I agree that at this stage of the debate it is best to address each other publicly and that, indeed, the time of our “private and friendly email exchanges” about this topic in earlier years is now over. But I feel a little saddened by the rather unfriendly way you have done so, without first seeking personal contact. Given that you already addressed me publicly in your 2005 "National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly" (NCBQ) article, which on your request was also distributed by www.chiesa, I am now surprised that you actually choose the form of a “letter” to address me. As you will see in the following, I have a guess about your possible reasons for doing so.
You wonder what might be implied in my statement that the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) “had no problem” with my 2004 "Tablet" article, and then take this somewhat vague phrase of mine and try to give it a weight it simply does not have. You suggest that I falsely claimed that my 2004 article was formally examined and approved by the CDF, when you know that no such formal examination took place. It seems that you are publicly pushing such a reading of my words in order to set the staff of the CDF against me. Rather than asking me what I meant by the phrase, you write: “There is clearly an urgent need now for the Congregation publicly to clarify its position.”
Let me now explain what lay behind my phrase. What I said about the CDF has to be read in the context of my interview with "Our Sunday Visitor" (OSV) Newsweekly in which, in response to a question, I said:
"After publishing that article in July 2004 and becoming aware that, unexpectedly for me, it was being heavily criticized by some moral theologians faithful to the Magisterium, I sent the article to the CDF, and was subsequently informed that they had no problem with it."
Neither here nor anywhere else do I suggest that there was a formal examination and approval of my article by the CDF. Indeed, the Congregation only entered into this matter because I was urged to seek its advice following the publication of that article.
What happened was this. After the article came out a very good friend of mine, a highly influential moral theologian who was personally opposed to what I wrote in "The Tablet," came to me also on behalf of others. He urged me in the strongest terms to retract from what he, and other critics of my article, considered to be scandalous affirmations opposed to Church teaching. Concerned to protect my reputation, my friend even urged me to issue a formal statement of submission to the Magisterium, which, he said, was necessary to allay any doubt about my orthodoxy.
Because all this came from a person who has always merited, and continues to merit, my highest respect and gratitude, I was very worried, and immediately informed the CDF about the article and the reactions it had provoked. I also offered to issue a statement of submission, as my friend had suggested.
The answer I received from two different persons at the Congregation was the following: that in the CDF my article had not caused any concern; and that I should certainly not issue any public statement of the sort I was being urged to make. Now, these persons were not consultors but key members of the CDF staff, close to its then prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. I was therefore confident that they were speaking with full knowledge of what was going on in the Congregation.
Naturally I was relieved. But I did not think then, nor do I think now, that this advice was anything other than personal and informal, and by referring to it I never suggested that my article had been officially examined or its content been formally approved by the Congregation. Nor do I think that anyone could possibly read my words to OSV as a claim of formal approval. Had there been a formal assessment by the CDF I would have said so.
Yet it remains the case that, in contrast to your reaction and that of some others, the Congregation did not consider the article scandalous or in contravention of church teaching. This is what I meant with “they had no problem with it” which I think is an appropriate formulation for what happened.
Moreover, when Sandro Magister published my recent article at www.chiesa translated into different languages, I asked him to change one of the renditions to avoid giving the impression that this article was officially examined or approved by the CDF.
I hope that with these explanations the question you ask of “what precisely is meant” by my remarks to OSV in respect of the CDF and my article can now be considered settled.
In your letter you also assert that my recent interventions “amount in effect to renewed public advocacy of [my] point of view.” You know very well that some time ago I declared in the NCBQ that I would not further defend in public my view that condomized sexual intercourse can be a marital act, and would instead await a decision by Church authorities on this topic. Of course, Pope Benedict’s statement on prophylactic condom use in his interview with Peter Seewald changed the situation in one very substantial aspect: if I was criticized in 2004 by many because of my views on prophylactic condom use in morally disordered sexual activity, I am not surprised that now the Holy Father is criticized by the same people for expressing analogous views. It was obvious that for my critics, including of course yourself, the Holy Father’s words on condoms were upsetting. Other critics such as Janet E. Smith and George Weigel have sought to give a particular interpretation of the Pope’s remarks which in my view is forced and unsustainable. You and others clearly considered the Pope to be mistaken.
