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Historian Traces Issue of Contraception Through Catholic History


Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Ph.D., presented her lecture, “A Family Affair: Catholic Women and the Birth Control Question,” for the eighth annual Rita Cassella Jones lecture. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Media coverage of the Catholic response to the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate, which requires group health plans to cover contraceptives, gives the impression that Catholic clergy and laity are feuding over the issue of birth control.

But in fact, Catholic leadership has been at their least vocal since the issue first arose in the mid-19th century, said Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Ph.D., at the eighth annual Rita Cassella Jones lecture on Oct. 16.

In the latest installment of the lecture series, which focuses on issues relating to American Catholic women, Tentler said that the Catholic response to the HHS mandate diverges from past debate over contraception.

“There are striking features to the debate that has been generated,” said Tentler, professor and chair of the Department of History at The Catholic University of America.

“[One] is the insistence of most Catholic bishops that the issue is the mandate, and not the morality,” she said, referring to the bishops’ argument that the mandate infringes upon religious liberty. “This position makes sense, given that the U.S. bishops have not publicly opposed the provision of birth control since the late 1960s… Catholics since then have heard little about contraception from their bishops, priests, and even those who prepare the young for marriage.”

Tentler offered a comprehensive history of the Catholic reaction to contraception. The issue first emerged in 1890, when the bishop of Covington, Ky., released a pastoral letter denouncing birth control because it interrupted the procreative act for which sex was intended. The letter, though, had minimal effect, since public discussion of birth control was then regarded as indecent.

The point resurfaced in Msgr. John A. Ryan’s 1916 article, which described contraception as a “fairly widespread sin” among married Catholic couples and called upon clergy to proactively battle against it.

Following this article, criticism of contraception gradually gained speed until it took off in the 1920s. At the pulpit and in the confessional, clergy urged married parishioners not to interfere with God’s will to bring children into their lives.

However, in the 1930s, the message collided with the worst economic downturn in modern history.

“Many Catholic families’ poverty in the early Depression years made additional offspring seem like an insupportable burden,” Tentler said.

Fortunately, this decade also brought about the rhythm method of birth control, whereby couples avoid pregnancy by timing intercourse with a woman’s least fertile point. This new method did not receive full support immediately, but it did change the conversation, Tentler said. Struggling married Catholics could engage in sex for the positive reasons that the church ascribed to it—for instance, the strengthening of spousal love—while not technically interrupting any natural step.

In the 1960s, however, shifting cultural values increasingly legitimized contraception, Tentler said, making priests hesitant to admonish their parishioners, who they feared would be driven away by such views.

Participants gathered in Tognino Hall at the Rose Hill campus on Oct. 16 for the lecture, which was hosted by the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

By the end of this decade, the church had undergone radical changes as a result of the Second Vatican Council. The issue of contraception receded significantly.

“Living in the midst of a still-incomplete revolution, it is often hard to see the extent of the change that surrounds us. But part of that change is the silence that has prevailed for the past 40 years on the subject of contraception,” Tentler said.

Although this silence has been in some ways a victory for the laity, Tentler said, it has come with a cost.

“Catholic priests and others who teach in the name of the church have… kept quiet not just on contraception, but on the subject of sexual morality generally,” she said. “Catholics have been left in a time of sexual turmoil to decide about a wide range of sexual questions based on conscience alone, however imperfectly their consciences may have been formed. Is this a healthy situation?

“I suspect that a great many Catholics today would appreciate a chance for honest, communal reflection on what a Catholic sexual morality can and should look like in our own time—reflection that centers on the actual needs and experiences of the laity,” she said. “But this can’t happen until we resolve the problem of birth control.”

The annual lecture is sponsored and hosted by the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, thanks to the gift from the family of Rita Cassella Jones.


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