Janet Smith’s clever exceptions to intrinsically evil acts

In her latest article on contraception, Pope Francis and contraception: A response to Christopher Kaczor, Catholic theologian Janet E. Smith continues to spread false doctrine among the faithful on contraception.

In my previous post (Janet Smith’s grave errors on Contraception and Sterilization), I criticized Smith for calling abortifacient contraception: “anovulant or non-abortifacient contraceptives”. In this new article, she drops that claim and admits that the oral contraceptive pill (OCP) is an abortifacient. And she does not assert or assume that a married woman taking contraceptives can remain sexually active. But she asks the question, and does not answer it:

“If those hormones have an abortifacient effect, does she need to abstain? Or is the risk so small that the risk would be acceptable”

This is an improvement over her past two articles. However, she is already on public record as approving of the use of abortifacient contraception without abstaining from sex. Moreover, the way the question is worded implies an error. She speaks of the “abortifacient effect” of the medication and asks whether the “risk” is acceptable. This type of language refers to the font of circumstances, which considers the good and bad reasonably anticipated effects of an act. But she ignores the font called moral object. And she refers to the deaths of innocent prenatals as “the risk” and “an abortifacient effect”, without directly stating that unborn human persons are killed by the decisions to use abortifacient contraception and to continue having marital relations.

It is a grave error to treat the deaths of innocents so lightly in the circumstances of the act. Moreover, Smith fails to mention that, when evaluating the font of circumstances, a bad effect that is entirely avoidable must be treated differently than the same bad effect if it were unavoidable. It affects the moral weight of that bad effect, if the desired good effect can be obtained in some way without that bad consequence.

For example, suppose that a person is attacked with deadly force, and he kills his attacker in self-defense. The act is not intrinsically evil, under the font of object. But a good act requires three good fonts. If the person can defend himself effectively without using deadly force, then, in that circumstance, it would not be moral to kill his attacker.

Smith does not evaluate the moral object of the act at all. And she does not properly weigh the good and bad effects in the circumstances.

Faithful Theologians Disagree?

Most moral theologians have quietly rejected the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium on morality. They refuse to evaluate human acts based on the three fonts of morality. The moral object is not mentioned at all in lengthy discussions on intrinsically evil acts. Intrinsically evil acts are nominally said by them to be “always wrong”. But without an analysis of the object, these “always wrong” acts are said to be justified by intention, or circumstances — or without any discussion of any font. They speak as if the Magisterium never taught on the three fonts of morality. When contraception is done for a good purpose, or in a difficult circumstance, the act is said to be “not contraception”. Some authors go so far as to claim that an act is only properly called contraception when chosen with a contraceptive intention.

Smith presents the controversy on contraception and abortifacient contraception as if it were merely a discussion among “faithful theologians”. Who decides which theologians are faithful? It’s like a mutual admiration society. The term “faithful” doesn’t really mean faithful to the teachings of the Magisterium, but rather accepted among a group of peers. Smith assumes that any point which is still a matter of discussion among those theologians is not settled doctrine. But that simply is not true. In this fallen sinful world, some Catholic theologians and priests openly reject magisterial teaching, some ignore any teaching they dislike, and some pretend to agree with magisterial teaching while distorting its meaning. Pope Saint John Paul II refers to this problem in Veritatis Splendor (n. 4).

In truth, there are some open theological questions, not yet decided by the Magisterium. But the three fonts of morality, intrinsically evil acts, and the specific sins of abortion, contraception, and sterilization are not among those questions. The mere fact that some or many theologians speak as if a question were open does not make it so.

One disturbing trend among Catholic theologians is the abandonment of the theological argument. Instead of reviewing all the magisterial documents on a subject, such as intrinsically evil acts or contraception, they write popular theology, filled with rhetorical arguments and unsupported premises. They are more interested in hearsay and rumor, such as whether a Vatican official gave approval for some idea or action, than definitive magisterial teaching.

Translation Error?

