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A Critical Review of Janet Smith's talk
Contraception: Why Not?

Contraception: Why Not? is the transcription of a talk given at a Catholic Physicians Guild meeting at the Pontifical College Josephinum, Columbus, Ohio in May, 1994.

This talk is an excellent presentation of Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion, in an easy to understand format. The theology that underlies the talk is sound.

She correctly teaches that the unitive and procreative meanings are inherent to the meaning of the marital act itself.
"So, when male and female participate in the sexual act, they have opened up this arena which God has designed for bringing forth new human life. And when they contracept, they are slamming that door in God's face. They're saying, 'We want to enjoy this pleasurable act that You gave us, but we do not want to let You perform Your creative act.' Now, I'm not saying that couples who are contracepting, are conscious that this is what they're doing. But, this is what the act itself means."
But Smith is perhaps too lenient in absolving persons using contraception from sin. She says: "I think most contraceptors are what I would call subjectively innocent." While there is certainly a difference between objective sin and actual sin, it is difficult to support such a broad assertion that most contraceptors are innocent of actual sin.

Her talk is very colloquial; this is both a strength and a weakness. The theology behind her assertions is sound, but she presents it in a non-theological manner. This makes the teachings easier to understand for the uninitiated, but also deprives the teachings of certain fundamental concepts as well as some finer points. For example, she does not explicitly mention the moral object, or intrinsically evil acts. She refers to these concepts, to a limited extend and indirectly. She avoids using the proper theological terminology.

For example, she refers to the unitive meaning, but calls it the "bonding meaning" of the sexual act. Several times she refers to the procreative and unitive meanings as 'babies and bonding'. This phrasing is not incorrect, but perhaps the audience would be capable of learning the more precise theological terminology. Learning the proper terms would then enable the audience to read and understand magisterial documents, which use the same theological terminology.

Janet Smith refutes a common false claim, found in many supposedly Catholic texts on marital sexual ethics, that God created sex for the purpose of pleasure. Instead, she says:
"So, our society has this view that these three things -- sex, babies, and bonding, are separate and the Church says, 'No, they're together.' Now some people want to say, 'Well, no, no, no. You've left something out here. Clearly, sex is for pleasure. And those who are having sex, they're doing what sex is for; they're having pleasure.' And I'll say, 'No, no, no. You've missed the point.' There are lots of things that have pleasure attached to them. Pleasure is not the purpose; pleasure is the motive; pleasure is the consequence; but it's not the purpose. As a matter of fact, God attached pleasure to the things that he really wants us to do, that are necessary for our survival and for our happiness. So, it's pleasurable to eat and it's pleasurable to drink and it's pleasurable to sleep and it's pleasurable to exercise, and it's pleasurable to have sexual intercourse. It's pleasurable. That's not the purpose. That's not the reason we eat though some of us do. That's not the reason we sleep though some of us do. That's not the real purpose for these acts. They're restorative in many ways. They're necessary for our survival. So, God attached pleasure to everything he wanted us to do for, not our salvation, so much, as just our well-being. But we have to do it at the right time, and the right place, and in the right manner, with the right person, etc., etc. -- in the right way. Sure, eating is pleasurable, but there are limits to what you should be eating. Sexual intercourse is pleasurable, but there are limits to what you should be doing, and you have to seek that pleasure in accord with the nature and reality of what you're dealing with."
The claim that God created sex for the purpose of pleasure is often used to reach the false conclusion that a husband and wife are justified in making use of any sexual act at all, as long as it is for pleasure and as long as an act of natural marital relations is included somewhere in the set of acts. This claim is one of the most common errors in books and articles on Catholic sexual ethics.

Smith refutes another false idea, one often implicit in erroneous teachings on ethics, that the end justifies the means.
"At first, I try to point out to them this simple principle in ethics that the ends do not justify the means. Stated another way: 'You must have good means to good ends. Not only your goal must be good, but also the way you get there must be good.' "
To further her point: too often a supposedly Catholic text will make the claim that a non-procreative or non-unitive sexual act is somehow justified by the end of a subsequent act of natural marital relations, or by the end of helping the wife to achieve sexual satisfaction after natural marital relations. These false arguments are implicitly claiming that the end justifies the means. The claim is often made that any act is moral if it is used as an act of foreplay. But foreplay is a means to the end of natural marital relations. And so this claim in effect is saying that the end of natural marital relations justifies any and all means used to arrive at that end. Similarly, the claim is made that in order to achieve the end of satisfying his wife with sexual climax, the husband can use any means whatsoever, even an unnatural sexual act; this is said to be moral if it achieves the end of pleasing the wife. Again, this argument is based on the assumption that the end justifies the means.