When "Light of the World" was published, I thought it appropriate to help to clarify what the Holy Father said, not because I sought to add to his words or even put a particular gloss on them, but because they needed to be defended against interpretations which distorted them. Those distortions were being aired not just by some journalists and revisionist moral theologians, but also by those who, while claiming to be faithful to the Magisterium, excoriated the Holy Father. In a letter to Sandro Magister published at www.chiesa, for example, you accused Pope Benedict of acting “irresponsibly” by giving “ambiguously phrased responses to Seewald” and describing him as acting “self-indulgently.”
In light of public admission of attempts to prevent its publication, I had the impression that the English translation of that passage had been “softened” so as to make it more acceptable to those who regarded the Holy Father’s remarks as erroneous or imprudent. This, and the imprecision in the Italian translation, led to the clarification by Fr. Lombardi which those same critics have never really accepted. George Weigel, for example, has written that Fr. Lombardi’s clarifications “made matters worse” and has even suggested that the Vatican’s spokesman did not accurately communicate the Holy Father’s mind.
In order to defend what seemed to me the authentic meaning of the Holy Father’s statement – which, as I explained in my OSV interview, was a very limited and qualified statement – I could not avoid explaining again some aspects of my views concerning prophylactic condom use in the case of prostitutes and other morally disordered forms of sexual activity. Yet I explicitly avoided engaging the question of condom use in marriage. I mentioned that in 2004 I had not considered your argument, relying as it did on Canon Law, and that I would prefer to wait for an official decision on that issue. What I did, and had to do in the present circumstances, was to reformulate the problem in order to explain the primary point on which I disagreed with my critics. At the same time I made it clear that the Pope had not touched on the question of the serodiscordant married couple and that no one could use his remarks to claim that this question had been settled. So what I am going on to say now should in no way be claimed to be an insight into the Holy Father’s mind on this question. I honestly don’t know what Pope Benedict thinks about these issues.
Your publicly addressing me with this question in an open letter forces me to restate my point of view so as to prevent giving the impression that your position is unchallenged. The first thing I wish to clarify is that you misrepresent – as did others – what I said on prophylactic condom use by prostitutes and fornicators. You reproach me for endorsing – in cases where people cannot be persuaded from abstaining from immoral behaviour – “the ‘common sense’, worldly wisdom” of “representing as preferable ‘sins against nature’ which are more deeply corrupting of a person’s sexual dispositions.” This is an erroneous reformulation of my view which is beside the point. It also reflects your view that what the Holy Father said in his interview is “irresponsible” and actually mistaken – perhaps even – in your words – “subversive” of Catholic moral teaching.
Secondly you seem to me to confound Catholic moral teaching on the one hand and the reasons or arguments given for this teaching, on the other. You refer to a – certainly very consistent – view about “sins against nature” in the case of marital acts. I do not in the least deny the existence of “sins against nature” and have written much about this in defence of St Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on this topic against revisionist moral theologians. Yet we should keep in mind that in order to understand what in the case of marital acts a “sin against nature” was, Aquinas, along with many other theologians before and after him, mainly St. Augustine, depended on the biological knowledge about human reproduction available at their time. They believed that the entire power of life was in the male semen, totally ignoring the existence of the female ovum, and that human life comes into existence through the fusion of the two gametes.
This influential “tradition” is why, even to this day, the majority of canon lawyers – there has been disagreement about this during the revision of the Code of Canon Law – do not consider condomized sexual intercourse to be marital acts capable of consummating a marriage, while they consider a marriage to be consummated in which hormonal contraception is practised, precisely because the male semen has entered the vagina. This is also why for a long time Canon Law practically equated contraception and abortion, thinking that the impeding of insemination was a kind of early stage of homicide and thus a sin against the Fifth Commandment. Though there are some who also today have based an argument against contraception on this tradition of seeing contraception as analogous to homicide, this interpretation seems nowadays to be obsolete. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical "Evangelium vitae" (Nr. 13) explicitly teaches that, unlike abortion, contraception is not a sin against justice but against chastity: “… from the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment ‘You shall not kill’.”
Let me simply ask whether it is necessary to hold, as an integral component of Catholic moral teaching, that unless there is actual insemination “into” the vagina (not merely “in,” as is possible with a condom, but “into”), a sexual act cannot be a conjugal act (the differentiation between “into” and “in”, and what is really required to consummate marriage, remains a disputed question in Canon Law which is originally related to the problem of impotence). The tradition of Canon Law to which you constantly refer is venerable and has its weight. Though expressing an important truth, namely the truth that sexuality is by nature ordered to the transmission of human life, the concrete role and significance of this traditional argument is not unchangeable. And it is not undisputed among canon lawyers themselves (I will spare you with the details).
