- An Image of God: The Catholic Struggle with Eugenics by Sharon M. Leon
In An Image of God: The Catholic Struggle with Eugenics, Sharon Leon explains how and why Catholics took an aggressive stance against the eugenically motivated movement to sterilize individuals [End Page 64] deemed unfit to reproduce. The book reveals that Catholics were among the first to address the dubious science of the eugenics movement as they fought the kind of legislation upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, all before the Vatican denunciation of sterilization that came with the encyclical Casti Connubii in 1930. The development and controversy of Catholic thought on eugenics has been examined well elsewhere, notably in R. Scott Appleby’s discussion in Ronald L. Numbers and John Stenhouse’s Disseminating Darwinism: The Role of Place, Race, Religion and Gender (Cambridge University Press, 1999), but this study is fresh in that it examines specific Catholic activism and lay involvement.
The lone dissenter in the Buck case was the Roman Catholic justice on the Supreme Court, Pierce Butler. Butler did not leave any written record of his objection to sterilization but other Catholics were constructing an argument to be presented publicly and, moreover, addressed the movement politically. Successful efforts against sterilization legislation in Ohio clearly rested on Catholic voting strength but Leon concludes Catholics were also influential in Alabama with significantly fewer Catholics because they articulated a persuasive argument for other opponents of the proposed law.
Leon reminds readers of the tremendous support for eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s and that, unlike the early birth control movement (which was initially opposed by most eugenicists), American eugenics was mainstream, sharing similar rhetoric and goals with other popular reforms. This slippery reform slope allowed for strange bedfellows, which was why Catholic reformers John A. Ryan and John Montgomery Cooper, who both opposed sterilization measures, agreed to serve on the American Eugenics Society Board of Directors thoughtout the 1920s.
An Image of God reveals, not incidentally, that Catholic civic engagement with reproductive issues in the early twentieth century extended beyond birth control, which is probably the more historically well-known component of Casti Connubii; readers who are not [End Page 65] familiar with Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s Catholics and Contraception: An American Story (Cornell University Press, 2004) might want to read it along with this book. Leon emphasizes that the Catholic campaign against sterilization was very much an effort of lay people as well as priests and bishops, which she contextualizes within the emergent Catholic educated professional class. In these efforts, lay Catholics were carving out a role for themselves as politically active Catholics. Women’s leadership was noteworthy and the history of their involvement contributes to our growing understanding of the uniquely Catholic gendered approach to the modern world articulated so well by Kathleen Sprows Cummings in New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and Catholicism in the Progressive Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2009). An Image of God is arguably just as important as a book about the place of religion in American civil discourse in this period as it is about science and religion. It also offers resounding evidence that recent calls for the need to integrate the American Catholic experience into our understanding of major issues of twentieth century U.S. history are right on the mark.