On Monday, October 20, 2008, some friends and I attended the Archbishop Ireland Memorial Lecture Series at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. This series is a program of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, and the October 20 lecture featured Janet Smith (pictured at right), the Saint Paul Seminary’s “first scholar in residence.”
The seminary’s website has little information on Janet Smith’s educational credentials, and as Paula Ruddy discovered when researching a recent article for The Progressive Catholic Voice, an internet search fails to reveal where Dr. Smith went to school or received her training.* Promotional material for Dr. Smith’s talk on the seminary’s website simply says that she “holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit” and that she’s the author of Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and Contraception: Why Not.
Elsewhere on the website of the University of St. Thomas, Dr. Smith is described as an “ethicist” and the author of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader. Her latest book is on bioethics and is entitled Life Issues, Medical Choices, Questions and Answers for Catholics.
This same site notes that: “Smith has taught at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Dallas, where she received the Haggar Teaching Award. She also received the Pro-Life Person of the Year from the Diocese of Dallas and the Cardinal Wright Award from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Smith is serving a second term as a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family. More than a million copies of her talk, Contraception: Why Not have been distributed.”
I must admit that I find the lack of available information about Smith’s qualifications as a scholar to be perplexing. After Smith’s talk I spoke to a high-ranking faculty member of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. Incredibly, he was unable to tell me in what area Smith’s doctoral studies had been.
“Classics,” he offered uncertainly, “maybe philosophy.”
He was clearly embarrassed by his lack of knowledge concerning his institution’s “scholar in residence” and so asked that his name not be used in anything I wrote about Smith’s presentation.
Disappointed but undeterred by his response, I posed a follow-up question: Would the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity ever consider hosting someone like Margaret Farley, Daniel Helminiak, or Joan Timmerman – renowned Catholic scholars who intelligently and respectfully critique and challenge the Church’s sexual theology? He said that the works of such people are covered “in the classroom,” but that for a public lecture, such as the Archbishop Ireland Memorial Lecture Series, only someone who supports church teaching is acceptable.
So what of Janet Smith herself and the talk she gave as “scholar in residence”?
Well, as I mentioned to the seminary faculty member with whom I conversed, I didn’t detect very much scholarship in her presentation. Rather, she simply expounded upon the sexual theology contained in a number of writings by Pope John Paul II. Indeed, she came across as more of a cheerleader for the late pope and his “Theology of the Body” than an original thinker in the field of either theology or ethics.
Most of the slides in her Powerpoint presentation contained a holy card-type image of John Paul II in the top right hand corner. Honestly, I was half expecting Smith to blow a kiss to this picture of the pope at some point during her presentation!
Her talk had the rather ridiculous title, “Stop in the Name of Love! – John Paul II on Transforming Sexual Desire.” Who would have thought the late pontiff was a Motown fan! Seriously, though, Smith herself conceded that the title of her presentation was not of her choosing. Which, when you think about it, is rather odd: a visiting scholar in residence can’t choose the title of her own public presentation?
In reiterating the sexual theology of John Paul II, Smith reminded those in attendance that the sexual urge is “fundamentally selfish and must be transformed into something fundamentally unselfish, which is love.”
Gay love, however, doesn’t make the grade.
No, for Janet Smith, love must fit a certain understanding of “objective reality” – Pope John Paul II’s understanding!
Accordingly, the “selfish” sexual desire of humans must be transformed into an expression of sexual love that can only be heterosexual (one man, one woman in the state of sacramental marriage) and must always be open to new life, understood solely in terms of procreation.
Thus an “ideal” is lifted up as “objective reality,” and any and all acts that do not correspond with this “reality” are viewed as bad and wrong. Contraceptive sex and gay sex were offered by Smith as examples of such acts. Furthermore, if a person finds fulfillment and/or enjoyment through these acts, then it means he/she is delusional as only acts that correspond with “objective reality” can rationally be appreciated and enjoyed.
A closed system
Of course the question has to be asked: Whose experiences, whose reality, is being observed and utilized to inform this understanding of “objective reality”? Smith acknowledges that John Paul II based his views on reality on human experience, yet judging from the narrow theology that resulted, the pope seems to have been very selective with regard to the experiences of humanity that he chose to observe and utilize so as to shape his vision of “objective reality.”