In reality, it is not so much Canon 1061 §1 itself on which the differences turn but rather its interpretation: and mainly the interpretation of the concept of “conjugal act” used in this canon as an act “which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh.” Reference to the phrase “suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring” is the core of your argument. However, yours is a determinate interpretation of this expression, as is also your interpretation of the expression “one flesh” (which according to patristic tradition is not related to insemination or to any kind of skin contact not impeded by latex but rather to the indissolubility of marriage). These are highly technical matters, but you refer to them as if they were beyond any possibility of being challenged and also as if canonical jurisprudence were an unchangeable part of Catholic moral doctrine.
What is unchangeable is that the intentional separation of the procreative and the unitive meaning of the marital acts by contraception is intrinsically evil because it destroys the natural meaning of sexuality as being ordered to the transmission of life and therefore simultaneously undermines the unitive meaning of marital love. Is contraception a “sin against nature”? Yes, certainly. But it is a sin against nature exactly because it is opposed to the virtue of chastity, and not the other way round: it is not against chastity simply because it is “against nature” – because you always need a further specifically moral argument to show why doing something “against nature” is also a sin against nature. I shall not explain this here in detail – I have written enough about it elsewhere – but the point is that in order to identify a “sin against nature” one must have an argument which shows that in this case “nature” which is acted against is a necessary presupposition for the order of reason (which is the order of the moral virtues). Aquinas also affirms this, even though in the case of sexual morality his views are obviously influenced by a defective knowledge of the biology of reproduction (which affects some of his arguments in sexual morality).
What I said has nothing to do with “intentionalism,” as some claim without having studied – or by clearly misrepresenting – my writings about this subject. Steven A. Long, for example, who has repeated this charge against me on www.chiesa as well as his blog, despite being repeatedly shown by me and others that he was wrong in blaming me for this, and that he gravely misrepresented my views on “object” and “intention.” George Weigel now echoes Long’s charges without apparently having studied my work on this topic; he writes as if my views were the end of Catholic presence in health care institutions. Relying on Steven Long, Weigel makes the following wild assertion on his "First Things" blog: “If the Rhonheimer approach were adopted, [Long] cautioned, that would ‘signal the end of any distinctive Catholic presence in hospitals, or in the bio-medical conversations of the day, because intentionalism is frankly a doctrine that can justify anything...’.” This comes near to slander and is a most regrettable misconstrual of my arguments. These are not methods used in debates but in political campaigns designed to force change through the application of pressure – in this case, by raising the spectre of the Church losing its distinctive witness. Long and Weigel’s remarks are corrosive of the collegiality and mutual respect that should characterize Catholic intellectual life; that they have been published by people with which I am connected in a friendly way causes me both perplexity and additional distress.
My position on the questions is very far from “intentionalism”: it is the fruit of an analysis of the nature of human acts in studies written during the last 25 years. You refer to "Humanae vitae" section 12 saying that there is “an inseparable connection – established by God and not to be broken by human choice – between the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning which are both inherent in the conjugal act” and you think that this quotation is sufficient to end the debate in your favour. Yet you simply read it your way, without considering the context in which this was said and which permits also other understandings of this passage.
As I have written in a privately distributed text containing some clarifications about my 2004 article in "The Tablet", Paul VI’s encyclical "Humanae vitae" – and this was new – defined contraception not in traditional terms of frustrating natural processes and patterns, but in terms of its intentional opposition to the bonum prolis, the specific marital “good of offspring”. (Notice that Catholic tradition has always spoken of the "bonum prolis," the good of offspring, and not a "bonum inseminationis." Insemination is a morally important good only to the extent it is a means for the good of offspring, but not in itself.)
The more precise definition of the contraceptive act by "Humanae vitae" was articulated to meet the need to include in the moral norm prohibiting contraception not only “unnatural” means such as physical barriers impeding insemination, but also hormonal anti-ovulatory technologies. In their efforts to have the latter declared acceptable, many theologians in the 1960s argued that ”the Pill” emulates nature, which renders a woman infertile at times through the hormonal control of the process of ovulation.
