Defending 'Humanae Vitae' in the post-Christian age
Janet E. Smith is a moral theology professor who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, an M.A. from the University of North Carolina and a B.A. from Grinnell College, all in classics or classical languages. She is a consultor (now in her third term) to the Pontifical Council on the Family and also serves the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity as a member of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission III.
Dr. Smith is the author of Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and of the Right to Privacy and the editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader. She coauthored Life Issues, Medical Choices, Questions and Answers for Catholics, with Professor Christopher Kaczor of Loyola Marymount University’s philosophy department. She has written articles for The Thomist, The Irish Theological Quarterly, Nova et Vetera, The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, The National Catholic Bioethics Journal and other publications.
Dr. Smith holds two honorary doctorates and speaks internationally on Catholic teachings about sexuality and bioethics. She has appeared on the Geraldo show, Fox Morning News, CNN International, CNN Newsroom, Al Jazeera and EWTN.
On Oct. 5, I interviewed Dr. Smith by email about contraception and pro-life issues in the Catholic Church.
Recent surreptitious videos seemingly revealed troubling practices at Planned Parenthood—specifically the selling of “baby parts” or fetal tissue used in abortions—and caused a political deadlock in Washington, D.C. As a moral theology professor who teaches bioethics, what is your perspective on this issue?
I have no special perspective as a moral theology professor who teaches bioethics. I can't get past being just a sensible, ordinary human being who has always found abortion to be an abomination. I hadn’t heard of abortion until I was about 19 or so, as a college student in Iowa at the very radical Grinnell College. Going off to a meeting of feminists who were urging us to write letters to liberalize abortion laws, I stopped at the library to read up on what abortion actually is. I was struck by the statement that the Catholic Church understood it as a procedure that destroys life within the womb. When I went to the meeting and no one was willing to state when life begins, I realized neither science nor philosophy was behind the push to legalize abortion.
Indeed, to this day, I find advocates of abortion distressingly unwilling to address the question of when human life/personhood begins and when they do, their answers are not difficult to refute. It wasn’t until years later that I figured out it was largely irresponsible sexual behavior that was making abortion more and more a “necessity” rather than confusion about when human life begins. (Thus my interest in contraception.)
I am extremely grateful for the videos and for what the clever and brave David Daleiden has done. Americans have become more and more uncomfortable with abortion: it is getting increasingly difficult to claim we don’t know when human life begins. Even some prominent feminists acknowledged decades ago that abortion kills a human being. Selling “baby parts” is no worse than abortion and perhaps not as bad as abortion. I think the videos allow people who haven’t found the courage to protest abortion, to protest this barbaric practice. The numbers of those opposed to abortion will surely grow.
During his U.S. visit several months ago, Pope Francis spoke to a joint session of Congress about the importance of protecting all human life from womb to tomb, earning a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle. What did you make of this moment in a first-ever papal address to the U.S. Congress?
I think the standing ovation hardly indicated widespread support for the need to protect life in the womb. Sadly, it may have been a sort of herd instinct and a general enthusiasm for the golden rule and for Pope Francis. I was, of course, very happy for his remarks but am among those who wish he had used the opportunity to make the kind of case he made in “Laudato Si’,” where he said:
Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? ‘If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away’ [quoting Caritas in Veritate] (No. 120).
Here he links abortion with the concerns with which he is most identified—the environment and the vulnerable. He is saying that we aren’t really protecting nature, unless we protect unborn human beings, who are a part of “nature.” And that unborn human beings share with the other vulnerable people the fact of sometimes being troublesome or inconvenient but that they deserve protection. Even more so, that when we lose respect for life in the womb, we lose respect for other vulnerable life as well—after all, for instance, the handicapped could have been aborted; can they really make claim on our resources? Should we not make assisted suicide available to them? Or deny them expensive medical care?
Pope Francis is at his best when he uses snappy images and language to make his points. I think the address to Congress was a bit too abstract and less compelling because it did not make some of his key points with the force that his approach can often achieve. We saw that he is at his best with “real” people— prisoners, children, families—so he did succeed in getting his message out eventually.
Pope Francis also made an unexpected visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, supporting them in their lawsuit against the Obama administration over mandatory contraception coverage in non-profit health care plans. While most Catholics have argued against this part of Obamacare as a matter of religious freedom, what can you tell us about it from a moral theology standpoint?
To some degree it is happenstance that contraception is the issue that has sparked the concern for religious freedom. The increasing secularization of our culture has meant that a showdown concerning religious freedom was inevitable, whether, for instance, it involved contraception or homeschooling or baking wedding cakes for same sex weddings.
