‘Humanae Vitae’ conference speakers urge courage in living teaching on sexuality

Damon Owens, keynote speaker for a dicoesan conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae," makes a point during one of his three presentations Aug. 18 at the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

Acknowledging that to question contraception in today’s culture is “like talking against toothpaste and deodorant,” speakers at a diocesan conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae” invited Catholics to approach the issue with an open heart and faithfully follow Blessed Paul VI’s “clear and true teaching on the meaning of human sexuality.”

“I invite us to be courageous today,” said Damon Owens, an international speaker and evangelist who presented three talks at the Aug. 18 conference that drew more than 100 participants to the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria.

“All of us have a responsibility to promote God’s plan” for human sexuality, said Msgr. Mark Merdian. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

While most in his audience already embrace and promote the teaching on human life issued by Pope Paul VI in the summer of 1968, Owens encouraged them and all Catholics to have “a willingness to wrestle with the things that have made it difficult to accept and understand contraception as the intrinsic evil that it is.”

Owens and Msgr. Mark Merdian, who gave the day’s opening talk, traced the changes in society that led to the issuance of “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”) on July 25, 1968. Subtitled “On the Regulation of Birth,” the document reaffirmed the church’s moral teaching on the sanctity of life, married love, the procreative and unitive nature of conjugal relations, responsible parenthood, and its rejection of artificial contraception.

While the document has been misunderstood and even ignored through the years, the speakers said it has proven prophetic and led to deeper exploration of the topic by Paul VI’s successors, most notably St. John Paul II who developed an entire Theology of the Body.


“All of us have a responsibility to promote God’s plan, especially for human sexuality,” said Msgr. Merdian, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Rock Island and the episcopal vicar for health care in the Diocese of Peoria. “It must be proclaimed fearlessly and with conviction. It’s not something to apologize for — it leads to truth, wholeness, and holiness.”

The conference was planned by the diocesan Office of Respect Life Ministry and Office of Evangelization and Faith Formation. Among those attending were parish pro-life representatives from across the diocese. The event took place between the 50th anniversary of the encyclical’s release and the anticipated canonization of Blessed Paul VI in Rome on Oct. 14.

The day ended with a Mass celebrated at St. Mary’s Cathedral by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC.

“With every passing year the prophetic witness of Pope Paul VI becomes more apparent,” said Bishop Jenky in opening remarks at the Mass. Noting that Blessed Paul VI will soon be declared a saint, the bishop said the pope who served from 1963 until his death in 1978 is “most worthy of honor and our listening to his teaching.”


Msgr. Merdian’s opening talk described the church and cultural setting for the issuance of “Humanae Vitae,” including the development of the birth control pill and the years of the Second Vatican Council.

Keynote speaker Damon Owens and Cecilia Soñé, diocesan director of Respect Life Ministry, bring forward the gifts at the conference’s closing Mass celebrated by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

While many, including the church’s own birth control commission, expected Pope Paul VI to relax the church’s teaching “out of compassion for married couples,” he instead proclaimed that “what the church has to offer is good for you, what the church has to offer will lead you to happiness and salvation and peace,” said Msgr. Merdian.

Pope Paul VI “foresaw five serious errors that would happen if contraception were accepted,” he said, namely an increase in infidelity, a lowering of moral standards, a lack of respect for human life, a lack of respect for women, and a breakdown of the family.

“We see them coming to pass in our world today,” said Msgr. Merdian.

He encouraged all Catholics to read “Humanae Vitae” — “it’s a very enjoyable read, not that difficult” — and suggested that the anniversary and approaching canonization present “a great time for parishes to do conferences” on the document and related teachings.
“It’s hard to do in a homily,” he acknowledged. But while many see the teaching in negative terms, “we have to make the message known in new ways with new ardor, new expressions, so that people will respond to this beautiful invitation about human sexuality.”


Meanwhile Owens, who is a former Natural Family Planning coordinator for the Archdiocese of Newark and is the founder of the “JoytoB” teaching ministry proclaiming the joy of marriage and family), agreed that it is time for an “honest dialogue” on church teaching regarding contraception, sterilization and abortion, which he called “three tips of the same spear.”

That dialogue, he said, must begin with a definition of contraception.

“We have a vocabulary problem,” said Owens. “We have to name it for what it is. To contracept is to deliberately act against a sexual act in order to render that sexual act sterile.”

The church’s response — led by Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II — is to declare that when men and women in marriage have sexual relations that they participate in God’s life-giving power.

Bishop Jenky greets Cheryl and Mike Flahaven of Wenona, who were among the more than 100 participants in the diocesan Humanae Vitae conference on Aug. 18. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

“And Lord help us if we poison that act with an overlaid act of contraception,” said Owens.

Owens cautioned not to misinterpret his bluntness “as a lack of awareness or sensitivity to the tenderness of these issues.” Noting he has been involved in marriage and family matters for 25 years, working with tens of thousands of couples, “the stories, the real lives, the hurts, their journeys are all in here,” Owens said, pointing to his heart.

“Yet for us today, I don’t want you to lose the real challenge of addressing issues that you may not have talked about or dared to ponder for decades,” said Owens. “We have a duty, a role, a mission, a vocation, a high honor, to hold up marriage in its truth — matrimony — whether we’re engaged in it personally or not. And that includes the grave munus of the transmission of human life.”

Serving as master of ceremonies for the day was Cecilia Soñé, diocesan director of Respect Life Ministry, who told the speakers “I think Paul VI is very pleased with you.” Various pro-life and family groups distributed information at booths at the conference.

Prior to the concluding Mass, participants observed a Holy Hour of eucharistic adoration at the cathedral. The homilist at the Mass was Father Matthew Hoelscher, chaplain of Alleman High School in Rock Island, who spoke on the wisdom of God and the marvel of creation.

“The more we study creation we realize what a providential love that runs throughout all of our lives and throughout all of creation,” said Father Hoelscher. “This providential force speaks of life. God brings life. He does amazing things.”

Bishop Jenky thanked Natural Family Planning providers in the diocese, the parish pro-life representatives, medical professionals, and “all who work to foster the Gospel of Life.” He especially singled out The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis and OSF HealthCare for being “always in the trenches” as they fulfill their life-centered mission.


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