- An Image of God: The Catholic Struggle with Eugenics by Sharon M. Leon
When Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical Casti Connubii in 1930, he specifically addressed “some who are over solicitous for the cause of eugenics” and seek to employ “medical action” in the form of surgical sterilization. Historians reference the encyclical as the most authoritative Roman Catholic opposition to eugenic sterilization laws passed in the first third of the twentieth century. But relatively little historical attention has been paid to how American Catholics engaged the eugenics movement before Rome spoke. Thanks to Sharon Leon’s An Image of God: The Catholic Struggle with Eugenics, we now have a much more nuanced picture of when Catholic opposition to sterilization took shape, and the motives and arguments that gave it form.
Leon’s book opens three new doors in the history of eugenics. First, she provides a detailed roadmap to politics among the faithful, noting how during the early years of the American eugenics movement, the pro-natalist thrust of so-called “positive eugenics” echoed traditional church thinking that Pius would summarize in Casti Connubii as “salutary counsel for more certainly procuring the strength and health of the future child.” This feature of the growing eugenics movement provided an attraction to some important American Catholic thinkers. Second, Leon explains that Catholic critics of eugenic sterilization went beyond doctrinal arguments to focus strategically—and as history would later conclude, accurately—on the scientific weakness of eugenic theory. Third, both before and after Buck v. Bell, the watershed Supreme Court case that validated the constitutionality of state laws mandating eugenic sterilization, Catholic critics of the practice highlighted individual human dignity and the moral significance of bodily integrity as counterweights that trumped statist assertions about the common good.
The strength of Leon’s study lies in the painstaking research she conducted, not only in the well-known records of the American Eugenics Society and other eugenic advocacy groups, but also in the records of organizations such as the National Catholic Welfare Conference and the National Council of Catholic Men (NCCM). She found evidence that the men’s group first inadvertently overlooked the pending litigation in Buck v. Bell. Then, aware of the danger of awakening all too common 1920s anti-Catholic sentiments, NCCM quietly orchestrated the filing of a petition for rehearing after the decision in the case had been announced. Although its efforts to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision were ultimately unsuccessful, the petition contained the best and most thorough arguments made against the sterilization law. Despite decades of research on the Buck case by other scholars, Leon was first to discover the provenance of this final chapter of the litigation.
Leon dedicates a full chapter to address one of the persistent questions in American sterilization history—although two thirds of the states had sterilization laws, why did similar legislation fail in the remainder of the states? Leon focuses on Ohio, telling the story of Catholic opposition to sterilization proposals there in the early 1930s. Her fine-grained analysis of behind-the-scenes lobbying by a prominent [End Page 179] Catholic bishop, Joseph Schrembs of Cleveland, in opposition to a sterilization bill is a masterful exercise in political and legislative history.
Popular commentary on the history of eugenics in America often operates at the level of cartoon, with anti-Darwinian religionists of many stripes posed against the forces of scientific materialism. Leon’s book provides an antidote to that kind of ahistorical polemic by showing in textured detail how the Catholic hierarchy as well as the laity struggled with the many-faceted seductions of eugenics.