‘How Can This Be?’: (In)fertility, holistic medicine and holiness

One Christmas season, my wife Elaine and I were eating lunch at a mall cafeteria, recharging for another round of Christmas shopping, when a dad and mom and their three very young and rambunctious kids were ushered by the waitress to a nearby table. My wife, being the sort whom never meets a stranger, soon struck up a conversation.

Eventually the four adults got talking about kids. At some point, the dad offered that the youngest of their children really shouldn’t be here, or words to that effect. After the couple’s second child was born, he explained, he had his “tubes tied” through a vasectomy. The couple believed that they were not ready for more children and had no moral problem at the time with the procedure.

So imagine their shock, he told us, when the mom became pregnant with their third child. In words with a scriptural resonance, he said that he asked the doctor, “How can this be?” Somehow the sterilization procedure had failed, a new life came into being, and the lives of the parents were changed.

The couple took this unexpected generation as a sign from God, and it altered their outlook about what is possible. Their faith deepened, they said, and they were glad, the mom and dad assured us, that the miracle happened. He had his vasectomy (as ineffective as it was) reversed, and they were from that point forward open to more children.

I recalled this story when I listened recently to an online television program produced by the Communications Office of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester. The December show, entitled “I Want to Have a Baby!” was hosted by the diocese’s communications director Ray Delisle, and featured a fascinating conversation with regular guest Worcester Bishop Robert J. McManus and special guest Dr. Paul Carpentier, a family physician and obstetrician from Gardner. The show can be downloaded to anyone’s computer from the Worcester Diocese Web site, http://www.worcesterdiocese.org.

Dr. Carpentier specializes in treatment for infertility that takes the whole person into account, using medicine in a way that respects the teachings of the Church. On the show, Dr. Carpentier recounted his experience in helping married couples find the cause of their infertility. Many of his patients have been able to have children through a compassionate regime of care called “Natural Procreative Technology” or Naprotechnology (NPT) Rather than going the route of creating babies in the laboratory through in vitro fertilization, NPT offers a different, holistic, and morally approved approach that sacrifices nothing in terms of effectiveness.

I have known Dr. Carpentier for a few years, first meeting him when he came to testify at the Statehouse on an issue involving sexuality education. The Worcester television show evidenced his caring personality, spiritual depth, and comprehensive level of scientific knowledge. His deep conviction that the tools of medicine and a respect for God’s dominion need not be incompatible motivates his work.

In the past, the Family Life Office of the Archdiocese of Boston has invited Dr. Carpentier to speak in the Boston area, and he remains a wonderful resource, especially for families faced with the difficult issue of infertility. His office, “In His Image” Family Medicine, can be reached by calling 978-632-6880.

The events of unwanted fertility and unwanted infertility are related to the extent that they challenge us to come to grips with the connection between technology, a holistic vision of the human person and holiness. Technological imperatives that override fundamental moral norms succeed only in fracturing our concept of who we are as human beings.

A person’s fertility or infertility becomes an isolated reality, cut off from the totality of that person’s being. Technology itself turns into the measure of right and wrong by tempting us with the argument that if some fix can be done, then it should be done, regardless of what that fix may entail morally.

A life lived by such an imperative squeezes away holiness. Yet God still can make his will apparent and operative in the seams of one’s life more effectively than crabgrass can find cracks in a sidewalk. The whole season of Christmas, celebrating God’s Incarnation in a world closed off by sin, testifies to the divine surprises that give birth to holiness.

The words of the dad related at the beginning of this column, “How can this be?” echo the same question voiced by Mary, the Mother of God, and indeed by anyone who is unexpectedly amazed by God’s way.

In the same fashion, those who seek to live by God’s will, and not by some technological imperative, can find encouragement in the witness of people like Dr. Carpentier and the patients he serves. To be holy is not to reject technology, but to put it in its proper place, at the service of the human person. Just when avoiding the wrong thing might seem to the faithful to preclude happiness, the right thing can be revealed, and fidelity finds its reward.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.