Fr. Rhonheimer's final response»

Janet Smith's second response

Fr. Rhonheimer's first response»

Janet Smith's first response»

Original interview with Fr. Rhonheimer»


Father Rhonheimer states that in his response to my critique of his interview with the Our Sunday Visitor that he attempted to “stick to a minimalist interpretation” of the Holy Father’s words. But it is simply not supportable to assert 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” and yet also claim that one is “sticking to a minimalist interpretation.” To the contrary, the pope neither said nor, as a matter of logical inference, implied any such thing. Yet this interpretation of the pope’s words by Rhonheimer plays a major role in his interview. As Rhonheimer himself notes, this is a novel view (a “first”). The same moral theory that he uses to justify that novel view, he uses elsewhere to justify other novel views, some of which I identified in my response.

Rhonheimer thinks that I falsely attribute to him numerous views which he repudiates, to the point that he thinks I came close to slandering him. I reject this allegation and, in fact, I think that Rhonheimer has systematically misconstrued what I said and persistently attributes to me things I never said.

Father Rhonheimer maintains that I charged him with basing all of his moral teachings “purely on intuition.” I made no such charge. I was, instead, responding to his remarks that “to apply the Church’s teaching on contraception, which is a teaching about marital love, to such cases [cases of fornication], in my view leads to counterintuitive conclusions.” He made no arguments, however, about why it is wrong to apply the Church’s teaching about marital love to cases of fornication and appealed only to intuition. I am, moreover, having trouble squaring this statement with another he made in his reply to me: “What applies, therefore, to contraception inside marriage also applies to sexual intercourse outside marriage.” These statements seem flatly contradictory to me.

I appreciate Rhonheimer’s clarification that he believes “contraception is not only a sin in marriage, but also outside marriage.” Certainly I never said that he thought otherwise; rather, I said that “I do not know whether Rhonheimer thinks that fornicators commit a sin in contracepting.” I think it would have been very valuable for him to have stated in his interview that he thinks fornicators are sinning when using condoms to avoid a pregnancy. But let us recall that, while he thinks it is sinful to use a condom for purposes of contraception, he thinks that using a condom to prevent infection is not subject to the same moral analysis. This distinction is a novel one.

Rhonheimer thinks I was attributing to him the view that contraception should be distributed to fornicators. Rather, I said that “I fear Rhonheimer’s speculations, fairly or unfairly, will provide another impetus for those who want condoms and contraceptives distributed freely and widely.” Given his clarification that he considers it a sin for fornicators to use contraception, 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. (Although I am not so sure that the same can be said about those who want to distribute condoms to prevent infection.)

I do not believe that Rhonheimer can deny, as I stated, that he holds that it is “licit to kill fetuses in some situations.” And, as I also stated, “that virtue ethics permits killing an unborn child whose presence threatens the life of the mother and who could not survive to viability.” I never used the word “abortion” to characterize his view or implied that he supported abortion. (Nor did I say or imply that he is a proportionalist). Let the reader judge if I misrepresented his position. (And let me note, I do read his material. I realize that authors sometimes find it implausible that those who read their material could disagree with them, but it does happen.)

In “Vital Conflicts in Medical Ethics,” he states:

“The decision to allow both mother and child to die — when at least the mother can be saved and the child will die in any case — is simply irrational, and particularly from the perspective of the doctor. The norm that prohibits the killing of a human being appears, in this case, to be simply pointless and nonsensical. In fact the meaning of the norm is that no unjust killing be committed; it is simply beyond comprehension, therefore, to claim that the child’s right to life is disregarded in such cases. One cannot ‘take away’ a life for which it is already clear that it will never even be born” (Page 123).

Rhonheimer is clearly suggesting that is permissible to kill a fetus in some situations. His defense for this position is that such a killing is not “unjust.” I do not believe that I have misrepresented his view.

He then states that my remarks “do not reflect well on the CDF” who asked him to publish “Vital Conflicts in Medical Ethics.” How can my remarks reflect badly on him or the CDF? I did not criticize his views, I simply stated what they are. He has published his views; why should it make him uncomfortable to have them attributed to him?