Not surprisingly, the failure of Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” to speak meaningfully to and for people and the non-reception of Humanae Vitae (which he vigorously defended throughout his pontificate) are readily seen by the vast majority of Catholics to be the result of the institutional church’s dismal failure to integrate into its thinking and teaching the corporate body of Christians’ experience and wisdom regarding sexuality. And once one recognizes this failure, then the pope’s and Janet Smith’s “objective reality” can be seen for what it really is: a discriminatory ideology; a closed system of ideas and beliefs that starts with a premise already inside the system. For the architects and guardians of such a system, no experiences, insights, and questions that arise beyond the system can be tolerated. Indeed, they are routinely condemned and actively discriminated against.
This is because experiences beyond their view of “objective reality” are viewed as acts outside the laws of nature, as acts that are shameful, embarrassing, wrong, and the result of humanity’s fallen state. Yet theologian Joan Timmerman has proposed that perhaps it is “the hubris of those who would pretend to be gods that would lead them to be ashamed and embarrassed at being sexual.”
For Timmerman, “rejection of the sexual and attempts to exclude it (‘outlaw’ it) are symptoms of the fallen condition.”
In her insightful essay, “Thoughts While Reading Over the Bishops’ Shoulders,” Timmerman notes that:
When outlawed in such fashion, the “lower” nature gets its own back by behaving lawlessly. This is lust. But lust is produced by shame, not vice versa. The disorder, that which leads to unacceptable acts, is not sexual orientation but contempt for the sexual.
“Sloppy and false”
A priest who heard Smith speak at Archbishop Nienstedt’s August 28 “marriage study day,” told me that he found her arguments “sloppy and false.” I’d have to say that, after listening to her speak last week, I found her arguments to be also naive and her worldview bordering on the superstitious.
According to Smith, the Holy Spirit chose Karol Wojtyla so that as Pope John Paul II he would “courageously defend” Humanae Vitae. She finds evidence for such a contention in the fact that John Paul II noted that this controversial document was “central to the whole magisterium” of his pontificate. And Smith is clearly dedicated to continuing the pope’s vigorous defense of Humanae Vitae, a defending that she frames in terms of “spiritual warfare.” Again, she draws from events in the pope’s life to justify this claim: apparently on the day in 1981 when the attempt was made on Pope John Paul II life, he was to open a Commission on Marriage and the Family. Satan himself was trying to “take out” the pope, according to Smith, and prevent him from his life’s mission of defending and promoting Humanae Vitae.
I also gathered that, for Smith, the accounts of creation that we find in Genesis are literally true. Furthermore, it’s objectively true that “sex leads to babies,” and that “God made human sexuality so that He can get more souls into Heaven.” Accordingly, Smith maintains that if people would just think of every sexual act as an invitation from God to create a new soul, then they would “govern” their sexual behavior appropriately, i.e., in accordance with the “objective reality” that “sex leads to babies.” Not surprisingly, “expanding the circle of love,” for Smith, seems to be always and only about procreation.
Contrast this “sex=babies” perspective with how actual theologians – Catholic and Protestant – understand and talk about the purpose of human sexuality. For instance, in their book, The Wisdom of the Body: Making Sense of Our Sexuality, Evelyn and James Whitehead “draw out and make public the sense of the faithful about Christians and their sexuality.” Accordingly, they note that the “truth” about sexuality is that the life of Jesus challenges all, married and unmarried, to “a more than genital love, a larger than biological family, a fruitfulness that goes beyond fecundity.”
Donald G. Hanway, author of A Theology of Gay and Lesbian Inclusion, similarly observes that:
[Sex] is not just about maintaining the species, but about reaching out in relationship. Sex and spirit are not opposites: they are part of one yearning toward wholeness. . . . Sex is bound up with important developmental and maintenance needs such as caring, self-expression, self-esteem, and human connection at multiple levels. In terms of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, sex encompasses the spiritual as well as the physical, and it ranges from simple relief of tension to higher levels such as love, esteem, aesthetic appreciation, and self-actualization. . . . Sex makes use of all our human capacities: tenderness, strength, imagination, the use of all our senses, and our use of symbols. It calls forth not just our lowest impulses but also our highest impulses such as generosity and the desire to lose ourselves in another.
