Matt C. Abbott
'Amazing Grace for Those Who Suffer'
By Matt C. Abbott
January 28, 2010

The following is a true — and quite moving — story (minus footnotes) from the book Amazing Grace for Those Who Suffer, authored by Jeff Cavins and Matthew Pinto. This collection of 10 true stories "will make you laugh, cry, and show you the power of God's healing grace. They address the age-old question of why a good God would allow people to suffer and how good can come out of evil. Here you will read about ordinary people who endured great hardship and discovered hope and healing through God's amazing grace."

Many thanks to Matthew Pinto of Ascension Press for allowing me to reprint this chapter.

From Death to New Life: Dr. Kim Hardey

It was supposed to be a typical Thursday at work. In my job as an obstetrician-gynecologist, May 3, 1990, was a "call day," which meant that my primary responsibility would be to deliver babies and handle emergencies. I had anticipated for some time the 6:00 a.m. office meeting, where my three partners and I would each receive about $20,000 in bonus money. For doctors practicing in the small town of Dothan, Alabama, this was more than pocket change.

Money had become very important to me in the months prior to this bonus. I had come to see how I could lose everything I had worked for in a single lawsuit — even if I were innocent. I had recently won a major malpractice suit against me that had made national news, but I won only because the jury looked at the facts, which were clearly on my side. What if another jury ignored the facts? I would lose everything, and my family could be in debt for the rest of our lives. This haunting experience showed me how vulnerable a doctor can be in this litigious age.

So I began to hunker down, work very hard, and save money. I was not motivated by greed but by a fear of losing everything in a fractured legal system. I had plans to retire in ten years and live off my investments on a tropical island, where there would be no lawyers. My plan required that I invest $10,000 in bonds every month. Not only was I on schedule, but this bonus would be enough to make my next two payments.

There was a second very important part to this master plan: no more children! My wife, Bonnie, and I had been married for ten years. I did not want anything to interfere with my early retirement at the age of forty-six. So we used the diaphragm as our mode of contraception. We could definitely afford the two children we already had — Brad, nine, and Jennifer, seven — but no more!

It was Brad who would surprise me that early morning in May. As I walked toward the front door, ready to leave at 5:30 a.m., he asked me if I could sit down with him as he ate a bowl of cereal. My initial thought was to say no, thinking that nothing could delay my office meeting. Since doctors had to start surgery at 7:00 a.m., all meetings had to begin promptly at 6:00. My partners would not appreciate it if I were late. But for some reason I felt compelled to stay. So Brad and I talked for about ten minutes as he ate his bowl of Frosted Flakes.

The office meeting went well. I was pleased with the amount of the bonus, which was about what I had expected.

By the time I arrived at labor and delivery at seven that morning, it was clear that it would be a busy day. There were five women in labor. The patient in room four was one of my nicest. She was scheduled to deliver twins that day. No one was near delivery, but it would take at least a few hours to evaluate each patient and fill out the related paperwork. I was caught up by noon, and so I stopped to take a break.

Suddenly my beeper went off. There was a strange message on the pager: my office phone number, followed by the ominous numbers 911. Since I was already at labor and delivery, I knew the emergency was not there. Labor and delivery was normally the source of most of my action, and the nurses who might need me were already sitting next to me.

As I dialed the phone, I wondered if one of my patients might be miscarrying. Stan, the manager of our office, answered my call. I asked this of Stan. ''No,'' he said. With a trembling voice, he said that a car had hit Brad. He had no details, but his voice made me fear the worst.

A myriad of questions immediately raced through my mind as I considered what to do next. Why was Brad not in school? How did he get off the playground? Why wasn't someone watching him?

I went to the emergency room to contact the ambulance assigned to Brad's case. The news I received went like a knife into my heart. They were having trouble stabilizing him.

My training as a physician had included emergency room work. I had been on the other end of too many radio conversations like this one. The worst possible thoughts raced through my mind: death, brain death, severe handicaps — the most serious of injuries.

I raced back to labor and delivery. How could I get everyone delivered as quickly as possible? When stabilized, Brad would be transported to the closest hospital, which was five miles away from the hospital where I worked. I was aware that I could not go to check on Brad until everyone had delivered.

After a few very long minutes, two of my partners came to relieve me without being asked. They had been told about the accident and hurried in to take over for me. I was relieved to see them. However, the dire look on their faces confirmed that they knew this was not a minor accident.

