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Radically Living the Catholic Faith: An Exclusive Interview with Dr. Janet Smith

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Marriage preparation, contraception and natural family planning should be top issues at the Synod on the Family, says Smith

VATICAN CITY — Marriage prep, natural family planning, and contraception should be at the top of the list at the Synod on the Family currently underway in the Vatican, says Dr. Janet Smith.

Yet “there’s no evidence in any of the documents from last year’s Extraordinary Synod” — or the working document meant to guide this year’s Synod discussions — “that they know anything about Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body,” she says.

Aleteia sat down with Janet Smith last week at the World Meeting of Families to discuss her unique perspective on the Synod, and how solving just one problem will make many of the problems Pope Francis wishes to address fall into place.

Dr. Janet Smith has held the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit since 2001. She is the author of Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and of the Right to Privacy, and the editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader. Smith speaks nationally and internationally on the Catholic teachings on sexuality and on bioethics and is serving a third term as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Family.

She is also the editor of Living the Truth in Love, Pastoral Approaches to Same-Sex Attraction, just released by Ignatius Press.

Dr. Smith, some  participants in last October’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family were surprised and dismayed that contraception did not receive much attention. They wanted to discuss its effects on marriage and the family and were quite upset that it wasn’t discussed more.

Yes. I am as well. I honestly find it heartbreaking. I did not think in my lifetime that we would have made the progress that we’ve made, with Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, with bishops who want Family Life offices. We’ve got unbelievable materials that various groups have put out.

Theology of the Body has grabbed people’s attention, and there’s no evidence in any of the documents from last year’s Extraordinary Synod that they know anything about it.

In the Instrumentum laboris, for instance, there’s nothing there that would suggest they know anything about the Theology of the Body, and there should be paragraphs and paragraphs about it. There’s nothing there to suggest that we’ve got material in zillions of different languages, and have to get it out there into marriage prep programs.

You think marriage prep is getting the short shrift?

Marriage prep would be such a high thing on my list for this Synod. That, and natural family planning and contraception. I might even put natural family planning and contraception first.  You solve that problem, and the number of problems that fall into place is astounding — all of the problems that the Holy Father wants to address.

If you go to any parish and look at the people who are living faithfully to the Church’s teaching, they’re the ones you can tap to do anything for the parish, help settle immigrants for instance, anything. Why? Because they’re so radically living out their faith.

In the large families that I know, they have vocations, their children are doing work with the homeless and in other ways. Why? Because they’ve come out of a very secure, faithful family household where their parent parents were self-sacrificing, self-denying, and the children pick it up. It’s incredible what happens in these families.

So my formula for reforming the Church is to reform the family. All of the things we want — people who do missionary work, etc. — come from good families.

Certainly we need to work on marriage prep for people who show up at the parish door. But I want to do marriage prep before people are engaged. That’s my new interest.

How would you do that?

I would love to get the teenagers and college students together and have sessions for them on: ‘If you want to get married, this is the way to structure your life to find a good spouse’.

I’ve had two couples that I’ve convinced to go to the priest to do marriage prep before they get engaged. The priests are thrilled, because they know they are not rushed. If you’ve already reserved the hall and bought the dress, you can’t do a proper examination.

You shouldn’t begin to look at ‘what marriage is all about’ when you’re engaged. But as marriage prep often currently stands, we’re doing that on the eve of the wedding. People don’t want to lose the money they put down on the hall. They don’t want to be embarrassed by telling everyone they’re breaking up. I had two couples break up by going through through marriage prep before engagement, and it saved them everything: embarrassment, money, and not marrying a person they shouldn’t have married.

Some who are involved in Catholic education on a diocesan level have even suggested that an RCIA course should be part of marriage prep.

Yes, perfect. Because today not only don’t people know anything about marriage, they also don’t know anything about their faith.

People do want their marriages to last, and there’s evidence that if you have genuine marriage prep, your marriage is going to last a lot longer.

Why do you think the issue of contraception and its effects on marriage and the family have not been spoken of more at the Synod, and what message would you send to the synod fathers?

I once dealt with a Baptist professor of chemistry at Rice University who  was teaching NFP at Omega Baptist Church in Houston, because he said the evidence is overwhelming that it saves marriages. He told me: “The people in our church are affected by divorce, so I looked into what will divorce-proof your marriage. We have sessions on divorce-proofing your marriage, for example date-night, etc.” But he said what really divorce-proofs your marriage is not contracepting, and using Natural Family Planning.

Of course, what people don’t understand is that it’s not just that. When you leave behind contraception and turn to Natural Family Planning, your understanding of your sexuality radically changes. It’s not just that it’s a different method, as though there were a chemical method and a natural method, and both achieve the same thing.

The natural method means you really come to love your procreative possibilities, though it’s inconvenient as far as your sex-life is concerned. But if you talk to your friends who contracept, they complain about far worse things than not being able to have sex whenever they want to. “He doesn’t understand me. He doesn’t love me. He uses pornography, etc.” Almost no NFP husbands use pornography.

A woman once told me that when she was a Protestant contracepting, she said the most notable thing was all of the women complaining about their husbands using porn. When she became Catholic and starting using NFP, she said it never came up.

Men who use NFP don’t believe in masturbation, they don’t believe in treating women as objects. And they are now focusing on that woman — their wife — knowing: “that’s the woman I need to have a relationship with.” Many of the women who contracept still feel like sex-objects. “He wants me for the sex,” they say.

And men sometimes don’t even know that’s what they’re doing. But when they go through natural family planning, they start looking at their wife with a whole new set of eyes. “She’s not just that body that’s available in the kitchen. She’s my wife. And she struggles with hormones, and kids, and babies. And my job is to help her with all of this.”

And so he lays down his life in self-giving. He lays down his life for this woman, instead of saying: “I’m busy with my job and I’m going to go home and have sex with this woman I have in the kitchen.” You hate to say it, but…

I had a priest who teaches men natural family planning that they would weep when they realized they had been treating their wives this way, and would say: “I never wanted to. I never wanted to, but obviously I’ve fallen into that because of the practices we’ve developed.”

We treat men so badly, as if they’re these monsters, and they’re not. They really do want something better but our culture pushes them.

Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.

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