The National Catholic Register has an article titled: Janet Smith, Fearless Defender of ‘Humanae Vitae’. Defender? Nothing could be further from the truth. Smith has gutted the teaching of the Church against contraception, turning Humanae Vitae into a hollow shell of its former glory. I continue to be surprised at how few Catholics realize what the writings of Prof. Smith are really saying about contraception — as well as sexual ethics.
I. Contraception, Abortifacients, and Sterilization
Janet E. Smith is not a defender of Humanae Vitae. She is one of several supposedly conservative authors who have proposed a radical reinterpretation of Humanae Vitae, so as to approve of the use of contraception in most cases. * Yes, you read that correctly. Her interpretation of Humanae Vitae so thoroughly undermines the teaching of Humanae Vitae that most uses of contraception, including abortifacient contraception, are seen as not condemned by the Church.
Smith made a new translation of Humanae Vitae. Her translation adds words and phrases not based on anything in the Latin text, for the sole purpose of justifying her radical reinterpretation: Janet Smith’s new translation of Humanae Vitae. That is not a defense of Humanae Vitae, but a way to change its teaching by literally changing its wording.
What is this radical reinterpretation? According to Janet Smith, contraception, by definition, applies only to “spousal intercourse”.
“The Church teaches that acts of contraception are always against the plan of God for human sexuality, since God intended that each and every act of spousal intercourse express both the intention to make a complete, unitive gift of one’s self to one’s spouse and the willingness to be a parent with one’s spouse. These meanings of the spousal act are, as Humanae Vitae stated, inseparable.” [Contraception, Congo Nuns, Choosing the Lesser Evil, and Conflict of Commandments]
Just so the reader is not misled, the Church has never said that its condemnation of contraception is limited to spousal intercourse. And how many times, worldwide, is contraception used outside of a valid marriage? The number is very likely in the billions. What percentage of uses of contraception occur outside of a valid marriage? Perhaps a majority, or a substantial minority. But it gets worse. She does not condemn all uses of contraception within marriage.
Smith claims that a woman may use contraception — specifically abortifacient contraception — in marriage or out of marriage, as long as she has a good intention, and does not intend to contracept: “Women who use those hormones with the intent of reducing pain and not with the intent of rendering their sexual acts infertile are not engaging in acts of contraception.” [See my post here]. So, in the view of Janet Smith, the use of contraception is condemned only in a valid marriage, and only when the couple has “the intent of rendering their sexual acts infertile”.
To the contrary, Humanae Vitae teaches that contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. And Veritatis Splendor teaches that intrinsically evil acts are immoral regardless of intention or circumstances. So Smith’s teaching contradicts Church teaching on contraception and on intrinsic evil.
Janet E. Smith teaches that contraception is only intrinsically evil and gravely immoral if you have a valid marriage and you intend to render your sexual acts infertile. What a difference from Church teaching! A vast number of uses of contraception are exempted from the condemnation of Humanae Vitae by Smith’s radical interpretation. That is not a defense of Humanae Vitae. It is an attack from within the castle.
Proof that the Church has condemned contraception, regardless of marital state, is found here: Contraception and Heresy — Part 2, the use of contraception outside of marriage and in several of my blog posts. I should also note that Smith is aware that other theologians do not read Humanae Vitae in such a narrow manner. But she continues to claim that her reading is ,b>Church teaching, rather than her heterodox opinion.
And her approval of the use of abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose, such as the purpose of “reducing pain” does not require the woman to refrain from sexual intercourse. So Smith is justifying abortifacient contraception in cases where its use will cause the deaths of innocent prenatals. These deaths could be avoided, while still obtaining the medical benefit, by merely refraining from sex. (Smith’s talk Contraception: Why Not? warns against abortifacients killing prenatals, but her more recent articles call it a small but acceptable risk.) So the real decision is whether you think sex is so important that you don’t mind off-ing a few of your own unborn children so that you don’t have to give up sex for a while. Smith sides with those who think sex is so important, it’s worth the risk of killing the unborn.