In truth, the end never justifies the means. This basic principle of sexual ethics is just as true in the area of sexuality as in all other areas of life. Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium have always taught that the end does not justify the means. And yet many a theologian or priest, especially on the topic of sexuality, will make an argument that implicitly asserts that the end justifies the means.

Throughout her talk, Smith explains the false ideas taught to us by modern secular society, and then goes on to refute those false teachings.

She astutely points out that there is a connection between abortion and contraception. Many Catholics do not perceive this connection; they think of abortion and contraception as opposites. Secular society claims that contraception is used to decrease abortions. But Smith succinctly and convincingly proves that contraception leads to abortion and increases the number of abortions.

At times, she uses sarcasm and humor in a way that detracts from her otherwise sound presentation. For example, she makes a couple of humorous remarks about Adam and Eve, one to the detriment of men, and the other perhaps to the detriment of women.

She does recommend, as an aside, tithing (giving 10% of your income to the Church or a charity). Almsgiving is required by the moral law, but tithing per se (giving a set percentage of 10%) was a prescription of the Jewish Law, which is no longer in effect. Christians are free to choose, in accord with grace and providence, how much to give, regardless of the percentage.

Smith makes a good point concerning the bias that many priests have against NFP. She correctly points out that, for a time, contraception was accepted by many priests and theologians, as if it could be moral within marriage, despite prior definitive teachings of the Magisterium.

During the three decades or so before Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae (1968), it became popular and even widely accepted in many quarters of the Church to teach that contraception is not always immoral and that it might be permitted by conscience, with good intentions or in some circumstances. Many priests learned this false teaching from theologians during this time period. These priests were taught by theologians that contraception is not intrinsically against nature and not always a grave sin, and they accepted this false teaching for many years. Many priests passed on this false teaching to members of their flocks.

It is remarkable that such an error could become so widespread in the Church, despite the prior clear definitive teaching of the Magisterium. Pope Pius XI condemned contraception, in Casti Connubii (1930), as "intrinsically against nature," and "a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious," and "this horrible crime," and "this foul stain," and "an offense against the law of God and of nature," and "a grave sin" (n. 54-56). This condemnation is clear and definitive. Contraception is never permissible. The wording could not have been stated more forcefully.

At yet the opposing view subsequently reached such an extent among theologians that, when Pope Paul VI convened a panel of theologians with expertise on moral theology and sexual ethics, the majority recommendation to the Pope was to permit contraception within marriage on the excuse that a set of sexual acts could be justified as long as some of the acts were unitive and procreative. The Magisterium of the Church had already clearly and definitively taught against contraception in Casti Connubii (n. 54-56) and more recently at Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes (n. 51), and yet these theologians recommended the contrary to the Holy Father.

Pope Paul VI, of course, rejected this false teaching. Then, when he released Humanae Vitae in 1968, many persons were shocked. They treated this document as if it stood alone, or as if it were an entirely new teaching. Smith points out that contraception has never been accepted as moral in the Catholic faith, and was even universally condemned by Protestants prior to about 1930. (I wonder whether some Protestants reacted to Casti Connubii's clear condemnation of contraception in 1930 by beginning to find ways to accept it.)

However, I think Smith is too lenient in excusing these priests, some of whom even today continue to excuse the use of contraception on the supposed basis of conscience, and who continue to refuse to have anything to do with NFP. It could not be more clear at the present time that contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, and that NFP is moral and effective.

Smith and West

I should caution the reader that, on a point not found in her article against contraception, Smith defends the error of Christopher West in claiming that unnatural sexual acts can somehow be permissible within holy Matrimony. This very serious moral error is widespread in the Church today, despite the prior clear definitive teaching of the Magisterium to the contrary. Such was also the case with contraception prior to Humanae Vitae. The teaching of the Church was clear, but it became popular for theologians and even some priests to teach the opposing view. And many Catholics prefer whatever seems to be the majority view, or whatever seems to be the most popular view, or whatever can be justified on the excuse that some theologians and priests have taught it, despite a contrary teaching of the Magisterium. Smith usefully points out that this contradiction occurred, and to some extent still occurs, in the Church on the teaching against contraception within marriage. She fails to notice the very similar situation on unnatural sexual acts within marriage.

