A novel conclusion from the CDF

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently published a response to a question about the liceity of hysterectomy in a very specific case.  Some responses to the new document have been decidedly negative, but there hasn’t been a lot of buzz about it. Recently, over at the Church Life Journal, thomistic theologian Taylor Patrick O’Neill offered his view that there is, in a way, no news, since “the principles governing this particular ruling are those which have governed previous rulings….” Noting that some worry that “the CDF has now endorsed direct sterilization,” O’Neill says that “a careful examination of the issue ought to be sufficient” to dissipate concerns.

I’m not so sure. I think the new CDF statement should be getting a lot more attention from moral theologians—or at the very least, it should have generated a lot of buzz. Let me explain.

A novel conclusion

Here is the question put to the CDF:

“When the uterus is found to be irreversibly in such a state that it is no longer suitable for procreation and medical experts have reached the certainty that an eventual pregnancy will bring about a spontaneous abortion before the fetus is able to arrive at a viable state, is it licit to remove it (hysterectomy)?”

The response: “Yes, because it does not regard sterilization.”

Expanding on that response, the CDF goes on:

“The precise object of sterilization is to impede the functioning of the reproductive organs, and the malice of sterilization consists in the refusal of children: it is an act against the bonum prolis. On the contrary, in the case considered in the question, it is known that the reproductive organs are not capable of protecting a conceived child up to viability, namely, they are not capable of fulfilling their natural procreative function.”

Just as regards removing the uterus, that argument makes some sense, but we should be clear about the position taken.  The CDF explains that it is not considering a case where the issue is a danger to the mother.  Rather, it is considering the case where a hysterectomy is an alternative to other options, “for example, recourse to infertile periods or total abstinence.”  So the purpose of the proposed hysterectomy is to stop conceiving children.  The intent is to allow for sexual activity while preventing the deaths of future children by preventing their conception.

Put baldly, their argument seems to be this:  So long as the intention is not to avoid raising children, then it’s OK if the intention is to prevent conception.  Even more baldly:  Contraception is OK, so long as it is not contra-having-extra-uterine-children.

Now, doesn’t that seem like headline material?  The Magisterium has stated—not infallibly, but with true authority—that there is at least one circumstance in which a Catholic may licitly obtain a surgery to allow her to engage in sexual activity without risking fertility.

Me: “Give me an English word for a medical intervention intended to allow someone to have sex without conceiving a child.”

Man-on-the-street: “Um, contraception?”

Me [frowning]: “Are you sure?”

Man-on-the-street: “Is this a trick question?”

Only interesting to eggheads?

Really, it makes sense that the ruling has not garnered a lot of attention. The point seems so arcane: in some super-duper rare, strange situation that is not even spelled out in the text (O’Neill speculates that we’re talking about uterine fibrosis), Catholics are officially permitted to do what everyone was already doing. Sounds like something only interesting to eggheads.

So let me dramatize the ruling by pointing to apparently parallel situations. Suppose there is a man whose genes are so messed up that any child begotten of him will die before it reaches birth.  This is a man whose reproductive system is defective such that he can never have an extra-uterine child of his own.  It appears that the CDF response would justify procuring a vasectomy for this man.

Or take the case of a woman living under China’s restrictive reproductive laws.  Suppose she knows that if she conceives, the government will force an abortion and the child will die without ever being born.  It appears that the logic of the CDF’s response would justify this woman having her tubes tied.  She does not have an anti-child will; she is not against the bonum prolis.  But she knows that the child conceived will die, so she takes measures to ensure that she can engage in sexual activity without conceiving a child doomed to die.

Some will dispute with me here. After all, the situation of a woman under restrictive reproductive laws does not involve any dysfunction in her body, whereas the CDF was considering a case in which part of the reproductive system no longer works.  And in the case of the man with the messed-up genes, his vas deferens is not defective, and so tying up the vas deferens doesn’t seem like a solution parallel to removing the defective uterus.

In other words, some moral theologians will see the defective organ as key. For these moral theologians, the argument against contraceptive surgery would appear to be that it violates the body’s integrity and teleology, so where the body already lacks integrity then we don’t have a problem.