He also states that I accuse him of approving masturbation. I did no such thing. I stated that he claims “that a man who is stimulating his genitals to obtain semen for analysis of infertility is not masturbating.” Note that I did not say that he was approving of such an action; I only said that he regards such an act as not being masturbation. Again, these are his precise remarks, found in Veritatis Splendor and the “Renewal of Moral Theology”:

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church very correctly writes in n. 2352: ‘By masturbation is understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure.’ This seems very clear. If one chooses the same behavioral pattern (stimulating genital organs) in order to get semen for fertility analysis, then one simply chooses an action that is different by its object.”

To say that one action differs from another by its object is to say that it is a different act. This is what Rhonheimer is saying. In his view, stimulating organs to get semen for fertility analysis is not the same act as stimulating organs to derive sexual pleasure (or what the Church calls masturbation). I did not misrepresent his position.

I think I am justified in drawing attention to Rhonheimer’s views on the intentional killing of fetuses in some situations and to his distinguishing the genital stimulation for fertility testing from masturbation because we see him making these same kinds of distinctions in his interview. In this interview, Rhonheimer took the occasion of Pope Benedict’s remarks that there may be some element of moral responsibility in the choice to use condoms by some individuals to press his view that HIV-infected spouses and prostitutes/fornicators are not contracepting when using a condom to avoid transmission of the HIV. Rhonheimer states:

“This is why the questions of contraception and of preventing the transmission of disease (prophylaxis) are morally different ones. If a married couple contracepts — perhaps by using a condom in order to have sex without children — they do something essentially different as an act susceptible of moral evaluation from a person who uses a condom while having sex with a prostitute to prevent infection.”

He is saying that spouses who use a condom to avoid having children are contracepting but that prostitutes/fornicators who use a condom to prevent infection are not contracepting. In his words, they are doing “something essentially different” and their acts are subject to a different moral evaluation. The married couple is contracepting; the prostitute/fornicator is attempting to prevent infection. In light of all he has said, he seems to be saying that if prostitutes/fornicators use condoms to avoid transmitting a disease they are not contracepting. I believe this is a novel view in moral theology and not one advanced appropriately in a popular journal interview. But, once it has been advanced, it should be shown how novel it, in fact, is and how the justification for it leads to other novel views as well.

Instead of sticking to a minimalist interpretation of the Holy Father’s remarks, Rhonheimer pressed for a moral theory that is still very much under study, and one that leads to other novel views. I do recommend that those who are interested in testing Rhonheimer’s theories read the material he listed in his response and, of course, read his critics as well. By Rhonheimer’s accounting the CDF asked him to publish his views so that they could be “discussed by specialists” (Vital Conflicts, xiii). Several specialists have already been engaging in that discussion. See William May,“Martin Rhonheimer and Some Disputed Issues in Medical Ethics: Masturbation, Condoms, Craniotomies, and Tubal Pregnancies,” Linacre Quarterly (August 2010) 329-50, available here; I also recommend Father Benedict M. Guevin, , “Vital Conflicts and Virtue Ethics,” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 10:3 (2010) 471-480, available for purchase here; and Father Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco’s review of Rhonheimer’s Vital Conflicts in Medical Ethics, National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, 10:1 (2010) 202-206, available here; Father Basil Cole, O.P., “Vital Conflicts in Medical Ethics,” The Thomist 74: 1 (January, 2010) pp. 160-164. For a treatment of the “object of the act” that is wholly in accord with tradition, see Steven Long’s “The Teleological Grammar of the Moral Act” (2007).

All of the aforementioned authors find serious difficulties in Rhonheimer’s moral theory. Neither they, nor I, when responding to him are “trying to damage his reputation.” He has an unassailable reputation as a scholar who is submissive to the magisterium and who has dedicated his life to attempting to help the Church teach the truth and to provide the best possible arguments for the truth. Nonetheless, when a theory seems to suggest that some traditional teachings not just in their justifications but in their conclusions need to undergo significant revision, a healthy dose of wariness is in order. Especially when those positions might lead others to pursue agendas (I never accused Rhonheimer of having one) that even the author of that theory opposes,

I hope to be able to take up Rhonheimer’s invitation to critically respond to his method of defending the Church’s traditional understanding that contraception is immoral, although it may not be soon given other projects I have underway. 

Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Mich., and is the author of the popular “Contraception: Why Not?”