‘You do the Truth in Love’
An Interview with Monsignor William Smith, STD
From the Sooner Catholic , June 4, 1995
By John Mallon
Prefatory Note, January 2009: We have lost yet another great friend and great soldier in the battle for orthodoxy. The last of what I thought of as the great triumvirate of New York Monsignors: George Kelly, Michael Wrenn, and now William Smith. I was never an “official” member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, of which they were among the founders, but I was always welcomed with warmth and affection at the few meetings I was blessed to attend, especially by these priests—true priests in every sense.
In honor of Monsignor Smith I present below an in-depth interview I conducted with him for the Sooner Catholic in 1995, of which I was then editor. Looking the text over, now, almost 14 years later, it is sad to see that the interview is as relevant today as it was then, if not more so.
It was for interviews such as these that I was kicked to the street from my job by dissident clergy, landing flat on my face. In the following years I took heart that Msgr. Smith was on our side. In phone calls with Monsignor Kelly, he, as a perceptive, compassionate, manly priest, would sense my discouragement and exclaim, “don’t be discouraged, we need you! We need you!”
Once when I called Msgr. Wrenn, he interrupted me saying, “I’ll send you $500!” Startled—because I didn’t call to ask for any money—though I need it badly—I said “Really?” and he said, “Well, we’ve got it! What’s your address?”
I also remember sitting at a table swapping war stories into the night after a Fellowship meeting with Fr. Joe Fessio, Jim and Helen Hitchcock, a then-obscure bishop from Washington state named Francis George, and Msgr. Smith. When someone related yet another egregious insult to the Truth, I noticed the fierce disgust and rage on Msgr. Smith’s face. I was impressed and comforted.
I could go on. I loved these three men, and now the last of them is gone from our sight. May they rest in peace and assist us now from on high. Imagine the welcome they received! Well done, good and faithful servants.
January 25, 2009, Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
(Monsignor William Smith, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is one of the nation's leading experts in the field of bioethics. He is a professor of moral theology at Dunwoodie Seminary in New York, and was in Oklahoma City to speak at a conference on Natural Family Planning co-sponsored by Mercy Hospital and the Archdiocesan Office of Family Life.)
John Mallon: Monsignor Smith, today Professor Janet Smith described very clearly and convincingly the ill effects of artificial birth control. She went through a whole litany—that it was bad for women’s physical and emotional health bad for their self-esteem, hard on them spiritually, hard on marriages, and yet even now, almost 27 years after Humanae Vitae, when you try to bring the message of Humanae Vitae you can be met with hostility, even in parishes. Even though the proof is there and the Church has been trying to tell this beautiful and loving message, it is met with a great deal of resistance and even hostility. Could you offer some thoughts on why this still occurs even at this stage?
Msgr. William Smith: Well, part of what you say is true. Sometimes the message and the consequences of either accepting or not accepting that message are not clear to people. I think enough data on artificial birth control has accumulated and certain results are in, and most of those results are bad. In effect, artificial contraception separates actions from their consequences. It has been proclaimed as a liberating experience, but oddly enough the only ones who have become truly liberated are promiscuous males. They can separate themselves from their activity. The chemical risks and results all fall unevenly on women, and yet it’s still proclaimed by some as a liberation.
Why is it resisted? Because that particular truth—or set of truths—is not like a truth in arithmetic or a truth in spelling. If you misspell a word you can look it up in the dictionary and either add or subtract the letter that doesn’t belong there—with no great loss of face. If you make a mistake in your checkbook you can go back and correct the arithmetic.
This truth has to do with a change in life and perhaps in lifestyle and in living. Sometimes the logic of the argument will be there, but if the conclusion is that I have to stop living one way and start living another, sometimes that will be met either with incomprehension or as unwelcome—or with hostility. Not really because of what is said, or how it is said, although that is possible, but because the bottom line is that this is not just an abstraction, this is a truth that’s meant to be lived.
