Germain Grisez’s Contraception and the Natural Law at Fifty

This is the 50th anniversary of a remarkable book. And chances are you have never heard of it, much less read it. But it is one of the most important books in ethics/practical ethics of the second half of the 20th century. Moreover, it took great intellectual fortitude to write it because its author wrote during the climate of budding dissent in the Catholic Church. The book I speak of is moral theologian Germain Grisez’s Contraception and the Natural Law. Published by the now-defunct Bruce Publishing Co. in 1964 (The late moral theologian William E. May was an editor there at the time), the book of almost 250 pages was written in an incredibly short amount of time (about two months) and published before (the now Senior Judge) John T. Noonan’s more widely known and celebrated, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Harvard University Press, 1965), although it wouldn’t appear until early 1965. While Noonan would argue, in both the book and as a member of the Pontifical Birth Control Commission, for a change in the Catholic Church’s perennial teaching condemning contraception, Grisez stood firm amidst the winds of change in the early 1960s and developed a new and sounder argument against the practice.

The book itself is composed of eight chapters, an epilogue, and an appendix. Grisez would critique inadequate arguments against contraception in Chapter 2 (e.g., the “perverted faculty” argument) while also treating three understandings of morality in Chapter 3 (“situationism,” “conventional natural-law theory,” and his own theory of “practical principles”), before showing in Chapter 4 why contraception is always morally wrong (i.e., intrinsically evil). He would also respond, like a good philosopher, to various objections.

The lone wolf crying out against contraception

The lone wolf crying out against contraception

Grisez’s book is a thorough philosophical treatment of the issue. The central thesis it defends (in Ch. 4) is this: “For one who engages in sexual intercourse directly to will any positive deed by which conception is thought to be prevented, or even rendered less probable, is intrinsically and seriously immoral” (p. 12). Those were “fighting words” back then, as they are today.

In essence, Grisez’s Contraception would first refute ethical theories that would justify contraception based on the consequences of one’s actions, and then develop an argument against contraception that would demonstrate that the intrinsic evil of contraception was not to be found largely in the fact that contraception violated the physical integrity of the act, as some traditionalists held, but that it was an act directed against the “procreative good”.

In chapter 4, on p. 98 of his treatise, the 35-year-old Grisez expressed his new argument against contraception in syllogistic form:

Major: For one who has sexual intercourse to act in a way which presupposes an intention opposed to the procreative good is intrinsically immoral.
Minor: Contraception is an act – the prevention or lessening of the likelihood of conception by any positive deed directly willed for this purpose – of one who has sexual intercourse which presupposes an intention opposed to the procreative good.
Conclusion: Contraception is intrinsically immoral.

Grisez, now 85 years old, would rigorously refine both his argument against contraception and his ethical theory over the next 50 years and apply it to other moral issues (e.g., abortion, capital punishment, and nuclear deterrence). This theory, which is now often called “the new natural law theory” (I prefer to say “the basic human goods theory” of natural law), would influence countless other scholars such as moral and legal philosophers John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, Patrick Lee, and Robert P. George who would also become some of his earliest and closest collaborators. Grisez would also engage in the work of moral theology, beginning in the late 1970s while teaching at Mount Saint Mary’s University (Emmitsburg, MD), where he has emeritus status today. This work would bear fruit in the massive three volumes of The Way of the Lord Jesus. It too was a collaborative effort that was assisted by William E. May and many others (A forth volume was planned, but will not be completed).

Grisez sees his ethical theory as a free-standing account of the natural law, but one firmly rooted in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Whatever one’s view of the theory (I am mostly in the Grisez camp), one must be impressed and grateful for Grisez’s “lone wolf crying in the wilderness” witness against contraception then and now – none of which was or is fashionable in the culture or academia or even in the Church at times.

Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
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