HUMANAE VITAE seen in the light of a Catholic life

Testimony of Clair Bergholler, Quantitative Analyst

Part I: Leaving the Church

Humanae Vitae states: “Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings – and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation – need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.” This passage is particularly troubling for me and others who experience the reality of life. Should we also prohibit people from learning how to carve a turkey, because dexterity with a knife would make it easier to kill? We learn how important free will is, yet here the Church uses the opposite argument to attempt to justify a decision she knew was not shared by the many Christian couples who had thoughtfully contributed their experiences.

Humanae Vitae further states: “In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization.” I was born to a father who had no inclination to be a father and a mother who despite her wishes to be loved by God and accepted in the Church, was never prepared to be a mother. My two brothers and I suffered great emotional neglect and abuse. My younger brother killed himself at the age of 16, after a heartbreaking conversation with my mother in which she dramatically promised to do every sacrifice to pay for tutoring lessons. I was raped at the age of 5 – I believe by my father (who did not cope well with abstaining from sex). A friend of mine, coming from a large family of Irish Catholics, struggles with trauma from being beaten up by his older brothers. They were poor, did not have enough food nor clothing – they would fight for every morsel at meals. The mother was so busy running the house and overwhelmed trying to ends meet that she would not interfere to appease the two older brothers abusing the younger siblings. My friend was smarter and understandably thinner than his older brothers- he was the frequent target of their physical and emotional attacks. Although he was accepted in a good state college, he dropped out in the last year. Unable to deal with the trauma from his childhood he was drinking heavily to counter the stress of exams. For a number of years he was homeless, barely surviving. At 37 he was able to turn his live around, finished college and now has a good job.

In my experience, Humanae Vitae, did not lived up to its promise of contributing to a “truly human civilization”. On the contrary, for people like me, born into highly dysfunctional families it brought unmeasurable pain – a pain I think was not part of God’s plan for me. Additionally, the encyclical letter brought harm to our society, by making a spiritual guidance into a moral code. Humanae Vitae states: “No member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her magisterium to interpret the natural moral law…” What does “natural moral law” mean? Are people that are ill suited to be parents immoral or unnatural? Isn’t part of a natural moral law to care appropriately for your children? Moral codes are implicit ranking of behaviors. Since there is no encyclical letter regarding the obligation to provide emotionally, spiritually and materially for your children, it seems that children are less valuable to the Church than parents blindly following the encyclical letters, some parents sacrifice the wellbeing of their children for their own salvation. If this sounds ridiculous, I will cite the favorite quote my mother cited when she was physically punishing me: “you must honor your mother and father”. She attended the primary school of the nuns of the Sacre Coeur – she was terrified of them. The zeal she showed in complying with Humanae Vitae – a fact she wore like a badge of honor, exhausted all her energy to be human and caring – I am still terrified of her and the judgmental responses that come from an education based on a “natural morality code”.

Part II: The long way back

After being raped at 5, I was raped at 16 – statutory rape. I learned later that the emotional abandonment by my father, the abuse of my mother and quite possible the early rape, predisposed me to be raped again – my fate was sealed even before I could read. Before I was nineteen, I had a son, from the statutory rape and a responsability way beyond my level of maturity – I grew as fast so I could fulfill my obligations as a mother. Until my son was grown up and married, I did not have time to find out who I was, what I wanted. Reading Thomas Merton in October 2001, I learned that humility means being the person that God intended you to be – that is our true personality. It is clear from that that we will be most happy if we are our true selves. For all of my life I have been unable to both fulfill God’s plan for me (being my true self) and be happy, I had such a wasted life, trying to survive everyday, whilst instead I could have been doing so much to help people. I have learnt also that one of the forms evil takes is waste – what a waste of life, what a waste of resources, my life was full of evil – not by my will – but poisoned early on by people who wanted to follow the law of the Church so they could feel good about themselves.

At the base of Humanae Vitae is exactly that mistake, rather than trusting each person to make a conscientious choice, through prayer, discernment, in close consultation with his/her spiritual director, it set out a one-size fits all rule.

Humane Vitae also assumes that the only way is the family way. Many people are simply not cut out to be parents, the responsible thing is for them not to have children. Yet, they can be loving partners and they should be allowed to have that love in their lives.

Additionally, many people coming from dysfunctional (Catholic) families are not prepared to join a partner in the wonderful union of spiritual partnership. However, I learnt that most people with less traumatic childhoods than me aren’t ready either. For example, many men who claim to be Catholic, lead double lives – they keep a ‘Catholic family’ not only for social acceptance, but also as a hedge: they choose a Catholic wife in the belief that there is a lower chance she may be unfaithful – they choose the sacrament of marriage as an insurance policy for their egos, but call it family stability – and then have affairs with adventurous women. In lower numbers, some of the Catholic mothers involved in such marriages, are the ‘fling’ partners of those men – they can not be adventurous in their own marriages, for fear of being considered morally loose. This is strictly anecdotal, collected from the adults I observed growing up as well as stories heard from others. I realize that Humanae Vitae’s call to men to be disciplined in the expression of their sexuality is an expression of good intentions to protect the ‘dignity’ of women. Reality is, it is not working – it cannot work without internal conversion of men.