As it says in Veritatis Splendor, “a truth is not fully received until it is put into practice.” I think some people just frankly resist trying because they know they would have to change how they’re living. I think that heightens resistance at least on the part of some. I couldn’t answer for all. But I think sometimes we think its like a blackboard truth, but it’s not. It is true. But when it involves me living a different kind of way that involves a real conversion.
But that’s true of the entire faith. That’s true of the whole message of Christ and the Church, that somewhere along the line we have to stop living one way and live a different way.
It would be just as true of bank robbers. However, I think in the minds of many people human sexuality is an entirely private affair dominated by private choices. Their presenting reason is, “look I’m not hurting anyone else, I’m not bothering anyone else.” Whether or not that is true is something else. And because it’s privatized I think some people have just taken it off the screen, taken it off their personal menu and say, “this is for me to decide and I’ll decide it.” Well, logically, it would be in the same category as any other form of living which sometimes involves a change of life or change of living.
Now the practice of virtue is gradual and I think the ingrained nature of habit, or a habitual way of doing, and a habitual way of thinking, is not overturned simply with a snap of the fingers. It takes a certain amount of openness and deliberation and change and that’s harder than just going down a one-way street.
And it’s not just that the negative side of artificial birth control is such a difficult message to put across, but the positive part that Natural Family Planning (NFP) is not only healthier in every way, but much more effective, seems to be awfully hard to communicate as well. Could you comment on that?
Pharmaceutical companies are not going to make more money if natural methods are realized and practiced. To some extent physicians might look at it the same way, to some degree. But other positive benefits like communication, mutual sharing, progress in a whole range of virtues, and in cooperative mutual decision making are not examined. I think in many cases couples just make a policy decision.
For example, a guy says to his wife, “look, we gotta do something,” and it turns out that most of the burdens fall on women; any chemical risks and medical problems fall on the women. And that’s just kind of widely accepted, whereas with NFP things are done together, mutually, with talking, and communication. All of these are positive things.
No marriage has ever suffered by good communication about important things about how we live our life together. It sounds strange but you sometimes hear people say they really haven’t communicated on this subject in years.
I have a lot of young married friends who attempt to live the Church’s teachings and they tell me stories that I find shocking. For example—and this happens even at their parish—they will be there with two or three of their children and someone will point at the youngest and say, “That’ll be your last, right?” If it were the other way around and that couple said, “Don’t you know birth control is wrong?” they would be viewed as “judgemental,” and rude. But it seems to be acceptable to criticize those who want a large family. How can this be dealt with?
Part of that is societal. Of course, you have to build up your own interior life and the practice of virtue and you bring that little shelter with you wherever you go. Sometimes attitudes are communicated—even through families— that are wrong attitudes. The main attitude is simply that fertility is now considered a disease against which we need industrial strength protection. Life is not seen either as a gift or as a blessing.
I’m 55 years old. When I was a teenager, if you met a woman who was obviously pregnant, late in pregnancy, the polite question was “When is the blessed event?” But it was called the blessed event, and no one said that with a wise guy smirk. Now if you hold that attitude you’re liable to hear something like “Don’t you know there are means available?” Or, “What is this, a contraceptive failure?” So fertility is viewed as something we have to be defended against rather than seen as a gift to be handled properly.
So some of those attitudes are conveyed in advertising. For almost 15 or 20 years, except when they’re trying to show how big a van is, normally you never have more than two children in the picture. Teenagers are asked to read Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb in high school. The informed person knows almost everything in that has been disproved, but they’ve been led to believe that if one more child is born the world is going to go tilt, which is simply not true.
So we went from an attitude of blessing and gift to this societal propaganda, and to some extent this has been absorbed in our own Catholic circles—pregnancy as a disease and burden instead of a gift and blessing. And I’m not sure how you change that. I think we’re still called to live within the society, because we carry both the burdens and benefits of our society. But I don’t think the organs of communication are about to change their negative messages. But at least we should be aware of how much we have absorbed these very negative attitudes toward human life.