I used every bit of my Subaru's turbo engine to navigate the familiar five-mile trek to Flowers Hospital. Images of Brad filled my mind, as well as flashbacks of a friend's child, a three-year-old boy who had been hit by a car just two years earlier. Bonnie and I had kept a late-night prayer vigil with the parents of that child at the same emergency room. Their child died from a common fatal injury when cars hit children: the separation of the brain stem from the brain.

As I continued across town, all I could think of was that small boy on a ventilator. My heart sank with the thought that this nightmare could be repeated with my own son. Please, God, keep him alive, I prayed.

The ambulance that carried Brad beat me to the hospital. It was about 2:00 when I burst through the emergency room doors. I glanced at the waiting room and recognized a crowd of perhaps fifty familiar faces. In a small town news spreads fast. We had many friends, and it seemed as if all of them were there. Tom, one of my teammates at basketball, was there. So was the mayor's wife, a friend of Bonnie.

I did not stop to talk, walking instead toward the door reserved for doctors. Nurses in white uniforms seemed to be expecting me, and they escorted me to the small private waiting room where Bonnie and a few close friends kept vigil. Although I was a doctor, hospital policy did not allow me in to see Brad. I was anxious for some answers.

I found out that Brad had gone on a field trip that morning to practice songs that he and the third-grade class were going to perform at the school's end-of-the-year program. On the way back to school, the class had stopped at a park to eat lunch.

Details after that were sketchy, but the other third-graders claimed that while role-playing the "Ninja Turtles," Brad had crossed the street by crawling through a culvert. Realizing that he was not supposed to be across the street, the others urged him to come back. As Brad stepped into the street, a car going forty-five miles an hour in a twenty-mile-an-hour zone hit him. The young man driving the car had reportedly been late for work.

Bonnie was one of the chaperones for the field trip. In a strange way, I was relieved to know that she had been there. While I realized this was an accident, the fact of Bonnie's presence kept me from the added pain of laying blame on the schoolteachers.

Bonnie heard the screech of the brakes and the thud from the impact. When she looked at the street and saw the bright colors of the outfit, she knew right away that it was Brad. A lady passing by had tried to do CPR on him. I knew the ambulance team had done their best. All we could do now was pray and wait.

We would not see Brad until 3:30. We would have gone crazy during that hour-and-a-half wait had it not been for the many friends who were there with us, consoling us and praying with us. One of our parish priests came by and was allowed to administer the anointing of the sick to Brad. The orthopedic surgeon came in to say that several bones were broken but that he did not know any more about Brad's condition. The general surgeon, whom I also knew, explained that the liver and a kidney were bleeding, but the C.A.T. scan (computerized pictures of the body using data from multiple x-ray images) was still in progress. This was of utmost importance.

Bruce Woodham was our local brain surgeon and a good friend. Bruce had been at the hospital the night our friends' three-year-old died. When he entered the room that day, a chill went down my spine. He began by explaining that Brad's injuries were identical to the three-year-old's. This meant, essentially, that there was no hope. Our only son was going to die.

Brad's pediatrician, Bill Barron, was also a good friend and a fellow parishioner at the Catholic church in town. I found out that Bill had been at Brad's side for the two hours that Brad had been at the hospital. I knew that he was an excellent doctor. He and I had worked together many nights on difficult neonatal cases. I trusted his opinion when he said that, barring a miracle, our situation was hopeless.

Our first prayer was for a miracle for our son. Our friends suggested that we storm heaven with petitions until we received a miracle. We prayed for this but somehow found the courage to add, ''Not my will, Lord, but Yours be done.''

I will never forget Bonnie's difficult but true insight that she expressed within these first few hours: "As Catholic parents we are given children to assist them on their journey to heaven. It would be selfish of us to want Brad here when he is so close to attaining his eternal goal." My heart rejected this statement at first because I wanted my child with me, but I knew she was right.

Finally we were taken to see Brad. He was such a handsome little fellow, always full of life. Seeing him connected to cold, sterile tubes and covered with swelling and abrasions shook us to the core. He was bruised, motionless, and helpless. Only a parent can fully understand the utter helplessness and heartache we felt as we saw our son lying unconscious on the hospital bed.

A spirited and happy child, Brad loved to be tickled. Yet my tickles this day yielded no laughter, nor even a response. Standing there next to him, Bonnie and I wondered how this could have happened. We prayed for Brad, and for ourselves, because we knew unimaginable pain still awaited us.

