“These dazed dupes will gather again together and attempt to believe their dreams and disbelieve their eyes.”
These are the words of GK. Chesterton aimed at eugenicists, following his successful campaign to defeat the “Feeble-Minded Control Bill,” the 1912 proposed legislation to conﬁne and sterilize mental or “moral defectives” for “the improvement of the British breed.”
William Inge, the Anglican dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, publicly rebuked the English writer, saying that only “irrationalist prophets like Mr. Chesterton” could resist the “logic” of eugenics.
Chesterton’s so-called attack on reason would be justiﬁed if only his defense of the weakest and most vulnerable wasn’t so reasonable and logical.
By terminating the reproductive capabilities of these “undesirables,” eugenicists believed they could reduce or completely eliminate negative traits from spoiling future generations. They would do so by wielding the power of the State to sterilize and conﬁne anyone they deemed degenerate and unworthy of procreating.
This “scientiﬁcally organized State” intentionally wrestling with the “old culture of Christendom” by means of the cleansing of society of undesirables, served as fodder for Chesterton’s 1922 book Eugenics and Other Evils:
“I do not deny, but strongly affirm, the right of the State to interfere to cure a great evil. I say that in this case it would interfere to create a great evil.”
Some contemporaries of Chesterton, such as eugenicist George Bernard Shaw, urged the use of gas chambers for eradicating the disabled and unﬁt: in a 1910 lecture, Shaw reportedly said, “A part of eugenic politics would ﬁnally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them.”
However, most “enlightened” eugenicists attracted supporters by using language that sounded humane, appealing to science and progress.
But Chesterton understood exactly what they meant when they spoke of the “feeble-minded.” They meant the lower classes. They mean: ‘humanity minus ourselves.” And when they spoke of enriching humanity, they meant something else entirely:
“They mean that the public is to be given up, not as a heathen land for conversion, but simply as a pabulum for experiment… They do not know what they want, except that they want your soul and body and mine in order to ﬁnd out. . .. All other established Churches have been based on somebody having found the truth. This is the ﬁrst Church that was ever based on not having found it.”
Eight years after Chesterton devoured the eugenicists for breakfast, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti Connubii. The Holy Father singled out the unrelenting eugenicists, who “by public authority wish to prevent from marrying all those whom, even though naturally ﬁt for marriage, they consider, according to the norms and conjectures of their investigations, would, through hereditary transmission, bring forth defective oﬁspring…”
Pius’s condemnation of eugenics drew responses from the official organs of the eugenics movement, failed to engage the substance of teaching and proceeded predictably to question the encyclical’s authority, raising the possibility (in the minds of those soft on eugenics) that Pius may have overreached rather than called upon the weight of his office.
With respect to abortion, American eugenicists such as Margaret Sanger accused the pontiff of hiding behind papal pedagogy to mask his own “defiant medievalism” and of “condemning many a woman to die in the hopeless agonies of childbirth.” They intended this rhetoric to re-ignite an anti-Catholic prejudice and fan the ﬂames of fear about Rome’s supposed plot to destroy Protestant America.
The eugenics movement had indeed found a formidable enemy in the Church. Catholic advocacy groups were well-oiled, organized, and impassable opponents. Clergy worthy of their cassocks rejected eugenics in the United States and proved themselves loyal to mater ecclesiae. For example, the most prominent Catholic social thinker of the period, Rev. John A. Ryan, described eugenics as a “pseudoscience” designed by “the immoral perversion of the human faculty,” and attacked contraception as the frustration of new life that “prevent it from attaining its natural end.” Ryan also wisely observed the implications of subordinating “the weaker groups to the welfare of society,” which would become “instruments to other human beings,” perfectly echoing Chesterton’s sentiments about eugenics breeding wage-slaves for “docility” and fostering “enterprise in a few masters.”
Although Casti Connubii warned against the state’s tampering with “the integrity of the body.” and Chesterton feared that eugenics would lead to the leviathan state, Julian Huxley – whose paternal grandfather Thomas Henry enjoyed a friendship with Charles Darwin – did not mince words about government’s enforcement of eugenics. “In one or two centuries…we shall tell the man who can’t provide for himself and his family that he cannot have State aid unless he agrees not to have any more children.”
Twenty-six years after Margaret Sanger renamed her American Birth Control League the “innocuous” Planned Parenthood, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae “precipitated a storm of dissent.” Its rejection of artiﬁcial contraception was met with opposition by self-proclaimed pragmatists, who turned their backs on marriage, the poor, the elderly, and the handicapped.
In hind-sight, Paul has been proven right. Men and women today are objectiﬁed, the marital act has been divorced from procreation, and our posterity continues to be extinguished systematically by our culture’s cheapening of human life.
Chesterton closes Eugenics and Other Evils with the irony that eugenicists, “naturally fearing they might be deﬁcient… [are] so truly scientiﬁc as to have resort to specialists.”
Today, as science predicts the unnatural selection of perfect human beings, and the appetites of the world’s ravenous wolves strategically discredit the teachings of the Church, may we tremble before the Blessed Sacrament and pray that Our Lord’s swift justice prevails upon the hearts (and minds) of men, because “Earth is not heaven, but the nearest we can get to heaven ought not to look like hell.”
GILBERT MAGAZINE – May/June 2016