The question of religious liberty is incredibly important for moral theology and bioethics since there is great evidence that the state is going to continue to impose the corrupt values of our culture on everyone: already Catholics have had to shut down some of their important charitable activities, such as adoption services, because of oppressive policies of the government. We can expect Catholic physicians to be required to do all sorts of things that are immoral, even abortions, and for Catholic teachers to be required to teach what is immoral.
You have been a passionate interpreter of Pope Paul VI’s teaching on contraception in “Humanae Vitae,” but many U.S. Catholics continue to ignore or reject it. Some of your colleagues in moral theology have meanwhile argued that Catholic teaching against contraception is only infallible if the church accepts it. What would you say to them?
It seems an implausible claim on the face of it. Catholics reject a whole host of teachings and some more at one time than another. Conceivably there were times when most Catholics rejected the church’s teaching on the equality of women or of all races but that rejection does not impact what is true or the status of a teaching.
Perhaps you are referencing the sensus fidelium which virtually no one equates to the results of polls. I have written an article about the sensus fidelium and “Humanae Vitae” ("The Sensus Fidelium and Humanae Vitae," Angelicum 83, 2006, 271-297). The key questions are who qualifies as the “faithful”: those who have been baptized Catholic?; practicing Catholics? (and what does that mean?); Catholics who can at least give a sketch of the reasons for the church’s teaching? Since most Catholics don’t go to Catholic schools (and even those who do often don’t receive good instruction on church teaching), where do Catholics learn the reasons behind church teaching? This is a problem across the board, for social teachings as well as sexual ones.
From your perspective, what is the strongest part of “Humanae Vitae”?
That it has elements of John Paul II’s personalism in it and thus combines both natural law terminology and personalist concepts. Speaking of the spousal act as having both a procreative and unitive meaning is a striking claim; it shows that the spousal act is not merely biological; it is a means of communication. To communicate through the bodily act of spousal intercourse to another that one wishes to have a lifetime union with him or her is inseparable from the communication that one is willing to be a parent with another. What a statement it is to say “I am willing to be a parent with you.” For those who have any idea what is involved it is a phenomenal statement of affirmation.
The spousal act should always be a phenomenal act of affirmation: “I belong to you in a way in which I belong to no one else. I am willing to be a co-creator of a new life with you and all that that involves.” Clearly “Humanae Vitae” does not see the sexual act as something strictly biological or physiological. One should be willing to be a parent only with one whom one loves, with one whom one is willing to spend one’s entire life. Contraceptive sex does not have written into it a pledge of a lifetime union; it has been reduced to a rather momentary act. Spousal intercourse that respects and does not violate the procreative possibility of the sexual act, retains the message that one is willing to be a parent with another and thus to be in a lifetime union with another.
What is the weakest part of “Humanae Vitae”?
I actually think it is a remarkably strong document, though perhaps too compact. I think greater reference to the pronatalism of Scripture would have made it a stronger document, though that would have been difficult in a time when the since discredited overpopulation scare was in full bloom. I think “Familiaris Consortio” and John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” are tremendous supplements to “Humanae Vitae,” but it is an encyclical that when read closely yields wonderful and persuasive arguments.
You once recorded a popular audio talk called “Contraception: Why Not.” In summary form, what do you believe is the best argument against contraception?
That talk depends a surprising amount on consequentialist arguments—the argument that contraception has had terrible consequences, for women, for relationships, for children, for the culture. I take that approach largely to get people’s attention and because it is true and explains a lot of the problems our culture has—unwed parenthood, fatherless children, divorce and even poverty.
And once people have been shaken out of their stupor, I give the stronger non-consequentialist reasons. I explain that contraception treats fertility and children as threats to human happiness rather than inestimable gifts. I explain that the language spoken by bodies that have their fertility voluntarily shut down is a very different language than that spoken by bodies that reverence the gift of fertility. One is a language of a momentary union, the other is the language directed towards an unlimited future with another.
Moreover, those who contracept are having sex on their terms, not God’s. John Paul II’s chapter in Love and Responsibility entitled “Justice to the Creator” is fantastic. He shows how contraception does not honor the personhood of the other, and that that is offensive to the Creator.
The Catholic Church endorses Natural Family Planning as a “birth regulation” method that can either help or delay pregnancy, distinguishing it from a “birth control” method that merely prevents pregnancy. The Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha has developed a “Creighton method” of NFP based on hygienic observation that seems to be successful. But many U.S. Catholics still insist on calling NFP “birth control,” rejecting it as an inferior natural alternative to artificial methods, which they continue to use and promote to their own children. Why do most Catholics seem to find NFP impractical and what can you tell us about the method itself?
