Janet Smith’s new translation of Humanae Vitae

Janet Smith has decided that Humanae Vitae contains a translation error, which, when corrected by her, results in a stunning change in Church doctrine, suddenly limiting the condemnation of contraception to the marital state. This claim is contradicted by many different magisterial documents. (See my past posts here.) But the promoters of this “translation error” fable utterly ignore everything in magisterial documents which contradicts their position.

They ignore Quaecumque Sterilizatio (in English, here: Concerning Sterilization In Catholic Hospitals), which condemns all contraception and direct sterilization, by Catholic hospitals, regardless of whether the patients are married or single, Catholic or not. And that document uses the Latin terms “actuum sexualium” and “activitatem sexualem” — not any version of the Latin word “conjug-“.

They ignore the fact that Casti Connubii uses the Latin term “conjug-” twice to refer to sexual acts outside of marriage, thereby refuting the claim that “conjug-” must always refer to marriage. And a quote in Casti Connubii from Saint Augustine further supports this point.

They ignore the fact that the Church condemns the distribution and promotion of contraception by government programs and NGOs, regardless of whether it is used in marriage or outside of marriage, opposes teaching young unmarried persons how to use contraception in sexual education programs, condemns direct sterilization regardless of marital state, condemns artificial procreation regardless of marital state, and does not permit Catholic hospitals to dispense contraception, neither to married couples nor to unmarried persons.

But to support her claim of a translation error, Smith has decided to make a new translation of Humanae Vitae, heavily biased to support this new alleged restriction on Church teaching. This bias in her revised translation is blatant: A Rich New Translation of Humanae Vitae. In that translation, she adds to the document, in brackets, words and phrases not found in the Latin text, thereby supporting her claim that Humanae Vitae restricts its condemnation of contraception to marriage. Examples follow:

Latin text (L), Vatican translation (V), Smith translation (S)

L: An videlicet fas non sit opinari finem procreandae prolis potius ad totam coniugum vitam, quam ad singulos quosque eius actus pertinere.

V: Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act?
S: That is, would it not clearly be right to consider the goal of having children to pertain more to the whole of married life than to each and every act [of marital intercourse]?

Smith adds the phrase “of marital intercourse”, a phrase not based on any words in the Latin. She is contending with the magisterial text, not offering a better translation. The Vatican translation “each single act” suggests that each single sexual act must retain its procreative meaning. But the Smith translation appends the additional wording “of marital intercourse”, in order to further the claim that the condemnation of contraception is restricted to the marital state. And instead of “procreative finality”, she has “the goal of having children” — as if the meaning of the act were found in the intended end, the subjective goal, rather than in the inherent meaning of sexual acts. Her translation does not clarify magisterial teaching; to the contrary, it obscures the meaning of the document, and twists it to conform to her own mind.

L: Nam naturalis quoque lex voluntatem Dei declarant

V: For the natural law, too, declares the will of God
S: For natural law, [as well as revealed law], declares the will of God;

There is nothing in the Latin text which translates as the phrase: “as well as revealed law”. Janet Smith is literally rewriting a magisterial document, adding new wording that expresses her own understanding of doctrine, as if she were a Roman Pontiff. These additions are not a more correct translation, as they do not translate anything in the original text. Smith has altered a magisterial document on an important moral teaching, in order to force that document to conform to her own thinking. The arrogance of this type of specious “translation” is just astounding.

L: in nexu indissolubili nititur, a Deo statuto, quem homini sua sponte infringere non licet, inter significationem unitatis et significationem procreationis, quae ambae in actu coniugali insunt.

V: is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.
S: there is an unbreakable connection between the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning [of the marital act], and both are inherent in the marital act.

Again, Smith adds a phase, “of the marital act”, not found (in that place) in the Latin text. The Latin has that phrase once, at the end, and she adds it a second time. She is asserting her doctrinal claim that the unitive and procreative meanings are found in the marital act, as if no unitive or procreative meanings are found outside of marital sex. And though she does not state this (as far as I know), other authors do so. They claim that the sin of having sex outside of marriage destroys the unitive and procreative meanings, so that adding contraception to such acts does not make the act more thoroughly disordered, nor any more sinful. And this is one of the doctrinal claims of the HV translation error cohort, that contraception used in non-marital sexual acts, is morally neutral or that it does not make the act more disordered.

But such claims cannot be reconciled with Sacred Scripture:
[1 Corinthians]
{6:16} And do you not know that whoever is joined to a harlot becomes one body? “For the two,” he said, “shall be as one flesh.”

Thus, even extra-marital sex can have the unitive meaning, despite the sinful deprivation of the marital meaning. The only moral sexual act is that which retains all three meanings: marital, unitive, and procreative. But the deliberate deprivation of any one of those meanings, does not deprive the act of the other two. For the deprivation of one or two of the three meanings harms, but does not destroy, the remaining meanings. This teaching is absolutely clear from the language of Humanae Vitae, saying that contraception is immoral because it separates the unitive and procreative meanings — not because it (supposedly) destroys all three meanings: marital, unitive, and procreative. Contraception deprives sexual acts — even non-marital sexual acts — of the procreative meaning inherent to human sexuality, written into the nature of man and woman. But it does not destroy the unitive and marital meanings.

