Exploring Human Potential

The Catholic Playbook on Contraception, Circa 1950…and The Doctor’s Role In It.

Posted on | October 10, 2017 | 1 Comment

A Little Sister & Friend

Mike Magee

Who knew – The Little Sisters of the Poor’s new best friend would be Donald Trump?

Catholic institutions were first in line to challenge the ACA, followed by a motley crew of Obama haters who persisted for two terms before being exposed as having no legitimate health policy alternative. And now the Trump administration says they don’t have to obey Obama era rules in their organizations and cover contraceptive costs for their employees.

For anyone who has followed the Catholic Church’s embrace of birth control as a defining issue over the past 100 years, the Little Sisters benign expressions married with legal tactics should come as no surprise.

I know whence I speak. My doctor father inherited his mother’s devotion to the Catholic Church. Returning from WW II, he embraced the rituals and the sacraments. He would sink into deep contemplation at Sunday mass each week. And he loved being the selected doctor to the priests and nuns of the parish. My mother loved the structure and the concrete set of rules and beliefs that provided a scaffold and creed to build a life around.

Together they were a model Catholic family of the 1950’s – he a Catholic doctor serving mostly 1st generation Catholic immigrants, and she the mother of twelve Catholic kids.

As war veterans were returning, and the baby boom igniting, the Catholic Church doubled down on its ban of contraception. Science had progressed during the 1940’s and the basic understanding of fertility and manipulation of the ovulatory cycle had arrived.

The American Catholic Church and its’ leadership could easily predict the next step.  It was only a matter of time before pharmaceutical companies and their allied physicians would figure out how to manipulate and destroy this miraculous system. Clearly, God’s right to decide when and where to deliver His children was under attack, and the Church must defend, defend, defend.

As Pope Pius XI had said in his famous Encyclical, Casti Connubi, on December 31, 1930: “…every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral; and that no ‘indication’ or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one.”

With modernity crushing in from all sides, the Church decided to embrace what was essentially a defensive move – the new “Rhythm Method” which at least emphasized restraint and periodic abstinence, and might dampen the march toward use of horrid preventatives, paganism, and sins of the flesh.

But who would teach and proselytize this new method which combined temperature based predictions of ovulation and fertility with voluntary abstinence? The answer was Catholic doctors like my father.

The vehicle the Church selected to deliver instruction on Catholic family planning was described thoroughly in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s 203 page book entitled The Basic Cana Manual. Cana and Pre-Cana Conferences were designed to be lay led meetings, with parish priest in attendance, focused on both marriage preparation and marriage renewal. My parents, as selected lay leaders, beginning in 1949, read the book from cover to cover, and participated as leaders in delivering the messages.

For them, it was a night out, free of the children; an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company, and to perform “on stage” which was a shared interest. They were not particularly worried or concerned about the dogma, or communicating the fear piece well. Sin and hell were not really their thing, any more than the “Sister is always right” mentality of most Catholic parents who sent their kids to Catholic schools. Their major mutual interest was in marital love and fidelity, the joy of commitment in good times and bad, and the rewarding challenges of managing very large families.

In any case, they found a lot to like in The Basic Cana Manual. The words on page 3, penned by the Reverend Walter J. Imbiorski, who presumably was chaste and celibate,  struck a realistic and empathetic tone. “We fall in love and we get married and presently disenchantment sets in, the sense of adventure leaves us. And even this is no particular surprise. Doesn’t it happen to everybody? We share, day after day, all that goes into the common effort, the continuing adventure, of establishing and sustaining a family. But what does it add up to? We go through all the motions of marriage, but how involved are we?…Cana is dedicated to restoring that poetry which is the Divine idea of man and woman and marriage. Cana is really a meditation on man and woman and all that is implied in the words ‘one flesh’.” And a few sentences later, the smooth and gentle segue, “Once reverence for the supreme wisdom of the Creator of nature is learned, it becomes less of a temptation to prefer human calculations, easier to base married life on words of the marriage exhortation, ‘The rest is in the hands of God.’”My parent’s role was quite clear and patriotic. “The role of the layman is especially important because we live in a world largely and progressively secularist. It doesn’t deny God or His Church; worse – it ignores them. The Catholic Laity must act to resist the pressures of secularism and worldliness. In America to stand still is to be engulfed”. (104)

As for my father’s second role as Catholic physician, the doctor got a whole 13 page chapter to himself titled “The Doctor in Pre-Cana”. Pre-Cana was the title given to the conferences required of all Catholic couples before being married in the Church. It was at these events that the delicate issue of family planning would be raised.