So professor Janet E. Smith is not only gutting the Church’s teaching against contraception, she is approving of a common type of abortion (the early abortion of abortifacient contraception). And this, too, is contrary to the famed encyclical of Pope Paul VI. Humanae Vitae not only condemns contraception, it also condemns direct sterilization and direct abortion.
Smith has written of abortifacient contraception with the claim that the deaths of innocent prenatals caused by abortifacient contraception may be considered a “small but acceptable risk” [discussion here]. She has written that sterilization may be moral when used by a woman whose intention is to avoid becoming pregnant from a possible future rape [my post here]. That claim is contradicted by a particular magisterial document, which Smith has the gall to cite as if it approved of her position, when it condemns it [Sterilizations in Catholic Hospitals].
Defender of Humanae Vitae? Are you kidding me?
And now we come to a second related topic, the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics.
II. Unnatural Sexual Acts in Marriage
Joan Frawley Desmond, author of the NCR article in question, makes the following perplexing claim: “In January 2012, Smith became a consecrated virgin.” Okay. I have a few remarks on that topic.
Speaking in general, a priest or nun might break their vow of celibacy in either of two ways. First, the person might commit a sexual act, which is not only a sin in itself, but a violation of the vow or promise. But the second way of breaking the vow or promise of chastity is by encouraging other persons to commit sexual sins. The priest who tells an engaged couple that it’s moral for them to have sexual relations breaks his own vow of chastity by committing formal cooperation with their grave sexual sin. The nun (e.g. Margaret Farley) who publishes a book approving of a wide range of sexual acts condemned as grave sins by the Church violates her own vow of chastity. For true chastity is not merely refraining from sexual acts. It includes being chaste in thoughts and words, and in the way that one interacts with other persons. Encouraging others to commit sexual sins violates chastity.
So a layman or laywoman who is a consecrated virgin, but who publicly approves of grave sins related to sexuality is thereby unfaithful to his or her consecration. From the point of view of faith, a true virgin is faithful in mind and heart, in words and in every kind of action, not only in refraining from certain bodily acts. The meaning of the perfect virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not only her literal virginity — a sign that her child is the Son of God — but also her complete faithfulness to God, in body and soul, and her complete purity.
Professor Janet E. Smith has offended against her state of life as a consecrated virgin in several ways.
1. She has severely distorted the teaching of the Church on contraception and abortifacient contraception, so that many persons, following her teaching, might consider their use of contraception to be moral, when it is instead a grave sin, and so that many couples might use abortifacients, resulting in the deaths of prenatals. This constitutes formal cooperation with both contraception and abortion.
2. She has approved and promoted the book “Holy Sex” by Gregory Popcak. That book approves of grave sexual sins within marriage, including almost every possible unnatural sexual act (except male completion outside natural relations). And while “Holy Sex” tells its readers not to use pornography, the book itself is pornographic. It includes short stories about the sex lives of fictional couples. It includes explicit descriptions and instructions in how to commit acts of grave depravity within marriage. Smith’s claim that the book is “compatible with Catholic teaching” is absurd. And her description of Popcak as chaste and faithful is blatantly contrary to his own admission (p. 4) that he helps unmarried couples get more enjoyment from their acts of fornication. Her claim that couples who “follow his advice will become holier and better partners” represents formal cooperation with his sin of promoting the use of sex toys [condemned in Denz. 3638-40] as well as his sin of promoting oral, anal, and manual sex [condemned in various Church documents].
3. She has defended Christopher West’s approval of unnatural sexual acts in marriage, including sodomy. When Christopher West was criticized for approving of the use of anal sex by married couples as a type of foreplay, she came to his defense — or rather, to the defense of that unnatural act.
Alice von Hildebrand criticized West for his many errors in the realm of sexuality, and Smith replied with an 8,000-plus-word article [The Need To Read Carefully] contending with Alice at every turn, and defending every sexual perversity uttered by West. She included in her defense of West a long section (850+ words) asserting the permissibility of “anal penetration as a part of foreplay.”