L: Quapropter cum quis dono Dei utitur, tollens, licet solum ex parte, significationem et finem doni ipsius, sive viri sive mulieris naturae repugnat eorumque intimae necessitudini, ac propterea etiam Dei consilio sanctaeque eius voluntati obnititur.

V: Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will.
S: Thus, anyone who uses God’s gift [of marital love] and cancels, if only in part, the significance and the purpose of this gift, is rebelling against either the male or female nature and against their most intimate relationship and for this reason, then, he is defying the plan and holy will of God.

Notice that the use of contraception is said to deprive sexual acts “even if only partially” of their meaning. That is because the unitive and (if it is the case) the martial meaning, remain, despite the sin of using contraception. And this sin of contraception offends against “the nature of man and woman” — not solely against the nature of marriage.

Yet Smith adds another phrase, not found in the Latin text: “of marital love”. She again adds words to try to bolster her claim that the teaching of the Church on contraception is limited to its use in marriage. This claim takes the teaching of the Magisterium on a grave matter of morality, and reduces it, so that innumerable gravely immoral acts of using contraception outside of marriage seem to be moral or at least, as they claim, “morally neutral”. It is a very weighty moral error to justify many millions of gravely immoral acts, or to claim that the Church has not condemned these acts (as if we have no knowledge concerning their immorality).

L: Neque vero, ad eos coniugales actus comprobandos ex industria fecunditate privatos, haec argumenta ut valida afferre licet: nempe, id malum eligendum esse, quod minus grave videatur; insuper eosdem actus in unum quoddam coalescere cum actibus fecundis iam antea positis vel postea ponendis, atque adeo horum unam atque parem moralem bonitatem participare.

V: Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these.
S: Nor is it possible to justify deliberately depriving marital acts of their fertility by claiming that one is choosing the lesser evil. It cannot be claimed that these acts deprived of fertility should be considered together as a whole with past and future fertile acts and thus that they [should be judged] to share in one and the same moral goodness of the fertile acts [of marriage].

The Vatican translation condemns “sexual intercourse [conjugales actus] which is deliberately contraceptive”. But Smith changes the translation to “marital acts”, despite the fact that Casti Connubii uses “conjug-” to refer to non-marital sex, and despite the fact that Quaecumque Sterilizatio condemns contraception, regardless of marital state, without using any form of the word “conjug-“. She is imposing a distortion of doctrine, on the text, by means of a biased translation.

The passage goes on to use “actibus fecundis” — a Latin phrase correctly translated by the Vatican as “procreative acts”. Smith translates this phrase as “fertile acts”, which would be fine, except that she ends the sentence by appending “of marriage” to “fertile acts”. She denies that the Church has condemned the use of contraception as intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of marital state. Therefore, her translation must add various phrases, referring to the marital state, so as to unduly restrict Church teaching.

L: Quapropter erret omnino, qui arbitretur coniugalem actum, sua fecunditate ex industria destitutum, ideoque intrinsece inhonestum, fecundis totius coniugum vitae congressionibus comprobari posse.

V: Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.
S: Thus, it is a serious error to think that a marital act, deprived deliberately of its fertility, and which consequently is intrinsically wrong [intrinsece inhonestum], can be justified by being grouped together with the fertile acts of the whole of the marriage.

Here the Latin is translated as “sexual intercourse” in the Vatican translation. But Smith rejects this phrasing, because it is contrary to her own understanding. She therefore heavily rephrases the whole sentence, to remove the magisterial condemnation of all “sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong” and replace it with a condemnation of contraception only in marriage.

My next point is perhaps obvious, but it needs to be said. If you have to rewrite a magisterial document, adding all kinds of words and phrases not found in the Latin text or its official translation, in order to support your understanding of contraception, then there is something wrong with your understanding. If the words of Jesus only seem correct to you when you add all kinds of words and phrases to what the Lord actually said, you are putting yourself above Jesus, and only believing what your own mind tells you, not what the Son of God taught. And the same is true for the teaching of the Church.

If you think that magisterial document “A” should be interpreted to mean “B”, then you should quote “A” and then offer a theological argument for “B”. What you should never do is rewrite magisterial document “A”, adding words and phrases that were never in the document in any language, so that document “A” doesn’t just imply “B” in your interpretation, it now explicitly states “B”.

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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One Response to Janet Smith’s new translation of Humanae Vitae

  1. Francisco says:

    I read in a book the following: “There are people who look for the truth, whether they like it or not.
    Other people look for what they like, whether it’s true or not.

    Ideas are not enough in order to choose our Religion. Religion needs to be the supreme of our values. I can know that tobacco is bad for health, but if I value tobacco more than health, I will continue smoking.”

    Some people seem to value their own understanding more than Church’s teaching.

    By the way, thanks Ron for doing this great service to us by identifying this disease of false and bad/arrogant “teachers” spreading in the web (specifically).

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