WASHINGTON — Susan Selner-Wright was a “mouthy” 19-year-old student at the University of Notre Dame in 1979 when she first encountered Janet Smith.
Father Hans Kung, a leading dissident theologian, had been invited to speak at Notre Dame, and Smith, a popular and feisty junior professor in the university’s Program of Liberal Studies, had publicly protested the theologian’s appearance on campus.
Selner-Wright was among a group of students who were “intrigued” by the young professor’s decision to picket the event. But when she heard that Smith had not attended the event, the younger woman hotly challenged that decision to her face.
“After I got back in my dorm room, the phone rang. A voice said, ‘This is professor Smith.’ I thought she was going to chew me out,” Selner-Wright told the Register. “Instead, she asked me to lunch.”
Selner-Wright now holds the Archbishop Charles Chaput Chair of Philosophy at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. And as she looks back on that fateful encounter almost 40 years ago, it looms as “one of the most decisive events of my life.”
Smith taught her that “you don’t just write people off; you cultivate them.” And like many of Smith’s friends from her nine years at Notre Dame, Selner-Wright came to admire a woman who was not only an unapologetic defender of Pope Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) in hostile academic circles, but the hands-on founder of the Women’s Care Center, a pregnancy-resource program that eventually spawned a network of centers around the country.
“She showed me that the Church’s teachings … come out of the loving heart of the Church,” said Selner-Wright. “So many people my age didn’t have this.”
As the Church prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae July 25, this story underscores Janet Smith’s multifaceted role as a leading exponent of Paul VI’s encyclical in the English-speaking world.
“I am grateful that Christ has led Dr. Smith to devote so much of her life and scholarship to this particular work,” said Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, where Smith has served as a professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary for the past 16 years.
“The academic rigor and seriousness of her efforts have provided many with solid and compelling answers to the challenges frequently raised against the teachings of Blessed Paul VI,” said Archbishop Vigneron in a statement for the Register.
The Detroit archbishop praised her role as a teacher and mentor to future priests, even as Smith takes part in the tumultuous theological debate sparked by Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).
The papal document has led to public disputes among bishops over whether divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics can receive Communion.
And during an April 4-6 symposium at The Catholic University of America, Smith warned that some theologians were using the papal document to change the Church’s traditional approach to the formation of conscience, including the criteria to be used in a pastoral discernment, and said this trend posed “new challenges to Humanae Vitae.”
Punctuated with anecdotes designed to clarify the best way for pastors and spiritual directors to accompany individuals in difficult situations, Smith’s address was academic, but also practical — the fruit of her experience founding a pregnancy-resource center and counseling students in her care.
“As a young professor at Notre Dame, Janet would frequently go to the abortion clinic to pray” and was “troubled” by the lack of support for women who wanted to protect the life of their children, Ann Manion, president of the Women’s Care Center’s governing board, told the Register.
Smith held a telethon in 1984 and raised $30,000 to hire a professional counselor, who worked in space donated by a hospital in South Bend, Indiana. Today, the Women’s Care Center oversees 29 centers in 10 states.
Indeed, the brutal reality of legal abortion stirred Smith’s respect for Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical.
“After years of working in the pro-life movement, I came to see that it was because people were having sex with no intention of being parents to any child born, that there were so many abortions,” Smith told the Register.
“I believed it was the ready access to contraception and that way of thinking that contraception made possible (i.e., sex and pregnancy have little relationship) that led people to have sex irresponsibly.”
“I had already studied Humanae Vitae carefully and came to conclude it was true. I had many married friends who used natural family planning, and their marriages seemed manifestly happier than those who were contracepting,” she added. “I decided my contribution to the pro-life movement would be to defend the Church’s teaching on contraception.”
Smith was born in Warren, Pennsylvania, and raised in a Catholic working-class family with Portuguese and Slovakian roots.
She graduated from Grinnell College, pursued graduate studies at the University of North Carolina and completed her doctoral work at the University of Toronto. She was then hired as a junior professor at Notre Dame’s interdisciplinary Program of Liberal Studies, anchored in the Great Books of the Western Canon.
Though popular with students, Smith soon made waves as she began to speak and write about life issues.
