaching on contraception - and that Catholics complied at an impressive rate, apparently quite happily so and with little resentment. [stronger]

Tentler writes about a few priests whose presentations against contraception were excessively harsh or insensitive, but she also notes a number of upbeat and pastorally adept priests. "Many laity admired their Church's increasingly lonely defense of a procreative sexual ethic. Many shared their clergy's anxieties when it came to emancipated views of sex. And a great many Catholics responded with a visceral surge of tribal loyalty when public proponents of birth control attacked the Catholic Church," Tentler observes. "Young Catholics, then, especially the best educated, were among the teaching's most fervent proponents, with birthrates exceeding the burgeoning national average. Aspiring to domestic sanctity, these young idealists won the admiration of numerous priests, who were thereby confirmed in their own commitment to a near-heroic sexual discipline."

In the last several decades it has become common to hear Catholics report that they have never heard a homily supporting the Church's teaching on any sexual matter, let alone contraception. Tentler's book thoroughly discredits [belies?] the misconception that it was always thus. She uses diocesan archives to show that before 1960 a great many missions devoted to the topic of contraception were preached by priests from various religious orders. In some dioceses, priests were expected to preach on the subject at least once a year, and it was not unusual for priests to raise the issue of contraception in the confessional - during a time when people confessed regularly, often weekly. On editorial pages of secular newspapers, bishops engaged pro-contraception crusaders such as Margaret Sanger. They periodically mobilized their priests to read pastoral letters against attempts to overturn laws that banned or restricted contraception. Bishops wrestled with the United States government over programs that distributed condoms to military personnel and welfare recipients. They also campaigned against the government's promotion of contraception in third-world countries as a means of population control.

Tentler relies primarily on interviews with fifty-six priest "informants," ordained between 1938 and 1963, mostly in the Midwest for input on priestly response to the Church's teaching. I don't doubt that a large number of Catholic priests over fifty-five and under eighty reject the Church's teaching on contraception. But surely Tentler could have found other priests, even in that age group, who support the teaching. She speaks of the courage of those who dared to speak out against it; she might discover that those who have defended the teaching have suffered significant persecution from those advocating change. Tentler concedes that there is a growing number of young Catholics who embrace the Church's teaching (although she rather condescendingly suggests that as their families grow they will probably change their minds). She also claims that young priests who accept the teaching are merely papal loyalists, unable to offer any coherent arguments for their position.

Along the way, Tentler casually notes the possibility that widespread use of contraception might have something to do with the "hypersexualization" of our culture but nonetheless believes that contraception is the antidote to a host of marital problems. She does not consider the possibility that contraception has created more problems than it has solved. Surely it is now time for a long sober look at the likely connection between widespread contraceptive use and promiscuity, unwed pregnancy, abortion, divorce, and even poverty.

Catholics and Contraception would profit from a larger data pool; a good start would be Sterilization Reversals, a book of testimonies by Catholics who had recourse to sterilization and later came to regret it. It is curious that Tentler never mentions what forms of contraception were being used in the years she studies. She does not report how effective contraception was during that time, or how satisfied contraceptors were with their sex lives, their marriages, and their family size.

Still, even the insufficient material Tentler presents tends to undermine her argument. While reading Catholics and Contraception, I discovered a new hero, Father John Ford, who worked very hard to get the Vatican and the American episcopacy to continue their strong advocacy of the Church's teaching on sexuality. His is one of many stories here that remind us of a vibrant time in the Church's past. Thus, in spite of my complaints about this book, I am enthusiastically recommending it as a portrait of a vibrant time in the Church's past, one I think young priests and young couples might well revive.

Janet E. Smith is the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.