To take an anovulant pill, they argued, does not mean to pervert, in a way considered to be intrinsically “against nature”, the generative faculty or the act of copulation; hormonal contraception, they contended, only does what nature herself does, that is, it interrupts ovulation and therewith renders the penetration of the male semen generatively ineffective. Because insemination into the vagina was not impeded by any unnatural barrier when using “the Pill,” the naturally fertile structure of the marital act was not violated and fertility was regulated much as nature itself does. You will no doubt notice that the point of departure of the revisionist justification of the pill is close to your way of arguing!
Revisionists then argued that, instead of nature regulating fertility through hormonal levels, it is now the spouses who make this choice as a part of responsible parenthood, leaving the natural process of insemination intact. Hormonal contraception, they concluded, was entirely “natural” – in the sense of not being “against nature” – and, therefore, morally acceptable. Paul VI rejected this view, entirely focused on “nature” in the sense of physiological patterns, when he taught in "Humanae vitae" that the sinfulness of contraception was not the physical “unnaturalness” of the act, but the very purpose of having sex while simultaneously and intentionally trying to deprive it of its possible procreative effect. This precisely applies equally and exactly for the same reason both to mechanical barriers, like condoms, and to hormonal contraceptives.
This is why "Humanae vitae" section 14 is so important. It contains the definition of contraception which has been included into the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (Nr. 2370). You and others who argue in your way seem completely to overlook this passage. It defines the contraceptive act as an “action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes (Latin 'intendat'), whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible”, that is, it is done for the very purpose or proposal of preventing conception into the definition of the morally evil act.
As "Humanae vitae" states, this doctrine is founded on the inseparable connection between the procreative and the unitive meanings of the marital act. This means that the unitive meaning of this act includes its procreative significance, and vice versa. To be an act of true marital love, the sexual union between the spouses must include both their mutual and unitive self-giving and their openness to serve, through their love, the task of transmitting human life. This is why “intention” – the end or purpose sought in the action – is so important to define the very contraceptive act: this openness of the spouses, and therefore the openness of their sexual acts – as human acts – to the task of transmitting human life, depends on their willingness to responsibly serve this task whereas a contraceptive act is precisely opposed to doing so.
As you very well know, the official Latin text does not speak about “openness” but says that each and every marriage act has to be “per se orientated ('per se destinatus') towards the transmission of life”. In other words, the required “openness” of each marital act to procreation is not a property of marital acts insofar as they are physical acts, but considered as intentional actions, that is, insofar as they are the object of a choosing will. Such intentional openness means that every marital act must always be chosen and carried out as an act which embodies the spouses’ commitment to responsibly serving the task of transmitting life. This intentional openness rules out an intentional act against the transmission of life, but it does not rule out marital acts that cannot be physically generative independent from one's intentions (e. g. for natural reasons).
This is why "Humanae vitae" stresses that natural infertility, which is outside the agent’s intention, does not prevent naturally infertile acts from being “open” (or "per se destinatus") – precisely not in a biological, but intentional sense – to the task of transmitting human life. This also applies to other cases in which nothing is intentionally done to prevent sexual acts from being procreative, that is, in which nothing is done intending the end or goal that procreation be impeded. This specifies the real evil of contraception: to want to have sex and at the same time to prevent its procreative consequences; to avoid, therefore, modifying one’s bodily, sexual behavior for reasons of procreative responsibility, thus depriving sexual acts of their full marital meaning which includes both the unitive and the procreative dimensions.
Finally, consider that "Humanae vitae" (Nr. 15) affirms that “the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from – provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.” I quote this passage not to suggest that condoms used for prophylactic reasons are a therapeutic means, but because this passage implies that intending the therapeutic end is not a further intention rendering good an otherwise evil act (impeding procreation) but is instead the proposal or intention that specifies the very object of the act. So by extracting a cancerous ovary, for example, one directly does something which will impede procreation. The therapeutic end, however, is what defines the object of this act as an act of healing (This follows the clear teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that the human act has a single proximate end from which it gets its species and that the relation to a natural end is accidental to the morality of the act. See "Summa Theologiae" I-II, q.1, a.3, ad.3). The same physical act of extracting the ovary therefore may be an act which is different by its moral object depending on the proposal (or intention) with which it is done: it can be an act of sterilization or a therapeutic act of healing a cancer (the fact of the ovary being cancerous is a circumstance with a special relation to reason making the choice – or proposal – of extirpating the ovary to be therapeutic by its object). "Humanae vitae" therefore considers licit those acts which by their physical nature directly impede procreation yet which, in terms of their moral object, are not acts of contraception (or in this case: of sterilization), and this because of the different end they seek and proposal they embody. This again manifests how central for "Humanae vitae" is the consideration of contraception as an intentional action, defined not only by what occurs physically, but also by the end for which it is carried out.