So, she’s a consecrated virgin? A true virgin would have rebuked West for his many errors on marital sex, and for his sexualization of Christianity. A true virgin would not be so anxious to make anal foreplay seem like a moral option.
And, to be clear, the Church does not, as Smith claims, require climax as a part of the definition of a grave sexual sin, such as sodomy. Masturbation is condemned even when climax is absent [USCCB, “Create In Me A Clean Heart”, III.]. Amplexus reservatus is condemned even though neither spouse climaxes [Denz. 3907]. And sodomy within marriage is also condemned [Denz. 3634], without the requirement that climax occur for it to be a sin. So it is not true, as Smith opines, that the act in question is not really sodomy without male completion.
Unnatural sexual acts in marriage have been condemned by Saints Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, Alphonsus Liguori, and, if you read carefully, Saint John Paul II. Saint Alphonsus is very clear that these acts are immoral even without climax. Unnatural sexual acts in marriage are condemned in Casti Connubii, Address to Midwives, and the Address to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility. Denzinger has several passages also condemning particular unnatural sexual acts in marriage: sodomy [Denz. 3634] and also the use of sex toys [Denz. 3638-40].
Moreover, Humanae Vitae — a document Smith supposedly defends — plainly teaches that “each and every” sexual act in a marriage (i.e. “each single act”) must be unitive and procreative, and this necessarily implies a condemnation of all unnatural sexual acts. For unnatural acts are sinful and are unnatural because they are deprived of the unitive and procreative meanings in their moral object. But do any of these acts become unitive or procreative when deprived of climax? No, they do not. The absence of climax does not make the act unitive or procreative, so the act remains immoral.
In another article, Smith again defends the alleged licitness of anal sex: Christopher West’s Work is “Completely Sound,” says Dr. Janet Smith. There, she states the following:
“Certainly there isn’t any “Church teaching” about this action at a magisterial level, but few seem to know that there is a tradition of approval of such behavior as foreplay to intercourse (not to be confused with the biblical condemnation of sodomy which replaces intercourse) by orthodox Catholic ethicists.”
There have been numerous magisterial teachings and decisions on this topic of unnatural sexual acts in marriage. The teaching of the Church on this topic is carefully explained in my book, The Catholic Marriage Bed. It is not an open question, nor a question on which the Church has been silent. The condemnation of unnatural sexual acts in marriage is found in multiple magisterial documents, as is the positive version of that teaching: each and every sexual act in a marriage must be unitive and procreative. In researching the book, I was repeatedly surprised by how many magisterial documents condemn the types of sexual acts that are being promoted and approved by theology of the body speakers and authors, including West, Popcak, and Smith. The big lie of theology of the body is that the Church permits or at least has been silent on the use of unnatural sexual acts in marriage.
As for the claimed “tradition” of approval for sodomy in marriage, these “orthodox Catholic ethicists” — or what West calls a “broad consensus of orthodox moral theologians” — is not a tradition or a consensus, but only an error shared by multiple authors. West cites Merkelbach and Jone as part of that consensus. Each author’s book was written it the 1920’s, prior to many of the magisterial teachings on the subject. Why go back that far to find an alleged “consensus”? Quite a few present-day orthodox theologians have written on the question, including: Alice von Hildebrand, Fr. Roger Landry (a West supporter), Fr. Gregory Gresko, Fr. Thomas G. Morrow, Fr. Brian W. Harrison, David Schindler, and of course Dietrich von Hildebrand (going back not too far). Oh, wait. They all speak against marital sodomy. So, you see, there is no broad consensus among orthodox ethicists, unless you count the consensus condemning this act.