Theologian Daniel Helminiak, in discussing natural law and human sexuality notes that:
To be sure, procreation is an inherent aspect of sexuality. But there is more to sex than that, especially when we look at sex in human beings. Procreation is an animal function. In humans sex is taken up into a new array of purposes. Human sex involves emotional bonding and the dreams and promises of lovers. That is to say, beyond the physical, human sex also involves the psychological and the spiritual. (I see “dreams and promises,” or ideals, and beliefs and ethics – all ways of suggesting meaning and value – as spiritual matters.) So having sex (physical) seduces lovers (emotional) into dreaming dreams and making promises (spiritual). The trend of sex is toward higher things. And since the spiritual dimension of human sexual sharing is the highest and most significant, it is what determines the unique nature of human sexuality, so it is what must be preserved in every case. Not procreation, but genuine care and loving are the non-negotiables of human sex.
Margaret Farley draws similar conclusions, though she cautions against the ease by which love can be sentimentalized and thus distorted if it does not presuppose justice as its more inclusive framework. In his review of her award-winning book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, Paul Capetz notes the following of Farley’s conclusions:
Love, which is the most appropriate context for the embodied expression of sexuality, requires justice as its sine qua non. While love, as the cherishing of another human being, goes beyond justice, love must never leave justice behind. From within this revised ethical framework wherein love informed by justice is the supreme moral norm for evaluating the appropriateness of sexual relations, traditional prohibitions against homosexuality can no longer be sustained. At the same time, however, consensual and committed relations between persons of the same gender are beholden to the same moral criterion of just love as are heterosexual relations.
And then there’s the wise and beautiful reflections on sexuality offered by theologian and poet, David Weiss:
Sexuality is indeed intended to be procreative, to give life; but our own prejudice – perhaps our desire to stem the flow of God’s creative energy into the world – has led us to understand this in a narrow, biological fashion. But truly, to find ourselves partnered in longing love with another person is to find that we have company in the work of caring for creation. Whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or straight – whether you are celibate or sexually active, single or in a relationship – one truth that we hear in the biblical creation account is that human beings were created to tend the Garden, to guide creation’s bounty and to tend its scarcity in ways that promote the flourishing of all. That’s why we’re here. The joy that we know sexually in our bodies is there, at least in part, to lure us into the holy act of caring for all that is embodied, for all the ecological diversity that reflects God’s rampant desire for incarnation.
We don’t need a partner to do this. But if in our partnerships we fail to look outward and tend to the corner of creation around us – whether that is children or other humans, animals or ecosystems, or simply our household resources – if our love for another person does not spill out into these areas, we have missed something of the presence of God. God is always engaged in the care of life, especially among the vulnerable. And no one need shrink from the expectation that Christian sexual love should be procreative. Lived well, it always is.
I wonder if Janet Smith has read and reflected upon these wonderfully expansive theological perspectives on the gift of human sexuality?
Then again, how would it be possible for her closed system of ideas and beliefs to access them? It can’t, and so Smith remains adamant that our experiences are only valid and helpful in shaping our lives and our understanding of sex if they match what, in reality, is a discriminatory ideology – one which through its highly selective observations, insists that the sole primary function of sex is procreation.
In such an understanding, Smith reduces the male sex drive to physicality and the female’s to sentimentality (the character of Madame Bovary was her example of female sexuality). In doing so she entirely leaves out the context of need for human intimacy, union, and release that can occur respectfully and lovingly between a man and a woman, between a man and a man, and between a woman and a woman who have not committed themselves to anything other than the act itself. They might have a desire for permanent monogamous relationship, even children, but impermanent relationship may be all that is possible for them in the moment. That does not make the moment any the less good. The good that they experience, if it is a good experience, is in itself an “objective reality.” It may not be “ideal” or even “special” but it can still be true.
Of course, the idea that it’s God’s will that each and every sexual act must be open to biological procreation is a core teaching within the sexual theology of Roman Catholicism. It’s a teaching (and theology), however, that clearly has been rejected by the sensus fidelium, the Spirit-inspired beliefs of the faithful. Smith herself acknowledged that over 95% of Catholic couples reject Humanae Vitae.
However, she dismisses such rejection as “dissent” (understood solely as something negative – as if faithful dissent doesn’t have a legitimate place in Catholicism!) and/or the fact that people “haven’t actually read Humanae Vitae.” Furthermore, all those dissenters aren’t really part of the sensus fidelium, according to Smith. Only those who are good practicing Catholics, those who already agree with what the Church teaches, are included in the “sense of the faithful.” Yes, it’s that closed system again – one that by necessity requires circular logic such as this. But as my priest friend notes, it’s logic that is “sloppy and false.”
