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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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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Bringing Scripture back into the death penalty debate

Catholics debating the death penalty generally do a bad job with Scripture.  One side of the debate cites isolated texts, leaving themselves open to the accusation that they cannot see the texts in relation to the whole thrust of Scripture.  The other side of the debate refers vaguely to “the Gospel” as a way to avoid dealing with any particular text of Scripture at all.  Neither side appears to have a living relationship with God’s word.

I can’t work through all the relevant texts on this blog, but I would like to offer an example of what’s possible by dealing with the big text everyone mentions:  Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  I have already dealt with the context of this verse at greater length elsewhere, but I was not talking about the death penalty then.  Here I’ll condense the discussion to highlight what is most relevant to the death penalty issue. Continue reading “Bringing Scripture back into the death penalty debate”

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How standards of justice can change

In a previous post, I said that what was not an attack on human dignity in one situation could be in another. I further claimed that such could be the case with the death penalty. I think I owe it to anyone reading to go back and flesh out what I had in mind.

St. Thomas has an interesting perspective on the purposes of punishment in any human community (thanks to Fr. Joseph Bolin for collecting these texts): Continue reading “How standards of justice can change”

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Justice and Punishment

A few thoughts occurred to me last night about the death penalty debate. Leaving open the ultimate prudential question of whether the death penalty can be morally used in our time, I want to examine the arguments used in the CDF’s letter explaining the recent change to the Catechism. (Please see my last post for context.)

The central thread in this debate is justice.  Now, justice only exists between rational creatures, i.e., creatures made in the image of God.  We don’t seek to restore the scales of justice against a tree that fell on someone. We try to prevent animals from stealing, but we do not incarcerate them for it.  Justice has to do with the relationships between persons as such. Continue reading “Justice and Punishment”

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The new Catechism text on the death penalty

While I have not blogged in a long time, I have been reading and thinking.  I never did finish my series on the death penalty, because I reached a point where I needed to complete my own ethical philosophical formation.  But in light of the recent news that Pope Francis updated the Catechism to oppose the death penalty more clearly, I thought I should toss up a few comments. Continue reading “The new Catechism text on the death penalty”

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St. Thomas Aquinas on a bizarre marital situation

Amidst the Amoris Laetitia debates, one thing I have wondered about is how people find themselves in the difficult situations everyone is discussing.  How does it happen that someone (a) enters a second civil marriage and (b) is obliged to keep up sexual relations and (c) requires the Eucharist to keep going?  I don’t have the pastoral experience to rattle off examples.

But while editing a translation of St. Thomas’s Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, I came across one such case—not likely in this day and age, but a possible scenario nonetheless.  St. Thomas holds the position that exterior words expressing consent do not result in marriage if interior consent is lacking, but he raises this objection to his own view (Scriptum IV.27.1.2, quaes. 4):

Obj. 3: If someone is proved to have consented to someone else through words about the present, he is forced to have her as his wife, under pain of excommunication, even if he says that mental consent was lacking; even if he has afterward consented to another with words expressive of his mental consent. But this would not be the case, if mental consent were required for marriage. Therefore, it is not required.

Let’s pause and absorb this amazing scenario.  Billy Bob went through a wedding ceremony in which he did not intend to get married but managed to fool everyone there.  Despite all apperances, Billy Bob’s conscience requires him to admit that he did not marry that woman.  Later, Billy Bob went through a second wedding ceremony in which he did sincerely intend to get married, and his conscience requires him to admit that he is married to that woman.  But in the eyes of the law and of the Church, which can only go by what is perceptible from the outside, Billy Bob is married to the first woman and not to the second, and (at least under medieval law) he could be subject to severe penalties if he refused to live as a married man with that first wife—including physical intimacy.  He has not just a shadowy, self-judged duty to keep up his marital status with her, but an objective, legal, and ecclesially enforced obligation!

Now, surely Billy Bob is under unimaginable pressures.  The direction of today’s debates would suggest that he can arrange with his priest to receive communion while continuing in what his conscience tells him is an adulterous union:  this is the best that he can offer God in the circumstance.  But St. Thomas has a different pastoral suggestion:

Billy Bob could flee the country.  Or, if that’s too harsh, he could just submit to excommunication from the Church:

Reply Obj. 3: In such a case the Church compels him to stay with his first wife, since it judges based on what appears externally. Nor is it deceived in justice, although it may be deceived in fact. But that man should undergo excommunication rather than be intimate with his first wife, or he should flee to some other distant region.

Zowie.  I’m not sure how long the Angelic Doctor would last in today’s climate.

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Feser and Bessette: The authority of government

Feser and Bessette structure their argument for capital punishment carefully.  Their fourth general premise is that some wrongdoers deserve death, but they spell out as a fifth and separate premise the notion that someone has the authority to inflict that death upon the wrongdoer:

Public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict on wrongdoers the punishments they deserve.

As I noted in my original post on the death penalty, the fact that someone deserves death does not of itself imply that any human being has the authority to impose it.  Accordingly, F&B devote an entire subsection of their argument to showing that the government in particular does have that authority.

However, I think there is a small gap in their case.  Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The authority of government”

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Feser and Bessette: Surprising Omission #1

Feser and Bessette take on this moral question:  Is it ever OK to kill a human being, supposing the person is guilty?  And as we have seen, Feser and Bessette’s general approach to morality is that one must observe the teleology built into the natures of things—what a given thing is ordered toward—and then act in accordance with that teleology.  So it comes as a complete surprise that their moral argument never—not once—speaks about what a human being is ordered toward.  What would seem to be the key, namely the telos of the human person, is absent from their book. Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: Surprising Omission #1”

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Feser and Bessette: Disagreement with Aquinas

As Feser and Bessete wind up their argument about punishment as such, they note that punishment has traditionally been considered to have several purposes:  in addition to retribution, it can also serve to deter future crime or rehabilitate the criminal.  “But,” they go on, “as our discussion indicates, for the natural law theorist, retribution is not only a legitimate end of punishment: it is the fundamental end” (page 40).  Further down they make explicit what they mean: “For, all things being equal, we may punish even if we will thereby achieve no end other than retribution; but we may not punish if retribution is not at least one of the ends aimed at.”

However, still further in, F&B allow that “some traditional natural law theorists think” that we can’t “inflict a punishment merely to secure retributive justice,” and they go on to offer some citations from Aquinas (57).  It was only on my second read that I realized F&B are saying that Aquinas disagrees with them about punishment.  Perhaps one reason it was not clear to me at first is that they do not cite Aquinas’s clearest statement on the point:  “Vengeance is lawful and virtuous so far as it tends to the prevention of evil” (ST II-II 108.2). Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: Disagreement with Aquinas”

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