From the Sept/Oct, 2014 issue of Touchstone
catholic The Hundred Years' War by Brantly Millegan


The Hundred Years' War

The Culture of Death's Campaign Against the Catholic Church

When it comes to advancing the culture of death in the West, the strategy most often used by its leaders has three parts, all centered on the Catholic Church.

First, isolate the Catholic Church from the rest of society. Frame any debate as the Catholic Church versus some other group or cause (women, Protestants, science, progress, and so on, or any combination of such). Sometimes the isolation will be somewhat rhetorical; at other times the Catholic Church will in fact be largely alone on the issue, in which case the goal is to emphasize that isolation.

Second, isolate the Catholic hierarchy from the laity. Attack the hierarchy specifically, not all Catholics. Point out that many Catholics don't follow church teaching. Give dissenting Catholics cover by framing the debate within the church as being between liberalism and conservatism (non-theological categories) rather than between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Highlight prominent dissenting Catholic theologians, scientists, and politicians.

Third, actively court dissenting Catholics and give them a prominent voice. Assert that the church will, of course, eventually embrace the liberal view anyway, making the dissenters the courageous pioneers who led the way.

One may recognize these as the tactics employed by the Obama administration and its secular liberal allies with regard to the so-called HHS contraception mandate. The mandate's supporters have, for example: pinpointed the Catholic Church as the primary obstacle to universal coverage of contraception and sterilization in employer-provided insurance plans; highlighted statements of support from lay Catholic organizations that have openly contradicted the Catholic bishops on this issue; cited on the White House blog a faulty statistic that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception; and given prominence to the dissenting Catholic government officials who have promulgated and supported the mandate, including Kathleen Sebelius, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and others.

These tactics were not new with the Obama administration, however; they are elements of a strategy that was used successfully in several other cultural debates that have taken place over the last hundred years. Three related movements from the last century will serve to illustrate this: the movement for the legalization and cultural acceptance of contraception; the population control movement; and the movement to legalize abortion. I will examine each of these in turn.

Margaret Sanger & the Birth Control Movement

When Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916, she was deliberately engaging in an act of civil disobedience, since the anti-contraception "Comstock Law" had been enacted by Congress decades earlier, in 1873. Sanger was soon arrested, tried, and sentenced to 30 days in jail, but her mini-martyrdom garnered publicity for the contraception cause and for her as one of its most important leaders.

The contraception movement was situated within the broader eugenics movement of her day, and she was spurred on in her efforts both because she thought contraception would liberate women and because she hoped access to contraception would limit the increase of racial minorities and others she and her fellow eugenicists believed to be genetically inferior. The procreating limits were needed, they thought, not only to improve the gene pool, but also to combat overpopulation and its negative impact on the environment. In blunt terms, eugenicists were worried that blacks were having too many kids and that they would ruin the natural environment for whites.

In the 1910s and 1920s, Sanger developed what ended up being her winning strategy: framing contraception as a Catholic issue and exploiting deep-seated suspicion of Catholicism among Protestants. Lutheran scholar Allan Carlson explains:

[T]o finally succeed, Sanger needed an enemy; the Roman Catholic Church fit the bill perfectly. . . . [H]er study of and involvement in socialist activities before the war had taught her the value of a clearly identified foe when launching a social-political movement. Already marginalized in American life, Catholics were the obvious choice. In her desire to gain a sacred canopy for birth control, she could easily play on four-century-old antipathies between Protestants and Catholics to bring the former to her side. . . . [She] asserted the birth control movement was only seeking what "any good Protestant" would want but was "prohibited from achieving . . . by an alien, half-Americanized Roman Catholicism." ("Sanger's Victory," Touchstone, January/February 2011.)

Though all Protestant denominations still officially opposed the use of contraception at this time, many of Sanger's most significant public opponents were Catholic. Fr. John Ryan, head of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Conference, forcefully challenged Sanger publicly in various periodicals. He also composed a pastoral letter on the issue that was adopted by the American Catholic bishops and distributed to the laity.
In 1921, the New York Times published a Christmas letter from Archbishop Patrick Hayes of New York, in which he confirmed the Catholic teaching against contraception. Sanger was invited to write a reply, in which her strategy was evident:

"There is no objection to the Catholic Church inculcating its doctrines to its own people, but when it attempts to make these ideas legislative acts and enforce its opinions and code of morals upon the Protestant members of this country, then I do consider its attempt an interference with the principles of this democracy, and I have a right to protest." (Carlson, ibid.)

There were Protestants who spoke out against contraception, contradicting Sanger's narrative, but Sanger ignored them. Instead, Carlson notes, "by claiming to defend the Protestant conscience from Roman oppression, she left the impression that Protestants were on her side, in the apparent hope that this would become a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Sanger's work was also buoyed by the increasing popularity of the eugenics movement. With promises that genetic perfection would usher in a new golden era, Sanger was able to paint opposition to contraception as not only papist but also unscientific.

Her strategy worked. The Anglican Church officially accepted contraception at its 1930 Lambeth Conference, and other mainline Protestant denominations soon followed suit.

Evangelicals resisted the cultural tide a bit longer. In response to Pope Pius XI's encyclical Casti Connubii, which reaffirmed the Catholic Church's rejection of contraception, sterilization, and abortion, Moody Bible Institute Monthly gushed with praise: "We trust we shall not be accused of going over to Roman Catholicism if we speak approvingly of the late Encyclical of the Pope. . . . [W]e wish all the great denominational bodies of Protestantism would be as positive and bold." But over the next three decades, Evangelicals, too, capitulated. By the advent of the Pill in 1960, contraception had for all practical purposes become a "Catholic issue"—or even, since so many lay Catholics embraced contraception, a "Catholic hierarchy issue."

Sanger later wrote in her autobiography:

"[I]t [has] been apparent that in the United States the Catholic hierarchy and officialdom were going to be the principal enemies of birth control. . . . All who resent this sinister Church Control of life and conduct . . . must now choose between Church Control and Birth Control. You must make a declaration of independence, of self-reliance, or submit to the dictatorship of the Roman Catholic hierarchy . . . a dictatorship of celibates." (Carlson, ibid.)

The Catholic Church remains the only major organization that Sanger was unable to crack, so perhaps her rhetoric that the Catholic Church was the principal enemy of contraception actually contained as much genuine insight as it did political calculation.

Paul Ehrlich & the Population Control Movement

Sanger's strategy was replayed by two other related movements in the late 1960s: the ones to combat the pseudo-specter of overpopulation and to legalize abortion. They probably were not inspired by Sanger directly, but neither were they unconnected with her.

The eugenics movement, in which Sanger's work was firmly situated, was forced to rebrand itself after World War II because of its association with Nazi eugenicists (who were explicitly supported by American eugenicists in the 1930s), who had had successfully implemented a horrific eugenics program, i.e., the Holocaust, while they held control of Germany. To distance itself from the bad press, the movement dropped the term "eugenics," as well as its focus on racial purity (at least it was no longer made explicit), but the overpopulation and environmental elements remained.

So when entomologist Paul Ehrlich was commissioned by the environmental group the Sierra Club to write a popular book on overpopulation, he kept with Sanger's strategy of singling out the Catholic Church as a particularly deviant organization. His bestselling book, The Population Bomb (1968) also cited other factors as blocks to population control—the business community, a consumerist culture, lack of political will, and general apathy—but all of those things are broad and impersonal.

Whereas Sanger's focus on the Catholic Church was either rhetorical or prophetic (or a bit of both), Ehrlich's focus was based on the clear facts of his day: the Catholic Church was in fact the only major organization that still rejected the use of contraception, sterilization, and abortion under all circumstances, voluntary or involuntary. These were the three primary tools in the population controller's tool belt.

In his chapter "What Needs to Be Done?" Ehrlich devoted several pages to assessing the role of the Catholic Church in disrupting population control efforts, and he recommended ways to overcome its influence. He acknowledged that the Catholic magisterium's positions remained unchanged, so he tried to discredit its teaching for the laity.

For instance, he cited a poll showing that a majority of American Catholics disagreed with the church's teaching. He quoted (though without footnote) the blistering dissent of a Catholic scholar, Dr. John H. Thomas, who asserted, "There is no doubt in my mind that the position of the Church with respect to birth control is morally wrong. . . . It contributes to the misery and starvation of billions, and perhaps the end of civilization as we
know it" (136).