Brad died at five that afternoon. We were with him for the final ninety minutes of his life. We caressed him and talked to him as he lay unconscious. We watched his heart monitor trickle down to a stop. Our world had ended.

Bonnie and I drove the short trip from the hospital to our home in silence. There are no words to describe the numbness that each of us felt inside. We were in shock. Because this all had happened so quickly, much had not sunk in yet. To this day I cannot remember many details about those first few days and weeks after Brad's death. I have often wondered whether God allowed this "fog" so we would be protected from experiencing the full force of the loss.

When we arrived home around 5:30, some friends were there. They had prepared a meal for us. Realizing we probably needed some time, they left us to ourselves. We went to our bedroom. It was there that we first talked.

"Bonnie, I think we have been selfish by refusing to have more than two kids," I started the conversation, surprising even myself with this statement. The thought had simply popped into my mind and out of my mouth.

As I shared my thoughts, the hole in my heart from the loss of Brad seemed to grow. I can't say exactly what made me think about this either, but I was struck hard by the reality that we now had just one child — because we had not been willing to have more. "We have denied God children for selfish reasons," I added.

The loss of a child is crushing no matter what the size of the family is — small or large. But somehow my pain was magnified as I thought of living in my large home with just my wife and daughter. The house seemed so empty.

If the truth be told, it was not that "we" had been selfish but that I had been. Several times over the years Bonnie had tried to convince me not to use contraceptives. She would have had more children if I had been open to the idea. But in my blind selfishness I simply would not consider it. Now that my most treasured possession had been taken from me, I saw clearly. That very night we threw the diaphragm away. We promised God that we would be open to any and all children He would send us.

Jennifer was brought home around 6:00 p.m. We then told her what had happened. She did not understand what the words really meant or how Brad's death would change our family forever. She mostly seemed hurt and saddened about not being able to tell him good-bye. As God would protect Bonnie and me in these first few days and weeks from the full force of the pain, He would protect our young daughter even more by limiting her understanding of this type of suffering. Her youth was her ally here, not giving her the range of life experience to feel the spirit-altering pain.

One of the few consolations I had during these first twelve hours was the gratitude I felt in having had those ten minutes with Brad early in the morning as he ate his cereal. I do remember saying good-bye. Those ten minutes will forever be etched into my mind. How I would have regretted it had I not made time for him that morning.

Friends started to arrive at our house around 7:00 p.m., bringing us meals for the next few days and offering all sorts of help. Many remained with us until past 10:00 that evening. Administrators from the Methodist school Brad had attended came by to see us. I immediately sensed their fear of a lawsuit and told them there would not be one. After experiencing such suffering from my own lawsuit, I did not wish to inflict the same pain and fear in them. And frankly, I also reasoned that perhaps if I showed mercy to the school administrators, God might extend His mercy to me, making the expected appeal on my malpractice case disappear.

Bonnie and I fell asleep late that night, exhausted from the emotionally draining events of this horrible day.

I woke up early the next day, Friday, wondering if everything had been a bad dream. But then the reality set in. During those first few hours alone, Bonnie filled me in on more of the details of her experiences the day before.

Brad had been looking forward to the field trip and had woken up excited that day. During the third-graders' rehearsal, Bonnie had talked with a woman whose husband had recently died. Bonnie sought advice from her on how to offer support to her own sister-in-law, who had recently experienced the death of her husband (Bonnie's brother, Jerry). Amazingly, Bonnie had said to the woman that she did not think that she could ever endure the loss of a child. And equally amazing, the last song Brad sang on that field trip, "As the Saints Go Marching In," would also be the last of his life. A scriptwriter could not create a more surreal set of events. Bonnie and I have taken comfort in these two coincidences, believing God gave us these signs to show us that He was, in fact, watching over us.

Bonnie also fondly remembered how impressed the other mothers had been when Brad was not embarrassed to give her a kiss in public. What a joyful thought this was for her mother's heart.

Friday began what I now consider three days of extraordinary grace. People from all aspects of our lives came to share in our grief. Men with whom I played cards, co-workers from the office and hospital, patients, and fellow parishioners all came to offer their condolences. The pattern with each was the same: We would cry, we would remember some special moment or funny episode with Brad, then we would cry again as we realized that we would never share these moments again with Brad.

Our first major task on Friday was meeting with the funeral director. We spent at least two hours going over all the details of the funeral and wake. We were blessed to be accompanied by the friends who two years before had buried their three-year-old. They were such a tremendous support. The funeral director was a friend from the parish and a patient's husband; this too made the process a little easier.

