Catholics and Contraception: An American History

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Overview

As Americans rethought sex in the twentieth century, the Catholic Church's teachings on the divisive issue of contraception in marriage were in many ways central. In a fascinating history, Leslie Woodcock Tentler traces changing attitudes: from the late nineteenth century, when religious leaders of every variety were largely united in their opposition to contraception; to the 1920s, when distillations of Freud and the works of family planning reformers like Margaret Sanger began to reach a popular audience; to the Depression years, during which even conservative Protestant denominations quietly dropped prohibitions against marital birth control.

Catholics and Contraception carefully examines the intimate dilemmas of pastoral counseling in matters of sexual conduct. Tentler makes it clear that uneasy negotiations were always necessary between clerical and lay authority. As the Catholic Church found itself isolated in its strictures against contraception—and the object of damaging rhetoric in the public debate over legal birth control—support of the Church's teachings on contraception became a mark of Catholic identity, for better and for worse.

Tentler draws on evidence from pastoral literature, sermons, lay writings, private correspondence, and interviews with fifty-six priests ordained between 1938 and 1968, concluding, "the recent history of American Catholicism . . . can only be understood by taking birth control into account." The paperback edition includes a new preface by the author.

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Editorial Reviews

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"Readers of this critical study of American Catholics' reception of their church's doctrinal position on contraception will be astounded at the scope and depth of the author's analysis. . . . The American context, especially in the decades from 1870 to 1930, presents a number of special cultural difficulties, such as a desire to embrace scientific discovery about the body, upholding the primacy of human liberty, and a semi-puritanical disdain for public discussion of sex—all of which led mainline Protestant Americans toward private contraceptive practice. Catholics often publicly broke with such mores, but gradually capitulated, especially after the 1960s. Tentler's study does yeoman work in explaining why. Highly recommended."—Choice 42:10, June 2005

"In Catholics and Contraception: An American History, Leslie Woodcock Tentler treats American Catholic culture across the 20th century. . . . Tentler says, lay people today are exercising individual moral authority without communal shaping influences. . . . 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."—Jenelle Williams Paris, Books and Culture, May/June 2005

"Tentler shows the larger forces of cultural change and the development of mores which would impact views of sex and sexuality beyond simply the contraception question/issue. Her work brings together an incredible amount of research into the archives of dioceses and religious orders, especially those who preached the once popular parish missions which were a bulwark of support for the Church's position on birth control. . . . This book deserves to be read not only by historians, but by all theology students, clergy, bishops, and everyone who wishes to have a better understanding of how the constant Tradition of the Church develops in this critical area."—James T. Bretzke, S.J., University of San Francisco, Catholic Books Review

"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."—Journal of Social History

"Tentler's account is thoroughly researched, well written, and makes good use of clergy interviews and Catholic archives and publications."—Journal of Religion

"In Catholics and Contraception: An American History, Leslie Woodcock Tentler treats American Catholic culture across the 20th century. . . . Tentler says, lay people today are exercising individual moral authority without communal shaping influences. . . . 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."—Jenelle Williams Paris, Books and Culture, May/June 2005

"Tentler shows the larger forces of cultural change and the development of mores which would impact views of sex and sexuality beyond simply the contraception question/issue. Her work brings together an incredible amount of research into the archives of dioceses and religious orders, especially those who preached the once popular parish missions which were a bulwark of support for the Church's position on birth control. . . . This book deserves to be read not only by historians, but by all theology students, clergy, bishops, and everyone who wishes to have a better understanding of how the constant Tradition of the Church develops in this critical area."—James T. Bretzke, S.J., University of San Francisco, Catholic Books Review

"Leslie Woodcock Tentler brings great subtlety and a compassionate, mature discernment to the difficult history of American Catholicism's encounter with modernity. She has an extraordinary ability to represent the everyday lived experience of Catholics in vivid, textured detail which encompasses both clerical and popular practice and understanding. Catholics and Contraception is compelling, distinguished, brilliantly researched, and completely engaging."—Robert Orsi, Harvard Divinity School

"The Catholic Church is important to a large segment of the human race, yet it is in crisis because of issues relating to sex and reproduction. Leslie Woodcock Tentler's book takes a historical look at the Church's doctrines concerning contraception, how these have produced a serious divide between the Church and the Catholic laity, and how they have split the Catholic clergy. As we enter the twenty-first century, the importance of promoting responsibility in our sexual lives is greater than ever. Can the Catholic Church find a way to promote sexual responsibility and at the same time acknowledge the considerable benefits that responsible sex brings to Catholic men and women?"—John Bancroft, author of Human Sexuality and Its Problems and former director of The Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction

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Product Details

Table of Contents

1 "The abominable crime of Onan" : Catholic pastoral practice and family limitation, 1873-1919 15
2 A certain indocility : obstacles to reform, 1919-1930 43
3 "No longer a time for reticence" : a pivotal decade, 1930-1941 73
4 "Life is a warfare" : confession, preaching, politics, 1941-1962 130
5 "It isn't easy to be a Catholic" : rhythm, education for marriage, lay voices, 1941-1962 173
6 The church's first duty is charity : the "people of God" in a time of upheaval, 1962-July 1968 204
Epilogue : Humanae Vitae and its aftermath 264
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