National Catholic Register


The Church on Contraception Made Her Say ‘Ah-Ha!’

Theresa Notare attributes the start of her faith to her family -- and the start of her theology studies to a Methodist professor.

BY Tim Drakes

June 15-21, 2003 Issue | Posted 6/15/03 at 2:00 PM


She is the assistant director of the Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. She is also a doctoral candidate in the department of Church history at Catholic University of America.

She spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake while preparing for Natural Family Planning Awareness Week, July 20-26.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Belleville, N.J. I'm the second oldest and have two sisters and one brother. My father worked at Kennedy Airport as a port steward for Pan American Airways. My mother was a stay-at-home mom.

I'm the product of Catholic school education except for college. I attended a former convent Catholic high school — Villa Walsh Academy in Morristown, N.J.

So you have always been Catholic?

Yes. We were very active in our parish, St. Anthony of Padua. My mother volunteered to clean the church. Consequently my siblings and I spent Saturday mornings helping her — removing wax from candleholders, polishing the altar rails and doing the linens. I know how to iron and starch a corporal perfectly!

I caught my real deep love of the faith from my father. He loved to talk about what he believed. As a member of the Holy Name Society, he had a key to the church and would pray a Eucharistic adoration holy hour whenever he could. I learned the practice of the faith from my mother and the substance from my father. Living in such a world, it didn't dawn on me that the rest of the world was not Italian or Catholic until I was much older.

What led you to continue your religious education?

One of my professors in the religion department, a Methodist minister by the name of Robert Streetman, said, “Your Church needs you. You need to study theology.” I wasn't confident and didn't think I was smart enough, but he really encouraged me to go on to graduate school.

For a few years, when I was first teaching art in a public grammar school and then religion in a Catholic high school, he would send old papers of mine to a theology professor in California. The professor was very encouraging and eventually, I applied and was offered a scholarship by Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate School of Religion at Berkeley. It was a very rich, wide experience theologically.

How did you first come to learn of natural family planning?

My graduate work wasn't focused on marriage and family life. I was interested in Church history and ecumenism. In fact, after two years at Berkeley, I did a year of intensive study at the Angelicum in Rome. But God had other plans!

In the summer of 1984, just before attending graduate school, a priest-friend introduced me to Msgr. James McHugh, who at the time was the director of this office, and I began working with him as a secretary. One of the first things I remember him saying to me was, “We live in a promiscuous society.” I thought he was a bit “over the top,” but he also sounded a lot like my father, so I listened.

How did that experience change you?

At the time I knew nothing about the Church's teachings on birth control. Quite frankly, moral issues bored me. I thought they were nobrainers — abortion is wrong, so don't do it. What I didn't realize is how much the culture had already worn down my own sensibilities. Msgr. McHugh would talk about these things with me in a matter-of-fact way as we did our work. He also gave me a great deal to read — mostly Church documents. Eventually, I realized the messages our culture sends were not based on anything solid and in fact were deceptive! It was as if I had been asleep, and Msgr. McHugh woke me up.

By 1987, I came to know some of the natural family planning teaching couples. They were so free in expressing their experiences of living the Church's teachings in such lovely, exciting and holy ways that I felt an “ah-ha” feeling. Even though I was a single woman, I understood that what they were saying was really true. So, instead of studying ecumenism in the Church, you can say I'm examining the idea of Christian unity within the context of marriage and family life, the unity of husband, wife and God.

Your dissertation is focusing on the 1930 Anglican Lambeth Conference, where contraception was first embraced by a major Protestant church. What seemed to be at the root of the Anglican Church's acceptance of this issue?

There were several things that were happening. The modern birth control and eugenics movements were very strong in the early 1900s in England. There was also the effect of industrialization — more people moving away from their extended families and into the cities, more women working outside of the home, and with these changes there was a rise in promiscuity.

Within the Anglican Church of the time, there was not a strong moral tradition, a fact that many scholars have noted. Nor was there a clear understanding of the Anglican bishops' own spiritual authority or a theology of magisterium. So in the midst of these currents several British physicians were able to influence the bishops, and in particular Bishop Theodore Woods, who persuaded the others on this issue.

When the decision was made public, many Christians were scandalized by the Anglican position. As a result, letters to the editor were written that said things like, “If the bishops do this in 1930, what will we hear next? Will we read that Lambeth 1980 has proclaimed that doctors will be allowed to kill their patients in some cases?”

Christians of the time understood the life connections. They recognized that the acceptance of birth control would lead to other moral evils — promiscuity, abortion, easier divorce, the breakdown of the family and assisted suicide.

Natural family planning seems to be the Church's best-kept secret. Why isn't the word getting out more?

Too many priests remain silent about Church teaching on birth control and natural family planning. In fairness, the majority are simply not comfortable with the topic. Priests often like to speak out of knowledge or experience. With natural family planning, they don't typically know the details of methodology, and they're men, they don't “cycle,” so the information is at best unfamiliar to them. Because they are not married it's also difficult for them to speak out of their own experience. I try to encourage priests to be confident — they can articulate the Church's teachings on responsible parenthood and they can connect with a natural family planning user or teacher to provide them with the details.

Doctors are also silent. Frankly, most do not have this information. Natural family planning research is strong but not making its way into the textbooks. One answer may be that the contraceptive industry has such a stranglehold on the books.

There is a huge world of opposition to natural family planning because of ignorance and silence.

Tell me about your office's new campaign to raise awareness of natural family planning.

The campaign uses upbeat, optimistic images and messages to provide a hint of how good it is to live this truth in marriage. During Natural Family Planning Awareness Week we ask dioceses to offer talks in parishes, to display brochures and posters, and to ask priests to preach on natural family planning.

Are you hopeful for the future?

Oh yes. You just have to have terrific patience with this ministry. I'm convinced that it is God's will for humanity and that the Catholic Church has it right. I'm grateful for those people who feel that God has called them to do this work. They have been doing the hard work, many of them for almost 35 years!

There are many signs of hope. There are plenty of young scientists doing more work in natural family planning. I'm extremely encouraged by seminarians and young priests. They have read Pope John Paul II's theology of the body, they have heard natural family planning witness talks in their classes and many have become friends with natural family planning couples. And most important, they are comfortable with the topic!

Of course we must continue to find ways within the Church that are creative and systematic to teach God's vision of human sexuality, conjugal love and responsible parenthood. Eventually people will get it. This is nothing short of a new and better sexual revolution, and it's going to happen. The messages of the secular world are false. People are not happy, and eventually they are going to start looking elsewhere. So we move forward with the Church's teachings and natural family planning education. That's all we can humanly do and woe to us if we do not rise to the occasion!

Tim Drakes writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.