At the end of the contentious Synod on the Family, Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul VI, who was best known for reiterating the Catholic Church's objection to artificial birth control in the late 1960s. This beatification may signal more about the current pontiff's vision for the Church than his refusal to choose sides in the often acrimonious Synod debates between bishops over cohabitation, homosexuality, and pastoral care for the divorced and civilly remarried. This article originally appeared at Aleteia.
The Church canonizes a pope, not a papacy, as the saying goes, but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the man from the office he holds. Pope John XXIII’s canonization seven months ago amounted to a public declaration of the worth and validity of Vatican II, with which Pope John XXIII was so strongly identified. And when Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul VI this past week, it was as if the current pope put to rest all doubts about the Church’s continued adherence to Pope Paul VI’s most infamous encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which affirmed the Church’s stance against artificial birth control.
The timing of the canonization could not have been more powerful. The Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which took place from October 5 to October 19 in Rome, brought us images of cardinals raising their voices, challenging each others' views and intensely debating issues that to many of us seem undebatable – the Church’s doctrinal opposition to homosexual acts, sex outside of marriage, and divorce and remarriage outside the Church. In his closing speech on October 18, Pope Francis complimented the bishops for speaking their minds and criticized both “traditionalists” for their “hostile inflexibility” and “progressives” for their “deceptive mercy.” In light of calls for the pontiff to pick a side in the debates, he pointed out what he saw as flaws on both sides equally.
But Pope Paul VI’s beatification, which took place at the closing Mass of the Synod on October 19, displayed unity and unalloyed respect for a man labeled as a traditionalist and a progressive – a traditionalist for his proclamations on birth control and a progressive for his support of Mass in the vernacular.
“Few people understood how comprehensively he saw things,” noted Deacon Scott Dodge of the Cathedral of the Madeleine. At Pope Paul VI’s beatification, Pope Francis praised his predecessor’s heroic virtue in “hold[ing] fast with farsightedness and wisdom – and at times alone – to the helm of the barque of Peter.” If the beatification signified anything about Pope Francis’ plans for the future, it signaled an intent to stay the course, and not change what cannot be changed.
Similarly, the final report of the Synod mentioned the need for a positive reception of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, a reception which few Catholics have been willing to give it. One man who was ahead of the curve in this respect is Dr. Thomas Hilgers, who has based his entire medical career on answering the call of Humanae Vitae.
While a senior in medical school, Dr. Hilgers read the encyclical and became an “instant convert,” as he explained to me in a videoconference from Rome where he had participated in the beatification ceremony.
At the death of Pope Paul VI in 1978, Dr. Hilgers vowed to create an institute that bore the late pope’s name – the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction. In 1985, Dr. Hilgers broke ground on the institute. And this year, he was invited by the Vatican to read the prayers of the faithful in English for an audience of more than 300,000 attendees at the historic occasion of Pope Paul VI’s beatification.
What impacted Dr. Hilgers the most about Humanae Vitae were the calls to action to medical professionals and men of science, encouraging the development of modern methods of natural family planning. Dr. Hilgers went on to create the Creighton Model of fertility care, which blends family planning with reliable diagnosis of reproductive disorders, and NaPro Technology, which provides moral medical solutions to those disorders. He dreams of one day finding a cure for infertility based on these methods, he said.
Despite having trained more than 600 doctors through his fellowship program and having established over 280 fertility care centers across the country, Dr. Hilgers claims that educating the medical profession is not enough to create the health care revolution he yearns for. “This is a revolution that will occur not because of the doctors, but in spite of the doctors,” he told me.
“People are getting hurt” by modern medical agendas fueled by the culture of death, stated Hilgers, and the proof is widely available. “The data is there,” he explained, “the sociological data of destruction – abortion, divorce, sexually transmitted diseases.” According to Hilgers, the downhill trend started with the advent of the birth control pill. When the medical profession began prescribing the birth control pill not only for contraception but for numerous gynecological disorders, it started down the path of masking symptoms without treating the underlying problems, he explained.
“We’ve wasted 36 years of really good research capability” into curing things like post-menstrual syndrome, post-partum depression, and infertility, he lamented. A lot of research money has been poured into the technologies of in vitro fertilization, which lead to many more embryos being destroyed than being implanted in a woman’s womb and still don’t solve the root causes of infertility.
Hilgers’ research, on the other hand, has been dedicated to discovering and fixing underlying reproductive disorders. By learning how each woman’s cycle functions, in a way as unique as a fingerprint, Hilgers has been able to detect hormonal problems that can be corrected. In developing laser surgery of the reproductive organs that leaves minimal scarring, he has made great progress in surgical methods of overcoming fertility problems. But “there’s an enormous amount of work that still needs to be done,” he acknowledged.
A lot of that work amounts to education in overcoming biases against natural family planning, which has often taken on the connotation of the old and ineffective “rhythm method.” Education about the benefits of natural family planning “has to start with very young people,” Hilgers said. Dioceses could also throw themselves more wholeheartedly into promotion of NFP, according to Deacon Dodge, who is an NFP instructor himself. Most dioceses require engaged couples to take a three-hour introductory course in NFP as part of pre-Cana instruction, but a full course lasts several months, in order to enable couples to analyze data from several cycles. Some dioceses do require a full course as part of pre-Cana, but others are faced with a shortage of NFP teachers, stated Deacon Dodge. For such a requirement to work, most dioceses would need to train more teachers, he added.
The most pressing need, according to Dr. Hilgers, is to “develop the richness of Humanae Vitae – not the words of Humanae Vitae, but the values of Humanae Vitae.” In the last 40 years, we have descended to a “great depth of spiritual poverty,” he said. But in his practice, he has seen patients come back to the Church because they are “overwhelmed by the goodness of this teaching” on life issues.
The beatification of Pope Paul VI sends a strong and beautiful pro-life message. The miracle required for beatification was in fact a pro-life miracle – the healing of an unborn baby in the womb. Pope Paul VI’s intercession in that case demonstrated his love for life extending beyond the borders of heaven. Pope Paul VI, enthused Deacon Dodge, has proven himself to be a “powerful intercessor on behalf of life and on behalf of marriage and family.” Blessed Pope Paul VI, pray for us!
If you enjoyed this post, we highly recommend: