Janet E. Smith is one of the most remarkable young Catholic women in this country. I have a vivid image of Janet addressing a roomful of bishops in Dallas some years ago. She was three decades younger than the youngest among them, yet her tone was that of a mother or of a very authoritative big sister. They were being spoken to by a woman as celibates seldom are. There will never be a married clergy, but I think every priest and bishop ought to have a designated big sister like Janet. Wives keep the feet of their husbands on the ground, deflect them from major idiocies, scold them when it is necessary. Janet Smith has been a big sister to the Church in the United States for some years now.
It is a sad fact in the woeful odyssey of the proposed letter on women that our bishops have permitted themselves to be harangued by harridans whose relation to the Church is dubious at best—do they go to Mass? Do they accept the magisterium? The agenda of radical feminism has been urged upon the daffy drafters of the document. (In the “new mode of teaching” discovered by the bishops’ conference, drafts are periodically leaked, lifting a wet finger to the wind.) They should turn the writing of this document over to Helen Hull Hitchcock and Women for Faith and Family.
Among Janet Smith’s merits has been an eagerness to present the doctrine of Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae as what our times particularly require. When no other member of the Notre Dame faculty, certainly no theologian, could be found to elaborate the Church’s doctrine on sexual morality, Janet was willing. Indeed, her solid and vocal orthodoxy earned her the usual enemies and when the time for a decision on tenure came, she was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Notre Dame came out the loser. Janet left.
At the time she was working on a book which has now finally appeared, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later, Catholic University of American Press, 1991. (The subtitle does not refer to the time between her beginning the book and its appearance now, though many have been anxiously awaiting its publication.) It is without any doubt the most thorough and illuminating study of the Church’s teaching on contraceptive sex that has appeared in English.
It is a sad fact about Humanae Vitae that few have read it. Its doctrine is rejected, even pilloried, by priests who are blithely unaware of its contents. How often one hears the solemn statement that there is something wrong with the arguments of the encyclical. In my experience, it can be assumed that anyone who says this cannot accurately state any of Paul VI’s arguments. Humanae Vitae has not been refuted, it has been ignored. Janet’s book will make this impossible in the future. Every Catholic moral philosopher and theologian has a professional responsibility to read this book. It seems possible to hope that, at least within the walls, this book will lead to a recovery and celebration of the Church’s doctrine on sexual morality.
We are given the historical setting of the contemporary debate within the Church on contraception, the adumbration of the issue during the Council, the appointment of the papal commissions, the majority and minority reports. Five long years passed before Humanae Vitae appeared in 1968, and in the interim the view became widespread that the ban on contraception would be lifted, more or less like Friday abstinence. The encyclical came like a bombshell to those who had been confidently predicting change—and indeed anticipating it pastorally and in practice. During the pre-encyclical years the debate was not between the good guys and the bad guys. Many quite sincerely believed that artificial contraception as a method of limiting the size of the family would strengthen and sweeten the marriage bond. They certainly did not advocate pre- or extra-marital sex, let alone homosexuality and abortion.
After the appearance of Humanae Vitae, the lines were drawn differently, in terms of acceptance or defiance of papal authority. Ecclesiology raised its polymodular head. Karl Rahner invented the “second magisterium,” and theologians came to see themselves as a buffer between pope and people.
At the time of the Council it was easy to echo Wordsworth on the French Revolution. Bliss was it in that day to be alive, and very heaven to be young. The sequelae of the one, like the other, have dashed such hopes. In 1985, the Second Extraordinary Synod echoed the famous Ratzinger Report and officially acknowledged the inroads of heterodoxy in the post-conciliar Church.
As the sounds of these battles fade and a new generation looks about at the unhealthy and perverse obsession with sex in the world, the sane teaching of the Church on marriage and family, conjugal love and the meanings of the marital act, must exercise a strong appeal. How odd now must seem the assumption that “reading the signs of the times” and aggiornamento meant adopting the mores and morals of the secular world. It is the world that must learn from the Church, not the other way around, if we are not to sink further into the morass of a sensate culture.
Recovering sound doctrine will not be easy. Dissident theologians were antecedently committed to finding the doctrine of Humanae Vitae unsound, but they have long since discredited themselves as purveyors of Church teaching. Now the discussion can turn to the philosophy and theology of the question. Janet Smith’s account of natural law will be regarded as controversial, but all must applaud the care with which she presents alternative views and the fairness with which she criticizes them. The emphasis of her book is on Catholic moral teaching as positive, as fulfilling of human beings, as consonant with what it means to be a human person. The influence of John Paul II is strong. In an appendix, Janet provides her own translation and textual commentary on Humanae Vitae.
Sound doctrine must undergird effective pastoral work. When Janet Smith’s book is mandatory reading in the seminaries of the nation, we may begin to hope for a Second Spring of Catholicism in the United States.