But there are two problems with this objection. First, this isn’t the CDF’s argument. The fact that the body itself fails to function only enters into the CDF’s text as a reason why it is not possible to bring a child to birth.  Nothing in the text indicates that one reason for this impossibility would be morally different from another.  So both of the scenarios outlined above seem to fit the scaffolding of the CDF’s argument.

Second, that understanding of the argument against contraception misunderstands the role of the body in morality. I don’t want to turn this humble blog post into a whopping moral treatise, but let me just set this opinion down: If you think the key to this whole situation is that the organ is defective, then you have not followed what JPII meant when he said that the moral object must be seen from the perspective of the acting person (see VS 48 and 78).

Examining the premises

When the CDF reaches a newsworthy conclusion, one might expect they got there by using newsworthy premises. And that seems to me what happened.

O’Neill doesn’t see it that way. He says that “the principles governing this particular ruling are those which have governed previous rulings and which are always operative and unchangeable in Catholic biomedical thought, i.e. the principle of double effect and the status of direct sterilization as an intrinsic evil.” Now, I have to admit that I can’t see where the CDF text employs the principle of double effect. It would be helpful if O’Neill could spell out what he sees as the two effects of the action, and which of the two he sees as being chosen.

As regards the “status of direct sterilization as an intrinsic evil,” I do in fact see a novelty there, inasmuch as the CDF redefines the word “sterilization”.  The text says that the “malice of sterilization consists in the refusal of children” or in an “act against the bonum prolis”.  Now, “the malice” of a given sin should be the malice that defines it, that sets it apart from other sins. But “the refusal of children” does not set sterilization off from other sins: periodic abstinence can be also motivated by a refusal of children, and that is a sin of some kind but not an act of sterilization. Or going the other way, a couple could fully plan on having more kids next week, but this week they decide to temporarily sterilize themselves so as engage in sex without interrupting their vacation with the kids they have. This can hardly be described as “the refusal of children,” even though it is sterilization.

No, the defining malice of sterilization seems to lie in a refusal to modify one’s behavior so as to integrate sexuality into one’s character.  Or to put that in different terms, the defining malice of sterilization is a refusal to consider fertility as an aspect of one’s personhood. It substitutes technology for behavior change. So it appears to me that the CDF’s argument only works by missing the definition of sterilization.

But the CDF’s text muddies the issue by redefining sterilization by redefining fertility.  It defines “to procreate” as “to bring a baby into the world,” i.e., to full term and birth.  For example, the question at hand is described regarding “situations in which procreation is no longer possible” because a baby cannot be brought to term.  And again, it states that “the medical procedure should not be judged as being against procreation, because we find ourselves within an objective context in which neither procreation, nor as a consequence, an anti-procreative action, are possible.”  So the opposite of “sterility” is not the ability to get pregnant—the usual meaning of “fertility”—but the ability to bring a child to birth.

O’Neill discusses this change of definition, because some Catholics have thought the new definition would change the Church’s stance on life beginning at conception. Quite reasonably, I think, he explains that the CDF has defined “procreation” more narrowly as a way to express what they see as the key moral difference between their ruling and the previous 1993 CDF ruling on hysterectomy. They did not in any way intend to deny that life begins at conception. So no, the CDF does not mean to make a statement about abortion.

But I think that the rather far-fetched concern voiced by some Catholics may have allowed O’Neill to skate the issue of redefining procreation. This word “procreation” is not just at the center of the abortion debate but also at the center of the Church’s teaching on contraception: Humanae Vitae condemned “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” (par. 14). Is the morally relevant point that these condemned actions attempt to prevent bringing a baby to term? In Humanae Vitae, does “prevent procreation” mean “avoid raising children”—is that a sound reading of that text? When addressing artificial insemination, the Church defined procreation as “the act which brings the child into existence,” because she saw that as the morally relevant point (CCC 2377; cf. the CDF’s Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origen and on the Dignity of Procreation).  Is that not the case with sterilization?

