When I was asked by John Norton, the editor of the OSV Newsweekly, to give an interview about the papal affirmations on condoms, I readily accepted this invitation with the intention of thereby helping to clarify confusions created by misinterpretations and exaggerations by the media of what the Holy Father said.

I also tried to counter the idea that the pope now simply endorsed what I had written during the last years, mainly in my 2004 Tablet article; I tried to counter the view that his affirmations represent a sea-change, and to stick to a minimalist interpretation of his words which seems to me appropriate. Most importantly, it was clear for me that this was not the venue in which to open a scholarly debate.

As multiple reactions from colleagues and others have indicated, I seem to have succeeded in all these points. Yet, strange enough, this is precisely what Janet Smith blames me for. She writes: “That such discussion is becoming very public through such vehicles as an OSV interview on the Internet is unfortunate, in my view.” But it seems to me that the fault is hers: she has opened a debate which enters into questions I did not want to address. Unfortunately she even adds a distinct and very technical topic — “vital conflicts” in medical ethics — about which I said nothing in the interview, thus both raising further complexities more apt for technical venues and unnecessarily increasing polemic.

Grave misrepresentation

Whereas Dr. Smith’s article embodies her free decision to write, and thus reflects — to use her words — her “agenda,” my interview presents my answers to the questions formulated by the OSV Newsweekly and submitted to me by its editor, John Norton. Though the questions were very well chosen, they do not represent my “agenda.” If I had written an article for the OSV Newsweekly at my own initiative, I would have written otherwise (as I did in my recent article published here).

If acting on my own initiative, I most certainly would not have addressed certain very sensitive questions. Yet I was asked to answer these questions, and in order to do so thoroughly I had to explain more than I would have done in another context. The problem, as I see it, is not what I said in my interview, but the fact that Dr. Smith responded to it in the way she did. Others who have been critical of my views on these topics, without agreeing with everything I affirmed, nevertheless expressed to me their respect and approval for the prudence and care with which I have commented on the Holy Father’s words on prophylactic condom use. Dr. Smith also concedes that my interview “includes many important clarifications.” Yet in some important respects she gravely misrepresents my views, mainly distorting my affirmations about Church teaching on contraception and marriage in a way which necessitates a response.

Dr. Smith seems to be unfamiliar with what I have published on sexual ethics in my book “Ethics of Procreation and the Defense of Human Life” (2010), and what I have written about the moral theory of St. Thomas Aquinas in books like “Natural Law and Practical Reason” (2000), “The Perspective of the Acting Person” (2008) and “The Perspective of Morality” (forthcoming in 2011, originally published in Italian in 1994 and also available in German and Spanish). If she were, she certainly would not suggest, for example, that my views rely purely on intuition.

She refers, moreover, to my alleged view of licitly “killing fetuses in some situations”. Dr. Smith appreciates my having “submitted [my] thoughts to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF),” and adds that the congregation “did not prevent [me] from publishing them.” The truth is rather different, and is clearly stated in the preface of my recent book “Vital Conflicts in Medical Ethics,” originally published in German in 2003. This book was in fact a study commissioned by the CDF and published by explicit request of it. Though it does not necessarily contain the views of the CDF, the congregation wanted it to be published to start a scholarly discussion about its content and gave me the explicit permission to mention this wish in the preface of the book.

What is most disappointing to me, therefore, is not only that Janet Smith unnecessarily brings this additional topic up in a public venue like the OSV Newsweekly, but that her doing so will cause distrust in my work and damage my reputation. I come to this conclusion because she writes that I hold “that virtue ethics permits killing an unborn child whose presence threatens the life of the mother and who could not survive to viability.” Dr. Smith relies upon a critic’s presentation of my argument; she does not seem to read my above-mentioned book in which the problem of “vital conflict” is presented in a much different way than she suggests, namely by making clear both that I in no way justify abortion, and the deficiencies in proportionalist analyses of these cases. The way – and the context – in which she refers to my view on this difficult question seems quite irresponsible, and cannot but distort its real meaning; in so doing, moreover, her critical remarks do not reflect well on the CDF who, as I have said, asked me to publish this study. Sadly, and although I would hope it was unintentional, Smith’s implicit suggestion that I am advocating direct abortion in the name of virtue ethics comes close to slander. She is similarly unfair in accusing me of approving masturbation when I simply explained that the articulation of the norm against masturbation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is an intentional definition, one that describes the sin in terms of the purpose for which it is carried out (see No. 2352: “By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure”).

Position on contraception

Also far off the mark is what Janet Smith writes on my moral analysis of contraception outside marriage. She writes: “Rhonheimer asserts that the Church’s teaching on contraception has been rendered only in the context of conjugal acts.” This formulation is not accurate because it suggests that I mean that, according to Church teaching, contraception outside marriage possibly is neither an issue nor a moral fault, or that there is nothing in the teaching of the Church implying that contraception is sinful also for unmarried people.