How do you think we Catholics, whether we’re priest, religious, single, celibate, married, who believe as the Church believes, how can we begin to lovingly witness against this mentality, which the Holy Father has called the Culture of Death?
The Holy Father has just released the encyclical Evangelium Vitae which quite literally means, the gospel, the good news of life, or the gospel of life. This pope is really different. There was a time when encyclicals operated on such an abstract level of principal, that you almost had to be a trained theologian to figure out what the real point of it was. Not so, not this one.
What the Holy Father describes as the Culture of Death is a profound negativity involving three realities. One is particularly with abortion or euthanasia. The offense is within the family. And whether someone is married or not, when there is a death of a child, there is a mother and a father—so it is within the family. The family is an important value, but this is where the assault takes place.
Next, under the umbrella—or the smoke screen—of rights, this killing is proclaimed as a right—it is proclaimed as an exercise of freedom, and, thirdly, the state comes to sanction it, and in some cases subsidize it. These are very important things: family, as here perverted; human rights—a noble goal, a noble norm—but here perverted: and the state, or what we would call the Common Good, which is important. The family and the state, in the name of human rights, are backing and sanctioning the wrong things.
This is what the Pope outlines—and he says it at least a half-dozen times, in Evangelium Vitae. This is why it is important because it is not just one or two fringe groups. In all of human history there has always been some screwball group out there on the fringe, worshipping some strange thing. The Aztecs had their human sacrifice, and someone else was collecting tattoos, there has always been some of that, but when the assault is on the family, when the declaration of rights does not defend but becomes the cloak of cover to attack human life, and when the state not only authorizes it but subsidizes it, that really is the beginning of a culture of death.
These three profoundly important realities, family, human rights, and the state itself, are working against what they should be working for. As you say, we have to witness it first of all, we have to recognize what is going on, and then do whatever you can with whatever you got, for as long as you are able. Now sometimes it is not only speaking the truth, but living the truth personally, and sometimes it is just being able to unpack some of the profoundly negative messages that overlay all this, because it is a Culture of Death which is profoundly at odds—not with just the gospel of life, but with God. Because if God is the Author of love and life, this is ultimately against God.
It is so profound that it really seems demonic. It is hard to avoid that when you think of how abortion and euthanasia have come to be defended as goods, and people defending life being treated as criminals—there is an inversion here.
There is an inversion, which indeed is probably the correct definition of a perversion, and certainly the truth is being perverted. The devil doesn’t have to work overtime when other people seem to be volunteering to carry out that agenda. Our Lord did describe the devil as the father of lies, that lying was his native speech and there is no truth in him. However, some people just drift into this, accepting it.
I use the comparison that there is a difference between jumping into a lake where you immediately get wet and you know it—and you had better come back to the surface or you will drown. It is also possible to stay out in a gray moral mist—it’s not raining too hard, it’s hardly raining at all, and this gray moral mist occurs when people say, “there’s no black, there’s no white, nothing is clear, it is all gray,” but if you stay out in the moral mist long enough, you will get just as wet as when you jump into the lake and you won’t even have the privilege of knowing when you got sopping wet.
So there are some things you have to brush off each day and that’s what happens in a culture of death when the messages are negative or truth is perverted. In fact the pope said in Dominum Et Vivificantum, the encyclical on the Holy Spirit, that the first result of an upright conscience is to call good and evil by their proper name. Sometimes that takes courage in a society where the assault is really within the family circle, where it is wrapped in the language of rights, and what we are talking about is a wrong, not a right, not only sanctioned by the state but subsidized. Someone must have the courage to address that.
You mentioned something today about verbal engineering which precedes social engineering.
