Reply to Janet Smith on Contraception Outside of Marriage

Janet Smith and others claim that Humanae Vitae has a translation error. That claim is thoroughly refuted in my article here: The Latin Text of Humanae Vitae.

Smith and others also claim that the Magisterium has only condemned contraception within marriage. That claim is refuted in my articles here: Contraception outside of marriage and More on contraception outside of marriage.

There is something of a circular argument to these two claims: The Magisterium only condemns contraception in marriage, therefore all documents on contraception are to be translated so that they refer only to marriage. Then the wording of those documents, with the corrected translation, seems to condemn contraception only in marriage.

In this post, I examine one particular magisterial document, which refutes both of the above claims. This same document is cited by Smith in her recent article (Did Paul VI approve of Congo nuns using the Pill? Does it matter if he didn’t?) as if it supported her theological position, when in fact it contradicts her position. It is a 1975 document of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:
Responses To Questions Concerning Sterilization In Catholic Hospitals
The Latin text is here: Quaecumque Sterilizatio

That magisterial document condemns direct sterilization and contraception. The condemnation of contraception and sterilization is not limited to the marital state. The explanation of the immorality of these two intrinsically evil acts (sterilization and contraception) does not reference marriage, nor does it use the English word “conjugal” or any similar term. The Latin text of the document does not use the Latin equivalent of “conjugal”. This is a clear example of a magisterial condemnation of contraception, regardless of marital state.

Can we propose that the Magisterium simply erred in this document, by omitting mention of the marital state? Not at all. For the document concerns the use of, and any possible formal cooperation with, direct sterilization and contraception by Catholic hospitals. No Catholic hospital in the world limits their care only to Catholics, or only to married Catholics, or only to Catholics who are not having sex outside of marriage. So it was essential to the subject at hand for the CDF to teach on these two types of sins in the more general case.

This magisterial document (Quaecumque Sterilizatio) expressly states that the use of sterilization with “the sole immediate effect of rendering the generative faculty incapable of procreation” is “absolutely forbidden”, despite “any subjectively right intention of those whose actions are prompted by the care or prevention of physical or mental illness which is foreseen or feared as a result of pregnancy”. This magisterial document stands in clear opposition to Smith’s claim that sterilization can be used in order to prevent conception due to a possible future rape. For the sole immediate end of that act is to render the generative faculty sterile. The possible future rape is “foreseen or feared” and the intention is to prevent the difficulties for the mother which result from the pregnancy.

How does the Church’s teaching on direct sterilization relate to Her teaching on contraception? Both acts are intrinsically evil. Contraception is essentially a type of temporary sterilization, as the CDF points out:

“And indeed the sterilization of the faculty itself is forbidden for an even graver reason than the sterilization of individual acts, since it induces a state of sterility in the person which is almost always irreversible.”

The CDF calls contraception “the sterilization of individual acts”. And Humanae Vitae condemns direct sterilization, “whether permanent or temporary” [n. 14]. Both types of intrinsically evil acts deprive sexual acts of their procreative meaning. The Magisterium condemns direct sterilization regardless of marital state. This implies that contraception is also immoral regardless of marital state. For the basis of the immorality of both types of acts is essentially the same.

Interestingly, this comparison implies that contraception is not intrinsically evil, and may be licit (if all three fonts of morality are good), when it is indirect, just as sterilization (and even abortion) can be morally licit when indirect. But whenever either act is direct and therefore intrinsically evil, it is gravely immoral regardless of marital state.

The claim that the Church has never condemned contraception outside of marriage, or that Church teaching makes marriage inherent to the very definition of contraception, is contradicted by this CDF document. The English translation and the Latin text have no mention of marriage, nor any form of the word “conjugal” (in Latin or English). For this magisterial document concerns Catholic hospitals, who might be treating persons who are sexually active outside of marriage. The text condemns contraception and sterilization of “freely chosen sexual activity” (libereque electam activitatem sexualem), also phrased as: “sexual actions deliberately performed” (actuum sexualium … deliberate admissorum).

The claim that the Vatican should have translated all words in Humanae Vitae referring to sex and contraception (e.g. coniugali congressione / coniugale commercium / coniugales actus) as “marital intercourse” or “marital act” is unsupportable. This CDF document condemns the contraception of any freely chosen or deliberately performed sexual acts. And the Latin text of the same document also uses similarly general terms.

