Aline H. KALBIAN. Sex, Violence, and Justice: Contraception and the Catholic Church. Washington: Georgetown University Press. pp. 21. $29.95 pb.  ISBN 978-1-62616-048-4. Reviewed by Dolores L. CHRISTIE, John Carroll University, University Heights, OH 44118


What, contraception again? With the current standoff on whether employers under the Affordable Care Act should be required to pay for contraceptive coverage, this book is more than timely. The author does not provide answers to the moral questions, but offers instead a comprehensive treatment of both its history and ongoing changing context. A careful examination of documents makes clear that the moral species of contraception cannot be defined entirely by an authoritative Catholic conclusion (contraception is always wrong because natural law prohibits interfering with the joining of sperm and egg). Rather it is necessary to examine what she calls “overlapping justifications,” development in thinking influenced by historical changes, and preoccupations that color conclusions and therefore teaching at a particular point in time. Even the theological conclusions and exceptions to teaching are somewhat fluid, likewise shaped in real time by many factors.

The first part of the book offers a careful history of official and theological Catholic positions on contraception, relying heavily on John Noonan’s seminal 1966 book, Contraception:A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists. Kalbian documents not only the dramatic shift since Vatican II and the encyclical, Humanae vitae, but considers lesser known official documents that hint at departure from commonly known Catholic teaching. She provides an exquisite analysis of classic and often controversial thinking from Augustine and Aquinas to Germain Grisez and the proportionalists. Her parsing of Grisez is much more understandable than his arguments themselves. She is interested in not only the history but the rationale behind precipitated conclusions of different thinkers.

The remainder of the work situates contraception in broader categories. Chapter 3 treats the use of condoms, consistently condemned in official teaching. Some non-papal official teaching suggests that their use might be tolerated in the light of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, particularly in Africa. This argument is invoked in the 1987 statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. Later discussion shifts focus from toleration to therelative ineffectiveness of condoms to prevent pregnancy. This line of reasoning preserves official condemnation of their use with a shift from deontological to consequentialist process.

In Chapter 4 the author examines emergency contraception in the case of violence against women, in particular nuns in danger of rape. Justification moves from affirming the static principle to changing the definition of what constitutes the sexual act. Rape is not defined as a sexual act but rather as one of violence: aggression against an innocent. Therefore a nun could preemptively use measures to avoid pregnancy. With the development of various “morning after” medications new questions arise. Can a woman take medication after a violent attack to prevent a pregnancy, particularly if the intervention might be abortive?

Chapter 5 enters a broader arena. Where does contraception fit in questions of population expansion, economic progress, and the common good? How does contraception interact with the promotion of justice? Do people remain in poverty because they choose to produce too many children, or are children the solution to poverty? A recent article in the New York Times suggests that the baby boom was responsible for an extended period of economic growth in the United States, and that their retirement has contributed to our current slow growth. While conflicting data exists regarding the effect of a higher birth rate on poverty and progress, the question is important.

For some moral theologians the book’s subject matter will seem all too familiar. Yet Kalbian impresses even the reader familiar with the arguments with her careful analysis of the question. She has an incredible talent for holding onto the fundamental moral matrix of Catholic moral thinking: the traditional act, end, intention formula. At the same time she connects these elements to real history and context and to the particular methodological process at play. She demonstrates how values of justice, human dignity, women’s rights, family integrity and the common good play out in the contraception debate.  While such a discussion can become a cacophony of moral musicians, each playing independently his or her own instrument, Kalbian functions as the skilled conductor, mindful of the richness of each part and directing each to play in harmony. Such skill is rarely found in scholarly work.

Although as dense as a dissertation, the book is surprisingly clear and readable. Kalbian summarizes her points frequently and skillfully connects her multifaceted research. She leaves conclusions to the reader. This book is not only a useful update of the development of Catholic teaching, it connects that teaching to emergent contemporary conundra. A valuable resource for serious study by scholars and a must read in pertinent graduate courses, it might be an apt Christmas gift for bishops and members of Congress. For those who wish to pursue the subject in greater depth, the author provides abundant footnotes and bibliography.