Ehrlich also referred to a letter sent by a group of scientists to Pope Paul VI, which voiced disagreement with the pope's anti-contraception encyclical Humanae Vitae. The letter, its writers pointed out, was signed by "well over a thousand scientists . . . [including] hundreds of Catholics, several Nobel Prize winners, and many scientists from outside the United States." As Ehrlich quotes it, it reads in part:

"We pledge that we will no longer be impressed by pleas for world peace or compassion for the poor from a man whose deeds help to promote war and make poverty inevitable. The world must quickly come to realize that Pope Paul VI has sanctioned the deaths of countless numbers of human beings with his misguided and immoral encyclical." (137)

Ehrlich himself says he thinks "the encouragement of high death rates through political interference is now the most important role of the Church in the
population crisis" (138).

But he also cautions population controllers against focusing too much on the Catholic Church, since he expects that it will eventually follow the path of most of its contemporaries and change its teachings:

It is a mistake to focus too strongly on the Catholic element in the population situation. True, we must bring pressure to bear on the Pope in hope of getting a reversal of the Church's position. . . . [But] I think the Catholic situation is much more amenable to solution than that associated with our current views of economics. The winds of change are clearly blowing in religion—blowing too late, perhaps, but blowing." (138–139)

Nonetheless, at the end of the book, where he gives the average population controller advice on how to support the movement, he includes advice on how to undermine the Catholic Church specifically. Alongside recommendations that people pressure the mainstream media to stigmatize large families (163), that schoolteachers give "subtle propaganda to the kiddies" (177), and that, in order to normalize contraceptives, parents "give [their] child an IUD to take to 'show and tell'" at school (166), he exhorts Catholics to pressure the church hierarchy to change the church's teachings (he even includes sample letters to the pope and to a local archbishop in the appendix) and recommends that they "withdraw financial support from [their] diocese and channel it into liberal Catholic causes" (164). Finally, in a chapter in which he gives advice on how best to proselytize friends of varying beliefs and backgrounds, whom he calls "targets" (e.g., "Target already has eight kids"; "Target is extreme liberal"; "Target is a university professor"), he has special advice for when your "target is a deeply religious Catholic" (170). He singles out no other religion, or specific organization of any sort, in the chapter.

Of course, more than forty years later, nearly all of Ehrlich's predictions have proven false: there have been no mass starvations as he predicted; India and other countries he thought were already lost are the leading emerging economies of our day; and the Catholic Church has remained unmoved by "the winds of change . . . blowing in religion."

NARAL & the Abortion Movement

In 1969, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, an ob-gyn, helped co-found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America) with journalist Larry Lader. While Nathanson was motivated by what he thought was social injustice (poor women were denied abortions, while wealthy women could afford to travel to where it was legal), Lader was concerned primarily about overpopulation.

The two organized lobbying efforts and demonstrations for the repeal of all restrictions on abortion, and worked to exploit loopholes in the current laws to expand access to abortion. Nathanson himself performed abortions and even developed new abortion techniques. From 1971–1972, he was the director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health in New York, which at the time was the largest abortion clinic in the world.

But new information made available through advancements in ultrasound technology led Nathanson to rethink his position. In 1974, he wrote a piece for the New England Journal of Medicine called "Deeper into Abortion" in which he explained, "I am deeply troubled by my own increasing certainty that I had in fact presided over 60,000 deaths." The next year, he resigned from NARAL and became a leading pro-life advocate. And in 1979, he published Aborting America, in which he explained the pro-abortion movement from the inside and why he changed his mind.

Though he eventually joined the Catholic Church in 1996 at age 70, Nathanson was a self-identified atheist when he published Aborting America, as he explains early in the book:

"I have never entered a synagogue again since [my Bar Mitzvah], nor, may I add, any other house of worship. My father undermined religiosity in me so continually and so artfully that I was left with nothing to believe in. Consequently, I am not only a convinced atheist but have never been particularly interested in organized religion. It is fair to say that my opinions about abortion—or anything else—have never been influenced in the slightest by the empires of faith." (6)

Before establishing NARAL, Nathanson and Lader met many times to discuss ways to get abortion laws repealed. In Aborting America, Nathanson describes one conversation they had in 1968 while driving home from a trip, a passage worth quoting at length:

Then Larry brought out his favorite whipping-boy.

". . . and the other thing we've got to do is bring the Catholic hierarchy out where we can fight them. That's the real enemy. The biggest single obstacle to peace and decency throughout all of history."

