[Editor’s Note: This summer we have been marking the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical on human life and love promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI. Terry Polakovic, a cofounder of Endow (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women), serving as its president from 2003-2015, has been doing her part living and sharing the good news about love and flourishing in this and all of Catholic Church teaching. She’s author of Life and Love: Opening Your Heart to God’s Design, and spoke to Kathryn Jean Lopez.]
Lopez: Is it somewhat quaint at this point to be talking about the dangers of a “contraceptive mentality”? Hasn’t that ship sailed?
Terry Polakovic: Yes, I suppose that ship has sailed, for the time being, at least. This is why it is even more important to talk about it now. We have some rebuilding to do. We now have two generations that grew up under the “contraceptive mentality,” and they don’t know anything different. Those of us who do know the difference have to speak up about this and more than anything, we need to demonstrate it with how we live our lives. People will always be attracted to the good, the true, and the beautiful.
I think there is something much deeper about the “contraceptive mentality” than contraception. It is an entire worldview entailing the belief that everything is disposable. This mentality has lost the ability to know and understand true love.
About Humanae Vitae, you write: “The promulgation of this encyclical was perhaps the loneliest moment of Pope Paul VI’s pontificate.” Does that make his upcoming canonization all the more significant? For the teaching within Humanae Vitae and for everyone who feels alone and unappreciated even while doing their best in this world? And even with some courage and maybe even prophecy?
Yes, I do think so. When I was writing about Pope Paul VI, I could not help but feel for him and all of the pain he endured. In the book, I quoted Dr. Ralph McInerny when he said that “Paul knew the hardness of his teaching, but he also knew that it was not his, but God’s.” All of us feel alone and unappreciated at some point in our lives, and I think it would be very helpful to ask him to intercede for us, knowing all that he went through. By the time I finished the book, I had deep admiration for him. He was a very courageous soul.
When he canonized him, Pope Francis called John Paul II the pope of the family. How can he help us today?
Truthfully, I sometimes feel that Pope St. John Paul II is still with us, or maybe it is just wishful thinking. In a very real way, he knew what it meant to be a father. He took on great suffering for the sake of “his” family because he knew very well that the family was/is in trouble.
He used to say that the future passes by way of the family. As with Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II is a great intercessor when you are looking to someone who can help in times of family difficulties.
You see a lot of consistency between the last few popes on marriage and family? Does that matter to non-theologians?
Yes. I think it matters to non-theologians. People like me look to the Church for guidance. I personally love how Church teachings from different popes reinforce and build upon each other. It gives me great comfort.
How can we step up to the plate with Pope Francis’s message of mercy without confusing matters about truth on these fronts?
Yes, I do think we need to be clear about that. Real mercy does not allow someone to continue to live a life of sin because you are afraid to speak the truth to them in love. Honestly, that is blasphemy. I remember when I first fell in love with my faith, I was very awkward when I was trying to explain a matter of faith, particularly if the other person disagreed with me. Over time, it has gotten much easier. It takes practice.
As the McCarrick scandal continues to unfold, is there a role for women in a particular way to help lead renewal in the Church?
Women, particularly mothers, have a very keen interest in this. No woman would willingly befriend a priest who would hurt her children or send her son off to a seminary knowing that this type of behavior is what awaited him.
A friend of mine, Kathleen Beckman, has founded The Foundation of Prayer for Priests, which is based on adopting and praying for priests. It is a beautiful apostolate and indeed, prayer is always the first place you turn. However, many people, me included, think that our times demand that we do more than pray.
I don’t believe this situation is calling for another apostolate to help renew the Church. The Church has many wonderful apostolates, but none of them can force the hierarchy to change. The laity, both men and women, have to demand it. As do good and faithful priests. The good priests are the ones who are suffering the most. I agree with the people who are demanding a top-to-bottom audit. I don’t know what that looks like exactly, but there must be a way to enforce accountability.
It is here that I think women can play a role in helping renew the Church. Note that I am not at all thinking of women priests, but rather I am thinking that smart, balanced, faithful women should have a place at that table. They should be part of the solution. The idea of men and women working together to pursue the good is a very healthy thing. Life is supposed to work like that.
What is Endow? What’s special about it? Why is it needed? What has it taught you about life and love?
Endow is an international organization that I co-founded with two other women in 2003. It is an acronym for Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women. Endow develops study materials based on the teachings of the Catholic Church particularly as they pertain to women.
Catholic women are invited to use these materials in a small group study format. This is how I know that it is very important to tackle the more challenging aspects of our faith with one another. Over the years, I have witnessed many miracles come from those groups. I served as the president from 2003 to when I retired in 2015.
Pope Francis talks about joy. Can there truly be joy in this life and with all the rules that come with adhering to dogma?
Yes, definitely. Adhering to the dogma of the Catholic Church is the source of freedom, peace, and great joy.
What is it that you love the most about Catholic teaching on life and love?
Honestly, I loved reading and writing about how much Our Lord, through His Church on earth, loves us. I just found that in a very concrete way in working on this project.
Who are the women who have taught you about life and love the most compellingly? Who have walked with you and come before? Endow introduces women to the likes of Catherine of Siena and Edith Stein. Have saints had an impact?
On a personal level, I have had tremendous mentors in every position that I held throughout my career. Three of them, in particular, changed the direction of my life completely. Last year I finished writing a study guide for Endow on St. Teresa of Avila. She is a most compelling teacher.
Is it important not to drag millennials and the rest of the world back into old debates about the council?
I think it is important for millennials and the rest of the world to go back and study the Vatican II documents and to at least learn about the debates that took place, just from a historical perspective. Not only is it a part of our history, it has been greatly misunderstood. It would be very helpful for all Catholics to go back to the sources and to learn the truth about that time in our history.