Thomas Hilgers, MD, founder of the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction speaks about his mentor
The Church canonizes a pope, not a papacy, as the saying goes, but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the man from the office he holds. Pope John XXIII’s canonization seven months ago amounted to a public declaration of the worth and validity of Vatican II, with which Pope John XXIII was so strongly identified. And when Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul VI this past Sunday, it was as if the current pope put to rest all doubts about the Church’s continued adherence to Pope Paul VI’s most infamous encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which affirmed the Church’s stance against artificial birth control.
The timing of the canonization could not have been more powerful. The Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which took place from October 5 to October 19 in Rome, brought us images of cardinals raising their voices, challenging each others’ views and intensely debating issues that to many of us seem undebatable – the Church’s doctrinal opposition to homosexual acts, sex outside of marriage, and divorce and remarriage outside the Church. In his closing speech on October 18, Pope Francis complimented the bishops for speaking their minds and criticized both “traditionalists” for their “hostile inflexibility” and “progressives” for their “deceptive mercy.” In light of calls for the pontiff to pick a side in the debates, he pointed out what he saw as flaws on both sides equally.
But Pope Paul VI’s beatification, which took place at the closing Mass of the Synod on October 19, displayed unity and unalloyed respect for a man labeled as a traditionalist and a progressive – a traditionalist for his proclamations on birth control and a progressive for his support of Mass in the vernacular.
“Few people understood how comprehensively he saw things,” noted Deacon Scott Dodge of the Cathedral of the Madeleine. At Pope Paul VI’s beatification, Pope Francis praised his predecessor’s heroic virtue in “hold[ing] fast with farsightedness and wisdom – and at times alone – to the helm of the barque of Peter.” If the beatification signified anything about Pope Francis’ plans for the future, it signaled an intent to stay the course, and not change what cannot be changed.
Similarly, the final report of the Synod mentioned the need for a positive reception of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, a reception which few Catholics have been willing to give it. One man who was ahead of the curve in this respect is Dr. Thomas Hilgers, who has based his entire medical career on answering the call of Humanae Vitae.
While a senior in medical school, Dr. Hilgers read the encyclical and became an “instant convert,” as he explained to me in a videoconference from Rome where he had participated in the beatification ceremony.
At the death of Pope Paul VI in 1978, Dr. Hilgers vowed to create an institute that bore the late pope’s name – the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction. In 1985, Dr. Hilgers broke ground on the institute. And this year, he was invited by the Vatican to read the prayers of the faithful in English for an audience of more than 300,000 attendees at the historic occasion of Pope Paul VI’s beatification.
What impacted Dr. Hilgers the most about Humanae Vitae were the calls to action to medical professionals and men of science, encouraging the development of modern methods of natural family planning. Dr. Hilgers went on to create the Creighton Model of fertility care, which blends family planning with reliable diagnosis of reproductive disorders, and NaPro Technology, which provides moral medical solutions to those disorders. He dreams of one day finding a cure for infertility based on these methods, he said.