National Catholic Register

Inperson

A Way for Couples to Listen to Their Bodies

Father Richard Hogan heard Pope John Paul II in person discussing the theology of the body. Now he champions natural family planning with the Couple to Couple League.

BY JOY WAMBEKE

November 26-December 2, 2006 Issue | Posted 11/22/06 at 10:00 AM

 

Father Richard Hogan applauds the U.S. bishops’ new document.

The nation’s bishops in mid-November approved a document promoting natural family planning. Father Hogan has been involved with NFP education and the Couple to Couple League since his ordination in 1981. The priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis serves on the Couple to Couple League’s National Board of Directors. He is also one of the main speakers for Natural Family Planning Outreach, an organization that provides parish missions on natural family planning, and appears regularly on EWTN hosting a show on the theology of the body.

Father Hogan has been tapped to oversee the revamping of the Couple to Couple League’s curriculum that teaches thousands of students worldwide the sympto-thermal method of natural family planning. The new curriculum, set for completion next spring, will use the theology of the body as its theological grounding.

He spoke with Register correspondent Joy Wambeke.

How did you become involved with the Couple to Couple League?

When I was first ordained, I was assigned to a parish in Crystal, Minn., and the natural family planning group that met there was led by a couple who were associated with the Couple to Couple League. I took their courses to see what they had to say, and I enjoyed them very much. I was later appointed to the archdiocesan advisory group on natural family planning as its Couple to Couple League representative.

How did you first become interested in the theology of the body?

I had always been convinced that the Church was right in her teaching against artificial contraception. But I was looking for a pastoral way to help married couples find their families in some way.

Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978, my second year in seminary, and shortly after that he began giving his Wednesday audiences on the book of Genesis — what we now refer to as the theology of the body. I had read his writings and talks before, and they initially shocked me because it sounded a little like what I was hearing at the seminary, which was not always in tune with the Church. So, I knew I was missing something. Then, when I began hearing the theology of the body, I figured out what he was doing, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.

Could you explain what you found?

St. Augustine gave us a method to understand God based on Plato; St. Thomas gave us a second way based on Aristotle. But neither one fits our modern culture because we are subjective, inductive and experiential. Pope John Paul II gave us a new and third way that is subjective, inductive and experiential. Yet it is also solid. The entire project [of theology of the body] was grounded in the natural law, which is based on the human person. This is what is called personalism. It made the Church’s teaching on sexuality more palatable. He didn’t change anything; rather, he gave us a new way of saying the same truth.

Why is the Couple to Couple League changing the curriculum?

It has been 30 years since it was first done by John Kippley in 1971. The old curriculum was based on covenant theology, which was very prevalent at the time. Covenant theology isn’t wrong. But arguably, it is less easily understood than theology of the body.

So then, how does the theology of the body enhance learning natural family planning?

Theology of the body provides the theological groundwork. It shows us that the human body reveals more about who we are than any other part of us because it speaks about love, which is God. Natural family planning is reading the language that the body speaks. In fact, it shouldn’t be called natural family planning — that makes it sound like it’s about planning a family. Natural family planning is about learning the “dialect” of our sexuality. Reading the language of the body leads to the mystery of the human person because every “dialect” that the body speaks leads to the human person. But those acts that are most particularly human, the most God-like acts, reveal more about the human person and even God than anything else. And sexual acts, since they speak the language of love, reveal more about the human person than any other “dialect.”

How do natural family planning and theology of the body help marriages?

Here’s a familiar story. An engaged couple walks into their first day of NFP class, and their instructors begin by showing pictures of their 10 kids. The couple collapse, groaning and thinking, “Are we sure this really works? Obviously it doesn’t work and they’re going to sit here and tell us it does.”

The joke is that it does work! The last seven of the 10 children the couple planned. They read the language of the body, they read the language of each other and saw their dignity. Through that language, they also discovered the mystery of God in the procreation of their child. That awesome-ness of their mutual creation led them to generosity, and then to more and more love. The engaged couples who walk in don’t get that at first. They think, “Dear Lord, we can’t have 10 kids!”

Natural family planning really is a school of love.

You also give talks at priest retreats around the country on natural family planning. How do priests benefit from learning about natural family planning?

It is our job to promote the teachings of the Church, not simply because it’s our job, but because it’s better for people. Like Pope John Paul II said: “The Church is an expert in humanity.” Couples should be less interested in spacing children and more interested in having lasting marriages and in gaining a deeper appreciation of one another. Natural family planning is a way of insuring marriages. Not always, but usually, marriages that faithfully practice natural family planning last.

Do you have any stories to share about teaching natural family planning?

Here’s a story that probably every priest could tell.

A Catholic couple comes in for marriage prep, and they say we’re only going to have two children, a girl and a boy, and only after five years of marriage. So, I nod my head and don’t say anything because I don’t want an argument. After the wedding, they follow the “11th commandment”: Thou must move out of the parish in which the marriage occurred. Five or six years go by, and they come back for her grandparents’ anniversary celebration and by the will of the bishop, I am still the pastor. They come to say hello, and I see that they have three kids, and she’s pregnant with the fourth. After they show me the ultrasound photos, which I just love, I ask them, “What happened? I thought you were only going to have two kids, and only after five years? It’s only been five years, and you have four.” And they can’t really say; they just changed their minds.

But, I know that they read their bodies, read God, read love, and read generosity. They had that same reaction that I had when I first met my niece: There’s a spark of the divine here. It’s so clear — you can’t miss it every time you see a newborn. That discovery makes a couple say: Let’s do this again.

Joy Wambeke writes from

St. Paul, Minnesota.