Now, what I have summarized above is simply a different interpretation of the texts of "Humane vitae", one which, I suggest, has a wider textual basis and more thorough theoretical grounding than your own (for a thorough treatment see Part I of my "Ethics of Procreation and the Defense of Human Life," CUA Press 2010). My interpretation affirms the traditional teaching that contraception is intrinsically evil, but with a different rationale, yielding some different applications in special cases. The point of it all, as you say– and here we agree – is to live the virtue of chastity. Now it seems to me that your conception of chastity is very much tied to “refraining from sinful acts,” and to an emphasis on the absolute inviolability of insemination. But this is not the classical concept of chastity; at least, it is only a marginal part of it.
Considered as a moral virtue, chastity is part of the cardinal virtue of temperance. According to Aristotle and Aquinas, temperance is essentially about relating to one’s sensual drives – including the sexual drive – according to right reason, by imprinting right reason in one’s concrete bodily behaviour. Contraception is against nature because it impedes the virtue of chastity (especially the subset of it which I call procreative responsibility) by rendering superfluous the need to imprint right reason into bodily behaviour (by acts of refraining from sexual intercourse for reasons of procreative responsibility). A sinful act must be defined from the starting point of the requirements of the virtue of temperance and, in the present case, chastity, and not vice versa, as you propose. This, after all, is the methodology Aquinas has taught us: that to know whether an act is sinful you must know to which virtue it is opposed. It is the ends of the virtues – which coincide with the principles (or precepts) of natural law – which, by looking at what opposes them, define sinful moral behaviour.
I am aware that, as you wrote in your letter, your “critique did not rest on any claim that the use of a condom is necessarily contraceptive” but rather on the argument that condomistic intercourse “is an essentially non-reproductive sexual behaviour.” You perhaps can accept what I say about contraception, but you want to distinguish – from any form of contracepted acts – those acts which in addition are behaviourally essentially non-reproductive and therefore “against nature.” In my view "Humanae vitae" has rendered obsolete this distinction.
As I have written in my recent response to Janet E. Smith, “[i]n 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 insemination, 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’.”
The teaching remains; the arguments are modified, and some concrete applications may change, as perhaps what canon lawyers understand as consummating marriage, that is, how they will interpret the phrase “suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring.” It seems to me that – like many more traditionalistic than traditionally thinking people – you tend to conflate the arguments with the teaching itself, confusing what is contingent and accidental with the substance of the teaching. In my view, this confusion is a serious impediment for understanding the encyclical "Humanae vitae" which still needs to be discovered and made understood to the world. It is prophetic and is full of wisdom, a wisdom not tied to a certain view about nature contingent on knowledge of biological facts – which are morally relevant, but not yet a moral argument – but rather the wisdom of a morality rooted in the virtues as moral perfection and fulfilment of what human nature essentially is. This allows us to discuss sexual morality in light of a rich understanding of conjugal chastity as expressed in the full truth about marriage.
That is why what you call subversive to my ears sounds rather promising – and not just to me but to many others faithful to Church teaching. Pope Benedict XVI himself notes in "Light of the World" that the “basic lines of 'Humanae vitae' are still correct” but that finding ways for people to live it are a “further question”. We need to express that teaching, he notes, “in the context of today’s studies of sexuality and anthropology.”
So it is a debate which needs to be carried on. I would not have entered into this question had you not forced me to do so by addressing me in an open letter. You and others have publicly demanded “an authoritative clarification” of this issue, hoping for a statement by the CDF which directly or indirectly suggests that my view is opposed to catholic moral teaching. It was in the light of that demand that I have sought to clarify once more exactly what I am saying, and what is at stake in this question. As is obvious, I certainly do not think that your position is opposed to Church teaching; but I do see it as a different approach, more traditional in certain respects but with serious disadvantages (and the roots of my approach in Aristotelian virtue ethics are far from novel). As I see it, both views can coexist with the traditional Catholic rejection of contraception; it would be regrettable if, at this stage, the debate were simply be closed by an authoritative decision. But as I have constantly repeated, if this happens I will readily adhere to any such decision.