He held forth on that theme through most of the drive home. It was a comprehensive and chilling indictment of the poisonous influence of Catholicism in secular affairs from its inception until the day before yesterday. I was far from an admirer of the church's role in the world chronicle, but his insistent, uncompromising recitation brought to mind the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It passed through my mind that if one had substituted "Jewish" for "Catholic," it would have been the most vicious anti-Semitic tirade imaginable. I attempted a mild remonstrance.

"But, Larry, the Catholic Church isn't all bad. Don't forget that among other things they did more or less keep the intellectual world together in the Dark Ages. . . . Well, Larry, what do you think? Is the Catholic hierarchy identical with the anti-abortion forces? Aren't there any others opposed to abortion?" As I nosed the car into the Lincoln Tunnel traffic, he set the intellectual tone for the next eight years with a single word.

"No." (33)

He also describes another conversation they had early on in the strategic planning for the newly formed NARAL:

Larry read me my last basic lesson in the political primer.

"Historically," he said after the usual throat-clearing ceremony, "every revolution has to have its villain. It doesn't really matter whether it's a king, a dictator, or a tsar, but it has to be someone, a person, to rebel against. It's easier for the people we want to persuade to perceive it this way." I conceded that. It was good tactical strategy. "Now, in our case, it makes little sense to lead a campaign only against unjust laws, even though that's what we really are doing. We have to narrow the focus, identify those unjust laws with a person or a group of people. A single person isn't quite what we want, since that might excite sympathy for him. Rather, a small group of shadowy, powerful people. Too large a group would diffuse the focus, don't you see? . . . There's always been one group of people in this country associated with reactionary politics, behind-the-scenes manipulation, socially backward ideas. You know who I mean, Bernie."

Not the Catholics again? "Well, yes and no." Throat-clearing again. A heavy thought coming. And I wasn't wrong. It was his devil theory.

"Not just all Catholics. First of all, that's too large a group, and for us to vilify them all would diffuse our focus. Secondly, we have to convince liberal Catholics to join us, a popular front as it were, and if we tar them all with the same brush, we'll just antagonize a few who might otherwise have joined us and be valuable showpieces for us. No, it's got to be the Catholic hierarchy. That's a small enough group to come down on, and anonymous enough so that no names ever have to be mentioned, but everybody will have a fairly good idea whom we are talking about." (51)

In lockstep with the culture of death's usual strategy, Lader identified the Catholic Church as the primary (if not sole) opponent of their work; he selected the Catholic hierarchy as the target of their public relations strategy; and he planned to court dissenting Catholics.

The Enemy of the Enemy

For more than a century, the trifecta of contraception, sterilization, and abortion, with the pseudo-science of overpopulation as a major justification for their use (and often imposition), has advanced almost as a seamless garment of the culture of death, enveloping most of the world. And the recurring strategy for its advancement includes singling out the Catholic Church. But has the Catholic Church really been its only enemy?

Evangelical Protestants are the most significant exception, though only a partial one. They have largely maintained their liberal stances on contraception and sterilization, but many have stood up for Catholics against the HHS mandate (Mike Huckabee: "We are all Catholics now") and brought suits to challenge it (the owners of Hobby Lobby, who won a favorable decision from the Supreme Court on the issue in June, are an Evangelical family). And after flirting with abortion exceptions in the 1970s, they returned full force to abortion opposition in the 1980s. Still, while Evangelical Protestants consistently vote pro-life, on-the-ground activism remains dominated by Catholics.

Another reason the Catholic Church has been singled out may be a practical one: the Catholic Church is an organization with clearly identified leaders, members, and teachings. Evangelical Protestantism by its very nature lacks all three.

There's no indication that Sanger, Ehrlich, and Lader were Satanists or intentionally working for evil. But neither were they stupid. While they may have been blinded to the evil of their goals, they brilliantly employed the full range of their skills—rhetorical, strategic, and analytic—to achieve them. And though they experienced first-hand the inadequacies of the Catholic Church's counteracting efforts, all three nonetheless knew who the chief enemy of their cause was.

And they were correct. The Catholic Church is indeed the arch-nemesis of the Enemy and his culture of death—and ever shall be. 

more on catholic from the online archives

29.3—May/June 2016

Health of the Nation

A Deathbed Reflection on Catholic Social Teaching & Our Future Prospects by Karl D. Stephan

27.5—Sept/Oct 2014

The Hundred Years' War

The Culture of Death's Campaign Against the Catholic Church by Brantly Millegan

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