Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Eugenics in America: The Catholic Response

After posting excerpts from Amity Shlaes' review of two new books on the Eugenics movement in the United States in the early twentieth century, I wondered about the Catholic Church's response to the legislative efforts. There was a response of course, and a 2013 book from the University of Chicago Press describes it:

During the first half of the twentieth century, supporters of the eugenics movement offered an image of a racially transformed America by curtailing the reproduction of “unfit” members of society. Through institutionalization, compulsory sterilization, the restriction of immigration and marriages, and other methods, eugenicists promised to improve the population—a policy agenda that was embraced by many leading intellectuals and public figures. But Catholic activists and thinkers across the United States opposed many of these measures, asserting that “every man, even a lunatic, is an image of God, not a mere animal."

An Image of God, Sharon Leon examines the efforts of American Catholics to thwart eugenic policies, illuminating the ways in which Catholic thought transformed the public conversation about individual rights, the role of the state, and the intersections of race, community, and family. Through an examination of the broader questions raised in this debate, Leon casts new light on major issues that remain central in American political life today: the institution of marriage, the role of government, and the separation of church and state. This is essential reading in the history of religion, science, politics, and human rights.

The author, Sharon M. Leon, is director of public projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and research associate professor of history at George Mason University.

This blog by attorney and author Ed Mannino provides an overview and review of Professor Leon's book:

While the Catholic Church supported positive eugenics initiatives, including encouraging married couples to have more children, and enactment of legislation providing for social welfare programs, it vigorously opposed negative eugenic proposals, including compulsory sterilization and restrictions on immigration from certain countries. This opposition was based on two separate grounds, only one of which was based on Catholic doctrine. In the words of Professor Leon, Catholic opposition centered first on attacking eugenic science as not being “rigorous,” as having its roots in concealed “ethnic, racial and class prejudices,” and as ignoring the the importance of environmental and other factors in the development of an individual’s character. A second, religious objection argued that the state could not “violate the bodily integrity of an innocent individual, regardless of the supposed biological improvements that will result.”

Professor Leon concludes that “Asserting their rights as citizens to participate in the public debate about the importance of environment and heredity and about the proper role of the state and the responsibility of the individual, Catholics transformed public discourse.”

In the public debate, Catholics developed the points that genetic makeup does not dictate the inheritance of mental defects in children, and that environmental factors play an important role in individual development. In addition, the Catholic hierarchy and lay groups such as the Knights of Columbus lobbied for the passage of legislative initiatives promoting both social and economic justice. Moreover, Catholics opposed legislation banning mixed-race marriages, and the view that the “white race” was somehow superior.

Read the rest there.


  1. A second, religious objection argued that the state could not “violate the bodily integrity of an innocent individual, regardless of the supposed biological improvements that will result.”

    The state can violate the bodily integrity of a thief as to cutting off a hand (very extreme cases) or simply slitting up an ear to signal "here's a condemned dishonest person", but since genitals were not involved in thefths, state cannot violate genitals of someone guilty of thefth.

  2. Note also, the Catholics who were weak and out of line with the Church on this issue were those who were suffering from what may be called Galileo syndrome.

    NOT those who were sympathetic to Fascism. Like Austrofascism never was into Eugenics, and even Italian Fascism, first of all, wasn't at first, and second, I think Carta della Razza (1938, 16 years after March on Rome) limited itself - unduly - to prohibiting mixed marriages or sth (I haven't actually read it, but I think Italians would NOT have stood for cutting off genitals of anyone due to race).