Yet what I said is that the Church’s teaching on contraception is essentially “a teaching about marital love,” as is its general teaching on sexual ethics.

Although I did not develop this long-held aspect of my thought in my OSV interview, this teaching entails that fornication is not only opposed to the truth about marital love, but that contraception is not only a sin in marriage, but also outside marriage! The reason for this claim (which does not contradict what I wrote about not advising those doing intrinsically evil acts on how to do them in a way that is less evil, but rather not to do them at all) is that contraception by fornicators violates the essentially marital character of sexuality, just as it does within marriage. Concretely, in my “Ethics of Procreation and the Defense of Human Life” I mention this question. Speaking specifically about the “contraceptive mentality” which is at the root of the abortive mentality, I write about extramarital sexual acts (and this passage was already contained in a paper published 1989 in the Linacre Quarterly) that “as far as contraception is concerned, the same principles [the full truth about marriage] apply to them [fornicators],” but that for unmarried people “periodic continence is excluded as well [it is not sufficient to make fornication morally good], since the unitive meaning of sexual intercourse is fulfilled only within the context of marital com-mitment.” I then go on to write that “Outside of mar-riage, therefore, the virtue of chastity requires absolute continence; this is the only genuine way of integrating sexuality as a human good in love prior to marriage, and it is essential to enabling the couple to make a mutual gift of self in the marriage.” (Page 124).

The idea, therefore, that the teaching on contraception, like sexual ethics in general, is a teaching about the truth of marital love leads to the conclusion that the only upright way of living sexuality outside marriage is “absolute continence.” This is why I wrote, as already mentioned: “Thus, as far as contraception is concerned, the same principles apply to them [fornicators].”

What applies, therefore, to contraception inside marriage also applies to sexual intercourse outside marriage: Namely, that contraception is opposed to chastity, to the moral requirement of responsibly modifying one’s bodily behavior by acts of sexual continence instead of simply indulging the logic of the sexual drive by rendering sexual acts infertile, as I briefly described in my OSV interview. I stress, moreover, and it is a direct consequence of my argument, that the contraceptive mentality — contraceptive sex practiced and encouraged — leads to the widespread abortion mentality.

Support for condoms?

Now, what Dr. Smith makes of my view that the Church teaching on contraception is essentially a teaching on marital love and the marital meaning of sexuality leaves me bewildered. She actually converts it into “support [for] those who are pressing for distribution of condoms,” including fornicators! She adds: “I do not know whether Rhonheimer thinks that fornicators commit a sin in contracepting.” If she had taken the time before writing to study what I have written about marital love and contraception, or if she had asked me, her question could have been easily answered.

The answer is a clear implication of my understanding that sexual behavior is measured by the full truth of marriage. The point of contraception in and outside marriage, and the reason why it is intrinsically vicious, is the same: to render continence superfluous and to avoid the responsible modification of one’s sexual (bodily) behavior (therefore violating the virtue of temperance to which chastity belongs). Contracepted extramarital sex, therefore, aggravates the sin of fornication exactly to the extent that contraception is opposed to the virtue of chastity. Contraception — a particular failure against the procreative responsibility that can only be practiced rightly in marriage — adds a new aspect to the sin of fornication, and goes against chastity precisely by indulging the sexual drive for pleasure rather than abstaining from intercourse through continence, which is required by right reason and virtue (though, as I explain elsewhere, chastity of course is not simply equal to continence which as such is not a virtue).

The point of contraception in extramarital sex is precisely to prevent the risk of pregnancy (a potential fornicator might not have sex if there were such a risk; but contraception reduces it and thus facilitates the act of fornication; in a way it is a means of managing the risks of fornication). Whereas married people should abstain when right reason tells them both that they should not conceive and that they are likely to do so, unmarried persons should abstain completely. For them, therefore, contraception involves an increase of moral disorder.

This claim, however, is not contrary to the recognition that in some cases fornicators may at least show a degree of responsibility by using a condom. Nor should one draw the conclusion that the Church should advise fornicators that they should avoid the use of condoms. Instead, the Church preaches repentance to those doing intrinsically evil acts.

My remark on the fornicator who, instead of maximizing pleasure, uses a condom in order not to disrupt a girl’s entire life by leaving her pregnant, presupposes what I have just outlined, but adds a feature proper to this case.

I mentioned this special example because it has some analogy with the case of prophylaxis in intrinsically disordered sexual relations. Given the immorality of the act, and given that in the case I mentioned the fornicators in fact are (and irresponsibly so) not preoccupied about the possible procreative consequences of their act (and are often ready to encourage an abortion if the girl becomes pregnant), I expressed my view that he at least subjectively acts less irresponsibly when he uses a condom to avoid disrupting the girl’s life just for his own pleasure.

