Respectably Catholic and Scientific
Evolution and Birth Control between the World Wars
A small but influential cadre of Catholic priests professionally trained in social sciences, Frs. John Montgomery Cooper, John A. Ryan, and John A. O'Brien, gained a hearing from mainline public intellectuals largely by engaging in dialogue on these topics using the lingua franca of the age, science, to the near exclusion of religious argumentation.
The Catholics' approach was more than just tactical. It also derived from the subtle influence of Catholic theological Modernism, with its strong enthusiasm for science, and from an inclination toward scientism inherited from the Progressive Era's social science milieu.
All three shared a fervent desire to translate the Catholic ethos, as they understood it, into the vocabulary of the modern age while circumventing anti-Catholic attitudes in the process. However, their method resulted in a series of unintended consequences whereby their arguments were not infrequently co-opted and used against both them and the institutional church they served.
Alexander Pavuk considers the complex role of both liberal religious figures and scientific elites in evolution and birth control discourse, and how each contributed in unexpected ways to the reconstruction of those topics in public culture. The reconstruction saw the topics themselves shift from matters considered largely within moral frameworks into bodies of knowledge and practice ripe for controlled scientific planning in movements ranging from birth regulation advocacy and social hygiene to eugenics.
About the Author
"Adding the voices of liberal Catholic thinkers to a historical account of linked American debates over evolution, eugenics and contraception, Pavuk complicates a story often told through the lens of conservative Protestants. He reveals lasting ironies in those liberal Catholic thinkers' embrace of science and the language of science, enlarging our understanding of the nuances of the debates, of their legacies, and of the complex historical relationship between science and religion."—Constance Clark, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
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