Tentler, a professor of history at The Catholic University of America, has given an excellent companion piece which straddles both the history and the approach of two classics of the contraception issue in the Catholic Church, namely John Noonan's encyclopedic Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965, 1986) and Robert Blair Kaiser's journalistic account The Politics of Sex and Religion (also published as The Encyclical That Never Was: The Story of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth, 1964-1966, [London: Sheed & Ward, 1985, 1987]). Taken together all three would support the thesis that the actual history is more complicated than the memory of the "constant teaching" of the Church on birth control. Tentler's overriding thesis is that the recent history of American Catholicism can only be understood by taking into account birth control which she amply and ably demonstrates, "has been a divisive issue in American Catholicism since at least the 1920s, when the teaching—itself of antique origin—began to assume a dominant role in American Catholic life" (p. 4). At the end of her survey she calls for ongoing communal reflection on marriage and sexual ethics that ought to involve every constituency in the Church, but which observes that it is "ironic, not to say tragic, that birth control gets in the way" (p. 279).
Rather than focusing on the Church hierarchy and theologians though, as Noonan and Kaiser do, Tentler concentrates on the lay people in the American pews and the priests in the pulpits and confessionals from a period which commences with the nearly unanimous opposition to birth control by religious leaders in the late nineteenth century and concludes with the period of the initial reaction, and large-scale rejection which the American Catholic laity accorded to Paul VI's 1968 Encyclical Humanae vitae which reaffirmed the unconditional ban on artificial contraception. Along the way Tentler shows the larger forces of cultural change and the development of mores which would impact views of sex and sexuality beyond simply the contraception question/issue. Her work brings together an incredible amount of research into the archives of dioceses and religious orders, especially those who preached the once popular parish missions which were a bulwark of support for the Church's position on birth control. This archival research is augmented by a considerable number of interviews conducted with American clergy who were ordained prior to 1960. The book concludes with a riveting account of the role played by John Ford, S.J. as a peritus at Vatican II, and his behind-the-scenes efforts to thwart the Pontifical Birth Control Commission's majority report which had called for a change in the Church's absolute opposition to birth control. Tentler shows, though, that Ford's victory with the publication of Humanae vitae had the opposite effect of what he expected, since the resulting fallout did not prevent American Catholics' practice of birth control from mirroring that of the general population and exacerbated a significant decline in the obedience and respect given to the Church's hierarchical authority.
Particularly fascinating was to read the history of the efforts to resist legalization of birth control in light of the recent efforts by some in the hierarchy to use ecclesiastical power to force Catholic politicians to adopt certain concrete legislative stances on abortion. Similar efforts to change the political landscape in resisting legalization of birth control were totally unsuccessful and left the secular world looking at the Catholic Church as being out of touch with the sexual ethics of marriage and against the social welfare of the poor and women. This experience might indicate a different approach to confront the contemporary issues related to abortion if the Church hopes to make a positive impact in this area.
Though this book is an absolutely excellent piece of historical scholarship it is often repetitious, making virtually the same points over and over again, often with the same evidence, but perhaps this is the side-effect of documentary thoroughness. It would be a better popular read though if Tentler had been a bit more selective in her presentation of corroborating evidence for her major points. As a moral theologian I wish that Tentler had attempted a bit more along the lines of a theological critique of the various positions pro and con regarding birth control, but my biggest regret is that she simply stops too soon—treating Humanae vitae and its aftermath in a rather brief epilogue. Since Noonan's revised edition of Contraception ended at roughly the same point we are still waiting for a good history of the post-1968 period. This book deserves to be read not only by historians, bu by all theology students, clergy, bishops, and everyone who wishes to have a better understanding of how the constant Tradition of the Church develops in this critical area.