The teaching of the Magisterium against unnatural sexual acts within marriage is, at the present time, clear and definitive. And yet many theologians are claiming that such condemned acts are permissible. Often, they present no theological argument whatsoever for this assertion. They know that many Catholics want to hear such a claim, and so they often do not bother even presenting an argument. When they do make an argument, they do not refer to Casti Connubii, or Humanae Vitae, or Veritatis Splendor, or the moral object, or intrinsic evil, or the teaching that the end does not justify the means. They do not consider or mention any of the magisterial teachings on marital sexual relations, or even on ethics in general. And yet many Catholics have accepted this error, just as many Catholics formerly accepted the erroneous claim that contraception could be permitted in marriage, despite the teaching of the Magisterium, due to the teaching of certain theologians and priests.

The falsely teach that a married couple can commit any sexual act at all, even acts that clearly lack either or both the unitive and procreative meanings, on the excuse that somewhere within a set of sexual acts there is to be found a good act of natural marital relations open to life. The teaching of Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae and other documents plainly and irrefutable teach that each and every sexual act within marriage must have both the unitive and procreative meanings. Unnatural sexual acts by definition do not have these meanings; such acts are non-procreative and are not even truly unitive. For the unitive meaning is not mere physical union, but a union in accord with the will of God for holy Matrimony. Humanae Vitae even specifically considers and rejects the idea that a set of sexual acts would be justified as long as some acts in the set were unitive and procreative. And yet this false teaching continues to spread among Catholics, who are misled by certain theologians and priests.

[1 Timothy]
{1:5} Now the goal of instruction is charity from a pure heart, and a good conscience, and an unfeigned faith.
{1:6} Certain persons, wandering away from these things, have been turned aside to empty babbling,
{1:7} desiring to be teachers of the law, but understanding neither the things that they themselves are saying, nor what they are affirming about these things.
{1:8} But we know that the law is good, if one makes use of it properly.

[2 Timothy]
{4:1} I testify before God, and before Jesus Christ, who shall judge the living and the dead through his return and his kingdom:
{4:2} that you should preach the word urgently, in season and out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke, with all patience and doctrine.
{4:3} For there shall be a time when they will not endure sound doctrine, but instead, according to their own desires, they will gather to themselves teachers, with itching ears,
{4:4} and certainly, they will turn their hearing away from the truth, and they will be turned toward fables.
{4:5} But as for you, truly, be vigilant, laboring in all things. Do the work of an Evangelist, fulfilling your ministry. Show self-restraint.

[Hebrews 13]
{13:4} May marriage be honorable in every way, and may the marriage bed be immaculate. For God will judge fornicators and adulterers.

Is Smith faithful to the Magisterium?

Some conservative Catholics become confused when I agree with a theologian on one point, and disagree on another. They think that if a theologian is against abortion and contraception that such a theologian is 'faithful to the Magisterium.' And therefore, they mistakenly conclude that such a theologian must be faithful to all magisterial teachings on all issues. Not so. Theologians are fallible sinners; they have original sin and personal sin. It is not so unusual for a theologian to be firmly against abortion and contraception, but also to contradict or undermine a clear and definitive teaching of the Magisterium on some other issue.

It is common for a good theologian to agree on some points and disagree on other points with another theologian. Avery Dulles as a book called The Dimensions of the Church, in which he cites and agrees with a Jewish philosopher, a Protestant theologian, and some of the more controversial Catholic theologians; he also cites and disagrees with Saint Robert Bellarmine. The faithful should judge the contents of a theological work, so as to discern the truths of faith and reason, and to weed out any errors.

But it is not the place of members of the faithful, nor of theologians, to judge anyone as a person. And it is foolish to assume that if a theologian is correct, on one or another point, concerning the teaching of the Magisterium, that he or she is necessarily 'faithful' or correct on all other points. Janet Smith gave a very useful talk against contraception. I recommend it to all Catholics. But this does not imply that I agree with all of her theological assertions on all points.


Her talk has been widely disseminated in text and audio formats to Catholics around the world, and deservedly so. She presents and defends Catholic teaching against contraception, and in favor of natural family planning, in a manner that is understandable and theologically sound. No theological training is necessary to understand her presentation of Catholic teaching; it is suitable for ordinary Catholics and for wide usage in the Church.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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