NFP is a very effective form of birth control, no matter what method one employs. It is moral for spouses to limit their family size for good reasons. Most Catholics know next to nothing about the various methods. They involve identifying signs of fertility and abstaining during when the wife is fertile. I don’t know that it is accurate say that most Catholics find NFP impractical. Again, few know much about it, fewer have tried it. Yes, it can be difficult, more so, people testify, for those who have been sexually active before marriage than for those who marry as virgins. Especially in our culture, to remain a virgin before marriage generally requires that one have achieved a high degree of sexual self-control and thus any need to abstain within marriage is not so difficult.
But most couples who use NFP, however much they bemoan the challenges (some do, some don’t), they realize that the alternative, various forms of contraception, are not attractive and would not enhance their marital intimacy. NFP has two practical selling points: it is chemical free and thus appeals to those who pursue a “green” lifestyle and the divorce rate of those who use NFP is a fraction of what it is for the general population. I know a top chemist at Rice University who teaches NFP to classes in the mega Baptist church he attends, because it is a proven way to “divorce-proof” a marriage.
You teach moral theology, but all three of your post-secondary degrees are in classics or classical languages. What might you say to critics who question your legitimacy as a moral theologian on the basis that you do not actually have a theology degree?
Well, I find it peculiar as well. I taught in a great books program at Notre Dame that by its nature is interdisciplinary, I taught in a highly respected philosophy department at the University of Dallas and now I teach moral theology at a seminary in Detroit. In all these instances, professional scholars judged me competent to teach in the departments into which I was hired. I sometimes joke that I am more qualified to teach what I am not qualified to teach than anyone I know.
Certainly my training in classical languages has been a great boon for my work; classicists learn to read texts very carefully and to pay close attention to terms; we learn that the language used can be surprisingly revelatory of the meaning being conveyed; we learn about a pre-Christian culture that took ultimate questions extremely seriously and provided an invaluable foundation for some of the best Christian thought. I had as a friend in graduate school the great Thomist Father James Weisheipl, who claimed that if you didn’t understand the second book of Aristotle’s Physics you could understand nothing fully. I am not sure I agree or that I do fully understand it, but I know why he said that and that counts for something and maybe even a lot.
Much bad moral theology is because of bad philosophy and my study of classics has immensely helped me to understand key philosophical concepts. So it is not a bad foundation for doing moral theology. My articles and my signature book have passed peer review; colleagues have bestowed various awards on me; the church itself has signaled that it finds my work to be of value. Yet, in the end, it is never the degrees or honors that count; it is the quality of the arguments and the scholarship. They stand or fall on their own merit. I never ask anyone to accept what I say or teach because I am an “expert.”
In your own words, what is the Catholic view of human sexuality?
I think it can best be found in John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” Our sexuality has a spousal meaning; it manifests that we are meant to be gifts to each other and that from that gift new life is to come. It discloses the most profound way that we image our Creator: we are meant to be lovers and givers of life. Both literally and spiritually.
How would you assess the current legacy and contribution of St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” to theological discourse about human sexuality?
I always want to see Love and Responsibility and the “Theology of the Body” as a package deal. Love and Responsibility is primarily philosophical while drawing upon revelation at a few key junctures. The “Theology of the Body” is scripturally based but, of course, is permeated with philosophical analysis. The two works meld natural law and Thomistic metaphysics spectacularly with personalism, especially with the concept of “consciousness.”
It has been remarkable that the riches of the “Theology of the Body” have been appreciated more by non-academics than by scholars. Scholars are catching up, but if the sensus fidelium counts for anything, the love of the non-academics for the difficult and dense “Theology of the Body” is very telling. I believe John Paul II has exponentially advanced our understanding both of the human person and human sexuality.
When it comes to issues of bioethics and sexuality, on everything from stem cell research to human cloning, many Americans say “we cannot legislate morality” and reject moral concerns as personal religious beliefs, which aren’t accessible to non-religious people. How would you respond?
It is not too facile to say that legislation is either a matter of legislating morality or of legislating immorality; there can be no third option. Either abortion is moral or immoral; it is not like the choice between vanilla or chocolate ice cream. One has to take a stand; does abortion take a human life or does it not?
The problem is that our culture no longer believes that it has any means to determine what is true and what is false. Alasdair MacIntyre and John Paul II among others have done a marvelous job showing how various developments in philosophy over the ages have brought us to this point. Since our culture is thoroughly skeptical and relativistic, the ability to make strong arguments does not translate into persuasive arguments.
What bioethics issues are most of concern to you right now and why?
Oddly, I find myself occupied at the moment with the question of the morality of circumcision. I am surprised how few ethicists even want to engage the question. I am becoming persuaded by those who think it to be intrinsically evil, but that is just one small issue.
I am profoundly interested in questions of cooperation with evil. Clearly the persecution of Christians is escalating at a rate some of us find terrifying. We are going to be forced or coerced to do things we would never dream of doing apart from force and coercion. The question of when we must resist even to the point of death and when we may morally “cooperate” is becoming less of an abstract concern and more of a life crisis concern. I think moralists have tended to become too strict in respect to when cooperation is moral. My brief acquaintance with the work of Alphonsus Liguori suggests to me that we have become more stringent than he was and we need to revisit his work.
My other major interest is not a bioethical one. I have written a few pieces justifying the telling of falsehoods on some occasions. Predictably my work has met with opposition from several quarters, Thomists and Grisezans among them. I need to respond to their objections. If I have the time, I would like to write a handbook regarding moral behavior in a time of religious persecution.
Finally, I have somehow (ties of friendship, mostly, and the connection between contraceptive sex and homosexual sexual acts) been drawn into working on pastoral approaches to same sex issues. I am finding myself very interested in the questions surrounding these issues.
Who are your role models in the faith, either living or dead?
I had a college professor who was a living Socrates. He was not truly a model in the faith, since he had quite an antipathy for Catholicism. But he believed in truth and by a relentless dialectic convinced cohorts of students that it was logically inescapable that there is truth and that there are moral absolutes. He made us answer such questions as whether we were willing to judge Medea to be evil because she cut up her and Jason’s children, boiled them in oil and fed them to Jason. Some students were initially hesitant to commit. Many students converted or reverted to Catholicism under his influence but to his chagrin.
Ralph McInerny was both a great mentor and friend. He did much to bolster my confidence in my own abilities and was a phenomenal model of someone who could engage in fierce intellectual battles without being fierce, indeed while being charmingly genial. I wrote a eulogy about him. He meant a great deal to many people, many young people. Brave and kind and helpful. And thoroughly Catholic. Among the saints, I am very close to Catherine of Siena, Thomas Aquinas and John Paul II.
How has your faith changed or evolved over the years?
A few years ago, I became a consecrated virgin. In important ways, that has changed everything. I finally developed not only a personal but a spousal relationship with Jesus, something that was very slow coming in my life. Before that, I was much more attached to Truth than to Jesus. A 30-day retreat at the Institute of Priestly Formation was pivotal for me. I learned how to do lectio divina and it made Scripture—and Jesus—come alive for me. I have found a peace that I could never have dreamed existed.
How do you pray?
The circumstances of life can radically change my practices. When my responsibilities permit it, I find daily Mass a tremendous anchor. I have found praying the liturgy of the hours profoundly satisfying. I get much consolation and guidance from still, contemplative prayer, just sitting with God and trying to be receptive. Now that I am living full time with my mother who has dementia, daily Mass is not possible. But we say the rosary each evening together and that is becoming increasingly a pillar of my day. I have a tendency to like the “devotion of the day,” meaning right now I love the Divine Mercy devotion and the Mary, Undoer of Knots novena.
How does Catholicism influence your approach to life and work?
It is everything to me. It has brought me Christ and he is all I want. I want everything, everything I do, to be under his guidance. I believe the church is guided by the Holy Spirit. I want to help the church in any way I can. I am doing ecumenical work, not because I have had an interest in it, but because the church has asked me to. I am teaching at a seminary rather than a university because I think the church wants me here. I am working on the questions of cooperation with evil and the morality of falsehoods because I think people rightly look to the church for guidance and I think there is too much vagary around these questions. While I might not have chosen many of these tasks, I have found them beyond interesting and meaningful and I am happy God has called me to the work he has.
What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?
Oh, there are many. “Sarah laughed” always springs to mind. God's promises do seem so absurd. “Elizabeth pondered these things in her heart.” Well, yes. I am an aging lady for whom God has done some spectacular things and that causes me to ponder. “I am the vine, you are the branches”: I love how we are all grafted onto the same tree but bring so many different talents to Christianity. Jesus saying before the last supper that he has been so eager to share this meal with his friends. That is so touching. He is so eager to be with us and we pay him so little attention. And Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” I find none of the alternatives appealing.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis right now, what would it be?
Could you stop being such a mystery, please?
What do you want people to take away from your life and work?
Of course, I would like to be holy though I am not even sure I will achieve a respectable level of maturity before I die. I would like on my tombstone: she convinced people to stop contracepting and to realize that not all falsehoods are immoral and that not all that seems to be immoral cooperation with evil, is.
Any final thoughts?
Since this is a Jesuit publication, I have been wondering if John Courtney Murray would think it true any longer that there is a natural affinity between the American experiment and Catholicism. I think we are now living in a post-Christian age. As a young person, I was blown away by Plato’s analysis that governments have a natural order of degeneration. I think it has happened here. Democracy has devolved into mobocracy, to a crass hedonism and is on the verge of a tyranny.
You ask what my hopes are: I hope I am wrong about this. Another hope is that if the age of persecution comes, my generation who are supposed to be the adults can provide the younger generation who will likely be taking most of the risks, wise guidance on which risks are moral and worth taking.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.