An update from Pius XI

A few days ago, we posted Pius XII and the question of transsexuality, essentially calling for a ressourcement of the magisterium of Papa Pacelli in the light of a recent intervention by Christian Spaemann. A good friend of ours contacted us to remind us, gently, that there was more than one Pius to address this question. In Casti connubii, the towering Papa Ratti briefly touched upon the issue. We quote a longer passage, because Pius XI’s point comes at the very end of his argument about compulsory sterilization:

Finally, that pernicious practice must be condemned which closely touches upon the natural right of man to enter matrimony but affects also in a real way the welfare of the offspring. For there are some who over solicitous for the cause of eugenics, not only give salutary counsel for more certainly procuring the strength and health of the future child – which, indeed, is not contrary to right reason – but put eugenics before aims of a higher order, and by public authority wish to prevent from marrying all those whom, even though naturally fit for marriage, they consider, according to the norms and conjectures of their investigations, would, through hereditary transmission, bring forth defective offspring. And more, they wish to legislate to deprive these of that natural faculty by medical action despite their unwillingness; and this they do not propose as an infliction of grave punishment under the authority of the state for a crime committed, not to prevent future crimes by guilty persons, but against every right and good they wish the civil authority to arrogate to itself a power over a faculty which it never had and can never legitimately possess.

Those who act in this way are at fault in losing sight of the fact that the family is more sacred than the State and that men are begotten not for the earth and for time, but for Heaven and eternity. Although often these individuals are to be dissuaded from entering into matrimony, certainly it is wrong to brand men with the stigma of crime because they contract marriage, on the ground that, despite the fact that they are in every respect capable of matrimony, they will give birth only to defective children, even though they use all care and diligence.

Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects; therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm, or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason. St. Thomas teaches this when inquiring whether human judges for the sake of preventing future evils can inflict punishment, he admits that the power indeed exists as regards certain other forms of evil, but justly and properly denies it as regards the maiming of the body. “No one who is guiltless may be punished by a human tribunal either by flogging to death, or mutilation, or by beating.”

Furthermore, Christian doctrine establishes, and the light of human reason makes it most clear, that private individuals have no other power over the members of their bodies than that which pertains to their natural ends; and they are not free to destroy or mutilate their members, or in any other way render themselves unfit for their natural functions, except when no other provision can be made for the good of the whole body.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is, in capsule form, essentially what Pius XII said in his address to the Italian urologists. Thus, we see that Pius XI and Pius XII are in complete accord on this issue. However, we think it would probably do violence to Pius XI’s argument to prooftext or excerpt the last paragraph without acknowledging the context or the trajectory of the argument. That is, it appears that Pius is arguing that neither by compulsion nor persuasion may a person be sterilized prospectively. (He appears to leave the door open for retributive, penal sterilization or therapeutic sterilization, but he does not explore those possibilities.) In other words, no one has the authority to do this: not the state, not the individual. Does this change the bearing Casti connubii has on Spaemann’s argument? Maybe. But it is worth talking about in any event.

Now, none of this should be taken to imply an answer. Indeed, Pius XI and Pius XII merely get us to the point where we can formulate the question. Too often there is a willingness to approach these questions in an environment more or less sterile from a magisterial standpoint, and, certainly, there is no reason why natural reason may not be invoked in the first place. However, given the Church’s unique role as the authentic interpreter and guard of the natural law, it would be altogether wiser to begin where good and holy popes have left off.