By Deacon Patrick Mongan, MD, MAPS
In this poignant three-part series, Deacon Patrick Mongan, MD, MAPS, husband of Catholic author Ellen Mongan, he documents the couple’s journey through doubt, skepticism, a tragic loss, depression, and ultimately to acceptance and admiration of one of the most controversial documents of modern times - Humanae Vitae.
To understand the journey of discovery and sacrifice my wife and I have made, we must first describe our beginnings. I am no theologian and any errors I make, are made out of ignorance, because my desire is to understand, and be in the heart of the Church. Our story is one that is not often heard from the pulpit and rarely have I heard priests talk about the truth of Humanae Vitae and its importance in our lives.
Ellen, my wife, was raised a Catholic all her life and has many fond memories of the nuns and Catholic schools. However, when she considered becoming a nun herself, her family discouraged her in choosing that path. I, on the other hand, was raised a Lutheran and had many of the obvious prejudices concerning Catholics. In my late teens I was no longer involved with the church and considered myself an agnostic, but continued to search for the meaning of life and Truth. Ellen and I met in Florida and after a year of dating we married.
Ellen did not have a full understanding of what it meant to be Catholic and we were married in a civil ceremony. The fact that we were not married in a church did not seem to be a concern for either family at the time. (How things have changed because we hope our children will marry Catholics in the Church!)
At the end of our honeymoon we visited Ellen’s parents in Georgia where convalidation of our marriage occurred and was recorded in the Savannah diocese. I signed the agreement to raise the children Catholic. This was not a big deal to me at the time, because I was not hostile to Christianity, I just had no “need” for it myself. Our honeymoon lasted a month as we traveled the West. During the trip Ellen became pregnant and our first child was born.
During the early part of our marriage Ellen continued to attend Church and even regularly participated in a prayer group. Our second child, a daughter, was born and our family was complete as far as I was concerned. Ellen, however, continued to beg me to have more children. Then in the winter of 1979 we moved to Utah. This move was part of my plan to further my career in academic medicine. God had other plans!
In Utah Ellen and I met a couple who were Baptists from a Christian community in Texas. We also met a couple in whom the man was the pastor of an Assembly of God church. We found ourselves socializing often with these couples and Ellen asked me to participate in a bible study with them.
During the intervening years, since falling away from the church, I had examined many faiths, both eastern and western. I had studied the Bible, but usually from a negative perspective. God had been plowing the ground! In the fall of 1979 I realized that I must make a choice; either Jesus was real or I might as well become a hedonist, because all the other religions that I had studied I could not accept as true. Obviously, I chose Jesus! When I said "I believe in you, Jesus," there was a sudden confidence that he was real. No exceptional experience occurred as I know has happened with some people at the time of their conversion. I just "knew that I knew!”
At that point I had this continuing sense of a need to move back east near our families who lived in Georgia and Florida, and find other Christians to share our lives with. We had our third child, but Ellen wanted even more, “All the children the Lord would give us.” Ellen continued to attend Catholic Church and I began to search for a church, but it was definitely not going to be Catholic. Ellen, having grown strong in her faith, said she would go with me to whatever church I wanted, but she would continue to be a Catholic.
We moved to Georgia to join a Christian community and visited many different churches. In the past I had been in Catholic churches for the baptisms of our children, but one day I walked into the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in downtown Augusta, Georgia and experienced a sense of awe that I had never experienced before in any other church. Therefore, I began to read a Catholic catechism and as I read it, I found myself agreeing with most of what was presented. Of course I struggled with the typical issues raised by Protestants, but as I read and studied the catechism they were no longer obstacles for me.
Believe it or not, the prohibition against the use of artificial birth control was incomprehensible to me. I simply could not understand the difference between natural family planning and the use of artificial means of birth control. In spite of this I began an RCIA program in a local parish and within a year converted to Catholicism.
The Personal Challenge Begins
Obviously, even after completing the RCIA and becoming Catholic, I still had many things to learn about the Church. Ellen and I did not fully understand the teachings on birth control and really did not believe in them at the time. However, we both agreed that despite our beliefs or lack of faith, we would be “good” Catholics and obey the Church’s teachings (orthopraxis).
What challenged our faith was that Ellen suffered from postpartum depression after the birth of four children. I am a physician and even for me these episodes were fearful. They were distressing for Ellen and me both, but we had survived, and we loved our children. Friends would help care for the children and look in on Ellen. Yet the thought of having more children was anxiety provoking, to say the least. To have to depend upon Natural Family Planning (NFP) to prevent pregnancy was disconcerting to both of us.
Because of our struggles and our desire to be obedient to the Church’s teachings we sought the counsel of a wise Catholic priest. We truly were desirous of finding out what the Church would allow. We did not want to find a priest who would simply tell us what we wanted to hear. Our question was, "Is it permissible to use artificial means of birth control considering what Ellen would go through after having a baby?" He did not think this was permissible, but said he would ask a moral theologian that he personally knew. In a short time he gave us an answer we did not really want to hear, but we accepted it. Our choices were to use NFP or abstain. During this time and for about ten years after my conversion, I struggled with this teaching of the Church.
The challenge of Humanae Vitae spilled over into my career. I realized very quickly that if I was going to be obedient to the Church I could not prescribe birth control to patients. At this time I was asked to be the medical director for a rural practice. This rural practice was a federally funded community health center and they were required to provide family planning services, including birth control. Again, I turned to our wise priest friend who again consulted his moral theologian friend. The question I asked, “Can I be the medical director as long as I do not prescribe birth control myself?” They advised me that this would be permissible as long as I made it clear that I would not do so myself. I told the manager of the practice that I could be the medical director as long as they understood this. Because the ultimate responsibility for the practice was in the hands of a board of governors, we agreed that we would both have to come before them and tell them about these stipulations. We did this and they had no problems with this agreement. Finally, we all believed that we must be completely "up front" with everyone, and tell the supervisors of the federal grant, which helped support the community health center, about this agreement. Again, there was smooth sailing. Frankly, I had expected a fight over this, but God had paved the way.
During these years I had many contacts with strong Christians from various denominations and we often had discussions of the Catholic Church’s views on many issues, including birth control. Although I was struggling with a complete acceptance of this teaching, I could espouse the Church’s view ever more clearly and my understanding continued to grow. My wife and I grew in our understanding and application of NFP. We continued to struggle with the contradiction in our life: the fear we had of having children and the great love we had of children.
Today, I can say with no doubt in my heart that Humanae Vitae is God’s blessing to us all, and is Truth. Also, Ellen has not had any problems with depression for over 20 years. Often we think we must know the Truth (orthodoxy) in order to do the right action, but my experience has taught me that accepting the teachings of the Church in faith and acting upon them (orthopraxis) can lead us to the Truth.
In Part II of the Mongan’s journey, which will be published tomorrow, Deacon Pat recounts the tragic death of their eighth child and how the lessons of life convinced them of the truths of Humanae Vitae.
©Patrick Mongan, MD, MAPS