But this does not mean that it takes away the moral disorder of contraception in fornication as described above, and it is certainly not a “moral solution,” as the pope said: Nothing normative can be deduced from this. But this case of the pleasure-limiting fornicator has the special feature that contraceptive condom use is not what facilitates for these persons to engage in sexual intercourse; according to the case, they would obviously take the risk of causing a pregnancy and have unprotected sex! But then the male decides to use the condom out of consideration for the girl. This was the point at issue and the narrative of this case is very peculiar.

Janet Smith’s question of “whether Rhonheimer thinks that fornicators commit a sin in contracepting,” therefore, seems to me to miss the point. Instead of insisting on my example of the condom-using and pleasure-limiting fornicator, whose narrative is rather untypical for extramarital sex, she should have tried to understand why I said that Church teaching on sexual ethics in general and contraception in particular is essentially a teaching on marital love; in other words, the right reason that measures the good and evil of sexual behavior is the full truth about marriage. Instead of trying to understand it, she gave a very confused account of it.

To reiterate, I do not hold the view that “fornicators are not sinning when they use contraceptives,” as Janet Smith suggests. To claim that it follows from what I said in my interview that it is “wise to distribute contraceptives to fornicators” (e.g. by parents to their kids, or in schools) is to misunderstand the points I have tried to clarify above. Such misunderstanding was also reflected in the reaction of some critics of my 2004 Tablet article, who similarly charged that I advocated the distribution of condoms to contain the AIDS epidemic! In particular, I was attacked for allegedly “promoting the use of condoms” whereas what I actually wrote was that “it would be simply nonsensical to establish moral norms for intrinsically immoral types of behavior”; by this, I obviously was arguing that there could be never a Church teaching about how to realize intrinsically immoral acts in a less immoral way. Such attacks reflect the same kind of misunderstanding as reflected in Dr. Smith’s article. Yet in a recent article she herself endorsed my view when she wrote: “The Church has no formal teaching about how to reduce the evil of intrinsically immoral action.” (The Catholic World Report). That was exactly my point in my 2004 Tablet article (see also my article in www.chiesa: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1345909?eng=y ).

Points of agreement

For those who have understood my argument, it should be no surprise that I fully agree with practically everything what Dr. Smith writes in the section of her response titled “Case by Case Reasoning.” As to the section “Public Policy,” Janet Smith seems to ignore the epidemiological facts about prophylaxis for high risk groups and that in the famous and successful ABC method, condoms actually do play a (remote) role. In his interview, the Holy Father explicitly acknowledged this. Again, from this one cannot deduce a general recommendation or even active distribution of condoms as a general means for combating the AIDS epidemic — this would lead to what Pope Benedict calls the banalization of sexuality — and nothing can be deduced from it for Church-run health institutions, for this, as the pope emphasizes and as I noted in my interview, is a responsibility of the civil authorities.

What Dr. Smith sets forth in the last section (“HIV-infected Spouses and Condoms”) delivers a useful account of the kind of argument I have been wrestling with during the last years. Since the intent of this reply is only to counter Smith’s misrepresentations and distortions of what I have said in my interview, I will not here comment on this. What she says in this section makes it clear that she understands the unitive character of marital intercourse to depend essentially on the deposition of semen in the vagina without which there can be no marital union in “one flesh.” From this she claims that any impeding of such deposition is contraceptive, which would mean that even sterile couples can contracept!

I know well that such emphasis follows a long theological and canonical tradition. In light of a new challenge posed by the anovulant pill, which forced the Church to make clear that the evil of contraception was not essentially located in the interruption of semination, I believe that the encyclical Humanae Vitae is best understood as opening the way toward a new perspective giving greater attention to intentional human actions and moral virtue, a more personalistic emphasis reflected in the Second Vatican Council which in its Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, No. 51, demanded an approach by “objective standards … based on the nature of the human person and his acts,” which “preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love,” a goal which “cannot be achieved unless the virtue of conjugal chastity is sincerely practiced.”

I think that the Holy Father is aware that the doctrinal contribution of the encyclical Humanae Vitae is yet to be fully understood and that much work remains to be done. The older arguments must be carefully considered, because they certainly have a great weight; but we should also have the courage to have a fresh look at these problems. It is not the arguments which are part of the moral doctrine of the Church, but the substance, in this case: that contraception — which according to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Nr. 13), is essentially a sin against conjugal chastity — is intrinsically evil.

To finish, I wish to emphasize that my argument against contraception is a serious and multilayered one and that I see no evidence that Dr. Smith has really tried to understand it. I would very much welcome her critical remarks on my real argument, but as she seems to agree, the OSV Newsweekly is not the right venue for the more technical debate on the issues she has now raised.

On the other hand, I think the readers of OSV Newsweekly are engaged, intelligent, active lay people and clergy who wish to understand better the issues and debates surrounding Pope Benedict’s recent comments and therefore will appreciate my brief admittedly incomplete response to some of the questions raised by Dr. Smith’s article.

Opus Dei Father Martin Rhonheimer is professor of ethics and political philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome.

Dec. 18, 2010