May 29, 2024

Defending Catholic views on contraception

American bioethicist and theologian Janet E. Smith makes it more plausible even if you don’t end up agreeing.

Although, with more than a billion members, the Catholic Church has immense influence on bioethical practice, its positions are rejected by many bioethical theorists. None is more disputed, even ridiculed, than its condemnation of contraception. However, this stand does have thoughtful defenders. In Catholic circles, one of the best known is Janet Smith, an American classical scholar turned bioethicist and moral theologian. She is a popular lecturer, serves on Vatican committees, and has appeared on Fox Morning News, CNN International, CNN Newsroom, Al Jazeera and EWTN.

Dr Smith has a knack for making for making the Catholic stand on contraception plausible. Most people believe that it has something to do with the abortifacient effects of “the pill”, but that is essentially a secondary consideration.

The Jesuit magazine America recently interviewed her about her work. Here are some excerpts.

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.

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.

From your perspective, what is the strongest part of “Humanae Vitae” [the 1968 document which affirmed the traditional ban on contraception]?

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.
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