Janet Smith claims that Humanae Vitae contains a translation error, one which substantially affects the meaning of the doctrine on contraception. Where is this alleged error? In the official translation of Humanae Vitae on the Vatican website. What is her proof that this translation is an error? She does not present any. It is an unsupported claim, underlying her entire argument on contraception.

Partly on the basis of this claimed translation error, Smith proposes that the Magisterium has been silent on the morality of contraception outside of marriage. She restricts the teaching of the Church on the gravely immoral intrinsically evil act of contraception to marital sexual acts. Such a claim is stunning in its breadth and depth. Unfortunately, sexual acts outside of marriage are common, even among persons who call themselves Catholic. Where is her theological argument supporting this claim? She does not present one. She simply assumes that this idea is true.

Where is my theological argument to the contrary? Here it is:
Reply to Janet Smith on Contraception Outside of Marriage
Contraception and Heresy part 1: The More Common Heresies
Contraception and Heresy part 2: contraception outside of marriage
Contraception and Heresy part 3: the Latin text of Humanae Vitae
Contraception and Heresy part 4: The Moral Object of Contraception
Contraception and Heresy part 5: more on contraception outside of marriage

The Magisterium has in fact condemned the intrinsically evil act of contraception, regardless of marital state. The text of Humanae Vitae does NOT contain a translation error that changes the meaning of the teaching, so as to restrict the condemnation of contraception to the marital state.

Where is Smith’s theological argument supporting her claim that the Magisterium has restricted its condemnation of contraception to the marital state? She doesn’t present one. Where is her argument supporting the claim that Humanae Vitae contains a substantial translation error? She doesn’t present one. It is irresponsible of her to repeatedly publicly make such assertions — and to base her moral theology on those assertions — without presenting any proof.

Always Wrong?

Janet Smith claims: “It is extremely important to keep in mind that there are no exceptions to condemnations of actions that are intrinsically evil: that phrase means ‘always wrong.’ ”

Intrinsically evil acts are always wrong. But under the three fonts of morality, any act with a bad intention is always wrong. Any act with evil in the moral object is always wrong. Any act in which the reasonably anticipated bad consequences morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated good consequences is always wrong. Any act with one or more bad fonts is always wrong.

So while intrinsically evil acts are always wrong, that is not the meaning of the term. Only acts with an evil moral object are intrinsically evil.

Smith’s definition of contraception does not state the moral object, and it includes the false premise that contraception is only immoral within marriage. This distortion allows her to claim that contraception is “always wrong”, while approving of contraception, abortifacient contraception, and sterilization based on intention and circumstances. The deaths of innocent prenatals becomes “an acceptable risk”. The use of abortifacient contraception and direct sterilization becomes justifiable, based on a possible future circumstance that might never happen.

She defines contraception as “doing something before, during or after a voluntary marital act to impede procreation”. That is not a correct definition of contraception. The phrase “to impede procreation” is vague, but it seems to indicate the intention of the act. Some Catholics authors are openly claiming that contraception is only immoral with a contraceptive intention. Smith does not openly state that error, but she seems to lean toward it.

I would define the intrinsically evil act of contraception as the knowing deliberate (intentional, voluntary) choice of any act which is, in itself (by its very nature), intrinsically ordered toward the deprivation of the procreative meaning from a sexual act.

To be moral, a sexual act must have three goods in its object: the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. These three goods are required by the eternal moral law, that is, by the love of God and neighbor, for all sexual acts. Are homosexual sexual acts only immoral because they are non-marital? No, that is not the sole reason. Such acts are not marital, and not procreative, and not truly unitive. The Church condemns these sexual acts in part because they are non-procreative. Some sexual acts outside of marriage are more gravely disordered than other sexual acts outside of marriage. The greater the moral disorder, the greater the sin.

A contracepted act of marital intercourse is gravely immoral due to the deprivation of the procreative meaning in its object. This deprivation harms the marital and unitive meanings, but it does not entirely destroy those goods. If it did, then homosexual acts would be no more or less immoral than contracepted marital sex.

Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. But in order to determine if an act is intrinsically evil, you must in some way determine the moral object of the act (or its moral nature, which is determined by that object). The purpose for which the act is chosen (intention) does not determine the moral object. Euthanasia is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, despite having the good (medical) purpose of relieving all suffering, often also in the dire circumstance that a person is terminally ill. If the same foolish theory of intrinsically evil acts, as is used to judge contraception, were applied to euthanasia, it would seem to be always moral.

But instead many moral theologians operate under a double standard. They tacitly divide intrinsically evil acts into two types: popular and unpopular. The popular sins, they justify in all manner of clever ways — mostly by distorting or ignoring magisterial teaching. The unpopular sins they condemn as intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. The problem is that all intrinsically evil acts are immoral on the same basis: evil in the moral object. If contraception or abortifacient contraception is justified on any basis whatsoever (other than a determination that the moral object contains only good), then every other intrinsically evil act would be justifiable on the same basis, including genocide.

The three worst genocides in the history of the human race: (1) abortion, (2) abortifacient contraception, (3) the Jewish holocaust.

Smith claims that a number of questions on the topic of abortifacient contraception and contraception are not yet settled by the Magisterium, or are a matter of interpretation and application. That’s not really true. Instead, what is happening is that more and more theologians, apologists, priests, authors, and online commentators are finding and agreeing upon clever ways to circumvent definitive magisterial teaching.

Janet Smith defends the use of abortifacient contraception in cases of rape:

“Permission is given to women in danger of rape or who have been raped to use something to prevent the union of the sperm and egg that does not have an unacceptable risk of killing an embryonic human being. This is NOT an exception to the teaching that the use of contraception always violates the unitive and procreative meanings of a voluntary act of spousal intercourse. It is an act of self-defense, not an act of contracepting.”

Contraception in cases of rape is indirect; the deprivation of the procreative meaning is not in the object. Abortifacient contraception in cases of rape has the good moral object of the moral interruption of the rape (as the act progresses toward conception). But an act can have more than one moral object. The killing of the prenatal is not merely an acceptable risk. It is an end toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. Abortifacient contraception (in general) has both abortive and contraceptive ends. The prevention of conception is a defense against rape, implying that the deprivation of procreation is in the circumstances only, not in the object. But since abortion is not a defense against rape, the use of abortifacient contraception still retains the evil moral object of the abortive end. The use of abortifacient contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, even in cases of rape, due to the moral object of the act.

Moreover, the use of abortifacient contraception in cases of rape is also gravely immoral due to the circumstances of the act. I am astounded and dismayed that supposedly pro-life theologians and apologists consistently give very little moral weight, in the evaluation of the circumstances of an act, to the death of the prenatal. Why is this risk acceptable? There exist non-abortifacient methods of contraception which can be used in cases of rape (!). When evaluating the circumstances of ANY ACT, a reasonably anticipated bad effect with grave moral weight, such as the death of an innocent, is not an acceptable risk if there exists a way to obtain the good effects without that grave bad effect.

Which methods of mere contraception can be used in cases of rape? The physician can use a spermicide and/or a contraceptive douche. The physician can also use abortifacient contraception, if he determines with moral certitude that, in a particular case for a one-time (or short-term) usage, the chemical will only act as a contraceptive. There is no need for women to use abortifacient contraception continuously, in order to defend against a possible future rape.

And what exactly is the good consequence that justifies the risk of the death of an innocent unborn human person? Is it that the woman will not conceive and bear a child as a result of the rape? That good effect justifies the deprivation of the procreative meaning in the circumstances (and we’ve already evaluated the moral object). But it does not justify the killing of an innocent, even as concerns the circumstances. For the death of the prenatal is not a defense against rape. And the life of any innocent human person is sacred.

Show Your Work

It is a basic principle of scholarship that a sound conclusion cannot be based on unsupported premises. Catholics who claim that Humanae Vitae has a translation error should present their argument. Catholics who claim that the Magisterium has not condemned contraception outside of marriage should reply to my presentation of examples of magisterial teachings that clearly condemn contraception outside of marriage. (See the links earlier in this post.)

How many innocent prenatals will die because Janet Smith and many other Catholic authors have loudly repeatedly publicly proclaimed that their deaths were an acceptable risk?

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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