By Michelle Tressel
Special to The Witness
CEDAR RAPIDS — Married couples, single people, priests, religious, children and teens recently gathered to celebrate a message of family, married life and human sexuality at St. Pius X Parish Hall in Cedar Rapids. The event marked the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.
Following a catered dinner July 22, children cheerfully went to the childcare area and Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., began her keynote presentation entitled “The Message of Humanae Vitae 50 Years Later”. She told the story of how Humanae Vitae exploded within the culture and the Catholic Church and where we are today.
The 1960s and particularly 1968 are remembered for demonstrations, the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, riots and police brutality, protests at the Olympics, the war in Viet Nam, and protests in favor of legalizing abortion.
In 1963, Pope John XXIII set up a commission to advise him on issues related to the church’s teaching on contraception. After the death of Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI added members to the commission. These new members had expertise from different fields and included married couples. Although the records of the commission were to be confidential, the recommendation was leaked. The majority of the commission voted that the church could and should change its teaching on contraception. A minority of the commission argued that the church could not and should not change its teaching. There were also those who abstained from a vote. When Humanae Vitae, written by Pope Paul VI, was released in July 1968, the church became divided. There was much support for the document as well as a great deal of dissent. Concern surfaced that the church in the United States would break away from Rome. It was a pivotal moment in church history because public dissent by theologians and eventually lay persons had not occurred previously.
Abortion was legalized when Dr. Smith was a student at Grinnell College. While doing sidewalk counseling, she came to a very personal, gut-wrenching realization.
“The only thing that stands between life and death is you,” she reflected.
Although contraception and abortion were viewed as two separate issues, she saw a connection between the two and came to the conclusion that contraception is “throwing women into the river” and was freeing for women. Influenced by her experiences as a young adult and Humanae Vitae, Dr. Smith decided that “my contribution was to defend the church’s teaching on contraception.”
According to Dr. Smith, “an absolutely fantastic book” is Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla before he became Pope John Paul II. He wrote that married couples participate in God’s procreation of a new immortal soul. The sex act makes parents out of people. Therefore, a couple shouldn’t engage in sex unless they are prepared to be parents. Responsible or conscious parenthood doesn’t limit parents but rather allows them to shape their lives in accord with their understanding of the nature and purpose of the sex act.
Although Dr. Smith noted a number of similarities between the culture of the 1960s and today, there is good news. Various writings by St. John Paul II, who had a passion for the church’s teaching on sexuality, Fortnight for Freedom by the United States Catholic Bishops, Natural Family Planning, and reform at seminaries were some of the areas cited by Dr. Smith. In addition, she highlighted recent groundbreaking research “What Catholic Women Think” by Mary Rice Hasson and Michelle M. Hill. The results of the study found that while only 13% of church going Catholic women completely accept the church’s teachings on family planning, acceptance doubles (27 percent) among young woman (18-34) who attend Mass weekly. It climbs still higher, to 37 percent, among women who both attend Mass weekly and have been to confession within the past year.
After the presentation, the audience lingered. As children rejoined their parents, attendees witnessed the genuineness of one of Dr. Smith’s statements: “Most people will say their children give them the most joy and meaning in their life.”
Father Andy Upah, associate pastor at Resurrection Parish and chaplain at Wahlert High School and Mazzuchelli Middle School, all in Dubuque, reflected on the presentation.
He said, “Humanae Vitae is a prophetic voice in the church we can’t overlook. I hope to be able to share it with students who are searching for the truth and to share it in a way that is appealing.”
Tom and Beth Gorsich and four of their nine children, from Immaculate Conception Parish, Cedar Rapids, talked briefly with Dr. Smith and had their photo taken with her. The family was animated when they shared what they will take away from the presentation.
As the conversation was drawing to a close, one of the teenagers in the family recalled a powerful statement Dr. Smith made during the presentation: “We need to help God populate heaven.”
Cover photo: Dr. Janet Smith speaks at St. Pius X Parish in Cedar Rapids July 22.