So often these days, it seems the Catholic Church can’t get anything right.
Here's one time they did.
Yes, Pope Francis has shown himself to be a rock star with a golden touch. Last month, he even seemed to crack the doctrinal door open a bit, in terms of possibly welcoming divorced Catholics back into the fold.
Of course, the Church’s ongoing bungling of the sex abuse issue makes it easy to forget the nuns, priests and others who work tirelessly with the poor and sick every day. Indeed, a new book even reminds us that there are times when church leaders actually end up on the right side of history.
The book is called "Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck." Written by Adam Cohen, the book provides a chilling look at the widespread eugenics movement of the early 20th century, when some of America’s top minds argued that some people were simply not fit to procreate.
“Starting with Indiana in 1907, states adopted legislation authorizing forced sterilization of people judged to have hereditary defects,” Cohen writes. “Within six years, 12 states had such laws. They called for sterilizing anyone with ‘defective’ traits, such as epilepsy, criminality, alcoholism, or ‘dependency’ – another word for poverty.”
Immigrants were among those considered “defective” by many in the pro-eugenics movement.
And, while (as Cohen writes) there was “no strong, national movement opposing eugenic sterilization,” the group that was “most organized in its opposition was the Catholic Church.”
Cohen adds, “Many Catholics believed sterilization violated natural law...and they mobilized against sterilization laws. In many states with large Catholic populations, including Massachusetts and Louisiana, the church’s opposition played a critical role.”
A key figure in Cohen’s book is Supreme Court Justice Pierce Butler, the child of Irish immigrants, who was also the only Catholic serving on the high court.
Cohen’s book centers around the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. At the center of the case was the constitutionality of forced sterilization. Did states really have a right to decide who was “unfit” and, thus, subject to forced sterilization?
In an 8-1 decision, written by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the court decided that, indeed, the state did have a right to force the likes of Carrie Buck to undergo forced sterilization. Buck was said to be “feeble-minded” and already had one child when she was 18 years old. It appears, however, that the child was not the result of promiscuity, as authorities charged, but because Buck was raped.
Nevertheless, Holmes infamously wrote that there was a social benefit in sterilizing people like Buck.
"Three generations of imbeciles are enough," Holmes wrote.
The one dissenting justice was Pierce Butler.
As Cohen notes, Buck v. Bell has never been overturned.