It seems like only yesterday that I was introduced to Humanae Vitae through a class on the theology of the body, but in truth, it has been nearly 20 years.
During the summer of 1999, when I was working for the Archdiocese of Denver raising money for the inner-city Catholic schools, a young intern knocked on my door and invited me to join a theology of the body class she was offering. Even though I had never heard of Pope St. John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” she and I had the beginnings of a warm friendship, and so without hesitation, I signed up. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that class would change my life forever.
Right from the beginning, the Holy Father’s teachings about love and marriage captivated me, so much so that they penetrated my soul in a very deep way. It was all so beautiful, yet so far from my reality.
Even though I was born and raised in a Catholic home, I had strayed far from the wisdom of the Church, particularly in the area of contraception. For a number of reasons, none of which make sense now, when I married I felt very strongly that I could only “handle” two children, a decision that both my husband and I deeply regret.
It was through John Paul’s theology of the body that I was introduced to Pope Paul VI’s historic encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth). Needless to say, up until that point, I had never read it.
Like so many other women, I had rejected this teaching before really knowing anything about it. And like so many others, I did not want to be told what to do by a person who was out of touch with my reality.
It was only in reading this important document on the issue of contraception that I understood that Blessed Paul was very much a man of our time. Indeed, he was sympathetic to the cultural issues and the complexity of everyday life, which is the very reason he held on to the traditional teachings of the Church. He suffered dearly for his fidelity, but he did so out of love for God and for all of the faithful.
I finally came to accept that he was not trying to stick his nose into my bedroom; rather, he was trying to save my soul.
Over time, I fell in love with the message found in Humanae Vitae. I credit my personal growth, as well as my love for the Church, to this document. After spending time with it, I began to realize that it is about so much more than contraception.
If truth be told, hidden in plain sight within the pages of Humanae Vitae lies our entire spiritual journey. Indeed, Pope Paul presses each of us to ask that age-old question: Can God be trusted — can we trust him with our lives, fertility, marriage, children, dreams, etc.? I am of the opinion that it is impossible to grow in our faith without first coming to terms with that very question.
By the time I was ready to answer this question, my worldview had completely changed. I was no longer the same person who had signed up for that theology of the body class. Since then, I had read dozens of Catholic books, attended conferences, classes and retreats galore. I was hungry to understand the teachings of the Church in the areas of love, sex, marriage, etc. At the same time, it seemed that God was asking me to completely surrender my life for something completely unknown to me, and in my own tentative way, I gave him my fiat.
What I did not know then — that I certainly know now — is that God simply cannot be outdone in generosity.
Fast-forward three years, and I found myself in the most unlikely position of leading a Catholic women’s organization called Endow (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women), the goal of which was to help women grasp the Catholic understanding of authentic womanhood. We did this through small-group discussion, the creation of interesting and relevant study material, the use of visual illustrations to attract young women, and whatever other means we thought were worthy of trying.
We began by introducing the participants to Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Women,” and his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women). Since it is hard to understand and fully appreciate the gift of womanhood without sooner or later bumping into Pope Paul’s Humanae Vitae, that document was the third study guide that Endow created.
Humanae Vitae has generated an abundance of negative press since Pope Paul VI released it in July 1968. Endow small-group participation on that topic was not overly popular. Some groups skipped it altogether. Others went through the study but kept the message at arm’s length. And still others dove right in and loved it. There was actually a group in which every woman in the group eventually was expecting.
What I remember most importantly, however, was the abundance of testimonials from women who said their lives were positively changed after studying Humanae Vitae, several of whom further stated that they simply could not imagine life without the child(ren) they otherwise would not have had.
Many women reported that without understanding the Church’s teaching on marriage, sex and family, their Catholic faith and parish involvement would not be anywhere near as powerful as it had become. And there were those everyday heroines who accepted the challenge to pass along the “Good News” to other women and their families. I treasure all of their stories because they testify to the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Anyone today would find it difficult to deny that Pope Paul VI was a prophet. He openly predicted what would happen to a society that freely accepted contraception. Paul predicted that widespread use of contraception would lead to marital infidelity and the general lowering of morality. He expected that men would lose respect for women and revert to a level of greater concern for base-level satisfaction. He foretold of a time when governments would use contraception as a dangerous weapon and as a means to institute forced family-planning programs. Pope Paul’s final and most serious warning was that contraception would lead both men and women to think that they have unlimited dominion over their own bodies.
As I reflect on my journey in discovering God’s plan concerning love and marriage revealed in Humanae Vitae and related Church doctrine, I also discovered something maybe even more important. My “cafeteria-Catholic” tendencies in thinking that my own knowledge, beliefs and experiences are superior to Church teaching proved to me how easy it is to succumb to a culture that tries to normalize self-absorption and relativism.
When one’s view on a topic opposes, or cannot otherwise be reconciled to, the dogma of the Church, a little research shows why the Church founded by Jesus Christ cannot have erroneous doctrine.
Terry Polakovic is the author of the new book Life and Love: Opening Your Heart to
God’s Design (Our Sunday Visitor, 2018).