That’s what I call Smith’s rule. I say Smith because it sounds more American that way. I say all social engineering is preceded by verbal engineering. There are many things that simply cannot be brought about if it is clear to everyone what is going on. I don’t think anyone got anywhere advancing the abortion ethic by saying “let’s kill the kids.” I don’t think anyone will get anywhere on euthanasia by saying “let’s get rid of the old folks.”
First you have to change the language, change the terminology. You have to separate the notion of killing from the notion of abortion and you have to separate the notion of killing from the notion of euthanasia. And this has been done. For instance, there is a famous editorial in California Medicine back in September 1970 that was an editorial from doctors to doctors and it said very, very clearly that we know exactly when human life begins and it is ludicrous to pretend otherwise, but, since there is still so much of the western ethic—by which they meant the Judeo-Christian ethic—that puts real value on individual life. Since most people consider killing socially abhorrent, we must separate the notion of killing from the notion of abortion.
And they did. The new words appeared, the verbal engineering: “terminate a pregnancy,” “remove the product of conception” “retroactive contraception,” call it anything but don’t call it killing. Look at the word “choice,” the word is choice and they even call others “anti-choice.” By using that terminology you do not mention what we are really talking about.
What we are talking about is not choice in general—everybody is in favor of choice in general—but this is a choice to kill. Oh, that’s different. Similarly with euthanasia, often now called “the right to die,” or the “dying with dignity,” or “assisting the right to suicide.” It is all enveloped in the language of rights. So you have your verbal engineering going on here.
You mentioned the dictionary.
Look at the dictionary. If it published before l980, Webster’s, the big one, not abridged, the old one, the first definition of euthanasia was euthanasia—mercy killing, Second, method of death advocated by some for incurables. Now what has happened of course in your second version there? In the first, the old dictionary said very clearly euthanasia—mercy killing. It used the word killing. When it got recycled in the 1979 edition, advocated by some, inducing death, painless death, advocated by some for incurables.
Of course, the word Killing has disappeared. There goes your engineering. You are engineering the word “killing” out and bringing in the word “right.” Of course there is no right to die. The fact that you are born guarantees you are going to die. No congress can give you extra rights, not even the president. But that is what I mean by social engineering.
It usually doesn’t come by making blunt statements that are obvious, that people consider abhorrent, what happens is that you get very negative things wrapped in very pretty paper, and that helps change the focus of discussion; because before the unthinkable gets thought, and the undoable gets done, the unspeakable must be spoken of in a different way. And that’s how it happens. The way we think about things is the way we speak about things which eventually affects the way we do things.
Thoughts are things, and words represent things.
It’s almost unAmerican to say it, but ideas have consequences, they really do, and what is even more unAmerican is some ideas are better than others. And the idea that killing the unwanted, whether it is the unborn or the long born, that’s a bad idea, and it has very bad consequences, not only for the individuals who obviously suffer the loss of life—those of us who are fewer than 9 months old, or 9 years, or 90 years—but also with euthanasia you have obviously have the perversion of the medical profession. And this has wicked consequences for our society.
Always listen to the words. When you hear terminology, such that it’s not exactly clear what someone is talking about, we should all have the guts to say “just what is it you are talking about?” I don’t mean if it’s something to do with rocket science, I’m sure rocket scientists have appropriate questions there, I don’t. But when we are talking about killing an innocent or defenseless person, don’t let anyone get away with language that sounds different but is a trick. Because it is a deceit, and since the tactic worked so well with abortion, I believe it is consciously being re-employed with euthanasia.
So, then, artificial birth control is but one facet of a whole larger picture?
Long ago Gilbert Chesterton said the whole ballgame was lost by using the word “birth control.” He had an article written somewhere in 1922 where he said “imagine if we had called it ‘life prevention’.” First of all, birth control could mean many things. Someone could control the use of their sexuality by abstinence. Normally we take it as shorthand for artificial birth control, but the word “control” connotes planned choice as being tremendously responsible. Now there is another sense of the word control which means a control freak, someone who has to control everything. But that’s another problem.
