The Superbowl came early to Dallas this year. This showdown, however, had nothing to do with the NFL. The theme of this match: “Is Contraception Morally Permissible? Humanae vitae Revisited.” On the right, Janet Smith, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas, defender of Humanae vitae; on the left, Rev. Charles Curran, Scurlock Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, early dissenter from Humanae vitae. In the words of the debate’s moderator, “the ultimate winner tonight (we hope) will be the truth.”
Dr. Smith opened with a salvo of indictments against Humanae vitae dissenters. She pointed out that there has not been enough prayerful reading of Paul VI’s encyclical, and the issue should not be whether Humanae vitae is infallible, but whether the notion — that contraception is an intrinsic evil — is true; not whether Catholics may live in opposition to the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control, but whether those who do so may profess to have a true or right conscience.
Using the very language of consequentialism and proportionalism to her advantage, Smith proceeded to examine the consequences that contraception has visited upon society in the 25 years since the publication of Humanae vitae. “An intrinsically bad act,” she stated, “will have bad consequences.” To illustrate the simple logic of this statement she listed four points: the general lowering of morality, the growing disrespect toward women, coercive government intervention (a la Cairo), and the whole issue she referred to as “designer genes.” All of these evils had been prophesied a quarter of a century ago by Paul VI. Among the most frightening of these statistics has been a leap from a 25 percent divorce rate in the early 60s to a whopping 50 percent in the 70s. And today at least 30 percent of all babies in America are born out of wedlock. How could this be? asked Smith, since the initial proponents of contraception had promised us fewer abortions and fewer unwanted pregnancies as women were freed from slavery to their reproductive cycles.
The problem with the pill, according to Smith, has been that it treats a woman’s body as though there were something wrong with it. Early studies showed that among the “blessings” of the pill women experienced greater irritability, increased depression, weight gain, and decreased libido. “What woman doesn’t want all this?” Smith quipped with delightful sarcasm. Ultimately, the burden of contraception, which usually falls to the woman, “is a huge violation of a woman’s body.” Not only that, but the pill, in some of its variants, is known to be abortifacient, so it violates a whole other human being as well.
Smith anticipated an objection that the Church has been guilty of “physicalism” in focusing on the morality of the sexual act, as opposed to what Curran would later call the “overall context of an individual act that must be seen in relation to marriage and the good of marriage.” She pointed out that sex is much more than the mere biological union of sperm and egg, but it is the very “arena in which God can create an immortal soul.” Thwarted fertility leads to denuded sex, and ultimately, contraception shuts God out of this sacred arena. Bishop Fulton Sheen once said that those who advocate birth control are interested neither in “birth” nor “control.” The plain answer to artificial methods of birth control, by Smith’s reasoning, was NFP, or Natural Family Planning. She commended the Church for having seen through the pernicious fog of error swirling around in the 60s.
After resounding applause, Fr. Curran rose to the podium for his opening arguments. Immediately, he pointed to the anomaly of so many people coming out to hear two unmarried persons give their opinions on contraception. Then he outlined precisely his points of agreement and disagreement with the Church’s teaching on contraception and related matters. He agreed that marriage is a “sacramental communion” that incorporates both a unitive and a procreative element, among others. He agreed that there should be responsible parenthood, as spelled out in Humanae vitae, and that even those marriages which are naturally infertile are true marriages. Quoting Pope Pius XII’s “letter to the midwives,” Fr. Curran showed that the Church taught that for serious eugenic or medical reasons couples could use the infertile period even for the duration of their marriage.
His “simple area of disagreement” was that couples can interfere with the sexual act for the sake of the unitive dimension of marriage. The encyclical, Curran charged, bases its moral teaching on the purpose and meaning of individual acts. It should, rather, take into consideration the overall context of the act in relation to the person and his relationship to God and other persons. Furthermore, this “physicalism” has a tendency to reduce human moral acts to their mere physical aspects. Morality, on the other hand, must transcend the limits of individual acts, as “no human act is perfect in every dimension,” or “[human] acts are essentially imperfect.” One must not absolutize any one aspect of a human moral act, to the point of removing it from the larger context of his entire moral life, for this approach leaves no room for historical and cultural development. “Nature” or “natures” must be mutable. This is clear from the fact that the Church changed its teaching on usury, the rights of the accused, religious freedom, and slavery. “Must not the same apply to contraception, sooner or later?” seemed to be his question to the audience.
Among her many salient offensives, Smith exposed the fallacy of misapplying the “Principle of Totality,” namely, that the context of a human moral act matters more than its content. Its proper application is seen, for example, in medicine where a gangrenous hand could be removed for the good of the body. But an immoral act cannot become good, even within the larger context of general good behavior. Each act must be judged individually, on its own merit. Were this not true, a man in an otherwise good marriage should be permitted on occasion to have a weekend getaway with his secretary, “to put a little zip back into his sex life,” should the overall good of his marriage call for it.
As for the semantical problem of “nature” and the claim that the Church has been confused on the issue, Smith emphatically proclaimed the Church “not guilty.” There is such a thing as an unnatural use of a natural act, such as fornication or adultery. These are affronts to man’s higher nature. Curran would later rebut that through NFP one can still intend not to have children, thus still keeping God out of the arena. Smith answered by comparing abstinence from sexual relations to dieting or fasting, neither of which goes against God or man’s higher nature.
Further controversy ensued when Fr. Curran bluntly dismissed the problem of the “negative and unfortunate consequences” of contraception, which Dr. Smith had laid out in great detail. “This is not the subject,” was his justification. He was willing to admit that contraception may be abused, “but abuse never takes away the use.” Then came the bombshell that ruffled the conservative majority in the audience: God gave mankind freedom, Curran said, and “in her [sic] own good design she [sic] wanted us to freely respond to God’s gracious gift.”
In the end, Curran invoked the Holy Spirit as the only authority for judging matters of faith and morals. He even quoted Aquinas to that end, saying that the “Primary teacher is the Holy Spirit.” Curran asked: if so many Catholics are using contraception (80 percent in one local parish) doesn’t that tell us something about how the Holy Spirit is moving in the true Church today? Curran’s personal experience in counseling several couples back in the early 60s, along with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, had brought Curran to the conclusion that the Catholic Church was wrong on the issue of contraception.
In their closing statements, Smith made an impassioned appeal to NFP as the logical alternative to artificial birth control; and Curran reiterated his thanks for an honest and fair debate, despite the overwhelmingly conservative turnout, reminding us that there is room for a wide variety of thinkers in the Church. And as far as the “superbowl” fans were concerned, it appeared that a woman had just been inducted into the hallowed hall of fame.