In this second part of the journey of Deacon Patrick Mongan and his wife, Ellen's, embrace of Humanae Vitae, we read about the tragic death of their eighth child and how the lessons of life convinced them of the truths of Humanae Vitae.
I have started with a personal testimony so that I can help readers see that our understanding of Humanae Vitae is not just a theoretical understanding. It grows out of a study of the Church’s teaching, and then the living out of those teachings; a journey that has cost us a great deal of sacrifice and suffering, and a journey that has given us great joy and peace.
We have had eight children. Seven are healthy, but Zachary, number eight, who seemed to be doing fine, was unbeknownst to us suffering from catastrophic birth defects.
At his birth he was very small and the nurses urgently called the ER doctor to come to the delivery room because he was not breathing well. Immediately, I knew something was terribly wrong. I prayed continuously as the doctor struggled to help Zachary who was so small and so blue. Finally, after an “eternity” the doctors came to tell us that Zachary had a chromosomal problem, Trisomy 18, with congenital defects that were not compatible with life.
Many friends joined us in our time of need. After counseling with our wise priest friend (once again), we decided to let Zachary go to be with the Lord, rather than perform heroic surgery that may or may not give him hours to days of life. He struggled to live, even with the respirator helping him to breathe. One loving nurse on duty that night had already baptized him. After our decision all the tubes were removed and Zachary was placed in our arms as we prayed, sang, and cried, surrounded by friends and family. It is one of those memorable moments in life that are both bitter and sweet.
Ellen and I struggled with the “why” of Zachary’s death, but were at peace as we trusted in God’s wisdom. We had loved all our children dearly and could not understand why God would take Zachary away, when we knew many people did not really want to have another child but we did! But we accepted because we live in a sinful, fallen world and know that evil and death befalls everyone, believers and unbelievers. Yet, even in the few hours of Zachary’s existence on earth, his life had borne much fruit. Over 500 people attended his funeral! We continue to think of him often and Ellen has been able to use this experience to help other women who have lost a child through speaking, writing, mentoring and podcasts.
I know that my love for my wife, the "unitive" nature of the sacrament of marriage, has grown tremendously because of the struggles that are a result of the “procreative” nature of the sacrament of marriage.
The Truth Revealed
Another motivation for why I am writing about Humanae Vitae comes from many interactions with Catholics who do not understand this document.
Over the years I have read many reflections about Humanae Vitae, along with other Church documents. Many think that the main purpose of this document was to forbid artificial contraception. Although Humanae Vitae does forbid the use of artificial contraception this ban is simply an outgrowth of the true purpose of Humanae Vitae. Pope Paul VI wished to explain the true purpose of the Sacrament of Marriage and to reaffirm the Church’s long standing teaching on the nature of marriage.
He starts the document with, "The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships.” It is clear he understands this will not be an easy journey, but Jesus said, "Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple." (NAB, Luke 14:27)
At the time of Vatican II many people within and without the Church were sure the Pope would allow the use of artificial means of birth control. Yet, the Pope must hold high the banner of truth. Marriage was all about a husband and wife giving themselves to each other. This giving helps to perfect each, so that they will become united with each other physically and spiritually, which in turn results in the gift of new life. Love “is not then merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will,” wrote the Pope.
Yes, we can control our desires. Yes, to do so is difficult at times. Studies of NFP (natural family planning) demonstrate that when a couple wishes to space their children, their success is significantly less than if they are using NFP to keep from having children. Our own experience confirms this. If Ellen and I were resolute and united in our purpose, we are successful.
Ellen was more open to life than I, and often said she wanted as many children as God wanted for us. So, when we were not diligent, we were blessed with children, which occurred more often than not. True love, loves the “partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of self.”
There are countless examples of couples that prove this can be done. Thus, “married love requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood. Responsible parents will recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.”
Some critics of Humanae Vitae believe that if the couple is open to life in general, then contracepting a single sexual act is permissible. Pope Paul VI clearly states that “each and every sexual act” must be open to the procreation of human life. Not to be open to life contradicts the “natural laws” of God and breaks the unitive and procreative nature of marriage and sexuality that God intended.
These truths are reiterated in the Catholic Catechism (2364-2379) and in multiple documents from Pope John Paul II. Although Pope Paul VI does not directly say this, to allow the contracepting of a single act starts us upon a “slippery slope” which will result in the “bad” fruit so prevalent in our society today. We cannot even condone the use of birth control to “protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general," the pope warns. For in the end, and more importantly in the eternal perspective, it will result in harm.
Much of the criticism of Humanae Vitae is in reality a reversion to old heretical views that the Church dealt with early in its search for the truth. This view is a dualism that separates the physical from the spiritual, thus trying to separate the procreative aspect of sexuality from the unitive.
For Pope John Paul II the person is always a body-soul unity. When man respects this inherent nature, and the finality of his procreative capacity, man acts justly toward God the Creator. Contracepting the sexual act is the using of each other and a violation of the person. It strikes at the heart of what it means to be a person created in the image and likeness of Go.
At the same time Pope Paul VI is very careful to point out that to impose, “on one’s partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order.”
The truths of Humanae Vitae may seem radically conservative to us, but until 1930 no Christian church had considered artificial means of birth control licit or moral. Even many present day protestant theologians recognize that there is much truth in what the Church has said about contraception. “The difficulty is that once it was established, the permissibility of contraception proved impossible to control.” (Harold O. J. Brown, Contraception: A Symposium, First Things, December 1998)
Brown goes on to say, “Pope Paul’s arguments failed not because they were unsound, but for other reasons: they interfered ... with human autonomy, and they came too late, when they had already been overrun by medical developments and the sexual revolution . . . Protestants, who once looked with a certain superciliousness at the Pope and his commitment to “outmoded values” are now forced to contemplate the wreckage of a society in which both the Bible and natural law are scorned.”
Even those who disagree with some of the tenets of Humanae Vitae recognize that they have no alternative to substitute for it, and that “Protestant churches, in allowing the use of contraceptives, have failed to accompany this permission with effective catechesis and discipline with respect to the purposes of sex and marriage.” (Gilbert Meilaender and Philip Turner, loc. cit.)
Ironically, “American evangelicals are rethinking birth control even as a majority of this nation’s Roman Catholics have rejected their Church’s teaching . . . Standing against the spirit of the age, evangelicals and Roman Catholics must affirm that children are God’s good gifts and blessings to the marital bond.” (R. Albert Mohler, Jr., loc. cit.)
©Patrick Mongan, MD, MAPS
Click here to read Part One