The instructions in the chapter were quite explicit. The chapter opens with, “The subject of the doctor’s talk in Pre-Cana should be sex, maleness and femaleness, in its broadest and most Christian sense. His approach should be one of respect and reverence toward this mystery – ‘man’s greatest glory in the temporal order’.” There were some cautions as in “There is no necessity of exposing any of the audience to the danger of sinning by an overly-exciting lecture. On the other hand, he must not be apologetic or shy, but after thorough preparation he should speak forth directly and with authority as a Catholic and a doctor.”

Rhetorically again, the Manual asks, “Just what should the doctors attitude towards sex be?” The answer: “The principle that underlies all others is that sex has its primary purpose the procreation and education of the child. Secondarily, it is the most unique expression and symbol of the love of two persons, an intimate act of knowing and giving in which they complete and satisfy each other on every level. This latter purpose, however, is obviously secondary to, and dependent upon, the great reality of the first.”

The Church makes clear its intention to use doctors, in the same manner as pharmaceutical companies, as “learned intermediaries”, with the power to extend and legitimize the Catholic Church “brand”. It reads, “The doctor’s role on the Pre-Cana team is to add his authority, personal and professional, to the teachings of the Church. Speaking with warmth and concern, and yet with a degree of clinical detachment, he can properly take up some areas that priests or layman can avoid. Secondly, his prestige, though often over-rated, can be used to advantage… Finally the doctor can authoritatively counteract many of the popular pseudo-scientific ideas about sex that are gaining currency.”

A few paragraphs later, there is a chilling disclosure reminiscent of the moral dilemma current physicians face with corporate conflicts of interest. It reads, “The doctor has status in our society. He is a combination of scientist and mystic healer. His words carry great weight. You will likely never suspect the tremendous good you will do for Pre-Cana” (read “for pharmaceuticals or medical devices”).

Instructions in the 1957 book on the “Rhythm Method” include considerable verbal gymnastics and “model language and messaging”. First choice, no protection. Second choice, rhythm if you must. Third choice, don’t let a doctor talk you into a “family limitation”.

Fearful facts are provided to defend this approach. “First of all, you don’t know whether you are able to have children at all. Statistics show that about 15% of you will have no children, regardless of what you do, and another 9 or 10% will have at the most one child…It is more difficult to have children than most believe. There are only about 25 to 30 hours in a month when a conception can take place. Therefore, to practice rhythm in the early years of marriage,when you are most fertile, might perhaps deprive you of the blessing of a child.”

And in parenthesis, this special instruction for the doctor: “(The physician must make clear that he is not condemning the use of rhythm by newlyweds on moral grounds, but because it is biologically and psychologically unwise, i.e., it will deprive them of much happiness and success they might achieve in their marriage….If later on the use of rhythm is decided upon it might be recommended that the couple consult their doctor. In passing it might be mentioned that, unfortunately, some doctors are too ready to prescribe family limitations for presumed medical reasons, merely to comply with the desires of the couple.)”

Through the years, my father continued to advance the cause of the “rhythm method” not only to his patients, but also to his daughters and future daughter-in-laws. As a result, my parents eventually had 41 grandchildren, and there would have been more if their children hadn’t finally figured out for themselves what they were doing wrong.

The fact that we were all highly educated, and enjoyed the sense of security of our own personal family safety net thanks to my father’s success as a doctor, tended to accentuate the blessings of our children and soften the occasional bumps and bruises we experienced along the way. Most of our marriages survived. Our families had adequate housing in clean neighborhoods, good nutrition, good schools, reasonable and manageable stress, modest disease burdens, and little hopelessness. Others who my father cared for, whose lives were far less secure, were perhaps not so lucky. 


One Response to “The Catholic Playbook on Contraception, Circa 1950…and The Doctor’s Role In It.”

  1. Art Ulene
    October 11th, 2017 @ 9:59 am

    Wow! Thanks.

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