I think the time has come to end this exchange with Professor Janet E. Smith. I am grateful that the editor of OSV Newsweekly has given me the last word, a privilege I do not want to abuse. I regret if I have not correctly represented, or if I misunderstood some of Dr. Smith’s remarks on my interview.
I am pleased that her response manifests many points of agreement. I am especially happy that she now clearly affirms: “I now believe that those who would enlist Rhonheimer in a campaign for distribution of condoms to fornicators to avoid a pregnancy would be doing so entirely unfairly.” I am also grateful for her clarifications about my position on masturbation. And I especially appreciated her kind words, at the end of her second response about my commitment to truth and serving the Church. The same can of course be said about Dr. Smith’s work in moral theology.
I agree with her, moreover, that in some respects my methodology of ethical analysis is novel, although I think this novelty is not so much in comparison to Aristotle and Aquinas, as in comparison to later approaches; and I agree that in some areas my approach may yield conclusions which seem troubling to some; I can agree, therefore, that, as she writes, “a healthy dose of wariness is in order.” I only wish to add, that for the same reason that wariness is in order (namely, that there be time to assess carefully the arguments), a healthy dose of carefulness in assessing my approach and its conclusions is in order. Apparently novel approaches can be disconcerting to those for whom they appear to be novel. Yet, moral philosophers and moral theologians trained in a different, less Anglo-Saxon intellectual context often appreciate, though without necessarily agreeing with all my conclusions, that apparent novelty of my approach as retrieving an older and broader tradition of ethical thinking, grounded in Aristotle and in Thomas Aquinas understood in the light of his profoundly Aristotelian spirit.
Despite the greater grounds for agreement in Dr. Smith’s latest response, however, there remain several zones of disagreement or perhaps ongoing mutual misunderstanding. In the following I simply want to briefly state these points without entering into a discussion of them.
1. Dr. Smith rejects my claim that I give a minimalistic interpretation when I write that “For the first time it has been said by the pope himself, though not in a formal teaching act of the Church’s magisterium, that the Church does not unconditionally ‘prohibit’ prophylactic use of condoms.” She says that “the pope neither said nor, as a matter of logical inference, implied any such thing.”
First of all: In saying “minimalistic,” I meant in comparison to the exaggerated interpretations of what Pope Benedict said that were widespread in the media. As to Dr. Smith’s denying that the Holy Father said such a thing, I think it is actually a fact that he did. Instead of saying that prostitutes “ought not to use condoms”, he called their using them, as I quoted, “a first step in the direction of a moralization” and “a first assumption of responsibility.” I think this logically implies the following regarding the Holy Father’s understanding of Catholic teaching on condom use: It includes neither a prohibition against such persons using them, nor obligation for Catholics to instruct prostitutes not to use them, nor that a prostitute who uses them necessarily sins more gravely against chastity (but rather lessens the evil of prostitution in epidemiological high risk situations). I admit that this perhaps has implications that Dr. Smith — on the grounds of her methodology of moral analysis — cannot easily accept. Yet, this does not necessarily mean that what I said is not a correct interpretation of what the Holy Father actually said.
2. The topic of contraception of fornicators was not a topic of the interview. As I have explained in my response, my example referred exclusively to a special case, in some aspects analogous to prophylactic condom use. Dr. Smith therefore reproaches me of not having made arguments about a topic which were not at all addressed by my interviewer. Her guess about what might be my position on this question was mistaken, and her charge that I “do not offer any philosophical or theological arguments for [my] position that the Church’s condemnation of contraception may not apply to fornication” but instead rely on “intuition” was doubly faulty: first, because I never held the view “that the Church’s condemnation of contraception may not apply to fornication” — I actually hold the opposite view (because it introduces a new aspect in the violation of chastity) — and, second, because the arguments for this are actually contained in the books I referred to in my interview.
3. I agree that, referring to my position on vital conflicts in medical ethics, Dr. Smith did not use the word “abortion.” Yet, abortion is what she clearly had in mind. Abortion is the direct or intentional killing of an embryo or a fetus. Now in her second response Dr. Smith clearly states that she thinks in certain cases I actually advocate this. She wrote: “I think I am justified in drawing attention to Rhonheimer’s views on the intentional killing of fetuses in some situations.” The quote from my book on this topic she gives in her second response is correct but easily misleading; it can only be rightly understood in the context of the whole argument which is not only an argument about justice but — most importantly — an argument showing that this is a case of non-intentional and therefore non-direct killing. I will simply repeat that the attempt to present me as an advocate of the direct or intentional killing of the innocent comes close to slander.
4. It is true that the argument in “Vital Conflicts in Medical Ethics” has been criticized by some, most of them scholars trained in the neo-Thomistic tradition. Dr. Smith could also have referred the criticism of a younger moral theologian, Father Nicanor Austriaco in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, to which I replied, making evident his misunderstandings of my argument. A longer response to Father Guevin’s criticism, which in some respects breathtakingly misconstrues what I wrote, is forthcoming in 2011. But there are not only critics of my view. It has been endorsed for example by Father Maurizio P. Faggioni, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and consultor of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in an important article titled “Problemi morali nel trattamento della preeclampsia e della corioamnionite,” in Medicina e Morale (2008/3). Unfortunately, those who agree with me mostly do not publish their agreement, and some who do, do it in languages other than English. I appeal to Dr. Smith to study all my replies to my critics. For a substantial discussion of these cases, locating my argument in a broader context and considering also what has been written recently by my various critics, an essay by Bill Murphy will soon be in print. When referring to Steven A. Long’s “The Teleological Grammar of the Moral Act” as a treatment of the “object of the act” “that is wholly in accord with tradition,” Dr. Smith should take in to consideration that Long’s presentation has been decisively criticized as a fundamental misreading of Aquinas by eminent Thomistic scholars including Jesuit Father Kevin Flannery and Steven Jensen.
5. As to Dr. Smith’s claim that prophylactic condom use is intrinsically contraceptive, even in the case of naturally unfertile sexual partners, I only wish to remark that with this claim she is rather alone among those who are opposed to my views on this topic. My critics, such as Professor Luke Gormally, one of the most prominent among them, has recently written in an open letter to me that his “critique did not rest on any claim that the use of a condom is necessarily contraceptive.” What they assert is that condoms transform sexual intercourse into an essentially non-reproductive kind of sexual behavior, regardless of the purpose for which they are used, because they impede insemination. Such an act, they argue, is no longer a conjugal act — an act of a generative kind, as they say — but rather contra naturam and thus a sexual perversion. This is a more coherent argument than yours because it disregards whether the sexual partners are fertile or not. Perhaps this is what you really meant, but in that case your way of expressing yourself seems to me confusing.
In stating these zones of agreement and disagreement, and having arrived at a high level of scholarly debate, I think we can conclude this exchange in the present venue. I think we have both profited from it. What seems to me most important — and I have not the least doubt that this is the case for Dr. Smith — that both sides are aware that the common task to serve the Church and faithfulness to its magisterium unites us in working for an ever deeper understanding of the truth.
Opus Dei Father Martin Rhonheimer is professor of ethics and political philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome.