SEPTEMBER 7, 2022
Pontifical Academy for Life: Personal Values Reign Supreme
The exceedingly long book on life issues recently published by the Pontifical Academy for Life, Theological Ethics of Life (Vatican Publishing House, 2022; 517 pages) (TEL), maintains that on occasion contraception is a moral choice. What many miss is that this view is not the outgrowth of a new understanding of the nature of the conjugal act or a rejection of the teaching that contraception is intrinsically evil.
In the document, there is no engagement with any of the standard arguments put forward against contraception, either in Humanae Vitae itself or present in the theological literature defending Humanae Vitae. In a marvelous piece about the book, Gerhard Ludwig Müller and Stephan Kampowski note:
In previous times, people who did not agree with the teaching of Humanae Vitae or Donum Vitae simply said that they begged to differ and gave their reasons. The new approach, adopted by the PAV text, is in fact to state the opposite of the teaching, while at the same time claiming that one agrees.
The conclusion of TEL is not the result of a different evaluation of the purpose of the marital act but of a radically different view of what constitutes the moral goodness or evil of any action. A new emphasis is put on the importance of the judgment of an individual’s conscience. (See my “New Challenges to Humanae vitae: Conscience and Discernment.”)
Conscience here is understood not as the place where the precepts of natural law are naturally known, the place where a person hears the voice of God. Rather, it is the repository of the values one has adopted through one’s choices; the moral agent has an obligation to obey his judgment rather than any teaching of the Church, any objective norm, any dictate of God. Or, one might say, God does not want us to adhere to a set of norms; rather, He wants us to be autonomous, to follow the values we have accepted, even if they conflict with the teaching of the Church, any objective norms, or dictates of God.
But holders of that view might not accept my formulation. Perhaps they would say it is the teaching of the Church, an objective norm, and the dictate of God that we follow the values we have accepted. Although it is good to follow objective morality, what is most important is to decide in accord with our own values. The values that we have accepted should be based upon our own experience and the experience of others who live in our times; they should not be values dictated to us by norms reasoned to be in accord with human nature, for those are abstract and ahistorical norms. Rather, we must act in accord with the norms we accept, particular norms relevant to one’s experience.
All of that likely seems very muddled and thoroughly incapable of being conformed with Church teaching about morality, which basically is that God made an ordered universe and morality is a matter of living in accord with that order. Such is not an imposition on our natures or a curtailment of our freedom. On the contrary, it gives us dignity, and it leads to true human flourishing and the ability to be free from disordered passions and false values.
Here I don’t want to challenge the “new paradigm” of moral theology purported to be an organic development of moral theology—but which looks a whole lot more like a jettisoning of a morality determined by objective realities and replacing it with a morality of our own making. According to the new paradigm, the way to measure the morality of an action is to determine whether or not it is consonant with our own experience (and/or the experience of those living in our times) rather than it conforming to our nature, created by a loving God.
Rather, here I want to show that experience attests that contraception has been a disaster for our culture, not only for matters sexual but even more so by helping to advance a view of reality that is ruining us.
In my now over thirty-year-old talk “Contraception: Why Not,” using studies from various scientific disciplines, I show the bad social, physical, psychological, and spiritual consequences of contraception. More and more women—even more and more feminists—are coming to recognize those bad consequences and are acknowledging that the sexual revolution has not truly been conducive to the happiness of women. Truth be told, it has not been conducive to the happiness of men and children either.
My talk argues that it is reasonable to conclude that contraception leads to the acceptance and practice of promiscuity, to an increase of abortion and divorce, to an acceptance of homosexual relationships and marriage, to the use of pornography, to a desire to produce babies through technology, to harm of the environment, and to a frightening demographic decline. (An excellent source for information on the harms of contraception is Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution. A revised edition is coming soon from Ignatius Press.)
Perhaps the worst effect of the acceptance of contraception is the fact that it has led to the rejection of the principle of non-contradiction; that principle that things have a nature and cannot be the opposite of what they are: A cannot be non-A, at the same time and in the same respect. It is the foundation of all valid reasoning.
Now when I give the talk, I need to include as consequences of the widespread use of contraception the acceptance of transgenderism, which permits pre-K kids to “choose” to have their biological gender irreversibly mutilated; the obliteration of women’s sports; the housing of male rapists in female prisons; and drag queens at children’s library story hours.
A claim that violates the principle of non-contradiction means that an assertion or action entails a manifest contradiction: it is wrong to say an apple is an orange or a male is a female (at the same time and in the same respect); a married person can’t be an unmarried person at the same time and in the same respect. A person can’t be alive and dead at the same time in the same respect. It just can’t be true. Things are what they are.
