The Corner

Infertility and Incomprehension at Slate

I would like to think that if I ever wrote an article criticizing a religious body’s teaching on a subject, I would try to find out what that teaching actually is first. No such compulsion seems to have been deeply felt by Slate writers Joel Baden and Candida Moss, who attack Catholic teachings on the ethics of fertility treatments without showing the slightest interest in understanding them.

The Church opposes in vitro fertilization both because it almost always involves the destruction of human embryos and because it always, in the Church’s view, threatens to reduce human lives to the status of “products” rather than “gifts.” Baden and Moss quote Catholic officials saying that “[t]he Church promotes treatment of infertility through means that respect the right to life,” but then add this scornful gloss: “[T]hat’s the Catholic Church saying that it’s OK for women to chart their menstrual cycles.” No, it isn’t. It’s the Church saying that it’s okay to use a variety of treatments, including hormonal ones. You can agree or disagree with the distinctions the Church makes, but you shouldn’t misrepresent them.

The authors are also utterly ignorant of what “giving scandal” means in Catholic parlance. When a sinful activity is additionally objectionable because of “scandal,” it is because it is not only wrong in itself but spreads confusion about Church teaching. The authors seem to think that “scandal” is being used in a different sense, and Catholic priests who talk about it are merely trying to protect the reputation of clerics.

Probably the biggest doozy in the article is this sentence: “Though not often expressed, the default position of the church is that childlessness is an intentionally chosen state, and a sinful one at that.” Baden and Moss then claim that Pope Francis expressed this view in a June sermon. The link they provide offers no support for this contention. The pope said that married couples should not choose childlessness. He neither said nor implied that childlessness is always or usually a choice. It is baffling that Baden and Moss treat these obviously distinct propositions as if they were equivalent.

Baden and Moss continue: “Francis’s softly worded caveat about those for whom ‘children do not arrive’ makes no difference unless infertile couples out themselves to everyone they encounter.” I am sure that there are Catholics, even Catholic priests, who assume that the childless couples in their parishes have rejected Church teaching, and that this attitude can cause these couples emotional pain. It’s something pastors should address. But there is no “default position” of the Church that underwrites those attitudes.

The authors just can’t let go of their mistake. “But what happens when, despite all the faith one can muster, one remains infertile? What does this say about a person’s worth within a community that explicitly describes childbearing as a duty?” Catholicism does not “explicitly” or even implicitly describe childbearing as a duty for all couples, which is why the authors never offer any evidence for this repeated contention of theirs.

“It is unclear,” Baden and Moss write, whether the Catholic Church grasps “the specifics of modern infertility.” Such condescension is especially inappropriate coming from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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