Let me illustrate some potential problems with the new definition of “procreation” in the context of sterilization. The CDF says that it is OK to remove an organ in order to prevent conception because conception itself is not the final goal of the marital act: the final goal is the bring a baby into the world. But that premise is not true!  The final goal of the marital act is not to bring a baby into the world, but to produce a new adult human being. So the argument would seem to show that it is OK to remove an organ in order to prevent conception if we have moral certainty that the child will not survive to adulthood.

Or we could push it further. (I’m getting silly—just roll with me.) The true goal of the procreative process is not just a new human adult, but a virtuous and flourishing adult—or in Catholic terms, a new saint. So if we had moral certainty that the child would be corrupted and lost, it seems that the CDF’s argument says we can remove an organ in order to prevent conception.

If you don’t think my extensions of the argument work, grant me this at least: this is a high-stakes conversation. We have a new principle on the table, and no one has tested where the principle goes.

At the end of the day, the Magisterium’s authority has been engaged to some degree on this issue, and Catholics must respect that fact.  But it would be good for Catholics to notice what is at stake, and for those with relevant expertise to have a constructive conversation about it.

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The Message in the Calendar

Imagine that you opened the first door of your Advent calendar and found this secret message, put in the calendar long ago especially for you.  It would seem strange, would it not?  A message in a calendar?  But the Advent calendar tells a story that begins long, long ago—and it begins with a message in a calendar.

God does not use a calendar, because God does not use time.  He is eternal, which means that he does not live in seconds and minutes and hours and days and months and years.  But he wanted to give his life to men, who do live in time, so when he prepared a world for men the first thing he made was a calendar. Continue reading “The Message in the Calendar”

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Getting Wisdom (and other podcasts)

Wyoming Catholic College’s “After Dinner Scholar” podcast has published an interview with me titled: “Getting Wisdom in 2019 with Dr. Jeremy Holmes”.  If you are interested in the “wisdom books” of Scripture, have a listen for my two cents’ on the topic.

Looking through the archives, I find that the “After Dinner Scholar” has posted interviews with me quite a few times.  I haven’t always noted them as they came out, so here’s a list (in order from most recent to oldest):

“Old Testament Judges and Kings and the Question of Centralization”.  Wherein I relate the books of Judges and Kings to contemporary political and religious problems.

“The Splendor of Truth 25 Years Later”.  A quick introduction to the fundamental questions and teachings in JPII’s Veritatis Splendor.  To date, this is the most-downloaded of all “After Dinner Scholar” podcasts.

“Humanae Vitae: Contributing to the Creation of a Truly Human Civilization”.  This is an interview with me and with Dr. Kent Lasnoski, reviewing the central teachings of Humanae Vitae and talking about the usual objections.

“Hunting, Humanity, and the Liberal Arts”.  For something truly different, a reflection on the relationship between hunting and classical education.

“Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, and the March for Life”.  Wherein we discuss the relationship between contraception and abortion.

“The Word Became Flesh: St. Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation'”.  An introduction to this classic little work on the central mystery of faith.

“The Philosophical Side of Theology: St. Thomas’s Compendium”.  I talk about the relationship between philosophy and theology, and I introduce St. Thomas’s often under-appreciated little overview of theology, the Compendium Theologiae.  One person contacted me after this podcast to say he wanted to read the Compendium with his son and wondered if there were anything like a companion or commentary.  I’m working on it!

“Moses and Israel: From Exile to Freedom”.  A full-length lecture on the life of Moses, one of my favorite talks I have ever given.  The “After Dinner Scholar” also published an interview with me on the topic of the lecture.

“The Pope, Authority, and ‘Religious Assent'”.  A brief discussion of how we should handle cases where the Magisterium teaches something but does not teach it infallibly.  Still a hot topic today.  I have a very rough manuscript of a book on this subject, and maybe someday I’ll at least turn it into a series of audio posts.

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Humble seeds of a better liturgy

Aleitia.org recently published an excellent article on how lectors are often given bad advice. When lectors receive any training at all, which is rare enough, their preparation is borrowed from the many books on public speaking:  Make eye contact, make a personal connection with the audience, etc.  But the reality is that lectoring is not in the category of public speaking at all.  It is public reading.

