Open Your Heart: Reflections on Humanae Vitae, 50 Years On

Terry Polakovic
We need to speak loudly about the love between a man and a woman and about marriage, sexual intimacy, and openness to children.

I first met Terry Polakovic when she ran Endow, a group for women who want to learn more about Catholic Church teaching on marriage and family and life and love and God. Endow often uses writings of great and holy women such as Catherine of Siena and Edith Stein. Polakovic is now the author of  Life and Love: Opening Your Heart to God’s Design. She spoke with me about what she’s learned from her time at Endow and about her life thus far in the Church.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae turns 50 this month and we’re still fighting, it would seem, the same battle about truth and the human person. What’s the point of revisiting a document, from a half a century ago, that wasn’t easily received then and is an even harder pill to swallow now, when, gosh, never mind about men and women and how they relate, we can’t even tell boys they are boys and girls they are girls?

Terry Polakovic: Yes, that we are still “fighting” about this is exhausting, and it should be a heartbreak for every Catholic. After 50 years, this deep division within our Church remains. In fact, I have recently learned that some very prominent Catholic universities are currently teaching that Humanae Vitae is not yet a “settled issue.” Not only is this tremendously destructive for the entire Church, it is also poisoning another generation.

That being said, I really believe that it is time for those who acknowledge the truth of Humanae Vitae to bring it out of the closet. We have learned a lot in 50 years, and we need to recognize that and speak openly about it. I believe that it is definitely time for priests to start talking about it from the altar. I don’t recall that I have ever heard a homily on this subject. It is also way past time for laypeople to discuss it among themselves. I know for a fact that when a group of laypeople study it together, something happens. It forces them to talk about their reservations, fears, misunderstandings, etc.

I think Catholics have a duty to share this, if for no other reason than that we can’t even tell boys they are boys and girls they are girls. Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body must be shared over and over again. We must keep the narrative alive for the sake of our children.

Lopez: Do you see in Me Too and the general confusion and misery in the world today an opening to recast the truth that Paul VI was trying to communicate?

Polakovic: Yes, I definitely do, but it is going to take time. This is one reason I think that dragging up all the old arguments about Humanae Vitae is so destructive. It confuses people, and it is meant to do that. This is why there need to be strong voices speaking out against the confusion.

Lopez: Still, is there any way to try to communicate any of this without looking like we’re trying to turn back clocks?

Polakovic: I don’t think it is such a bad thing to want to turn back the clocks. The future looks bleak. For every reason in the world, we must return to a saner time. I suppose we can continue to think of new and creative ways to communicate this message, but the important thing is to speak the truth in love.

Lopez: Both in the encyclical and in the message to women at the end of the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI addresses all people “of good will” — he wasn’t looking to leave anyone out. Why is that significant?

Polakovic: I think this is beautiful because the Church is, indeed, always reaching out to all people of goodwill, not just Catholics. There are many things we can all agree on, so why not include as many people as we can? It is very wise, actually.

Lopez: “The human person is called to the vocation of love, and that vocation demands a total gift of self. Anything less violates the inherent dignity of the human person and the call to love as expressed in the institution of marriage.” Can a celibate priest ever successfully communicate this message? Can we even talk about love without addressing gay marriage and so many modern-day conceptions of love that are not “one man and one woman until death does them part”?

Polakovic: A celibate priest can definitely communicate the meaning of a “total gift of self.” In fact, I have known many excellent priests who have given everything for the people they serve. Every day, they make a “sincere gift of themselves” for other people.

Truly, the answers you are looking for are in the Church. Pope Francis has reminded us that the Church is like a field hospital.

Yes, I definitely think we can talk about love without addressing gay marriage and other “conceptions of love.” Today our world is so fragile that we dare not even teach the truth without the fear of leaving someone or some group out. There is something very wrong with that. That is what I have been trying to say here in this interview. We need to speak loudly about the love between a man and a woman and about the gift of marriage and sexual intimacy and openness to children.

Certainly, the point is not to hurt someone, but by not speaking openly about the gift of intimacy between a man and a woman, we are hurting many people. As a person who has had a gay brother (who has since passed away), I personally believe that we have gone way off the spectrum on this subject. It is in fact causing tremendous harm and confusion among young people in particular.

Lopez: Isn’t this messaging all the harder given the recent news about Cardinal McCarrick and whatever is about to come from Pennsylvania? It suggests that the scandals aren’t completely a thing of the past.

Polakovic: Well, I think this is a different subject. The message of Humanae Vitae is rooted in the truth of Jesus Christ, not Cardinal McCarrick. That being said, the ongoing scandals are extremely discouraging. Each of us has a duty to protect his or her our own soul and the souls of the people we love. If there were people who knew about this and they didn’t speak up, I believe that they are just as liable, because of the great damage that was done to innocent people and the Church in general.

Lopez: What are the first steps to “opening your heart to God’s design,” if your life is looking a little like a mess of heartache right now?

Polakovic: The book is meant to be a book of hope for all of us who are looking for a little help dealing with the challenges of life, particularly through the guidance of the Catholic Church. I try to give the Church and her teachings a very human face, which is one of the reasons that I tell the personal stories of the popes who wrote each of the documents that I included.

If your life is looking “a little like a mess of heartache right now,” the first thing you need to do is turn to the Church. Truly, the answers you are looking for are in the Church. Pope Francis has reminded us that the Church is like a field hospital. For Catholics, a very good place to start getting your feet back on the ground is in the confessional.


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