National Catholic Register


Teaching by Reason and Revelation


November 9-15, 2008 Issue | Posted 11/4/08 at 4:19 PM


In last week’s issue of the Register, Janet Smith, who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, spoke about issues in this year’s elections and how a misguided sense of privacy has corrupted certain laws.

Smith, who is professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart, is a visiting scholar at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.

Her new book from Ignatius Press, The Right to Privacy, provides a critical examination of “the right to privacy” as used by the Supreme Court to justify actions that were once considered immoral and criminal.

Here is the second part of the interview, conducted by Register correspondent Nicole Callahan.

You hold the Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary and teach theology and philosophy. How do you unite the disciplines of philosophy and theology in your lectures and written work?

Especially in the modern world, people want arguments based on reason, not only revelation. As a student of both Aristotle and Thomas [Aquinas], I can help provide that. But my Ph.D. is actually in classical languages — my life has unfolded in ways I would not have expected. I’ve been pushed around by the Holy Spirit — that’s how I often describe it.

How did your academic background prepare you to write The Right to Privacy?

Knowing classical languages is a huge benefit for any study, as it forces you to look carefully at words and try to understand their deeper meanings. Through studying classical languages, I acquired a commitment to the idea that truth can be known and language can help you discover it.

In Evangelium Vitae [The Value and Inviolability of Human Life], Pope John Paul II explains why we have embraced a culture of death through abortion, assisted suicide, etc. He points out that our culture doesn’t really believe in truth; we think everything is a matter of opinion — we all think we have a right to make up our own understanding about reality. 

As I spoke and taught on life issues, I made connections between Supreme Court decisions about abortion, assisted suicide, contraception and homosexual unions because all of these decisions were based on an invented “right to privacy.” These court cases are a perfect demonstration of John Paul’s claims in Evangelium Vitae; namely, that the problem with the modern world is that we believe there is no such thing as truth. People have come to believe that subjective opinions should be our guide to reality and should govern our actions.

If you are committed to truth, you will soon discover that the embryo is a human being, homosexual acts are not in accord with nature [and] contraception is not in accord with the purposes of sexuality. If you want to live in the truth, there are certain actions that are not open to you anymore.

How is the right to privacy currently defined and enforced by the law and the American judiciary? 

The courts have a very hard time defining it. It basically has come to mean the freedom to be let alone, the freedom to do what I want when I want, the freedom to define my own concept of existence and meaning — these are actual phrases that appear in Supreme Court decisions citing the right to privacy. It’s an amorphous and elastic right being used to advance a very liberal agenda by the courts.

Historically speaking, the right to privacy was coherent and well-defined. It meant that people couldn’t use our image or words, record our conversations, publish our diaries — without informing us first. In other words, they couldn’t take our “property,” which was meant to be private, and make it public without our permission. 

But when challenges to contraception arose, the court was casting about for justification to overturn those laws. So they extended the right to privacy to protect the bedroom, saying it’s a private place. Of course the bedroom is a private place, although there are certain things you can’t do in the bedroom: A man can’t rape his wife in the bedroom. It is very curious to use the claim that the bedroom is a private place to justify overturning laws legitimately passed against contraception.

Then Roe v. Wade decided that the womb is a private place, a woman’s body is her own private property, with which a woman can do whatever she wants. The problem is, of course, that it is not just her body; in the case of pregnancy, there is a whole other body and that body is offered no protection under our laws.

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court said that we all had the right to define for ourselves when we think human life begins: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and the mystery of human life.” That is, human life doesn’t begin at conception, three months, or birth; it begins at all and any of these times, depending on what I personally believe.  In Casey, the [Supreme] Court effectively enshrined subjectivity in the law and gave it a place that it has never had in any legal system. The Court claims each person can decide the meaning of reality without reference to objective fact. The right to privacy has become a trump card, a wild card, which can be used for anything people want to justify or permit.

Nicole Callahan is based

in Durham, North Carolina.