It sounds like playing God.
It could be, and of course it is in a certain sense, but then “birth control” is much more acceptable than saying “life prevention.” If we put it up front, the next question might be “why are we preventing life from living?” I may be a little bit fanatic about the language but I try to really pay careful attention—not only to what people say but how they say it, because often English has a double vocabulary, we have twice as many words as any other language. It’s highly nuanced. And in our country if you are good with words you can get away with murder.
Simply put, the culture of death is by definition the very opposite of the Gospel of Life, because the Gospel of Christ said, “greater love hath no man than he who lays down his life for his friends” and “I have come so that you may have life and have it abundantly.” But the so-called culture of death says you must lay down your life for me, or I must lay down your life for me, in a sense, so there is that inversion again.
It’s the classic problem with the euthanasia problem. With abortion, the unborn have no choice in the matter. But every scheme that anyone has ever worked out supposedly is for voluntary euthanasia. There is no fine line between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia, as we are now finding out in spades in the Netherlands.
Fifteen percent, maybe seventeen percent, of the so-called mercy killings in the Netherlands—some are now with dying patients, but some are just mentally depressed people, problems that admit of solution, handicapped newborns—obviously this is involuntary, and again I think it was Chesterton’s remark that it always starts out, allegedly, with people who are a nuisance to themselves but it always ends up with those who are nuisance to others. And it is becoming highly problematical if you become a nuisance to others who are calling the shots.
We started out talking about artificial contraception, but it seems that we inevitably moved to abortion and euthanasia, so is it all one big ball of wax, one big slippery slope?
Well if you put enough wax on any slope I guess it will be slippery. It is a web, lets see it as a web, because in some cases you have the sources of life, which would be fertility. The permanent assault on that would be sterilization, on the other hand you would have the transmission of human life, there the assault is contraception, then, of course you have life itself, and the assault is either abortion or euthanasia.
They may not all be the same things, although direct abortion and direct euthanasia really are morally the same thing, they are a species of murder, but they are connected, and they are interconnected.
We live in a culture that is, of course, what Evangelium Vitae is describing. It is startling, it’s clearly a picture of the society you and I know, and it is amazing that it is the developed and wealthy countries that are so bound and determined to advance abortion as a right; and similarly, euthanasia as a right. These notions have not come from the poor. They will be done in the name of the poor, as if making progress for the poor, but again, they will ultimately be aimed at the people who are a nuisance to others, ultimately a nuisance to us, or the Ford Foundation or the World Monetary Fund or whatever, someone who is a nuisance to someone. But oddly it comes not from the so called “have-nots,” it comes from the “haves.”
There are connections and interconnections in the whole life-death ethic. In a sense is not a surprise because this is the only thing that we really say is truly sacred: the gift of human life and we argue that this is true for everyone: the biggest and the smallest, the smartest and the dumbest, the youngest and the oldest.
Somewhere underneath each one of those disguises of age, or illness, poverty, or affluence, is another person just like you and me made in the image and likeness of God. That sameness is probably the only thing we truly share, all of us equally—no one has more, no one has less. You can’t be a “little less” human or a “little more” human. We only come in one kind, and we all come in that one kind. That is the image we’re made in.
When Jesus asked the trick question in the Gospel of Luke, about the temple tax, he asked one of his followers to show him one of those coins, “who’s image is on that coin?” “Caesar’s.” “Well you give to Caesar what’s Caesars, but to God, you give to God what's God’s.” Every human person is made in the image and likeness of God, therefore we give that to God; Caesar has no claim there. If you had a sonogram that could take a picture of your soul—which it can’t—it would not say on it “Made in the USA” or say “Made in Taiwan.” If you had such a machine, and you don’t, it would say “Made in the image and likeness of God” and I am afraid it is that for which we have lost respect. There are differences but it is all connected.
