Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Catholics and Contraception: An American History
by Leslie Woodcock Tentler
Cornell University Press 335 pp. $29.95

Leslie Woodcock Tentler maintains that mature Catholics 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.

Perhaps it is 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.

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.”

Few Catholics today report that they have ever heard a homily supporting the Church’s teaching on any sexual matter, let alone contraception. Tentler’s book thoroughly belies the misconception that it was always thus. She uses diocesan archives to show that before 1960 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. Tentler speaks of the powerful witness of slim, sophisticated, and serene Catholic women who seemed to manage the demands of large families very ably. 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 government over programs that distributed condoms in the military and to welfare recipients. They also campaigned against promotion of contraception in third-world countries as a means of population control.

Tentler reports that her interviews with fifty-six priest “informants,” ordained mostly in the Midwest between 1938 and 1963, demonstrate that most priests 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. Tentler makes no mention of the various natural-family-planning groups (indeed, she still speaks of the “rhythm method”) and no mention of the rapidly growing popularity of the theology of the body among laypeople and priests.

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.

Along the way, Tentler casually notes the possibility that widespread use of contraception might have something to do with the “hypersexualization” of our culture; she 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.

Still, even Tentler’s insufficient material 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. Thus, in spite of my complaints, I am enthusiastically recommending this book 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 the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.