Bonnie and I decided to have the wake that night and the burial on Saturday. We did not want a long process. Bonnie chose a child-size casket with angels on both ends, symbols of the angels protecting and guiding our son.

Later that day Bonnie had the heart-wrenching task of preparing Brad's burial outfit. While ironing the clothes, Bonnie became very angry with God. She told me later how she asked God out loud why He allowed our son to die. She heard a distinct inner voice say, ''Now you know how I felt when I lost my Son.''

Her response was, "But You knew that Your Son was coming home and that You would have Him back."

The voice replied, "And one day you too will be with your son." Suddenly, and without any further need for explanation, her anger disappeared.

The wake that night began with the rosary. Most of our family members who could come had already made the seven-hour trip from our native Louisiana. The long receiving line passed quickly. Bonnie and I were still being sustained by the grace God provided through the love and prayers of our friends and family. We were able to keep our focus on our belief that Brad was now in heaven, which diminished greatly our own pain. Thinking about this gave us some peace and even some moments of joy.

Many who had come to console us were surprised to find that we seemed to be consoling them. As I look back now, I can see that we were starting to experience some sort of transformation — a conversion to a greater depth of faith.

The wake went on for many hours. A reception at our home followed. Bonnie and I went to bed very late, exhausted again.

Saturday began in much the same way as Friday, as new visitors completed their pilgrimage to Dothan to console us. We were kept busy, and this seemed to help us in our grief. The immense love expressed by so many people made the burden of our loss seem lighter, as if all of us carried it together.

The funeral was set for early afternoon. The church was packed. Grace, once again, sustained us, temporarily keeping away the sadness that wanted to stalk us. We buried Brad in a grave next to that of our friends' three-year-old. Hundreds of balloons were released into the air, symbols of the hope and prayers we offered that day.

Jennifer's First Communion was originally scheduled for the next day. Our parish priest offered to perform a private service at a later date if we did not feel up to attending the class-wide First Communion. But Jennifer seemed to be doing well, and we knew that this event was one of the most important she would experience in life. We decided to keep to the original plan. In addition to being important for Jennifer, we thought that this moment of joy for our family would give our sorrow some additional reprieve. Grace was abundant for a third day, and we were able to participate without any outward sign of the deep sorrow that lay beneath. We celebrated Jennifer's special day with our closest friends.

On Monday the new and ugly reality finally set in. The faithful friends who had comforted us had to get back to their own work and families. The genuine empathy they offered was intense and real, but their grief would heal quickly. Although they loved us, their lives had not been shattered by Brad's death in the way that ours was. We had given life to the child, taught him to walk and speak, marveled at his first discoveries, celebrated his joys, and comforted his pains.

When a parent loses a child, it is impossible to think of anything else but that loss for a very long time. Grief becomes the predominant part of you and your life. Ordinary things become tainted. I remember walking into a Wal-Mart that Monday and realizing that no one there could possibly know the grief I carried within me. This awareness was a sharp contrast to the love, sympathy, and attention that our family had experienced the first seventy-two hours. The sadness and grief welled over me like a relentless assault of ocean waves. For Bonnie it all seemed like a bad dream — a terrible nightmare — that should end. She kept thinking she would look up and see Brad coming around the corner, smiling. He would not. It would be several days before the sad and overwhelming reality would set in with her: Brad was not coming back. Then the pain was so intense, it would become physical, absorbing all her energy and effort. The sense of loss would consume entire days, enveloping her mind, heart, and spirit.

That Monday I also did some yard work to pass the time. We had specifically picked for our home site a two-acre lot in a cul-de-sac of a brand new development. Our landscaper had created a masterpiece of a yard, which was surrounded by tall trees and a large expanse of adjacent woods. It was the perfect sanctuary for our kids and our family.

As I looked out from our deck, I began to cry as I saw a glaring reminder of our loss: Brad's tree house fort. The fort was a custom-designed wooden work of art, perfect for young boys' play with toy guns and for little girls' tea parties. It was nestled between two large oak trees.

My mind played tricks with me that day as I imagined Brad sliding down the slide and running after make-believe enemy soldiers in retreat. The scene continued in my mind, and frankly, to this day, I am not sure whether what I saw next really happened or was just the result of a grieving heart and mind run amok: I saw a very bright shining light, like that beaming forth from a projector in a movie theatre. I could not control nor stop the stream of images playing in front of me. The images were of my sins of the past. This "vision" seemed to last about thirty seconds.

As soon as the scenes ended, I was filled with an overwhelming and powerful sense of forgiveness. Although I had confessed these sins in the past, I now truly felt forgiven for them. At that moment I knew God loved me. I cannot overemphasize the consolation and peace I received in this brief but extraordinary experience.

I returned to my office practice on Tuesday. I knew I had to begin my new life without my son. I had to fight the strong temptation to feel sorry for myself.

My first appointment that morning was with a new patient who had two sons who were hemophiliacs. One had died a month prior from HIV, which he had acquired from the multiple transfusions needed to keep him alive. Her other son was also HIV-positive and was not expected to live long. That morning we shared our common grief and consoled each other. I felt as if God had sent this woman to console me, and I was very grateful.

Prior to Brad's death Bonnie and I began to desire a deeper commitment to God and our faith. As a result of this vision, I came to believe that God had allowed us to experience the loss of Brad for some deep reason. If I could be patient and trust God through this time of suffering, the reason would be revealed.

The loss of a child affects people in different ways. My loss led me to an intense desire to identify and eliminate sin from my life. I am not sure whether this primarily came from the vision. It might have come from some other instance of illumination, like the one I had the night of Brad's death, when I admitted to Bonnie my selfishness in not being open to other children. Either way, I was now on a mission.

Serious sin can jeopardize one's very salvation and union with God. I desired more than anything for our family to be together in heaven. So examining my conscience became a thrice-daily activity.

I would realize soon enough, though, that this mission faced at least one "small" problem. Although Bonnie and I had already resolved to no longer use contraception, I still believed I had to prescribe the contraceptive pill to make my living as an Ob-Gyn. Although I had yet to understand why the Catholic Church strongly condemned the use of artificial contraception, I had come to believe in the authority of the Church. I believed that in matters of faith and morals, the Church spoke with the authority of Jesus. So a week after Brad's death, I decided to seek the counsel of my parish priest.

Father Smith [name changed] and I were good friends, and even now I believe that he meant well. Brad's death had greatly troubled him (he told me that in his thirty years of priesthood, Brad's burial had been his most difficult) and he wished to spare me more anguish. But his advice, I would eventually find out, was incorrect. He reassured me that we live in a "tough world" and that we "had to do our best" within that reality. Therefore, continuing to prescribe birth control pills would not be a problem. At the time I was relieved by his recommendation, and I did not consider the matter further.

Bonnie shared my overriding concern to see Brad again. There really was a "divine paradox" resting in both of our hearts. The loss of our son was deep and irreparable (at least here on earth). Yet that loss was the catalyst to our new life — a life of more intense and devout faith. In time this faith would grow and become our greatest joy. We would even come to believe that the conversion that came about because of Brad's death may very well have been necessary for our salvation.

Prior to Brad's death, neither Bonnie nor I would have been considered a bad person. Bonnie always had a strong desire for God and even did daily spiritual reading. She participated in prayer groups, taught religious education, and was an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at the parish. I was president of the parish council, a lector, and an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist too. We had been tithing regularly for two years and, in recent years, were attending Mass at least twice a week. I had also been reading the Bible and a devotional called My Daily Bread. But in many ways we were living our faith on our own terms, some of which were contrary to God's will. So at this critical moment in our lives (and even because of this critical moment), we felt called to go deeper, to walk daily with God, trusting that joy would return and that His plan would be revealed.

After Brad's death, My Daily Bread became my daily source of wisdom, insight, and consolation. A particular chapter in one issue, ''The Value of Adversity,'' became my favorite. I would read it dozens of times in the coming months and years. The author notes that we Christians can deceive ourselves into thinking we are ''walking the walk'' when things are going well. But it is only when we suffer that we can truly see and know ourselves as we really are. Each day I trusted that my suffering would lead me to become a better person tomorrow.

During the first few weeks following Brad's death there were many things to do. We constructed a fence in Brad's memory around the park where the accident had occurred, using the $8,000 we received in lieu of flowers at the funeral. A bronze plaque was posted to remind passersby of Brad's death. Trips to the park were very difficult, especially for Bonnie, but the idea that others would be protected from a future tragedy brought us comfort.

Even before this, we faced the difficult dilemma of what to write on the grave marker. What do you put on the grave of a child so young? Brad had a basset hound named Buffy, whom he really loved. So Bonnie asked an artist friend, Rhoda, to draw a picture of Brad with his arm around Buffy. After Rhoda completed the picture, we conceived the inscription: "This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you." One day when Jennifer came home from school, a small paperback book fell out of her backpack. Bonnie was shocked to see the cover. The book was called I'll Always Love You. Brad would say words very similar to these each night as we tucked him into bed. But even more amazing was the picture on the book's cover. There was a plump basset hound sitting next to a thin boy, as both looked off into the sunset. The picture was nearly identical to the one Rhoda had drawn!

Bonnie called Rhoda, thinking she surely had copied the picture from this book. Rhoda said she knew nothing about the book, a story about a boy who loved his dog and who experienced the dog's death. Jennifer had ordered it several weeks before Brad's death, not knowing what it was about. To Bonnie and me, the book was a wonderful gift from a loving God, who knew of the tragedy we faced and sent us this sign as a source of hope.

In time life would begin again, in more ways than one. Six months after Brad's death Bonnie found out she was pregnant. We were both so excited at this glorious news. I felt that a new baby would restore some of the joy that had been lost. At a sixteen-week ultrasound we found out that Bonnie was carrying a boy. It seemed that God was giving us another chance to raise a son.

But two weeks later Bonnie began to bleed. As an obstetrician, I knew that this was common and that only rarely did it mean something bad was happening. I had Bonnie come to the office. In the exam room, however, a sick feeling came over me. There was a problem with the developmental size of Bonnie's uterus. An attempt to listen to the baby's heartbeat was met with an ominous silence. The ultrasound confirmed our fears. Our new baby was dead.

Bonnie handled the news much better than I did, perhaps because growing up she had watched her mother suffer through five miscarriages. We set up a D and C with one of my partners for the next day, February 14, 1991. It would be a Valentine's Day that I would never forget.

Bonnie came through the surgery fine. I, on the other hand, was not doing so well. Before Brad's death I had an unusual experience after a weekday Mass. A new parishioner came up to introduce herself to me. I had already heard that she was believed to have unique spiritual gifts.

"I have a prophecy for you," she said to me when I first met her.

This was an unusual greeting from someone I had just met, but I was intrigued by what she might say. Maybe she would predict some good news, perhaps that the retrial of my malpractice case would be dismissed. But, no, her prophecy was dire. Very dire.

"Your life will be filled with great suffering," she said.

This was not what I wanted to hear. As each new suffering occurred in my life, I thought about the prophecy and wondered what further suffering my family and I would face. Will anything ever go right again? I asked myself. Will I just drift from disaster to disaster from now on?

The night of the surgery friends came to the house to try to console us. ''The baby probably had some kind of abnormality,'' they reasoned. To which I responded with a snap, "Why didn't God just fix it?"

This was my rock bottom. I did not understand why God had allowed this to happen. I no longer cared about much. I actually wished for death. I thought death would end my pain and enable me to see Brad again. What I did not see then is that I was far from ready to give God an account of my life. And mercifully, He did not allow me to die.

Bonnie healed quickly from the miscarriage, and the very next month she was pregnant again. This time things would go differently. Our new son, Stephen Paul Hardey, came into the world on January 10, 1992. Joy and hope re-entered my life that day. I began to believe that maybe good things could happen to us after all. And that year did embody the best that life could offer. Stephen was a joy to all of us. He became an instant celebrity to those who knew of our suffering.

Stephen's birth also brought about a new resolve. After experiencing the intense and profound joy that comes from new life, Bonnie and I decided to continue to be open to the possibility of new life. Even Natural Family Planning (NFP) was not an option. Bonnie and I knew we did not have a serious reason to avoid pregnancy, which is the condition the Church requires to be present in order to morally use NFP.

I had always considered myself pro-life. Since my first days in Dothan I had offered free ultrasounds to women who were contemplating abortion. But the combination of the death of our son and our newfound awareness of the amazing gift of life produced in me a firmer resolve about the pro-life issue. Because most of the other OBs in town described themselves as "pro-choice," I was left alone to counsel young women to choose life. I began to volunteer frequently at the local crisis pregnancy center.

Because of this work my OB practice had attracted a large group of pro-life women, and my business was booming. We had good friends, a new baby, material wealth, and a good parish. In short, life was now very good. But on a crisp December afternoon in 1992, this would all begin to change. My faith would be challenged yet again.

As I pulled into our cul-de-sac in my zippy red Miata, I remember thinking how nice our house looked. I parked the car and walked over to Bonnie, who was sitting in a rocker on the front porch. She quietly handed me a letter from a Catholic lay-run organization. The letter included a copy of a pastoral letter written a year earlier by Bishop Glennon P. Fla vin o f Lincoln, Nebraska. The letter was entitled A Pastoral Letter to Catholic Couples and Physicians on the Issue of Artificial Contraception.

My instincts told me this would not be good news. Although I thought that I had already settled this issue with my local priest, I decided to read the letter. It said: "Catholic physicians and others who prescribe contraceptives or recommend their use are cooperators with those who use them. Such cooperation is gravely sinful."

Reading these words set in print had a dramatic effect on me. I instantly became angry. "How does an Ob-Gyn doctor survive without prescribing the pill?" I asked rhetorically.

The document continued: "It should be obvious that Catholics who practice artificial birth control and those who cooperate with them in their immoral actions may not receive Holy Communion without committing sacrilege."

The message was clear. If I continued to practice medicine as I had been trained, I would be cut off from the grace that comes through the Church. And I would be unable to receive the Eucharist, which I treasured.

In a final admonition the letter quoted the Pope, whom I loved and respected. I truly valued what he had to say, due to the authority given to him as the head of the Church. His statement said: "It has been noted that there is a tendency on the part of some Catholics to be selective in their adherence to the Church's moral teachings. It is sometimes claimed dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being 'a good Catholic' and poses no obstacles to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error."

Wow, I thought, ''grave error'' are serious words from the leader of the Church. I knew my catechism. To me, "grave error" meant that the action was mortally sinful, which cuts one off from God's grace and results in the loss of one's salvation. Following this logic, my deepest desire to see Brad again was now being threatened.

I looked at Bonnie and said, "Do you realize what this means?" I then waved my hand, gesturing toward the house, the beautiful yard, the cul-de-sac, and added, "It's over. All of this will be gone. Is that what you really want?"

Bonnie had long suspected that my work practices in this area were in opposition to the Church's teachings. She even had mentioned it to me on occasion. But I had always shrugged off the idea, not really wanting to deal with a change of this magnitude. Yet now I had no choice but to seriously consider it.

Bonnie said nothing. She would later tell me that that night she gave my fate to God. She knew she had done her part to challenge me with the truth. Now God would have to change my heart.

For several days after that I was deeply upset and could think of little else. The first option that I considered was to join the Episcopal Church. Episcopalians were nice people and seemed happy. Surely one could be saved as an Episcopalian. The problem was that I knew too much.

A few years prior my older brother had sent me a Catholic audiocassette by a convert to Catholicism named Scott Hahn. Like many converts, Hahn had wrestled intensely with the teachings of the Catholic Church. And like many others, he had come to see the clarity of Catholic teaching on issues such as salvation and authority. He had explained these teachings in a way that persuaded me of their absolute truth. So I truly believed that Jesus Christ had established the Church and that, despite some human failings, the Church possessed Jesus' full authority and the fullness of truth revealed by God. Running from the truth was not an option.

What was I to do? Should I enter a different aspect of medicine where these moral dilemmas did not exist? No, there were too many problems in doing another residency. And as a family practice doctor, I would still have to deal with this issue. All other medical training programs would require leaving Dothan for three to four years. Besides, what was the point? I liked obstetrics and was good at it. Yet I could not fathom the idea that you could practice gynecology without prescribing the pill.

Two weeks later I saw an ad in a medical journal for an employment opportunity at a crisis pregnancy center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Perhaps this would be a way out, I thought. I spoke with the woman in charge, and she assured me that I would not have to prescribe the pill as a part of my work. Could this be what God intended?

The problem was that I wanted to stay in Dothan. It was a great place. I had built a good life there. The fifty thousand people who lived there were basically God-fearing, hardworking, and kind. The town's economy was booming and diversified. Recreational opportunities were unlimited. There was adventure just eighty miles away on the most beautiful beaches in Florida.

But Dothan was not Catholic. There was one Catholic church in town to serve just eight hundred families. There was no Catholic bookstore. We could not get the Catholic television network EWTN. The critical question lingered, "How can an OB practice survive without dispensing birth control in an area of the country where there are few committed, practicing Catholics?"

In all honesty, I had no idea why the Church thought that contraception was wrong. My only reasoning at the time was that the Church wanted people to have bigger families. Although I would eventually discover the deep and profound reasons for the Church's position, I was not there yet. All I knew was that being able to prescribe the pill stood between me and Brad and God — and this was unacceptable. What I decided to do next would be out of obedience yet without understanding.