I am conscious that with this letter, under challenge from your letter, I have been forced to again publicly expose my view on this issue. I do not want to insist that I am right. As everybody who is convinced of his own point of view I must and actually do consider that I can be mistaken. I have great respect for your argument and always thought that you were setting it forth it in a very consistent way. However, I know that many prominent moral theologians – who for different reasons cannot, or have not chosen to, give me public support – agree with me. I also feel supported by declarations in the past and the present by Church prelates who have issued similar views, some of them having privately congratulated and encouraged me. I say this because you and others try to give the impression of my being a solitary voice, opposed by the large majority of moral theologians. This is simply untrue.
But while I welcome this debate, and believe it should continue, I am worried by your tendency – and that of others who take your view – simply to repeat over and over again their positions like a kind of mantra, without listening to counterarguments. Some years ago I challenged your argument, referring to it in an important footnote in an article published in the NCBQ. You never replied to my argument, but recently you have publicly repeated, and distributed via the Internet, the original article without having addressed my counter arguments.
Lastly, and this is important, my agenda is absolutely not to promote the use of condoms, either for married or for unmarried people. Although my views were clearly stated from the beginning, many have somehow misunderstood what I wrote and therefore now wonder why I assert – as I already did in 2004 – that I would never advise either unmarried or married people to use a condom for prophylactic reasons but rather try to convince them to completely abstain from sexual intercourse. There are many good reasons to do so. But my real agenda is quite different: it is to defend and promote the teaching of the encyclical "Humanae vitae" on contraception and chastity. I am convinced that the kind of argument you are promoting is actually harmful to a right understanding of this encyclical; and that this argument was one of the reasons it was so heavily misunderstood and contested. Revisionist theologians precisely started from the kind of view which you still defend, using its flaws and weaknesses to undermine the authority and intelligibility of Paul VI’s teaching. Pope Benedict XVI says in "Light of the World" that there is now a great and urgent need to take a fresh start in understanding "Humanae vitae" and communicating its message to the faithful and the entire world. I am personally convinced that to do so we need to overcome the kind of argument you rely on, and to deepen our understanding of both the meaning of the moral virtue of chastity, and of why contraception is opposed to this virtue.
This is not breaking with tradition, as some think. The way I argue is in many aspects more rooted in tradition than reliance on the scientifically mistaken idea: that for a conjugal act to be a generative kind of act and essentially reproductive behaviour, the penetrating of male semen into the vagina is the only requirement. On the basis of modern knowledge of the biological process of reproduction and, thus, “nature,” your understanding of the relevance of insemination is counterintuitive because it disregards the contribution of the female ovum. I know that you will try to rebut this by saying that it is the external behavioural pattern that counts. But, with such an argument, you will incur the difficulty of promoting an even more one sided view of sexuality, which focuses only on the male contribution to the conjugal act. You should then admit that, according to your approach, a marital act intentionally rendered infertile by the anovulatory pill is still an act of a generative kind because the behavioural pattern of depositing semen into the vagina remains unaltered, despite the fact that the allegedly generative character of that deposition is now an utter farce! It takes pre-modern and pre-scientific biology to render such a claim intuitively appealing.
Nor is my approach to the analysis of human action and its moral specification – which is firmly grounded in the teaching of Aquinas – to be dismissed as “intentionalism”; what I hold is certainly not a relativistic notion that intentions are independent from objective givens and circumstances. Intentional actions are shaped by the object of the human act as it is presented to the choosing will by reason. The human will cannot shift at whim deciding what is the moral object and therefore the basic moral quality of one’s act. I know that on this last point we both agree. But we disagree about how to make out, in this single case, what is according to right reason. Such a disagreement is not, in my view, a tragedy. In any case, I could very well live with your argument being the right one. But I think your understanding of the decisive role of insemination is really not the point of "Humanae vitae," and such an understanding makes it difficult to grasp the essence of its teaching about the virtue of marital chastity.
I think, however, that there is a deep truth contained in the traditional argument which you defend, namely a deep awareness of the holiness of human life and the conviction that the sexual union between man and woman united in marriage serves not only a biological pattern or necessity in the course of evolution, but a divine and holy design. This is, as I should wish to emphasize, what confers to contraception – the intentional separation of sexuality and procreation – its character of an especially grave moral disorder. This is the tradition we have to uphold and announce to the world, even if the arguments evolve or change in certain aspects.
I hope that someday we will be back to the good old days when we friendly and privately exchanged emails instead of publicly debating in open letters.
In the meantime, please accept my warm best wishes for a blessed and happy Christmas and a fruitful 2011
Fr. Martin Rhonheimer
December 21, 2010