The point is well taken, and raises a question:  How did we reach a point where people not only lector badly, but can’t even identify what category of action “lectoring” would go in?

Here’s my suggestion:  We reached this point because “public reading” is no longer a thing.  People do not read out loud to each other anymore.  To read at Mass is not mere public reading, of course.  It is a sacral action.  So one might say that we have not only lost the “species,” i.e., sacred public reading, but we have even lost the “genus,” i.e., public reading itself.

Much of what needs to happen to fix lectoring needs to come from those in authority.  But for a lasting difference, the deepest solutions to our problems rarely come from the top down.  While we wait for priests or bishops to establish and enforce good practices, we need to take humbler steps at home:  we need to read out loud to each other.  To our kids, to our spouses, to our friends.  Reading out loud in the home needs to become a thing again, a normal pastime.

For both inspiration and realistic, nitty gritty advice, I highly recommend the Read-Aloud Revival blog by Sarah McKenzie.  Her book is superb as well.  It can take as little as a few minutes once per week to sow the humble seeds of a future liturgical blessing.

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The Poetry of Isaiah

The prophet Isaiah dominates the season of Advent. Old Testament readings at Mass are taken from Isaiah, the Office of Readings draws almost entirely from Isaiah, and many of our hymns and carols are based on one or another passage from Isaiah. One reason is of course the clarity of Isaiah’s prophecies, but another is the beauty and power of his poetry.

Prophecy and poetry were not cleanly distinguished ideas in antiquity. All the biblical prophets are poets, pagan oracles spoke in short poems, and Plato referred to poets as “inspired” or possessed by a “divine madness”. Today we often meet poetry that makes no claim to inspiration—perhaps a mere advertising ditty—and our prophets tend to write blog posts or newspaper columns rather than verse. As a result, we turn to a biblical prophet looking for the “content” or the “message” behind the poetic medium rather than through it. We treat as separable something Isaiah would not have seen so.

So as we begin Advent, I would like to offer a few thoughts about poetry I have seen in Isaiah. Continue reading “The Poetry of Isaiah”

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All Saints: A Public Feast

On the Solemnity of All Saints, we stop to remember that salvation is not something that belongs primarily to me or to you. Salvation belongs to the Heavenly Jerusalem, to the City of God, and we are saved by joining that august community. Even though my friendship with Jesus is closer than any other, still my union with him is union in his body. Consequently, the Solemnity of All Saints resists being a merely private affair.

This is one reason why I love our yearly public procession. Students, faculty, and staff of Wyoming Catholic College gather downtown and parade through Main Street and up to the parish church with the Eucharist in the lead. We sing songs and walk, old and young, big and little. Continue reading “All Saints: A Public Feast”

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An Introduction to the Gospel of John

Over the past few months, I have been using thinklikeaquinas.com to post content for my undergraduate theology students.  So far we have been working our way through Aquinas’s Compendium of Theology, and I have posted short introductions to the chapters. 

Our past two classes have been devoted to particular themes in the Gospel of John.  Today, I posted a half-hour lecture offering a general introduction to John’s Gospel, together with a .pdf of my outline of how I think the text is organized.  Some of you may be interested, so I thought I’d link to it from this, my main blog:

One and Triune God


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A first look at Charles Taylor

Some friends and I have begun a series of conversations about Charles Taylors’ enormous book, A Secular Age.  Taylor first defines “secularity” in terms of the “conditions of belief,” that is, what made it hard not to believe in God 400 years ago as compared to what makes it hard to believe in God today.  He begins by describing the pre-modern consciousness and contrasting it with the modern consciousness, and then spends about 600 pages (practically a page per year) narrating the change from one to the other. Continue reading “A first look at Charles Taylor”

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Hands blessed for blessing

A crack runs through the sanctuary of God,
     a crevice across the floor,
     spewing smoke from under the altar;
The crack widens into a chasm,
     the crevice into an abyss,
     belching clouds to hide the heavens.
From the blackness emerges a scorpion,
     a locust with sting in its tail,
     and takes its stand at the altar;
From the deep creeps a face like a man’s,
     a head with hair like a woman’s,
     and presides over the mystery of ages.
Locusts swarm over locusts,
     the mass of scorpions writhes,
     it kindles a coarse fire.
Locusts entangled with locusts,
     scorpion legs around scorpion tails,
     in a fire that burns but does not warm,
     a fire that consumes but gives no light,
          and they smile with teeth like a human’s.
The people shuffle into the Temple,
     they drag their feet into the sanctuary;
     they are obliged to Mass every Sunday.
They come like lambs to the slaughter,
     they breathe the smoke and the ashes;
     there is no other path to communion.

Lord, Lord, if I could only look away. Continue reading “Hands blessed for blessing”

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Basic Catholicism in a Crisis

As the crisis surrounding Cardinal McCarrick and the Vigano letters unfolds, I have not said much.  For the most part, my thoughts have already been put out there by others, and to be honest, I’m too tired most of the time to write something fresh. But as I see more evidence that Catholics in the trenches are feeling their faith shudder under the impact of cascading revelations of corruption among Church officials, I think it might be good to review just a couple of basic points of Catholic belief.

Now, let’s be clear: I think the crisis is big. In fact, I am personally inclined to think that a tremendous punishment is looming over the Church, and I am inclined to think that the current crisis is the tip of that punishment.  Preparation for next week’s classes required that I re-read the account of Sodom and Gomorrah, and I felt chills run up and down my spine.  But still and all, we have to keep our heads.  So, two basic points:

1. The validity of a sacrament does not depend on the personal holiness of the priest. 

This was hammered out in the Donatist crisis way back in the time of St. Augustine.  Jesus has given us the sacraments as channels of grace, and he was not so stupid as to make the efficacy of the sacrament depend on whether the priest is in a state of grace or not.  If the sacrament of Baptism depended on the priest’s personal state of grace, for example, then no one could be sure of being baptized.  You just can’t know from outward appearances whether a priest is in a state of grace–as we are re-discovering in a rather dramatic fashion.

So even when Cardinal McCarrick was abusing seminarians and doing whatever horrid things he did, the sacraments he celebrated were real sacraments.  He himself increased his own guilt by celebrating them, but the people who received the Eucharist from him really did receive the body and blood of Jesus.  (I received the Eucharist from McCarrick, so this is not an abstract statement for me.)

2. The pope’s teaching authority does not depend on his personal holiness. 

Whatever you think of Pope Francis, to the degree that he engages his papal office, to that degree his teachings have authority.  There have been some truly stinky popes in history who nonetheless left us authoritative teachings.  Jesus was not so stupid as to make the authority of the Magisterium depend on the state of grace of the bishops.

So yes, Pope Francis has taught some things with real authority.  As annoying as it is that Cupich seemed to rank environmental concerns over care for abuse victims, still and all, Pope Francis’s statements about the environment mostly continue and confirm statements made by the two previous popes.  The fact that Pope Francis devoted an encyclical to the issue gives real magisterial clout to the Church’s position on the environment.

Surprisingly, Pope Francis has not engaged his authority to any great degree on a lot of divisive issues.  Amoris Laetitia has a low rank among magisterial documents, and is easily overshadowed by previous documents.  Even the change to the Catechism on the death penalty is a low-level intervention, technically speaking.  In theory, Pope Francis could have issued a papal bull with “I define, declare, and decree” and so on and so forth on any issue he wanted, so it is remarkable how little he has actually engaged his authority in this stormy pontificate.

Amidst the real calamity, let’s keep our heads.  The crisis does not trace back to Pope Francis: Our Lady of Fatima was warning people to do penance for sexual impurity way back in the nineteen teens.  And Jesus knew these kinds of times were coming.  Worse times are probably still to come.  But let’s keep on frequenting the sacraments and reverencing the authority of the Magisterium.  Just because the world has gone crazy doesn’t mean you have to.

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