Publication Year: 2014
Paul Lauritzen: What was your inspiration for this project?
Aline Kalbian: I had been teaching the ethics of contraception in several of my courses, and was surprised to find how fascinated and puzzled my students were by the subject. And I was surprised at how little they knew about it. Non-Catholic students dismissed it as an old-fashioned question of ethics that had been resolved once and for all; Catholic students were split, but the ones who supported the Church’s teaching had a surprisingly thin conception of the Church’s moral arguments on this matter. This inspired me to pursue the task of explaining and clarifying the complex discourse and rhetoric surrounding this issue.
I also noticed that the cultural and situational contexts of the ethics of contraception had changed significantly since the 1960s. Thus, although, the official Catholic stance on the issue had remained the same, the narratives and arguments about the ethics of contraception had changed. This insight tied in to my broader interests in how traditions develop and change over time. I felt there was a need to update the scholarship, which often stopped at Humanae Vitae.
Why should the general public be interested in this work?
When I began this project in 2008, contraception was not a hot-button issue in American society. That changed in 2009 with the Affordable Care Act contraceptive mandate. Suddenly, lots of people wanted to understand why the Catholic Church opposed contraception. My hope is that my book is able to serve this function for a general public. I believe that analyzing moral arguments and setting them in the relevant cultural contexts can counteract the tendency in our culture to caricature religious arguments.
While this book is about Catholicism, I also see myself as advancing a certain methodological approach to religious ethics. I want to argue that living traditions re-narrate their moral justifications in response and reaction to the world around them. Understanding that religious communities are engaged in this process of negotiation is important to all who are interested in religious pluralism and democracy.
What is the one question you wish someone would ask you about your work and how would you respond?
First, here are the two questions that I am asked most often:
- Do you agree with the official Catholic teaching on contraception?
- Will Pope Francis officially change the Catholic teaching on contraception?
I understand why people ask me both these questions, but I also feel that they often miss the point of what I see as my project in this book. In regards to the first question, I did not intend this book to be a polemic for or against contraception. I believe others have made those arguments in sufficient detail. Rather, I used a feminist focus as a critical tool to unearth the nexus of sex, violence, and justice in the context of this issue and to illustrate how religious arguments are complex and fluid.
As for the second question, there are many others who are in a better position to answer that question, so I prefer to leave it to them! Although, I will add that when my Mom (a life-long Catholic) read the book, she said “send a copy to the Pope! He needs to read this.”
A more interesting, but also more uncomfortable and complex, question about my work would go something like this: What is your relationship as a religious ethicist to the tradition you study?
This question gets at the difficult matter of defining religious ethics as a discipline. I address a bit of that in my preface to the book when I describe my position vis-à-vis Catholicism as “an engaged onlooker who is deeply aware of the overlap of the personal, political, and social issues that inform my analysis.” It is that overlap that interests me because by noticing it, one can understand moral arguments more sufficiently and clearly.
This type of overlap is evident in the post-Humanae Vitae discourse about contraception. The HIV/AIDS epidemic and the development of “emergency contraception” are the two primary loci of contemporary internal Catholic debates about contraception. Interestingly, the argument against contraception in each of these cases is remarkably different and points to an ongoing tension in moral theorizing about contraception; that is, whether to see it as a sexual issue or as an issue of violence. A third and often less noticed theme, justice, has also framed both the historical and contemporary discourses of contraception. One can see this most obviously in the changing narratives about the morality of population control and development. Each of these issues, HIV/AIDS, emergency contraception (especially after rape), and population and development exemplify the overlap of personal, political, and social issues and remind us that the morality of contraception is about more than sex. It is also about violence and justice.
For me, one of the most provocative sections of the book is your discussion of Catholic teaching on emergency contraception. You note that Catholic teaching allows for emergency contraception in the case of rape—assuming conception has not taken place—because rape is not a sexual act. Apparently, the reasoning is that emergency contraception cannot frustrate the natural end of sexual intercourse because sexual intercourse has not taken place. Given that the traditional teaching is “act oriented,” this redefinition is surprising. I wonder if you would say a bit more about this case. Specifically, I am interested in the implications of this treatment of rape in relation to the issue of action and intention.
Yes, the traditional teaching has been act-oriented, but it has always been the case that acts can be specified—that is, they are classified as specific examples of a broader category. I was surprised and frankly puzzled by the “redefinition” of rape as not sexual intercourse. This seemed inconsistent with the very physical way that the Church has traditionally defined sexual acts. A further inconsistency is that the Church is comfortable specifying rape as distinct from sex, but not specifying the use of condoms as disease prevention as distinct from their use as contraceptives. In other words, in the latter case, the Church is not willing to engage in “redefinition.” Generally, the alternative to an act-oriented analysis is to focus on intention. But this is not what happens here. Otherwise, condoms would have to be acceptable if the intention is to protect oneself or another from a serious disease. Instead, the priority is placed on the circumstances of the act. As you may recall, the debates that engaged many moral theologians in the 1960s was very much about how to evaluate actions in terms of the object, the intention, and the circumstances of a particular act. The juxtaposition of emergency contraception and the use of condoms for HIV/AIDS infected persons can provide moral theologians with interesting ways to reconsider moral action.
Catholic moral theology is often divided into sexual ethics, on the one hand, and social justice, on the other. It seems to me that you want to claim that this division is deeply misleading. If I’m right about that, I’d be interested to hear you address why it is important to overcome this dichotomy.
Thanks for this question. It really captures so much of what I was trying to address in the book. Yes, I absolutely agree that this division is misleading. It is dangerous to view sexuality as a matter distinct from the common good. This reinforces the public/private dichotomy. Contraception, as the examples I use in the book show, is not always just about sex. This dichotomy is artificial, it doesn’t cohere with human experience, and it isolates sexuality in ways that enable the Church to apply a distinct methodology to this arena, something that Charles Curran and Christine Gudorf have drawn our attention to in their work.