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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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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