How then does the Magisterium define contraception without referencing marriage? The phrasing used refers to the thwarting of the procreative meaning. Contraception is defined as “actions which are in themselves, that is, by their nature and condition, directed to a contraceptive end”. And that end is of course the moral object of the knowingly chosen act. For all intrinsically evil acts have this same structure. The human person makes a knowing deliberate choice, and the chosen concrete act has a moral nature, which is nothing other than its inherent ordering toward a proximate end called its object. The CDF also offers an explanation of that contraceptive object, that “the natural effects of sexual actions deliberately performed by the sterilized subject be impeded”. Recall the previous quote in which the CDF considers contraception to be a type of sterilization of individual acts.

Thus, contraception can be defined as any deliberately chosen act which is ordered by its very nature toward the deprivation of the procreative meaning from sexual acts. The definition of contraception does not need to mention the marital state. Other documents mention marriage because sexual activity outside of marriage is intrinsically evil. The definition of contraception is therefore often phrased to reference the only moral sexual act: natural marital relations open to life. And Humanae Vitae does not speak solely of the procreative meaning and its contradiction by sterilization or contraception. Humanae Vitae rightly speaks of all three goods toward which sexual acts are ordered by the design of our Creator: the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. But as we can easily discern from other magisterial documents (e.g. Casti Connubii), this does not limit the condemnation of contraception to marriage.

Notice that this CDF document specifies the case of sexual acts that are freely (deliberately) chosen. Rape is not freely chosen by the victim; it is not a deliberate act of the victim. So the document does not imply any condemnation of the use of contraception in cases of rape. Nevertheless, the document does condemn sterilization with “the sole immediate effect of rendering the generative faculty incapable of procreation”. The intention of averting a future possible bad consequence (conception from rape) is not accepted by the Magisterium as a justification for sterilization. Therefore, this document, cited by Janet Smith, actually contradicts her position on the use of sterilization to address a possible future rape.

So the Magisterium condemns contraception regardless of marital state; all freely chosen sexual acts are subject to the condemnation of contraception. And as a result, the claim that the Vatican erred in translating Humanae Vitae into English, and erred by never correcting that translation, is unsupportable. The translation of Humanae Vitae uses general terms, such as “sexual intercourse”, rather than always using “marital intercourse”, because the Church condemns any act inherently ordered toward thwarting the procreative meaning of sex.

Saint Augustine, a Bishop in the Church, taught that contraception is immoral “even with one’s legitimate wife”, thereby implying that contraception is immoral regardless of marital state. He did not say “only with one’s wife”. This teaching by Augustine — a Bishop, Saint, and Doctor of the Church — is quoted by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii, without disagreement, correction, or qualification: “As St. Augustine notes, ‘Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it.’ ” (Casti Connubii, n. 55). Here Pope Pius XI is teaching the universal Church through the words of Saint Augustine. And that teaching against contraception is not dependent on the marital state.

The title of the quoted work by Augustine is “De Conjugiis Adulterinis”, which is usually translated as “On Adulterous Unions.” So here is an example of a use of the term in question (some form of “conjug-” in Latin) to refer to sexual intercourse that is specifically non-marital, as is implied by the term “adulterous”.

Casti Connubii also says: “From this it is clear that legitimately constituted authority has the right and therefore the duty to restrict, to prevent, and to punish those base unions [turpia conjugia] which are opposed to reason and to nature; but since it is a matter which flows from human nature itself, no less certain is the teaching of Our predecessor, Leo XIII of happy memory….” (n. 8)

Notice that the phrase “base unions”, which is used to refer to sex outside of marriage, includes the Latin word “conjugia”. Then again, where Casti Connubii speaks of the marital contract, the same Latin word is used to refer to non-marital unions:

“Hence the nature of this contract, which is proper and peculiar to it alone, makes it entirely different both from the union of animals entered into by the blind instinct of nature alone in which neither reason nor free will plays a part, and also from the haphazard unions [vagis conjugiis] of men, which are far removed from all true and honorable unions of will and enjoy none of the rights of family life.” (n. 7)

So the claim that the Latin word “conjug-” (in any of its various forms) refers solely to marriage in magisterial documents is provably false. Of course Humanae Vitae does not translate this Latin word exclusively with a word referring to marriage. The meaning of the Latin word itself is not restricted to marriage; it can be used to refer to any type of close union, not only marital sex, and not only sex in general.

Why do so many authors make this foolish false claim? Perhaps it is because the teaching of the Church that intrinsically evil acts are always wrong is difficult to accept, especially when certain condemned acts are thoroughly accepted and even glorified by modern culture. They seek a way to say that contraception is “always wrong”, but then sculpt the definition of contraception so that it can be approved in many cases. When they say “contraception is always wrong”, what they mean is “whenever I think that contraception is not wrong, I’ll say that it is not contraception”. Their narrow definition of the intrinsically evil act allows them to condemn unequivocally, and also permit, the same act.

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

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