All the Saints who opined on the subject have condemned unnatural sexual acts in marriage. St. Alphonsus Liguori was particularly specific in his condemnation, as Smith herself explains. Saint Jerome, Augustine, and Aquinas also condemned unnatural sexual acts in marriage. Contrary to some popular claims, Pope Saint John Paul II did not approve of any type of unnatural sexual acts in marriage. Rather, he repeated the teaching of Humanae Vitae that requires sexual acts in marriage to always be both unitive and procreative. When all the Saints who speak on a subject issue the same condemnation, the contrary view is not “a tradition” or a “consensus of orthodox” anything.
No, it is not moral for a husband to use sodomy as a type of foreplay. No, it is not moral for spouses to use sex toys. No, it is not moral for the wife to act deliberately so as to climax outside the natural marital act. Unnatural sexual acts do not become moral when climax is absent. And the proximity of an unnatural sexual act to the moral act of natural relations does not cause that unnatural act to become natural or moral or in any way justifiable.
What else does Smith say? This piece of tripe:
“I never like to talk about anal sex (sorry, I don’t know a good euphemism). As one of my friends has observed about my sensitivities regarding sexual matters, “You would censor Shakespeare!” (I would.) But the fact remains that Catholic couples in today’s world have questions about such issues. Many cannot understand why anal sex could possibly be appealing to anyone (include me and, indeed, West in that group), while others seem to find the act attractive.”
Yeah, Okay. You don’t like to talk about it, but you keep doing so. You are sensitive about sexual matters and don’t see the appeal of…. Well, that’s contradicted by what one of my readers says:
4. Smith has privately encouraged at least one spouse to use unnatural sexual acts in her marriage.
“Recently I contacted a well-known Catholic philosopher to clarify on her position with these acts. Well, I was deeply grieved at her response. In her mind, the morally illicit acts are okay, so long as it ‘isn’t painful’ since that is not charitable. When asked about the origin of her opinion, she stated, it was her own. She disregarded my comments on the Catechism and Church documents and ended the response with an implicit statement that one would be ‘not open’ to one’s husband and implying it would be prude to not engage in such acts.”
Janet Smith once told a married woman she should submit to unnatural sex acts with her husband, or else she’d be guilty of being “not open” to him and of being a prude. What kind of consecrated virgin gives advice like that? What kind of Christian gives advice like that?
I can tell you something else about Catholic theologians, some of them. When they are in front of a class of students, not writing or speaking publicly, they are must less circumspect on their views. One can see the difference between the public statements, and the unvarnished off-the-cuff remarks. And it is appalling how few theologians care what the Church teaches, when they are speaking frankly and privately. So I am not surprised that Janet Smith would encourage a woman to use unnatural sexual acts in her marriage, while publicly speaking as if she does not approve of such behavior.
Janet Smith is no defender of Humanae Vitae. She has radically reinterpreted its teaching so that it applies only narrowly. This interpretation excludes the use of contraception outside of marriage from the Church’s condemnation. Similarly excluded is the use of contraception in any invalid marriage. So, good news for the divorced and remarried. Janet Smith says you can use contraception, because it is supposedly not really contraception, if you do not have a valid marriage.
What kind of consecrated virgin has no problem recommending, promoting, and defending the work of authors who write in favor of almost every kind of unnatural sexual act in marriage? What kind of consecrated virgin feels compelled to defend marital sodomy? An unfaithful one. I wouldn’t say something like this, if it were based on her private behavior (of which I have no knowledge). But these are her own words, stated publicly, happily promoting the pornographic book called “Holy Sex”, and repeatedly defending the supposed “tradition” of approving of marital sodomy.
Someone needs to speak out against this type of error. For it is not merely academic or theoretical. These false teachings affect souls, marriages, and lives. And, my fellow Catholic bloggers, most you are not up to the task. You want everyone to like you, so you don’t say anything controversial. Well, I don’t mind speaking out. Someone has to warn souls against these grave errors.
Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.
* Other authors who claim Humanae Vitae only condemns contraception within a valid marriage include: Dr. Ed Peters, Jimmy Akin, Jeff Mirus, et alia.