Who knew the Catholic Church had such sex appeal?

Dr. Herbert Ratner knew, because he had come to discover the Catholic faith as something novel, strange and wonderful.

An influential philosopher and medical doctor, he converted to Catholicism in 1938, drawn by the Church’s teaching on sexuality.

The radical activist Peter Maurin, founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, wrote a free-verse poem to commemorate Ratner’s baptism. 

        The study of sex

        brought Dr. Herbert Ratner

        into the Catholic Church.

        As a scientist

        and as a philosopher

        he maintains

        that the Catholic Church

        is foolproof

        in the matter of sex.

Foolproof: the word expresses a conviction Ratner would keep through a long career in medicine, academia and public life. He maintained it even through the storm of controversy surrounding the 1968 papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”). It was as if he had been uniquely, providentially prepared for that moment.

Raised without religion

His parents didn’t raise him to be Catholic or a pro-life hero.

In fact, they named him after the agnostic philosopher Herbert Spencer, whom they admired. Ratner’s father, a physician, was a socialist with an extreme aversion to religion. His mother once attracted the attention of the communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who professed his love for her. Though the family’s background was Jewish, the Ratners were nonobservant and nonbelieving.

Herbert Spencer Ratner was born in New York City in 1907. An intellectually gifted child, he was drawn to the practice of medicine, which he went on to study at the University of Michigan. While there, he met and married another medical student, Dorothy Smith. He also began to take courses in philosophy, which became his passion. He was especially interested in the philosophy and history of medicine.

Soon adept in these academic fields, Ratner caught the attention of Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago. With the philosopher Mortimer Adler, Hutchins was launching an educational experiment — a liberal arts curriculum centered on Socratic dialogue and the “Great Books” of Western civilization. 

Ratner, though very young, joined them as a senior colleague. He was keen to apply the wisdom found in the classics to the problems of modern medicine and rising questions in the natural sciences.

This was the mid-1930s. Sigmund Freud was still alive, and his psychosexual theories were deeply influential in both medicine and philosophy. Intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic were actively discussing eugenics and birth control. 

The former was greeted favorably in Nazi Germany. The latter had, for the first time in history, received limited approval by a Christian denomination, the Anglican Communion, in 1930.

Ratner joined the conversation on sex, engaging the arguments of Freud and other contemporaries, but subjecting them to a rigorous critique. Always fond of Aristotle, he found himself increasingly dependent on St. Thomas Aquinas.

Just as the Catholic Church seemed to be falling out of step with the world — especially in matters of sexual morality — Ratner found himself drawn to the Catholic Church. He asked for baptism in 1938.

He stayed in the big conversations about sex — in medicine, media and the university — and he was known to raise eyebrows and suspicions. At the time of his conversion, American Catholic culture tended to prudishness. He was criticized for even engaging with Freudians or the emerging field of sexology.

The Dominican priests who gave him instruction asked him to lead a seminar at the University of Chicago on “Casti Connubii” (“Of Chaste Wedlock”), Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical letter on marriage. Ratner did, and he spoke with his accustomed frankness. 

He was shocked to discover that Catholic lay people were not as impressed as he was with the Church’s teaching on sex. They saw it, he would later recall, “as a strait jacket which robbed them of many pleasures on earth — a strait jacket which had to be suffered on earth in order to attain heaven.” Yet few of them seemed genuinely to understand the doctrine or the reasoning behind it. 

Catholic physicians were worse off. They suffered similar ignorance of Catholic thought, and complained that the “rules” left them at a competitive disadvantage in the medical marketplace.

A rising star

Ratner, for his part, found the doctrine liberating — foolproof, as Peter Maurin said. And his star rose. He practiced family medicine in Chicago. He served as a contributor and consultant to the prestigious Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

He taught at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine, and from 1949 to 1974 he was the public health officer in Oak Park, Illinois. In these posts he often gained a national audience. He edited the Bulletin of the American Association of Public Health Physicians, and was known for his thoughtful consideration of issues in medical ethics. 

He was also an early promoter of the notion of informed consent in medicine. In 1957, with another physician and seven young mothers, he helped to found the La Leche League for the promotion of breastfeeding. He also launched and edited a quarterly medical journal, Child and Family, which was respected in the field.

In the mid-1950s, news came from Harvard that researchers had succeeded in developing a birth control pill — a drug that regulated women’s hormones in order to prevent ovulation. The physician who led the research, John Rock, was Catholic and argued that “The Pill” was consonant with Catholic teaching because, unlike barrier methods or withdrawal, it did not obviously change or interrupt the sexual act.

But the Pill was changing the women who took it, even in the early clinical tests overseen by Rock. Of the thousand young Puerto Rican women who took the Pill, three died from its side effects. The story went unreported and uninvestigated — and the Pill advanced mostly unopposed, even in Catholic circles.

Ratner judged the Pill a failure on both moral and medical grounds. He decided he could never prescribe it, because it was “bad medicine.” In the years that followed, he helped publicize the stories that others were suppressing — research that linked the Pill with drastically increased risks of cancer, stroke and permanent infertility. 

He appeared on national television, sometimes opposite the Pill’s team from Harvard. He actively lobbied members of Congress and the vice president.

In the United States his warnings went mostly unheeded, though his testimony was key to the banning of the Pill by the Japanese government in 1964.

In Catholic intellectual circles, he found himself occupying an unaccustomed place. Once marginalized because of his openness to new thought, he was now tagged a reactionary and an enemy of progress.

Rock’s arguments prevailed with many theologians in prestigious positions. Even the eminent and unquestionably orthodox philosopher Jacques Maritain wondered privately whether the Pill might be an option for Catholics.

The Second Vatican Council chose not to take up the question, and the pope formed a commission to study the matter. While Ratner said he would accept whatever the Magisterium decided about the morality of the Pill, he continued to reject it on medical grounds.

At the same time he noted “a major push … to liberalize abortion laws” — and he saw clearly its connection with the acceptance of contraception.

In 1966 he told an interviewer: “I think, actually, this is part of the sexual revolution that seeks to separate the pleasure aspect — which some call the recreational aspect — of sex from the procreational aspect. Easily obtainable abortion completes the circle of certitude. It corrects all the human and technological failures of contraception.”

Beginning in 1964, Ratner worked with a consortium of clergy and medical professionals to sponsor international symposia on the medical, scientific, sociological and ethical reasons to oppose the practice of abortion. 

In 1967, the medical members broke off from the clergy and created the National Commission on Human Life, Reproduction and Rhythm. It was the first national pro-life organization to be founded in the United States. The commission continued to sponsor the international symposia, and Ratner published related medical research in the journal Child and Family.

When the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” arrived in 1968, there was widespread dissent in academia. The epicenter of the rebellion was Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., but the media carried it everywhere instantly. A bishop in Minnesota resigned his office in protest of the encyclical, left the priesthood and married.

The encyclical had vindicated Ratner, but the victory must have seemed Pyrrhic.

Expendable women

He remained a minority voice, in medicine and even in American Catholicism, but with a small band of colleagues he untiringly delivered the message. He spoke of “abortion, of sterilization, of the IUD and the Pill” as “chemical warfare against the women of the world, and the tools of social engineers to whom women are expendable.” 

In the pages of Child and Family, and from the few bully pulpits he occupied, he publicized the research the media was ignoring. Medical studies vindicated him even more thoroughly than Pope Paul VI had.

Ratner continued to speak up even when, crippled by strokes in the late 1990s, he could barely speak. He died at age 90 in 1997.

History, too, has borne witness to the consequences of widespread contraception — in the demographic winter, in the epidemic of divorce and sexually transmitted infections, and in the confusion of the sexes about the purpose of sex. All of this Ratner predicted long ago, and all of this Pope Paul confirmed prophetically and infallibly. Today, even The New York Times has begun to notice.

In a 1979 address, Ratner observed: “Whereas God always forgives, and man sometimes forgives, nature never forgives. The bitter lesson of repeated human experience is that, when one thwarts nature, nature rebukes, retaliates, strikes back.”

This has proven especially true in matters of sex, which Ratner counted among God’s greatest gifts — one of the gifts that had made him Catholic.

Mike Aquilina is a contributing editor of Angelus. He is author of many books, including “The Healing Imperative: The Early Church and the Invention of Medicine as We Know It” (Emmaus Road Press, 2016).

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