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Believe it all Print
Guest column
Thursday, Jul. 16, 2009 -- 12:00 AM

"Believe it all." That was the "very best" preaching advice from our Dominican priest speaker at a clergy day on homiletics back in 2004.

Guest Column

This followed shortly my ordination to the permanent diaconate. "Do not pick and choose" from the Church's teachings, Father said.

Don't question it, he said, for to do so is to enter treacherous waters, that spiritual trap which whispers to us that our own personal wisdom is superior to the Church of Christ and its guarantee of doctrinal purity with guidance of the Holy Spirit.

"Believe it all": these three words starkly speak a great truth to our Catholic Church, and indeed to our world these days. For the truth is that our Church, its clergy, faithful, and even its leadership are deeply split on "believing it all."

And, that split largely cleaves our communities over the issue of artificial contraception. This has been, and continues to be in our Church, a deep wound of division.

A pervasive rift

As a physician for 41 years, I fully recognize how "close to the bone" these issues are for the life of all of us. It does not require much insight to see just how divisive is the strict versus lenient interpretation of this core Church teaching regarding marriage being open to life.

But little did I realize how divisive this all is until I recently was given a copy of Cardinal Joseph Stafford's July 25, 2008, reflection on Humanae Vitae -- a 40-year retrospection.

In 1968, the cardinal was then a Baltimore priest called to an ad hoc meeting of priests in the city just as this encyclical was released. The agenda of that Baltimore meeting was to get the priests to sign a letter of dissent from the encyclical.

Humanae Vitae had, to the surprise of many Church theologians and leaders, restated the traditional Christian/Catholic belief that openness to procreation is a major component of sacramental marriage.

The then Father Stafford was the only priest of many at this strident and emotional meeting who refused to sign the dissenting petition. He describes at some length the depth of derision and scorn expressed against him by his fellow clergy for his stance. He goes on to describe, sadly, how the rift in those clergy has largely carried on down to the present day.

Widespread confusion

The dissent to Humanae Vitae was not of course limited to clergy in the United States. In 1968, the Canadian bishops in a Winnipeg meeting, while stating general agreement with the encyclical, suggested to their faithful that the couple's consciences, rather than Church teaching, should guide them in their family planning matters.

Many bishops and clergy in the West and other parts of the world tended to go along with this popular but dissenting approach. Over the last 40 years, this dissent has become a wound to Mother Church which has largely been kept out of the faithful's eye. It is the family secret too shameful to discuss in polite company.

There is no question that the encyclical's teaching has been difficult for many. Many are the critics these last four decades who voice the opinion that the Church is hopelessly antiquated and out of touch with modern scientific advances and the reality of modern life.

A recent encounter with a Catholic covert mother of 11 children truly rocked me and became the catalyst for this writing. At her marriage to a Catholic man, they agreed to have a large family.

As their children came along in the 1950s and '60s, their pastor counseled them on their alternatives to having another baby. At the arrival of child number seven, the pastor asked the couple's family to leave his parish. Their "crime": being open to life. Her husband left the Church for many years! Who wouldn't have?

'A spiritual wound'

As a physician for 41 years, I know that for a wound to heal, its location and severity must first be fully identified. It seems increasingly clear to me that a spiritual wound is damaging the bride of Christ.

Either the Church IS divinely guided against errors in faith and morals, or it is not. Either the use of contraceptives is a serious flaw to the sacramental integrity of marriage, or it is not.

My personal right to dissent in these matters inevitably becomes the slippery slope of dissent in other tenets, each of my choosing.

Virtually all the current secular social science studies have totally vindicated Pope Paul VI's predictions in 1968.1 If contraception became widely used, the pope said, these trends would inevitably follow: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society, a rise in marital infidelity, a lessening of respect for women, and coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.

All of these have occurred in the 45 years since the widespread availability of oral contraceptives; all have wrought great changes in our world. The wounds of secular humanism and intra-Church dissent are deep and grievous.

'There is hope'

But, there is hope. Wounds can be searched out and found, sutured, dressed, and healed. So too these wounds. One can sense, albeit slowly and quietly, increasing public dismay at the 45 percent or so divorce rate for first marriages in our society (versus three percent for couples practicing natural family planning with its recent advances).

Couples are beginning to recognize that living together before marriage is not the "test drive" that guarantees their choice of mate will be the wisest one. Rather cohabitation tends all too often to breed distrust and fear in what started as a loving relationship.

Women who were once most vociferous in promoting women's liberation are now increasingly recognizing the high toll exacted on their marital and family life by our "liberated" society. And they are responding to the Lord's gentle invitation.

Increasingly, couples who practice natural family planning report how this practice enhances respect for the woman's marvelous hormonal/fertility cycle and how using this for their family spacing greatly encourages good marital communication and support.

And they recognize how their use of timing of their intimacy keeps God the creator as the third partner in their marriage. With courage and faithfulness to the bride of Christ, they elect to "believe it all."

1 Mary Eberstadt: "The Vindication of Humanae Vitae," First Things 185, p35, August 2008.

Deacon Greg Gehred, M.D., ministers at St. Joseph Parish in Fort Atkinson.