“Janet was one of the finest persons and sharpest cookies I ever met at Notre Dame,” Alfred Freddoso, a retired professor of philosophy at the South Bend university, told the Register, “and she was a thorn in the side of the progressive Catholics of that era.”
In Freddoso’s view, the sexual revolution had prompted progressive Catholics at the university to campaign for changes in Catholic sexual ethics. Smith challenged this trend, and thus became “an embarrassment.”
The problem came to a head when Smith was coming up for tenure. Her friends urged her to put off her plan to write a book on contraception until her position at the university was secure, said Freddoso. Instead, she set to work on the book that cemented her national and international reputation as a fearless supporter of Paul VI’s encyclical: Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later.
“What she was really interested in was the philosophical foundation of the Church’s teaching on contraception and the historical brouhaha leading up to and following the publication of Humanae Vitae,” he explained.
Smith was denied tenure, a decision that was appealed, to no avail. The standard for tenure at Notre Dame required six-eight articles in professional journals and a book accepted for publication. Smith had met that standard and, during one academic year, had also been voted one of 10 teachers of the year.
She challenged the decision through the Economic Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and won a settlement. However, her tenure battle left a lasting impression on friends and colleagues at Notre Dame, even as it made her a central figure in the campaign to defend Humanae Vitae.
“Janet became, if you will, the living face of Humanae Vitae. Not an ‘old celibate man,’ but a relatively young celibate woman instead,” said Freddoso.
Smith began traveling across the U.S. and abroad, explaining the Church’s teaching on contraception.
“If you think about a battle, there are few generals. And in this discussion, she is one of the generals,” Chris Kaczor, a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, told the Register.
Kaczor has known Smith for 25 years, co-authoring Life Issues, Medical Choices: Questions and Answers for Catholics. He first set eyes on her when he was an undergraduate at Boston College and attended a lecture she gave on contraception that provoked an uproar on campus. Kaczar remembers one professor “yelling at her. But she stood her ground and stayed calm.”
As her reputation grew, Smith was named a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Family, among other Vatican appointments.
Meanwhile, Smith quickly found a new position at the University of Dallas’ philosophy department, where she taught for 12 years and received tenure.
Gerard Wegemer, a professor of English at the University of Dallas and the director of its Center for Thomas More Studies, knew Smith when he was a graduate student at Notre Dame and observed that she was able to maintain her reputation as a demanding and popular teacher, despite a robust schedule of outside speaking engagements.
He remembered one occasion, when her students at Dallas “filled her office with roses at the end of the semester — an unusual sign of gratitude for the care she gave each and all.”
“She inspired many — faculty and staff, as well as students — to take on the hardest tasks and most difficult issues in giving witness to the fullness of the faith,” said Wegemer.
In 2001, Smith became a full-time professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary and now holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair in Life Issues, with the support of the Knights of Columbus.
In January 2012, Smith became a consecrated virgin. “I went on several retreats sponsored by the Institute of Priestly Formation who also minister to seminary faculty,” she explained.
“During the long hours of prayer, it was clear that Jesus wanted me for himself, and I wanted that.”
That commitment has given her another point of reference as she counsels seminarians and lay students.
“Janet brings a wealth of wisdom,” Msgr. Todd John Lajiness, the seminary rector, told the Register.
“She is not removed from the front lines ... isolated in an office, pumping out articles,” said Msgr. Lajiness. “She is deeply engaged in the apostolate.”
Now, as Humanae Vitae approaches its 50th anniversary and a papal commission is reassessing the theological debate leading up to Paul VI’s decision to affirm the Church’s long-standing prohibition on contraception, Smith is an invited speaker at numerous conferences on the encyclical throughout 2018.
While many of the dire predictions about society’s embrace of artificial contraception foreseen by Paul VI have come to pass, Smith’s message has never dwelled on the destructive power of no-strings sex. Instead, she focuses on illuminating the truth and beauty of God’s healing plan for marriage and the conjugal “one-flesh” union.
“Only God knows the good she has done, the babies that have been born because of what she has done,” said her friend Chris Kaczor.
“There are couples who have probably told her, ‘We heard your talk, and this is the baby we have as a result.’”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.