Humanae vitae: Interrogation of seminarian George David Byers

angel face palm

Today is the 50th anniversary of the day after (26 July) Humanae vitae was promulgated by Pope Paul VI (25 July 1968). Who knew? To this day, The New York Times thinks that the date is 29 July as this is the date that the first copies were being passed around. Remember the days before the internet?

But don’t be mistaken. The rebels were ready. Just that quick some 600 self-proclaimed “theologians” (whose street cred was proportional to their teenage-esque rebellion), including Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, were ready to give their middle finger (it was just that discourteous) to now soon to be canonized Pope Paul VI, who was only doing what he had to do – and with love and enthusiasm – as the successor of Saint Peter.

The fog of war of evil against good that followed was constituted with the most self-congratulatory, self-referential, self-absorbed, Promethean, Neo-Pelagian, arrogant, non-thinking bullying imaginable. Let me provide you with an anecdote from the early-mid 1980s when I was a student of the great but not yet Cardinal, Carlo Caffarra, founder and President of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

I was a deacon at the time, and was required to give the famous “Monday evening homily” at the national seminary in Rome where I was residing. Some thirty visiting priests were concelebrating. It was the Feast Day of Saints Simon and Jude, Apostles. I spoke about the statues and stories of the martyrdoms of the Apostles as depicted in our parish church, the Cathedral of Rome, the Mother and Head of all the Churches (dioceses), named after the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran. I included lots of humor. There was a lot of laughter.

At the very end of the homily I came to the analogy, that disobedience to the living Truth of God Himself brings only violence and division, but if we obey the infallible magisterial interventions of, say, the Successor of Peter, then we will be granted the tranquility in our souls of unity, of the love which, in God, is the living Truth whom we call Jesus. As an example, in just a sentence or two, I mentioned Humanae vitae as a good example. Just as disobedience in the use of contraceptives and abortifacients provides an artificial division between the spouses – between physical unity and openness to life – throwing them on the fast track to divorce, just so does promoting such disobedience by the clergy put clerics and bishops at odds with each other, bringing about chaos in the Church, precisely as we had all witnessed in those years. We pray that we might witness to unity and truth and love as did the Apostles, as did Simon and Jude, said I. And I sat down. You could have heard a pin drop on the far side of the galaxy, for like three minutes, as it was the custom to provide some moments for reflection, but this was a rather unusually tense quiet, more like friends who were grieving for my predictable demise, enemies who were already plotting my demise, and, as I was to find out, of almost uncontainable joy of some of the visiting priests who rushed up to me afterward and even during the offertory in the sanctuary to thank me for the best homily they had ever heard.

For the next six weeks I would receive reports of how one of the formation directors, just signed on for three years as he was doing his doctorate in Rome, was bad-mouthing “the American” for what I had said, and that I needed to be stopped, and he was going to stop me. This was at nightly private poker games with the post-graduate priests and some select seminarians. My “spies” were scared for me. And they were right.

The rector at the time soon called me into his office and said that I was required to attend an ad hoc formation meeting at which I would be questioned about my “pastoral sensitivity” by the rector (RIP) vice-rector (now a Cardinal), the two new formation directors and myself, without the possibility of my having an advocate (read: witness) present. The meeting was set for 9:00 PM in the parlor across from the office at the main entrance. 9:00 PM passed. 9:15 PM passed. 9:30 PM passed. I could hear angry arguing, shouting even, among themselves in the rector’s office (that’s through the double doors of the receptionist’s office mind you). Finally at 9:40 PM they appeared, red-faced not with embarrassment for being late but because they were so upset with me and with each other. The interrogation was fully scripted with an outcome of damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

After some fairly softball questions about pastoral sensitivity, softball because I was allowed to explain my answer, it was then that the question came. But let me recount one of those softball questions, this one by the rector, so you get a sense as to the ridiculous nature of this inquisition. He said that he wanted to know about how I felt about the following hypothetical situation:

“Let’s say you get ordained a priest and the bishop puts you in a poor parish where no one puts anything into the collection, where very few speak English, where no one is a practicing Catholic or for that matter Catholic at all. What would you feel like?”

My response, which makes me laugh to this day:

“Well, let me answer this by way of anecdote from this past summer. I had, on my own initiative, visited prisons and gotten to know the various Catholic “chaplains”, whether lay or clergy, and, being invited by them to put my desires to the bishop, then asked the bishop just before returning to Rome, that after ordination at the end of this academic year, I would have as my first assignment being a prison chaplain, you know, where no one puts anything into the collection, where many speak Spanish or Arabic, where pretty much no one is a practicing Catholic or for that matter Catholic at all. How would I feel about it? I would just love it!”

The softball questions all went this way, but with a deleterious effect, because they were now white-hot with frustration, every question of theirs giving me a platform to shine while making them look like idiots, though not purposed on my part. It just worked out that way. This was especially the case with the poker playing formation director who evidenced himself as the one who had been shouting so much previously in the rector’s office. The angels are totally, hilariously awesome in their warfare. ;-) But then the question came, this one from the vice-rector now Cardinal. When he started this question he was interrupted by the others who were now jumping out of their skin with anger, they insisting to me, especially the poker player, that I absolutely had to answer this question of the vice-rector with a yes or a no, with no explanation. Without knowing what the question was yet, I immediately opened a discussion with the rector that for this to be an honest inquisition as to my pastoral sensitivity, I would have to be able to explain my answer if need be. This went on for five minutes but he finally caved to my request which he deemed to be reasonable. Otherwise, they would look pastorally insensitive to me, right? Heh heh heh. So, the vice-rector started in:

“Say you are ordained and a young lady comes to confession to you and says very piously that she is sorry for all her sins such as impatience but not for contraception, because her husband told her to do this and they feel financially strapped and there’s no possibility of not using contraception. Would you give her absolution or not?”

Again the poker player interrupted, so angry that I thought he was actually going to hit me so hard as to knock me backward in my chair right to the floor: “You HAVE to answer this yes or no!” I would be damned as pastorally insensitive if I simply said no. And if I said yes I would truly be damned by Jesus and they would figure, at any rate, that I was lying just to get ordained. Since I had no witnesses they could say whatever they wanted.

I appealed to the rector again and he said that I could explain my answer. I said that this isn’t quite the moment for extended classes on the matter, but that there is much literature in the back of the church to learn about these matters, and many couples in the parish who she could contact for support and instruction on all levels, including financial, and that there was no way I was going to deny her an absolution, but that for right now, to assist her in receiving the graces of our Lord fruitfully, we should delay for just a bit the absolution until we could do something that will truly help her in her life, both in her family experience and in regard to her friendship with Jesus and in view of eternal life. I said that I would want to be the priest for her, and not just try to win her friendship by ignoring her difficulties (which would only increase).

Outrageously, and I probably shouldn’t have been so triumphalistic, I immediately asked the rector if I was being reasonable in this answer, and he hemmed and hawed for minutes on end but then agreed that I had been reasonable in my answer. I then pressed it to ask if there was anything that any of them would like to add, subtract or change in my answer so as to assist me in being more pastorally sensitive. None of them could do it. That broke up the inquisition. I won. But I lost. I knew I had sealed my fate in being faithful to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Within weeks, in the middle of the year, they had me out the door simply saying that they would not put me forward for ordination to the priesthood. I asked the reason. No reason except that the rector has just signed on the one poker playing formation director and I didn’t think like him and there was no room for the both of us in the same seminary. The entire seminary was turned upside down, in turmoil, half the seminary for me, half against, and it was almost at the point of violence. I could give examples. It was bad. I said that I had nothing to do with any of that and it was all a surprise to me. It was all that one priest instigating this. It was I who had to go, he said. Within days I was to miraculously avoid being directly with, shoulder to shoulder with 19 others who were gunned down down. But I digress.

There are a thousand anecdotes like this in my life. It makes life interesting being faithful to our Lord, I once said, offending an ancient Chinese proverb that an interesting life is a curse. Instead, I think I misspoke in saying “interesting.” I think instead the word for me to describe what I would go through is “enthralling,” and that refers not to any circumstances, but what those circumstances would occasion: a very perceptible presence of our Lord Jesus. And I just absolutely love that. I smile broadly ear to ear this day, even laughing with joy at how our Lord was training me in by all this through the years. After all, it’s all about Jesus.

Let me be clear: Humanae vitae is about Jesus and His marriage with His Immaculate Bride the Church by way of His wedding vows of total self-giving: This is my body given for you in sacrifice, my blood poured out for you in sacrifice. Jesus doesn’t contracept the truth about male and female being the image of God. Jesus doesn’t contracept our redemption, our salvation. He doesn’t separate himself artificially from standing in our place, the innocent for guilty, making Himself one with us in this way so that we could made one with him, the temple of the Holy Spirit, with the indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity, members of the Body of Christ. I didn’t want to betray Jesus’ love. I don’t ever want to betray Jesus. It’s all about Jesus. Jesus is the One. Jesus is the only one. JESUS!

By the way, I made it: I’m a priest today. And I love it, every second of it. Because it’s all about Jesus. He’s the priest, the only priest. He’s the One. He’s the only One. JESUS!

5 Comments

Filed under Pro-Life

5 responses to “Humanae vitae: Interrogation of seminarian George David Byers

  1. pelerin

    I remember when the news of Humanae Vitae came out. Both my husband and myself were so relieved that the teachings of the Church were being upheld and it was only later that we discovered that others both laity and clergy did not feel the same way.

  2. Frances

    God bless you. A breath of fresh air.

  3. Joisy Goil

    What an amazing account. Your narration made me think back to the days soon after Roe vs Wade (mid 70’s and early 80’s) when I tried to promote Pro Life activities in my parish. The hostility you describe and the entrapment you sensed sounded like what I recall. I would never have believed it if I didn’t experience it. It blew my mind! It was a true learning experience. Made me realize that the phrase ‘mourning and weeping in this vale of tears’ was truer than I ever imagined. (also what the term ‘Church Militant” actually meant)
    I agree ‘interesting’ isn’t a strong enough word. How about “shocking”? All for Jesus!

  4. sanfelipe007

    Amen!

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