Smith’s talk was full of such specious arguments. She also had the rather annoying and, quite frankly, insulting habit of flipping to an altogether different example when attempting to respond to a specific question or situation. For instance, she equated one audience member’s act of contraceptive sex with his wife to him having an affair with his secretary! She also compared my friend’s support for her gay son and his same-sex relationship to supporting someone having sex with his/her sibling! See what I mean by “insulting”? But, again, when people operate within a closed system of ideas and beliefs, I don’t think it’s that surprising to hear them react to new data in ways that are irrational, discriminatory, and hurtful to those of us outside their closed system.
A loving God
As incredulous and disappointed as I was by much of what Janet Smith had to say, I realized later that she really does believe she’s defending and promoting a way of thinking about human sexuality that will bring right-relationship and happiness to people’s lives. In other words, like John Paul II, Smith sincerely believes that she’s presenting a certain understanding of human sexuality that, if adhered to, will ensure that people are treated lovingly and respectfully.
We thus have something in common: I too want people to be treated lovingly and respectfully. Yet in espousing the understanding on sexuality that Smith does, there’s a clear lack of respect for gay people – and indeed straight people whose experience don’t match the “objective reality” defined and articulated by John Paul II.
There’s also a stubborn resistance to see that gay relationships can and do ensure that individuals are treated lovingly and respectfully. Indeed, for many a gay person, the relationship with his/her significant other may have been the first time they experienced such love and respect. Calling such experiences “delusional” is not helpful, loving, or respectful.
Personally, I do not want to be so attached to a certain understanding of “objective reality” that I fail to perceive, acknowledge, and respond to the transforming presence of God in the lives and relationships of others. I also lament that the theology that emerges from such a rigidly prescribed perspective on reality is always an impoverished and ultimately stagnate attempt at honoring both our living God and our living Catholic tradition. Sadly, it would appear that just such a theology is being promoted at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.
Smith concluded her presentation by discussing the role of prayer in one’s spiritual life. The most necessary prayer, she said, is “any that reminds us that God is a loving God.” What a pity, I thought, that she is closed to the experience of this “loving God” in the lives and relationships of gay people, indeed to anyone whose experiences take them beyond what she (or rather, Pope John Paul II) narrowly define as “objective reality.”
There may well be “objective reality” but I believe we as humans are still in the process of being guided by our loving God in recognizing, appreciating, and celebrating the full extent of its beauty and complexity. And the only way such guidance is mediated is through our subjective experiences. Even scripture and tradition emerge from and are filtered through human experience. Therefore, to say that we can learn nothing about reality, about God, and/or about what it means to be human from the loving lives and relationships of gay people seems to many of us evidence not of truth but of hubris.
How sweet it is . . .
Here’s a closing thought: Perhaps the title of Janet’s next scholarly project and subsequent presentation could reference not the Supreme’s “Stop in the Name of Love,” but another classic Motown song, Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” – with the “you” encompassing all who have given and received love, all who have flourished and allowed their beloved to flourish through and within their shared and loving sexual relationship.
Now I realize that it would definitely be a departure for Dr. Smith in terms of her current area of expertise, but I believe she’s capable of finding within herself all that is required to step out and join in trustingly and joyfully exploring and expanding the frontiers of our understanding of God. Such exploring and expansion takes place within the context of a pilgrim Church - a Church open to new questions and possibilities, and one that is still very much on the journey.
And perhaps this journey is teaching us that it’s not so much our sexual desire that needs to be transformed but our hearts and minds so that we can perceive and celebrate God beyond our existing ways of viewing and understanding the presence of love in the lives and relationships around us.
How sweet it is indeed!
Michael Bayly is the executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities and the editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice. This article was first published on his weblog, The Wild Reed in October 2008.
* A subsequent search of the Internet, after both the publication of Paula’s article in The Progressive Catholic Voice and this article at The Wild Reed, found Dr. Smith’s credentials listed on the website of Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, the seminary where she has an appointment on the faculty. These credentials are as follows:
Dr. Janet E. Smith: B.A., M.A., Ph.D., School of Theology, Fr. Michael J. McGivney Chair in Life Ethics, Professor of Moral Theology. B.A. (Classics), Grinnell College, 1972; M.A. (Classical Languages), University of North Carolina, 1975. Ph.D., (Classical Languages), University of Toronto, 1982. At SHMS 2001–