In this year of the 50th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae (Pope Paul VI, On Human Life), I’d like to share our family’s experience with how this encyclical shaped our decision making with regard to responsible parenthood.
“Responsible parenthood… has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.”
I drifted in and out of consciousness in the ambulance. I didn’t have much time for retrospective thoughts, except “Please God, I can’t die. I don’t want my little boys growing up without a mom.” I was bleeding internally, the complications of ectopic pregnancy surgery two weeks previous, and quickly becoming weaker and weaker. Waking up later in the recovery room, I was thankful to be alive.
“You should not be having any more children.” The words were harsh and at first, we took them as truth. I was capable of having more, but after two ectopic pregnancies and complications from one of the surgeries, we were told that we must limit our family to three boys. One of the doctors suggested that I be put on hormonal contraception. He later advised me to have my remaining fallopian tube tied. The physician wasn’t the only one to give the ‘order’ to stop having children. Well-meaning relatives and friends felt it was their duty to tell us that we should not get pregnant again. “You don’t want to be irresponsible, do you?”
“It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God…”
It became evident, as we dialogued with both the physicians and the well-meaning relatives and friends, that they were concerned only about my physical health. Most of them cared little, if at all, for my/our spiritual well being. And, initially, in those first few weeks after my surgery, we felt that we ought to listen to the “doctor’s orders.”
However, as the months went by, I began to regain my strength. We continued using NFP in the most conservative way, often adding one or two days to the rules for extra security. A year later, with heaviness in my heart, I thought of the future and the fact that we would not have anymore children. I wondered whether God was calling us to actively seek another pregnancy. My husband and I discussed it, then brought our concern to our spiritual director, explaining to him that the doctor told us that we should not have any more children. “James and Ellie,” he said, “that is a decision to be made between the two of you and God.” He encouraged us to pray about it and he further recommended that we talk to a faithful Catholic doctor. We knew of a Catholic physician through a neighboring homeschooling community. Her response after reviewing my file was that we could try for more children, but that I would need to be monitored carefully in the first several weeks to confirm that it wasn’t another ectopic pregnancy.
“… a right conscience is the true interpreter…”
For the next several months, we prayed together. We deeply desired another child, but we did not want to be careless or irresponsible. After much prayer and discernment, and weighing all the risks, we decided to actively seek another pregnancy.
“…the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities…”
A year later, we were still not pregnant. We felt at peace with our decision to seek another pregnancy and, although disappointed, we trusted that God knew what He was doing. Eventually, we stopped charting. Another eight cycles went by with no pregnancy and I began to sell off most of my baby furniture. A few weeks later, it dawned on me that I hadn’t had a period in six weeks. The next morning, I took my temperature and it was 98.9. After 18 months of saying no to us, God was saying yes and blessing us with another eternal soul. I was thrilled that another new life, the fruit of our love, had begun, and would be sheltered lovingly in my womb.
With the blessing, however, soon came extreme suffering. I began having debilitating migraine headaches, and some days I could not get out of bed. Worse than the physical pain, however, was the emotional suffering. Doctors, well-meaning friends and relatives told us that we were being “irresponsible” and “selfish,” and that if I was suffering, “I had asked for it.”
At 30 weeks, our unborn baby was six pounds and I had already gained 50 pounds. That might not seem like much, but with my four-feet-nine-inch frame, it meant that I could not drive (the seat had to be pushed back so far to allow for my large stomach that my feet couldn’t reach the pedals) and I could not walk the last six weeks of the pregnancy.
Our son, Adam, was born eight weeks later at nearly ten pounds. The pro-life Catholic doctor who delivered Adam by C-section told me that we could try for another baby someday, but that the pregnancy would again have to be closely monitored. Three years later, our youngest son, Paul was conceived after only one month of trying and born just two days before my 40th birthday.
“… recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.”
The words of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae courageously proclaim the truth of responsible parenthood. The decision to have or avoid another child remains a decision between the couple and God. No one else ought to make such a life-changing and important choice because no one else will have to endure the consequences (and joys), nor will anyone else have to stand before God someday and explain their actions.
Although we could have used NFP to avoid pregnancy permanently and to limit our family to three sons, we chose to listen to our hearts, to answer God’s calling, and to seek more children. When I consider that our two youngest sons (now ages 19 and 22) might possibly not be here today, my heart becomes heavy. Both are unique, talented and amazing human beings who have already given so much to our family and to society. I am grateful to God – and to Blessed Pope Paul VI – because I can’t imagine our family — and our world — without them.
Copyright 2018 Ellen Gable Hrkach
In John Paul II’s encyclical, Familiaris Consortio, (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), he states (p. 45) “The Church is called upon to manifest anew to everyone, with clear and stronger conviction, her will to promote human life by every means and to defend it against all attacks, in whatever condition or state of development it is found.”
Our society has become a culture of death. This is most especially evident now that Ireland will be reversing its anti-abortion laws because of a recent vote. Morality is not dependent upon the majority rule. Murder of the unborn child will always be wrong.
“The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless. If you want equal justice for all and true freedom and lasting peace, then defend life.” St. John Paul II
Here in Canada, since there is no law against abortion, killing an unborn child is legal right up to the moment of delivery. Some contraceptives are actually abortifacient (cause early abortions), rather than preventing conception. In certain parts of the world, pre-born baby girls are being killed by the thousands simply because they are female.
We need to fight against the culture of death by building a culture of life. Here are a few ways to do so:
Prayer and Fasting
Never underestimate the power of prayer and fasting. Daily Mass, the daily rosary, a weekly fast (especially on Fridays) and other forms of prayer have more effect than we can possibly realize. Spiritually adopting a baby in danger of abortion (http://www.spiritualadoption.org/) is a beautiful way we can build the culture of life. Try to recite the Litany of the Saints daily. We can never know the effect that our prayers have had (until we die), but be assured this is one of the most important ways to build a culture of life.
Chastity, NFP and Openness to Life
All Christians (not just Catholics) are called to practice chastity and be open to life. Being chaste before marriage and practicing marital chastity (faithfulness) is essential for building a culture of life. Contraception is “intrinsically evil,” (CCC 2370) it harms marriages and separates couples physically and spiritually. Natural Family Planning (www.ccli.org) is a safe, moral and effective way to avoid and plan pregnancies.
Make sure that your voice heard. Register to vote and vote often and whenever the opportunity arises. This can be no more evident than in our upcoming presidential election. Although I have been living in Canada for 36 years, I am still a US citizen and I have continued to vote in US Federal Elections.
Corporal/Spiritual Works of Mercy
Performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy will also help to build a culture of life because these works will help build spiritual character. When we are closer to Christ, we are closer to a culture of life.
The corporal works of mercy, based on Matthew 25:31-36, are: 1. feed the hungry 2. give drink to the thirsty 3. clothe the naked 4. shelter the homeless 5. visit the imprisoned 6. care for the sick 7. bury the dead.
The spiritual works of mercy, commanded or encouraged in many places Scripture, are: 1. admonish the sinner 2. instruct the ignorant 3. counsel the doubtful 4. comfort the afflicted 5. bear wrongs patiently 6. forgive all injuries 7. pray for the living and dead.
Peaceful Pro-Life Events
Attend peaceful pro-life events like the National March for Life (in the USA it is held every January; in Canada, it is held every May), the Hike for Life and other Pro-Life rallies.
Patience and Charity
It’s important to be patient and charitable when speaking to, interacting with or debating with those who are pro-abortion. Many of these fiercely pro-choice women have had abortions.
St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “If you judge someone, you have no time to love them.” Try not to be judgmental of the person (always separate the person from the sin). In some cases, these women were coerced by their partners or parents (those who should’ve been protecting them) into having an abortion.
Be a Good Example
Being a good example of Christian virtue is another great way to build a culture of life. Volunteer at a pro-life women’s shelter, embrace faithful Catholicism and donate money to causes that build the culture a life.
If each of us does our own part, we can help to rebuild a culture of life, one that is an antidote for our current culture of death.
Copyright 2018 Ellen Gable Hrkach
“Love that leads to marriage is a gift from God and a great act of faith toward other human beings.” St. John Paul II
Today, my husband and I celebrate 36 years of marriage.
Happy anniversary to my husband, James, who has held my hand through the births of our five sons, cried with and consoled me through seven miscarriages, has been faithful to me through good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. He makes me laugh with his goofy impressions, and I am in awe of his amazing talents. I am truly blessed and honored to have him as my sacramental partner in life, and I will be forever grateful to God for bringing us together in the most unusual circumstances!
And how do NFP couples celebrate their anniversary?
Stealing Jenny is now available as an audio-book. Special thanks to narrator Lisa Reichert, who was incredibly easy to work with!
In this year of the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, here is another reprint of mine from three years ago.
Thus the couple, while giving themselves to one another, give not just themselves but also the reality of children, who are a living reflection of their love, a permanent sign of conjugal unity and a living and inseparable synthesis of their being a father and a mother.” St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World)
Children are indeed a “living reflection…a living and inseparable synthesis” of a married couple’s love. This can be evident physically (as children often look like a combination of both parents), but is evident spiritually and emotionally as well.
It is also been said that the greatest gift you can give to your children is to love your spouse.
James and I have been blessed with five sons (now ages 19-30) but we have also faced the heartbreak of losing seven babies through miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy. Born or unborn, each of our 12 children is an unrepeatable and eternal sign, an outward expression, that we love one another.
This truth that children are a “living reflection” of a couple’s love was not something I fully appreciated until a trip to the beach many years ago.
It was a beautiful July evening and our sons (then ages 4-16) were running and playing in the sand, their laughter like sweet music to our ears. The sun was setting and the sky a brilliant pink and orange, reflecting off their bodies as they ran in the sand. Watching them, I had a ‘light bulb’ moment. “Those children exist because we love each other,” I whispered to my husband. James, ever wise, said, “And because God loves us. Pretty awesome, eh?”
Precisely because of the truth that “children are a living reflection of their love…a living and inseparable synthesis…” divorce can have a negative impact on the children (even adult children). While separation is sometimes a necessity if there is abuse, divorce is too often used because a couple “stops loving one another.” We all have a choice to love.
As a “permanent sign of conjugal unity,” a divorce can sometimes make a child feel like he is being torn in two directions. My husband, whose parents separated when he was 16, said that is exactly how it feels. So when we became engaged, James (only 18 at the time) said, “Ellie, are you sure you want to be married for the rest of your life? Because we will be together for life. We will never get a divorce. I do not want to put my kids through that.” Although we have experienced ups and downs, challenges and loss, we both know that divorce would never be an option.
A Catholic couple we know was facing divorce court. They had lived together before marriage and had used birth control for many years, eventually drifting apart. They had tried secular counseling, but it didn’t seem to work. Even before physical separation, some of their children had begun to show signs of depression and irritability. They agreed to sit down and speak with a priest. This priest urged them to try one more time, and he gave them books on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. While this is a simplification of their story, they eventually rediscovered their love for one another and are now happily married. They still face challenges, but their love for one another is evident in their relationship with each other and their children.
It is awesome to experience the gift and wonder of new life, as children are indeed the illustration and reflection of a married couple’s love. This love for one another is the greatest gift you can give to your children.
My story of love, loss and conversion is the basis of my novel, Emily’s Hope, which is available on Kindle and in print.
Copyright 2015 Ellen Gable Hrkach