Damon Owens is the founder of the New Jersey Natural Family Planning Association and Joy-Filled Marriage NJ. He has appeared on numerous radio and television programs and is a frequent speaker on marriage, sexuality, NFP and Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. He spoke recently with Register senior writer Tim Drake about his new position as the executive director of the Theology of the Body Institute.
Tell me where you’re from originally and about your family.
I grew up in New Jersey. Both of my parents are from the South. My father is a deacon. My mother was a homemaker. I’m the middle of three children, with an older and a younger sister. I attended Brown University and later the University of California at Berkeley.
My wife, Melanie, and I married in 1993, and we have eight children — seven daughters and one son. Our two youngest children came to us through adoption just in the past two years.
Did you grow up Catholic?
Yes. My mother’s family has deep Catholic roots. My father converted to Catholicism when he was 16. His father had been a preacher in the AME [African Methodist Episcopal] Zion church, so it was a big deal when he converted as a teenager.
You were very successful as an engineer and in business. What led you to move from that work to nonprofit work?
As now, my studying engineering grew out of a fascination with what things mean and how things work. I worked for AT&T Bell Labs, which was itself a fascinating place to work. Yet, I had a heart for teaching and speaking, though they weren’t in my background.
Early in our marriage, Melanie and I got involved in pre-Cana ministry and gave NFP and marriage witness talks around the Archdiocese of Newark. It was an exciting time teaching and growing in the faith.
From 1993 until the late 1990s, these grew to where we were doing two or three pre-Cana talks per weekend at parishes around the archdiocese. We were also teaching natural family planning. Everything really flowed from our study of Humanae Vitae. In 1999, we were invited to join a marriage-preparation team teaching at St. Joseph Seminary in the Archdiocese of New York. That was a pivotal time because we began teaching much larger groups of young couples in more difficult situations.
It was not enough to know the “whats” of the faith; we had to learn how to teach compelling “whys” to reach them. At that time also, I had the opportunity to leave Bell Labs and help launch a new technology start-up company. We did well, but it was really burning me out. I sold my ownership in 2002 when Melanie and I prayerfully discerned that it was time to work full time in a marriage apostolate.
With four children, it was not an easy decision, financially or personally.
That then led to success in the area of marriage and family, didn’t it?
It did. I founded the New Jersey Natural Family Planning Association — a kind of one-stop NFP shop for people in New Jersey who wouldn’t typically contact a Catholic diocese. We aggregated information on all of the NFP programs in the state and offered seminars for married and engaged couples using the theology of the body-based program “God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage.” I also led the launch of the apostolate Joy-Filled Marriage NJ to provide training, resources and support for engaged and married couples.
I later joined the Theology of the Body Institute as one of their speakers and was just hired in December as the institute’s first executive director.
You’ve taught modern, scientific natural family planning for many years. Over that time have you seen any growth in interest in NFP?
We first heard about NFP at our marriage prep. We didn’t know about it growing up, so when we promoted NFP, it was animated, with a genuinely fresh awe and wonder. Couples found it relatable and accessible.
While our passion, knowledge and confidence for NFP has grown, sadly, I have not yet seen a change in the number of couples choosing NFP. There certainly has been a softening of the hard-heartedness when publicly challenging contraception, as well as more openness to hearing about alternatives, than I heard in the 1990s.
The idea that there could be something wrong with contraception is more intriguing to people. With the language and approach of theology of the body, we’re able to get to the “whys” behind the “whats” in a compelling way. Uprooting false ideas about sexuality does make people more open to hearing about NFP as a means to marital holiness and joy. We didn’t see that 15 or so years ago.
As a black American, you’ve often noted the disproportionate effect that the culture of death is having on the black community. Tell me about that.
I remember, years ago, someone told me that the ills in the black community are the harbingers for the broader culture. Obviously, I have a heart for the brokenness in the African-American community. Without strong marriage you cannot build a strong family. And the human person needs a family to flourish.
Without marriage, the family suffers. Without the family, the community suffers. When the community suffers, our nation suffers. The institutions of marriage, the family and the Church are connected and rooted in the truth and dignity of the human person.
For various reasons, the same ills we’re dealing with in the broader culture are first seen in the African-American community: cohabitation, fatherless families, fornication, abortion, divorce, etc. We’ve seen that over the last 40 to 50 years. These issues do such violence to the dignity of the person they can never remain isolated in one community.
What have you seen during that time in regard to marriage?
There has been a strong, steady decline in the awe and respect for marriage over the last 50 years; yet it seems to have accelerated with the latest redefinition attempts to include same-sex couples. An alarming number of people simply do not know what marriage is — in its essence — and, therefore, don’t treat it as valuable.
For instance, when arguments of equality are raised, people are fooled into thinking that equality means sameness. We see fellow Catholics conceding things that are simply not possible with regard to marriage. These arguments may sound good, but are neither good nor sound.
For the nonbeliever and believer alike, the language and approach of the theology of the body cuts through these lies because it appeals to what we know and what can be known about the meaning of masculinity, femininity, personal union, love, joy and, ultimately, God. In addition, the lack of witness to our faith in general, and marriage in particular, is both a symptom and a cause for the decline of marriage in our culture.
We’re called to be salt and light. Believers have to bear some responsibility for the downfall, in terms of our own lack of witness.
Blessed Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body offers an antidote to that, doesn’t it?
I’ve seen both personally and through my work at the institute that there’s nothing more impacting and powerful to make the case for marriage than theology of the body. It’s integral to restoring the culture of life. Although it is a catechesis on what it means to be created male and female, it is so much more.
It is a Christian anthropology par excellence. It offers a beautiful, rational and dignified catechesis on human personhood — our origin, our lived experience in history and our destiny. It’s a beautiful synthesis of some of the best theology and philosophy of the past 2,000 years, as well as a scriptural unpacking of spousal theology. It offers an accessible and compelling apologetic on important, current issues with theological and philosophical grounding.
Morality flows from identity and vocation. The problem isn’t just that people aren’t following rules, but that we’ve forgotten who we are.
At the root of the problems and sin in our culture is a radical amnesia — a forgetting. The dignity and meaning of personhood revealed through our sexuality (masculinity and femininity) is the foundation of all ethics and culture. If we’re confused about our identity and who we are, we’ll be confused (about) how to live to be truly happy. If we don’t know who we are, how can we come to know the God in whose image and likeness we are made?
As you take on the leadership role at the Theology of the Body Institute, do you have any specific plans?
I share the desire of our staff, faculty, board of directors and episcopal advisory board to expand our certification program and broaden its impact. These courses are our unique contribution to the New Evangelization.
We have a fantastic faculty that includes Dr. Janet Smith, Christopher West, Dr. Michael Waldstein, Bill Donaghy, Dr. John Haas and, starting this year, Dr. Peter Kreeft. We’re training leaders to become new centers of instruction in theology of the body for their parishes, their dioceses and their homes.
Since 2005, over 1,600 lay and clergy leaders have participated in our weeklong certification courses and multiple thousands at our on-site events around the world. We’d like to nurture those alliances to help them grow locally. One area we really want to focus on is growing our Clergy Enrichment Program. Through theology of the body, priests are able to come to a new appreciation of their priestly fatherhood. So, in general, we want to make the teachings more accessible to more people and, in particular, to our priests and seminarians.