So this is nothing new. You can exchange the terms Gospel of Life vs. Culture of Death for Kingdom of God vs. Kingdom of Darkness. It is the age old battle of good and evil.
In Saint John’s Gospel, he puts light and life together. It is clear in these Sundays after Easter. During Mass we light that Paschal candle and we truly believe that the Risen Jesus is the light of this world. You walk toward that light and whatever shadow there is will be behind you. Turn your back on that light and walk away from the light of this world, you make your own shadows. You have that intriguing passage in John 3, where people prefer the darkness to the light.
The first time I read that when I was a youngster, I said nobody prefers darkness to light. Oh, yes they do. Why? So their evil deeds may not be seen. It’s like when you catch a kid with his hand in the refrigerator, the lights go on. Or in Abscam in Washington some years ago when they had guys dressed up with towels on their heads to be Sheiks or something, some congressmen was bragging “I could do this,” or “I could break that law.” Do you think if all the lights were on and television cameras were there, they would say such things? No, but we get a little bit addicted to gray as we move away from the light. So then it follows when Jesus says “but he who does the truth comes to the light.”
So it comes back to the gospel.
Always. It’s true.
To bring this all together, what advice do you have for the day-in-and-day-out parish priest who has to communicate the gospel to his people, yet he knows people in his parish are contracepting, and knows that they are basically good, nice people, but they may have this blind spot. He does not want to alienate them, or drive them out the door, but he loves them enough to want them to know the truth. He is caught in a dilemma. What do you say to him?
Let’s figure out where our real dilemmas are.
Priests are bachelors. Priests like to be liked. Everyone likes to be liked. But we also have to develop a liking for the truth. Now if you look in St. John’s Gospel in the eighth chapter, that unfortunate but indicative scene of the woman taken in adultery. At the end of that passage Jesus says, “look lady, I don’t condemn you,” so there is a call to compassion, he does not condemn her, but finish the sentence, “don’t do this anymore,” there is a call to conversion, and we have to do that and we have to do it together.
If you are all compassion with no conversion, that’s fluff. But if you are all conversion with no compassion, that might we like sandpaper. St. Paul says the same thing in Ephesians: to do the truth in love. And you have to put the two together.
You can do the truth and come across like flint steel, without love. And then, of course, you can be all love without the truth and that can be like mush. But you want to put the two of them together. The pope has done us a great favor and priests a great favor by taking that whole encyclical on the Gospel of Life, every blessed section in that encyclical is preceded by a citation of Holy Scripture which helps to unfold and connect that reflected method, which doesn’t involve screening, but it is obviously the fruit of reflective prayer. I think it is a good way to preach. It is biblically inspired and each priest or preacher has to find the ways and the words in the examples that will make sense. But always, the true Christian call is a call both to compassion and a call to conversion, and however you do it you want to do the truth in love.
It should not involve compromise, it always involves a little reflective prayer and if someone states a truth and they do the truth in love, I don’t know that they will run into too much flack. Because if they do, what happens is that people are really arguing with the truth, which is a different problem. There may be dilemmas, there may also be the need to point out that there is a difference between the law of gradualness and a gradualness of law and the people learn to grow as nature goes, slowly, but we grow in virtue.
But if we are to be ministers of the gospel, and witnesses of the gospel, then we have to preach the gospel, and the gospel is both the call to conversion and the call to compassion. And the same revealed word of God insists—it is not an option, it is an obligation—that we do the truth in love. People are adults and they have to live with that. Most of us can be funny every now and then, some people can be wizards at reviewing movies, some people can critique editorials, but that’s not what we are ordained for, we are ordained to live the gospel and to preach the gospel, and it is up to each one of us in every setting, every assignment, to find the right words and the right examples to take that message which is true for all of us and put it into terms that the community your preaching to, and living with, can say yes to. Whether that persuades them or not, that’s up to them, but if you are to fulfill your ministry, then you do the truth in love.
© 1995, 2009 by John Mallon