Most of us are reeling at the number and kind of violations of the principle that have dominated public policy in the last several years. Small businesses and churches were closed during the Covid lockdown while abortion clinics, alcohol stores, and large supermarkets were open. Millions of unvaccinated illegal immigrants have been permitted into the country while nurses who have natural immunity from Covid were not permitted to work.
At one moment, a person with Covid must be quarantined for 10 days; at the next moment, nurses with Covid are pressed to return to work after five days. No questioning of treatment or non-treatment of Covid patients was permitted; even now that the CDC has admitted it was wrong about many things about Covid, they won’t give an honest look at the number of excess deaths caused by the vaccines. The media wouldn’t cover Hunter Biden’s laptop, which gravely impugned his father, but they follow obsessively one after another of the witch hunts against Trump. The government and law enforcement permit highly destructive Black Lives Matter rioting, burning, and looting but treat the largely peaceful January 6 demonstrations as an attempted coup.
You could undoubtedly produce a frighteningly long list of other examples of blatant disregard for fairness, for compliance with the basic facts about reality, since many in our times do not believe that assertions and conduct must conform to the truth. They think they should be allowed to act in accord with their own values, and those values cannot be questioned.
Ouch, sounds like the “new paradigm” of the Pontifical Academy for Life, doesn’t it?
The acceptance of contraception was a major factor in starting the ball rolling for all this insanity—for that is what it is. Contraception entails a rejection of reality—the reality that fertility is a good thing—and supposes, illogically, that messing with good things results in good things not bad things. Sixty-plus years of the use of contraception indicates that that is a foolish thought.
The rejection of reality has become toxic to our culture. We want to manipulate things so they will be what we want them to be rather than to discipline ourselves to live in accord with reality. Yes, the modern world and technology have done wonders for reducing many kinds of human suffering, but they have also led us to believe that we can do a better job than God did of ordering reality.
For instance, we think it better that we can render infertile sex that might be fertile. God messed up by linking sex and babies. Well, we can fix that, so we have. We don’t think we need to accept reality, which would mean respecting the beautiful reality that sex leads to babies; we would not have sex unless we were prepared to have babies. If we need to limit our family size, we would learn to use a method of natural family planning, which seems to be a major factor in helping marriages last. (For comprehensive information about natural fertility awareness and the harms of contraception, see www.naturalwomanhood.org.)
It is, in fact, a greater failure of logic than of imagination that we didn’t see that transgenderism would eventually follow upon the acceptance of contraception. Again, those who use contraception are rejecting the reality of their own sex and gender. Women and men want to have sex without “risking” becoming mothers and fathers.
Women, in a sense, want to be men; women want to have sex that doesn’t lead to their becoming pregnant. They are more or less saying that they would prefer to be males in respect to the outcome of sexual acts. But it is just as serious that males don’t want to become fathers; that they don’t want to accept the responsibility of being providers for women and children. They want sex on their terms, not on reality’s terms, not on nature’s terms, not on God’s terms.
As more and more people are speaking of the horror of transitioning, it becomes clear that they were trying to escape some reality that had not been pleasing or had been painful to them by attempting the impossible task of changing their sex. What they have done, or allowed to have done to them by unscrupulous doctors, bears some resemblance to the use of contraception: it is a fleeing from the reality of one’s own body.
A culture that flees from reality is a culture that has become very susceptible to totalitarianism, for it no longer uses reality as the arbiter of claims to power and the policies power enacts. A totalitarian government can make us believe anything: insanities such as human embryos and fetuses are not human beings; such as putting kids in masks for months on end; such as allowing biological males to participate in female sports; such as letting in millions of unvaccinated immigrants while firing nurses who have natural immunity.
The Pontifical Academy for Life does nothing in its book on life issues to look at the tremendous damage that has been done by the philosophical assumptions that underlie the acceptance of contraception and by the nearly universal use of contraception in our modern day. It has wispy dreams of people making responsible decisions based only on their whimsical values.
There is no evidence that the authors of this text read St. Pope John Paul II’s brilliant Evangelium Vitae. It would have helped them enormously had they read this passage:
Freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth. When freedom, out of a desire to emancipate itself from all forms of tradition and authority, shuts out even the most obvious evidence of an objective and universal truth, which is the foundation of personal and social life, then the person ends up by no longer taking as the sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed, his selfish interest and whim.
John Paul II is speaking of a false view of freedom here, but his insight applies as well to the false view of conscience advanced by the Pontifical Academy for Life. Their book is an embarrassment to a Church that has wisdom the culture desperately needs.
[Photo: Pope Francis meets with the participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life (Credit: Vatican Media)]
Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology.