The “dignity of the human person” theme continues as the Council Fathers examine the topic of conjugal love and procreation in the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes, hereafter referred to as GS). Although there are no solutions offered for every circumstance or scenario, the pastoral constitution proposes Catholic principles that are later confirmed and expanded in Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae:
“The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships.” (Humanae Vitae, 1).
In a recent conversation I had with my 84-year-old father, he explained that these words of Pope Paul summarized well the perspective of both he and my mom as they went about “growing their new family” in 1955, some 13 years prior to the publication of the 1968 encyclical. The 1965 Pastoral Constitution (Gaudium et Spes) being examined here likewise echoed my parents perspective as follows: “… when there is question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, the moral aspect of any procedure does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives. It must be determined by objective standards” (GS, 51).
Following the birth of their firstborn it became clear that my mom would only be able to have babies by caesarian section. Back then, it was commonplace for Catholic mothers to retain the services of a Catholic doctor. Doctor O’Dea spoke tenderly to my mom, explaining that it would be impossible for her to have more children without being placed in mortal jeopardy. Without hesitation my mom spoke with my then Protestant father of the troubling news. My dad’s immediate concern was my mom’s health and well-being but he also realized immediately that no alternative existed but to follow “God’s plan.”
Although he would not formally prepare to become a Catholic for another six years, the Holy Spirit had already spoken to his heart and my dad was well underway to developing a strong Catholic persona. Somehow my parents understood that “sons [and daughters] of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law” (GS, 51).
Advised by her doctor not to have more children, less than a year later my mom was admitted to St. Clare’s Hospital for the birth of a second caesarian baby. Although my parents knew the risks involved and although anxiety was high, it did not diminish their joy when the news arrived that their family now included two healthy boys, the first being 11 months older than the new baby. The volume in the household suddenly increased as did the prayers of gratitude, not without the additional expenses and responsibilities for this young couple. Their material resources were limited to what my dad was able to earn as a taxi driver, and without any material support from extended family members, they surrendered themselves totally to God’s providence.
Three years later, my brother Wayne was born. This was an especially difficult time for mom and dad. As my mom remained seriously ill from her third C-section, Wayne came into the world with an array of significant medical problems. Knowing that he would not survive the day, my 29-year-old dad held his new born baby boy in his arms for some eight hours until the tiny infant took his last breath. Somehow my dad rose to the occasion and made necessary arrangements, not only for the child’s funeral but, before that, for the dying infant to be given new birth through the waters of baptism. Later, he would break the heart-wrenching news to my mom that the baby she carried for nine months had passed away. As painful as it was, both my parents again surrendered to God’s providence and found profound consolation in knowing that their baby did not die without the benefit of the sacrament of baptism, which opened the door to eternal life with God in heaven.
I came into the world as child “number 4” about 16 months later. As if my mom’s fourth evasive caesarian surgery was not enough, the health of their newest child was also compromised. The circumstances suggested that my fate would be similar to that of my brother before me. Unlike his gradual demise, however, this time, as the clock ticked onward, things became progressively better. My dad once explained that, although he had made a decision years before in his heart to become Catholic, it was during this critical time of holding my small, vulnerable body on the day of my birth that sealed his decision to call the priest and make necessary arrangements to commence his Catholic formation. I was baptized hours after my birth and I rallied. My mom recovered. My dad prepared to receive the sacraments.
Another 18 months would pass before my mom prepared for what would be her final C-section. For the fifth time, my dad worried intensely as his wife embarked upon another critical surgery. With four boys (three at home and one in heaven), it was the hope and prayer of my parents that their fifth child would be a little girl. Joy soon replaced the difficulty and hardship my parents endured of having children according to God’s agenda when the youngest in our family, my sister, was born. My dad often remarked that my sister was the “apple of his eye” because her little face was as rosy as an apple when she took her first independent breath.
I guess we all take things for granted when it comes to our own families. We assume that miracles and extraordinary events are things that happen to other people, not to us. Only in recent years have I taken the time to consider the details of my parent’s plight in relationship to the Church’s teaching on birth control. What the Second Vatican Council would later proclaim, “[that] a true contradiction cannot exist between the divine laws pertaining to the transmission of life and those pertaining to the fostering of authentic conjugal love,” (GS, 51) was already planted firmly in my parent’s hearts.
I often wondered how my mom knew the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. Perhaps it was a sermon she once heard on Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, reaffirming Catholic teaching on abortion and artificial birth control in response to the Anglican Church changing its traditional teaching on artificial contraception.
In any event, I would not be here if my parents [or grandparents] had not taken their vocation to the sacrament of matrimony seriously. Nor would my sister be here, who manages all the details of caring for elderly parents in addition to tending to her own personal and professional responsibilities. Nor would my nephews; my parent’s grandchildren, or their great-granddaughter enjoy the benefits of being alive. Why? Because neither of my parents are “first born” children. My dad is the youngest of six children. My mom is number 17 in a family of 18 children. Perhaps it was based on the experience of my parents and others like them that the Council Fathers were able to affirm it is “by the sacrifices and joys of their vocation and through their faithful love, [that] married people become witnesses of the mystery of love which the Lord revealed to the world” (GS, 52).
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit www.catholicspirit.com/columnists/fr-john-hillier/