As Pope Paul VI was canonized on Oct. 14 in Rome, medical professionals gathered in St. Louis to commemorate his landmark encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“On Human Life”). As a longtime student of the development of this much disputed teaching of the Catholic Church on birth control, I witnessed something surprising and altogether too uncommon: progress on the implementation of this teaching among health care professionals.
The document, written more than 50 years ago, calls medical professionals to an important mission.
“Likewise we hold in the highest esteem those doctors and members of the nursing profession who, in the exercise of their calling, endeavor to fulfill the demands of their Christian vocation before any merely human interest … they should regard it as an essential part of their skill to make themselves fully proficient in this difficult field of medical knowledge. For then, when married couples ask for their advice, they may be in a position to give them right counsel and to point them in the proper direction. Married couples have a right to expect this much from them” (“Humanae Vitae,” 27).
The progress is a combination of true leadership from the Church hierarchy, the support of some Catholic health care systems and the presence of a growing number of trained medical professionals who have applied the principles of “Humanae Vitae” to their scientific and medical expertise.
Leadership from the hierarchy has been fundamental for progress. For many years, confusion reigned among the Catholic faithful regarding the teachings of “Humanae Vitae” because of lack of clarity from the shepherds. Nevertheless, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson and his predecessors have been strong advocates for clear teaching in this area. The archdiocesan Office of Natural Family Planning hosts events and activities to promote and support the teaching. For many years, seminarians have been specifically trained on a basic knowledge of natural methods of family planning and on how to give a homily on this teaching.
Support also is growing among some Catholic healthcare systems. Perhaps the interest on behalf of these Catholic institutions has resulted from the leadership of the bishops who vouch for their “Catholicity,” or maybe they have found participation in this area to be profitable. One thing is certain: A more formal acceptance of and application of “Humanae Vitae” in health care is simply more in line with their identity as Catholic health care systems.
The growing number of young medical professionals who are passionate about answering the call of Paul VI as expressed in “Humanae Vitae” bodes well for the future. Some are involved in training nurses and future doctors in residency programs and medical schools. Others such as Dr. Patrick Yeung, director of SLUCare Center for Endometriosis, and Dr. Gavin Puthoff, director of Mercy Clinic Fertility Services, make up a valiant response to St. Pope Paul VI’s call to medical doctors. These medical professionals realize that current approaches to the care of a woman’s fertility such as the birth control pill and “artificial reproductive technologies” are woefully inadequate, too expensive and simply sub-par medical care. They diagnose the underlying issues and causes of women’s reproductive health and offer solutions that women are seeking, respecting the dignity of the couple as co-creators of human life.
These signs of progress in the application of “Humane Vitae” were showcased at the “Humanae Vitae and Healthcare” conference. As a priest, I was very proud of what I saw in St. Louis and I think St. Paul VI would be, too.
Father Daly is a native of St. Louis and a priest of the Legionaries of Christ.