Skip to main content

An Image of God

The Catholic Struggle with Eugenics

During the first half of the twentieth century, supporters of the eugenics movement offered an image of a racially transformed America by curtailing the reproduction of “unfit” members of society. Through institutionalization, compulsory sterilization, the restriction of immigration and marriages, and other methods, eugenicists promised to improve the population—a policy agenda that was embraced by many leading intellectuals and public figures. But Catholic activists and thinkers across the United States opposed many of these measures, asserting that “every man, even a lunatic, is an image of God, not a mere animal."

In An Image of God, Sharon Leon examines the efforts of American Catholics to thwart eugenic policies, illuminating the ways in which Catholic thought transformed the public conversation about individual rights, the role of the state, and the intersections of race, community, and family. Through an examination of the broader questions raised in this debate, Leon casts new light on major issues that remain central in American political life today: the institution of marriage, the role of government, and the separation of church and state. This is essential reading in the history of religion, science, politics, and human rights.

240 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2013

History: American History

History of Science

Political Science: Public Policy

Religion: American Religions, Religion and Society


"If there is a story long overdue for telling, surely it is the story of how and why the Catholic Church and its faithful stood against the eugenics movement at a time when just about everyone else had gotten on the pro-eugenics bandwagon. In An Image of God, Sharon M. Leon tells the story and tells it exceptionally well. The book is worth reading not only for what it teaches us about the past, but also for the lessons it imparts at a time when eugenics ideologies are being revived and presented in new rhetorical garb."

Robert P. George | Princeton University

“Passionately argued, engagingly written, and based on extensive research, An Image of God will be essential reading for historians of eugenics and students of Catholic activism in the United States. With this book, Sharon M. Leon fills a huge gap in the scholarly literature.”

Molly Ladd-Taylor | York University

"Sharon M. Leon’s An Image of God deftly explores how modern American Catholic anti-eugenicists survived their own conflicts and stumbles to secure a substantial moral achievement for Catholic social teaching in a nation still often doubtful about Catholicism itself. This book is deeply researched and affectingly written; few books better illustrate the maturation of twentieth-century American Catholicism, especially in science, and the compromised choices that men and women seeking good often faced in their real and deficient world."

Jon Butler | Yale University

“This scholarly but very readable study cuts across several categories: the religious and legal aspects of sterilization; moral and ethical aspects of eugenics; the interplay of science and religion; and US and Catholic history in the first half of the twentieth century. . . . The author’s writing is clear, persuasive, and nuanced; her meticulous research, drawn from both original and secondary sources, is deep and thoroughly documented. . . . A valuable addition. . .”

Catholic Library World

“Popular commentary on the history of eugenics in America often operates at the level of cartoon, with anti-Darwinian religionists of many stripes posed against the forces of scientific materialism. Leon’s book provides an antidote to that kind of ahistorical polemic by showing in textured detail how the Catholic hierarchy as well as the laity struggled with the many-faceted seductions of eugenics.”

Catholic Historical Review

“No scholar has done more to document the relations between the US eugenics movement and the Roman Catholic Church than Leon. . . . Leon’s account of how the Church played a large role in defeating the eugenics movement is persuasive and eye-opening.”

History of Science Society

“Rejecting the oversimplified and inaccurate trope of inherent Catholic hostility to science (though that language was sometimes used by eugenicists to describe their opponents), Leon shows how American Catholics mobilized against state laws permitting involuntary sterilization, highlighting abuses in existing laws, and calling into question some of the scientific claims about the hereditary nature of so-called feeble-mindedness. . . . An Image of God gives the reader some useful insight into how the historiography of eugenics and its opposition might need to be reconsidered. Perhaps its greater contribution is to our understanding of American Catholicism as an emergent political force in the early twentieth century, a development that has continued to shape the discussion of religion, biology, and politics in the twenty-first-century United States.”

Journal of the History of Medicine

“Essential reading for researchers with a specialist interest in Catholic opinions about bioethical issues, especially in twentieth-century America.”

American Historical Review

“Adding depth and complexity to the history of eugenics in the United States, Leon’s work is a valuable contribution to the growing literature regarding Catholicism and science in the twentieth century.”

British Journal for the History of Science

Table of Contents

An Image of God, Not a Mere Animal: An Introduction
A Note on Sources

ONE  / For the Welfare of the Race: The Early Clash over Reproduction and Community
TWO / Cooperative Clergy? Catholics in the American Eugenics Society
THREE / Practical Means: Catholic Strategies for Protesting Sterilization Statutes
FOUR / Supreme Authorities: Catholicism and Eugenics beyond the Borders
FIVE / The Greatest Obstacle: The Growth of a Confident Opposition
SIX / A Great, Popular, Noncontroversial, and Effective Movement: Struggling with the “New Eugenics”



Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press