Q&A: Book breaks open Church teachings on human life and love

Engaging Life and Love explores Humanae Vitae, seven other key papal documents

Roxanne King

Denver resident Terry Polakovic, co-founder of the Catholic women’s study group Endow, once heard that you can know all of history and what’s going on in the culture by following Church documents.

So when Polakovic was invited to write a book marking the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), the 1968 encyclical by Pope Paul VI on marriage and responsible parenthood, she explored what the Church has said about human life and love in eight papal documents spanning nearly 140 years. The result is Life and Love: Opening Your Heart to God’s Design.

Written for a popular audience and published this year by Our Sunday Visitor, the book is an engaging, enlightening read. Not only does Polakovic succinctly summarize the Church documents, she also includes insightful, brief biographies of the popes who wrote them and vividly portrays the social setting they were responding to. Life and Love includes questions at the end of each chapter for personal reflection or group discussion.

Polakovic recently spoke to the Denver Catholic about the book. The interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Denver Catholic: Your book includes a synopsis of eight documents written by six popes. Give a quick overview of it.

Terry Polakovic: It starts with Pope Leo XIII and Arcanum Divinae (On Christian Marriage) in 1880. That was the time following the Industrial Revolution and the spread of Marxism and socialism and the negative effects those had on the family.

From there it goes to Pope Pius XI and Casti Connubii (Of Chaste Wedlock, 1930). That was just after the roaring ‘20s; everyone wanted to let loose after the First World War. It was the beginning of Margaret Sanger, [founder of the American Birth Control League, today’s Planned Parenthood], and the time of the Lambeth Conference, where the Anglican Church decided to OK contraception. Before that, all the Protestant churches had been in line with the Catholic Church on contraception. I had an image of the Catholic Church standing alone as everyone went away.

Then Pope Paul VI and Humanae Vitae (On Human Life, 1968). He was trying to do everything he could to help married couples. His main issue [for the Vatican II “birth control commission” to study] was whether the birth control pill was contraceptive [and therefore intrinsically evil]. The commission’s majority report said it was, but the Church should still approve it. The minority report also came back that it was and the Church should not break with tradition. It took him two years to write Humanae Vitae. So much was happening during that time [of ‘60s upheaval]. He was in the midst of all that.

Then three documents of St. John Paul II: Familiaris Consortio (Christian Family, 1981),  Mulieris Dignitatem (Dignity of Women, 1988) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995). John Paul II is the great teacher of our time. His writings make everything good so beautiful and contrast it to the evil in such an incredible way.

Then along comes Pope Benedict XVI with Deus Caritas Est (God is Love, 2005). His question was: What is love? We’ve lost the meaning of love. Let’s look at what love is. No one expected that.

Finally, Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love, 2016). I was stunned by how absolutely beautiful it is — and very accessible. I think he’s left the Church a great gift.

DC: What surprises did you encounter as you did your research?

TP: Each document was written with so much love — yet they were written by completely different men with different backgrounds and different styles. I could really feel their love for the Church. And they were not afraid to express the Church’s teaching.

I could have just written about the popes; they are so interesting. Pope Leo XIII in particular. I don’t know why he’s not a saint — he’s incredible. In unpacking Arcanum Divinae, I felt it could have been written today.

Pius XI: I picture him as a very solid man, even physically. He had been a seminary professor, then a librarian for 30 years, and then a diplomat. Then, in four years, he’s elevated to papal nuncio, archbishop, cardinal and pope!

Blessed Pope Paul VI was fascinating. He wanted to be a missionary. He did travel [to six continents, more than his predecessors] but Vatican II was his particular journey. He suffered at the foot of the cross terribly after Humanae Vitae [for not liberalizing Church teaching on contraception]. I’m sure this is what got him to heaven. (Paul VI will be canonized on Oct. 14.)

St. John Paul II did so much on behalf of the family with his writings, the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, all his teaching and his suffering. He was shot [May 13, 1981, the day he was to announce the JPII Institute, and suffered poor health thereafter]. He saw that his mission was to suffer for the family.

Benedict XVI: His document Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) turned his whole pontificate around. People saw him differently after that, not as “God’s Rottweiler.”

Pope Francis is living the vision [of future darkness and evil] that Pope Leo saw coming. He wants everyone [who’s left the Church] back. He realizes it’s going to take time, it has to be pastoral, and it has to be one-on-one encounters.

DC: Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the Church’s prohibition on contraception. The encyclical was controversial when it was promulgated and it continues to be misunderstood today. What would you most like people to know about the document?

TP: The medicine, if you will, for some, it’s very bitter and they didn’t want to take it. They couldn’t hear [the truth]. Still some people can’t hear it, yet everything Pope Paul VI said [about contraception’s effects: lowering of morality, loss of respect for women, misuse of contraception by public authorities, disregard of limits to man’s dominion over his body] came true! He prayed so much. The truth is hard, but not too hard. God gives you grace.

DC: What do you hope people take away from the book?

TP: A new appreciation of the Church. A second look — not only for them but also for people they know, to say to them: Read this, it may not be what you think. I hope it changes lives.

When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, people were saying the Church isn’t relevant. He said, “We are relevant.” And we are relevant to the world. More than ever.

COMING UP: The splendor of love banishes darkness

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We live in a culture that is very confused about love, particularly the sexual aspect of love. This confusion, combined with our fallen human nature, is deeply hurting many people, but God’s love and his plan for human sexuality shines a brilliant light into this darkness. To share these beautiful truths and to help guide the people of northern Colorado, I have published a pastoral letter called The Splendor of Love.

This coming July will mark 50 years since Blessed Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae and the aim of The Splendor of Love is to celebrate the gift of that teaching and to affirm the great beauty of the Church’s consistent teaching throughout the centuries on married love.

Since Humanae Vitae was published 50 years ago, American society has experienced both positive and negative developments.

On the positive side, the Church’s teaching on human sexuality has been deepened by the insights of Humanae Vitae, St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and advances made in Natural Family Planning.

On the negative side, we have witnessed the fulfillment of Blessed Paul VI’s predictions about how widespread use of contraceptives would lower moral standards, harm relationships between men and women, and be used as a coercive tool by governments. We have also experienced things that the Holy Father didn’t foresee: a spike in abortions, the spread of STDs and a decline in birth and marriage rates. More recently, the widespread availability of pornography and a hook-up culture facilitated by improved communications methods have contributed to further turning our sexuality into a kind of consumable product or form of entertainment.

It is precisely for such a wounded and distorted world that Jesus was born. In Christ, the love of God became incarnate and illuminates our lives today, radiating through our families and into society.

The Church’s teaching on human sexuality changes lives, as I experienced when I was Bishop of Fargo. One day I received a letter from a young woman which said:

“I am writing to you today to thank you and to ask you a question. I have never met you. When I was told that we would have to take a full course of NFP over a 3-4-month period for our marriage preparation, I was not happy. However, after the course, which included the Theology of the Body, I was filled with joy, and the question I have for you, bishop, is: Why did I not receive this valuable teaching in high school? It would have saved me much heartache and confusion in my college years. I have shared the teaching with my younger sister who is in high school so she doesn’t make the same mistakes I made.”

The message she received was that her sexuality is a gift, and that properly used, it reflects the love of the Trinity, giving her great dignity. Furthermore, the “language” of the marital act communicates to her spouse that her love involves her whole being, it holds nothing back, is faithful and is fruitful.

Although the secular culture says that there is no objective truth, we are made for the truth, even if living according to the divine truths about sexuality is challenging. In the Gospel, Jesus teaches us, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Many in our culture consider the Church’s teaching to be bad news, a burden and source of repression, but we must help them see by the witness of our joy and true freedom that it will help them overcome the many burdens and wounds that follow from broken families and sexuality. Jesus desires our happiness and asks us to share it with others.

None of this is possible without first knowing and experiencing the love of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We must fortify ourselves with the grace he gives us in the sacraments and prayer and seek ongoing conversion. With this solid foundation, the splendor of God’s love can shine even more brightly in our hearts and enable us to imitate the generous, sacrificial love found at the heart of the Trinity, and at the heart of the Cross. It gives us the grace to live like Christ, to embrace our sufferings by uniting them to his cross, and to find true happiness in giving ourselves away in love.

May God give you courage, perseverance and joy in living out his plan for married love and human sexuality!

To read Archbishop Aquila’s pastoral letter visit: archden.org/archbishop/pastoral-letters.