Today, Pope Francis is revising the moral teachings of the church out of concern for the number of faithful people leaving the church. The concern should be on why they are leaving – and no it is not because we live in a sexed up society. Young people are pretty opened eyed about the limitations of sex – particularly after having celebrated a few Spring breaks in Cancun during college time. The Church is failing them as it failed us, the generation born in the beginning of the 60s, because, rather than attempting to understand human beings from an unprejudiced perspective and based on the scientific knowledge we have in psychiatry, neuroscience, etc, it is working in a vacuum. For example, most average professionals were able to predict that priests involved in sexual abuse were going to repeat their actions- paedophilia is an illness. We know, for example that some paedophiles asked to be neutered, if not physically, chemically – through hormonal therapy – in order not to repeat the offense. They are aware of how monstrous it is and make a moral choice in order to control the urge. Yet, I heard some priests say that the fact that paedophiles priests could not control their urges was demonic possession. I do not doubt the devil was at play – but it was in the willful ignorance of the effects of the affliction and perhaps in the arrogance to believe that everything could be cured through a miracle.

Most of our lives will be a learning process to get to the stage in which we can fulfill the will of God in every minute of our existence. Our vulnerability is constant, our failures mount yet, if we are courageous, we strive to improve. These words have been my guiding light:

“Courage is not merely one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue, precisely at its testing point, which is the highest point of reality.” C.S. Lewis.

“Every virtue reaches its testing point. As we grow in love, we are eventually called to love the unlovable. As we grow in faith, we reach a point where we must believe when there is no apparent evidence. The virtue of hope grows in us until the time when everything is dark, when circumstances are impossible, when the thoughts of despair tempt us. We go along steadily in loyalty and faithfulness until the venture collapses, others abandon the work, and point the finger of blame at you. Courage will carry us beyond these limits to virtue.” Michael Scanlan,T.O.R. (What Does God want?)

After some explorations in early 2001, in which I discovered Thomas Merton, I came back to the Catholic Church in December 2001, after attending several healing retreats lead by Father Agustin Sanchez Hurtado – a Jesuit priest, nephew of the Chilean Saint Alberto Hurtado (I hope this will ring a bell with Pope Francis and make him more receptive to my words). It was during that time that the repressed memory (2) of my rape finally emerged – bringing understanding and closure of some events in my life. Most of the work I did in the retreat with Father Agustin was about the Divine power of forgiveness as the building block of healing.

Nobody has been held accountable for the nightmare of the life I had – I do believe God will hold accountable those who prevented me from pursuing the plan He had for me, those who hindered me becoming the person He intended me to be. I do not say this as a victim. My words carry force precisely because rather than sticking to a role of victim I have work constantly – every minute of my life – to overcome the circumstances and the hurt. In doing so, I have not always acted according to the ‘moral’ teachings of the church – for example I selected to have pre-marital sex. I learnt early on how deceiving men can be. The biggest disadvantage women have is the lack of experience in the real world. My focus for many years has been to built a safe place for me. Today at 50+ I am still struggling – women are still the most vulnerable social group – I have worked hard all my life and I’ve been paid less wages than men and denied promotion, while having to support my son. There are a couple of things that did not happen in my adult life- I was not trapped in an abusive relationship and protected my son from any possible abusive stepfather (and his own abusive father) because I strove for financial independence.

My experience is a plea to the Catholic Church to abandon child abuse. My mother defends my father of the charge of sexually abusing me – because she was educated to be subservient to her husband and can not imagine an independent life. Pope Francis talks about supporting the poor – it is such an abstract concept – most of the poor are single mother families – women who have been through traumatic domestic abuse. How can the Church attempt to help the poor without making a better job in empowering women?

Recently commenting in a forum on Gaudium Evangelii and the confirmation that the Pope was taking women’s ordination off the table, one man defending gender roles gave this ‘beautiful’ sermon by Fulton Sheen as the ultimate reasoning against women’s ordination:

At around 18- 21 minutes Bishop Sheen compares the sperm with the Divine word – because the Divine word creates life. Apart from the scientific fact the the sperm and the egg create life, and not the sperm alone, his commanding voice saying that he was planting life in me when giving us the word of God gave me shivers – I felt violated. Is this the male power at the head of the Church? Frankly until then I had not thought twice about female ordination – simply because I thought it would never happened. I was back in the Church on my own terms – looking to fulfil my calling despite the weak and failed men performing mass each Sunday in the conservative town in South Caroline, were I’ve lived for the last 5 years (missing NY and the Capuchin brothers on West 32th Street every day). After listening to Fulton Sheen speak (apologies if I do not call him reverend) I seriously considered conversion to Judaism -as they treat women with more dignity than most Christian religions and have deep religious observance. I do not want to abandon the company of Saints like Padre Pio, St. Terese of Avila, St.Catherine of Siena, even St.Clare of Assisi – who in her sweet submission to God kept her female independence from the hierarchical structure of the Church. Blind acceptance of tradition, gender roles, ignorance of science, and a moralistic Church, rather than an evolving entity which is attuned to the wind that comes and goes – according to the words of St. Paul, are at the base of the break down of communication between the Catholic Church and its most faithful and enlightened laity – who are mostly female. Most enlightened males are skeptic or dissident clerics.


1. I highly recommend the book ‘Unspeakable Truth and Happy Endings: Human Cruelty and the New Trauma Therapy’ by Rebecca Coffey.

2. Because there is some controversy regarding recovering memories, let me say that there is objective proof that rape occurred – I was infected with gonorrhea at the age of 5 – today science regards this as proof of sexual abuse. My family still denies rape occurred. The judgmenal Catholic church whose main mission seemed to be upholding the “natural moral law” my parents grew up in did not prepare them to deal with situations like this.

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