Paul VI Institute Founder Asks, Why Me?

Reflects on Pope's 1968 Appeal to Men of Science

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By Karna Swanson

OMAHA, Nebraska, SEPT. 3, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Why would an anti-establishment medical student of the 1960s, who once seriously questioned the Church's teaching on pre-marital sex and divorce, take up the challenges posed by "Humanae Vitae" to men of science and make it his life's work? That's the question Dr. Thomas Hilgers posed on the 25th anniversary of the institute he founded as a direct response to that appeal.

Hilgers spoke Thursday at the international conference on the pastoral directives of "Humanae Vitae," which kicked off the four-day "Celebration of Love and Life" seminar organized by the Omaha-based Pope Paul VI Institute to mark its anniversary. 

Some 160 bishops, priests, doctors and laypeople were on hand Thursday for the conference, held in Omaha's Qwest Center, with nearly 150 registered for today's conference on NaProTechnology. 

On Saturday, the institute is expecting some 500 to attend a free Family Fun Day that will feature the launch of Hilgers' book titled "The NaProTechnology Revolution: Unleashing the Power in a Woman's Cycle." In the evening, Raymond Arroyo of EWTN will be the guest speaker at a gala banquet.

Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, the president of the Pontifical Council of Health Care Workers, will preside at the event's closing Mass on Sunday.

The Paul VI Institute aims to build a culture of life in women’s health care. Among other accomplishments, it has developed a method of natural family planning called the Creighton Model FertilityCare System and NaProTechnology. 

Hilgers gave a personal, and at times lighthearted, account of his journey in responding to the encyclical's appeal to scientists (No. 24), an area, he added, that he believes "has been greatly ignored."

The doctor explained that responding to Paul VI's challenge to men of science has been his life's work since he was 25, but characterized himself as "the last person in the world that you would think would respond to this."

Hilgers recounted that in his college days, he went through "a process for a couple of years asking questions" about pre-marital intercourse and divorce. He noted that his intention wasn't that of disagreeing with the Church or "rebellion," but that he just "wanted to think these through" so as to understand the issues.

"Eventually," he continued, "when I was done with that, I came out at where the Church was." Hilgers reflected that this experience, which led him to not think of the Church as "scary" or "dictatorial," may have prepared him for what was to come with the publication of "Humanae Vitae." 

After relating how he almost got kicked out of medical school, the doctor affirmed that he was "the epitome of the anti-establishment guy of the mid 60s." The difference, he conceded, was that "instead of protesting the Vietnam War, I was out protesting abortion."

More thinking

When "Humanae Vitae" was published in 1968, Hilgers said he was convinced that the Church would change its mind regarding its position on contraception. While admitting that he was more "shocked" by the reaction to the encyclical than by the document itself, he did acknowledge that "he may have missed something" in his thinking about contraception.

"I only had to read it once before it expressed basic truths that were magnetically compelling," he noted, adding later that he "realized the Church had greater insight than it was being given credit."

"After reading ["Humanae Vitae], and more importantly after believing it, and that is where faith comes into play, the ultimate conclusions of 'Humanae Vitae' were inescapable, and I wasn't even at the paragraph yet where it said you couldn't use contraception," Hilgers said.

When reading the pastoral directives, he said he was struck by the appeal to men of science: "[Paul VI] seemed to recognize that scientific work was still necessary to show that as the Church teaches, no true contradiction exists between the divine laws for transmitting life and those for fostering true conjugal love.

"Once one begins to understand the importance of the teachings of 'Humanae Vitae,' the challenge to the public authorities, to men of science, Christian spouses, apostolate of spouses, priests and bishops, becomes inevitable.

"I am deeply grateful for having responded to the appeal of Pope Paul VI to men of science; it has enriched my life in ways that, in spite of lots of struggles and difficulties [...] it has been meaningful, it has been joyful, it has been incredibly enriching. It has paid itself back in ways that you absolutely cannot imagine."

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On the Net:

Paul VI Institute: www.popepaulvi.com/