I walked into a business meeting the first week of January 1993 and announced to my partners that I would no longer prescribe the pill. The reason I gave was that the pill could act as an abortifacient. In other words, sometimes the pill works by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb after conception, and the mother would not even know it. This had been brought to my attention by patients over the years, and it had troubled me, but never enough to act on it.

My partners' collective response was that I could give it a try. I am sure they thought I had lost my mind. Maybe if they let me try my new policy for a while and it failed, I would come to my senses.

My new decision resulted in daily challenges. I would explain my decision to each patient and show her a photocopy from the PDR (Physicians Desk Reference), which explained the pill's action. Patients were generally nice, but many were skeptical. Some decided to switch doctors, while others began to use barrier methods.

I was handicapped because I could not teach NFP, which, contrary to popular opinion, is highly effective (and more importantly, considered morally acceptable for spacing children under certain conditions). Nor could I refer patients to some other local NFP teachers; there were none. My goal was not to convert everyone to NFP. I was simply trying to eliminate the occasion of my own sin.

Looking back at what I did and how I did it, it is easy to see why it could not work. My partners resented the fact that their patients began to ask them if the pill was really an abortifacient. I believe most doctors do not enjoy a moral confrontation. Psychologically I was a mess. One day things would seem great and I would be excited. The next day my patients would seem reluctant to stop the pill, and I would arrive home deeply discouraged.

I sought outside advice. I called a national pro-life organization to see if they knew of any Ob-Gyns anywhere in the country who ran an NFP-only practice. The president knew of none but directed me to Dr. Thomas Hilgers, a medical researcher who taught NFP in Omaha. I called Tom, and he was very helpful and encouraging. He suggested that Bonnie and I come to Omaha that summer for the Humanae Vitae Conference.

"What kind of conference?" I asked. I had never heard the words Humanae Vitae before.

He explained that Humanae Vitae (which means "Of Human Life") was Pope Paul VI's document, released in 1968, reiterating the Church's long-held position that the use of artificial contraception is always immoral. I decided that Bonnie and I should go to the conference.

We arrived a day early and walked around the vendor area. Representatives from the Couple to Couple League, an organization dedicated to teaching NFP, were on hand, and they gave us a copy of the short but profound encyclical. We took it back to our motel, and I wept when I read it. Never had I encountered such a beautiful vision of marital love. The truth was liberating but painful, particularly paragraph 17, which spoke of how contraception feeds into our human weakness and causes us to lose respect for the marital act and even our spouse, turning them into actions and instruments of selfish enjoyment.

My observations of the world had for a long time led me to believe that something was terribly wrong. Now I had the answer. Women were suffering from the effects of the sexual revolution. Countless women patients had expressed the loss of joy in their marriages. Many of them were depressed and had poor self images from past abortions. Many suffered physically and emotionally because of sexually transmitted diseases. I had personally tried to console the brokenness of scores of women who had been betrayed and abandoned by men. I could see Pope Paul VI's predictions in Humanae Vitae were correct. Contraception was, in fact, at the root of many societal ills.

The Pope wrote: "Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life. . . . By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination toward man's most high calling to parenthood." In contracepting, men would lose respect for women, the document warned, forgetting "the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection."

I learned that the "unitive" and "procreative" aspects of marital love mentioned in the document are fundamental to the act's very meaning. When either one is intentionally removed, the act itself changes from one of total self-donation to one in which each individual is trying to get what he or she can. The two are no longer one flesh. They who are invited by God to become "co-creators" with Him actually remove the Creator from the equation.

Also, as a doctor I had dedicated my life to leading people to health. Yet, ironically, the pill and other forms of artificial birth control were treating fertility, which is the normal, healthy state, as a sickness that needed to be remedied. Pharmacological solutions should be used when we are sick, not when we are healthy. I could see that things thrive when they are done in accord with nature. When we contradict nature (and God, for that matter), problems arise. Again, no wonder there were so many societal ills that seemed to be related to the injection of contraception into the culture.

For the previous six months I had struggled daily to comply with the Church's prohibition of contraception. Never did it occur to me that the Church was actually right. I now saw that, not only did the Church have the truth, it also had the most beautiful concept of marital love. But the whole world was disregarding it and paying a terrible price. Suddenly I felt energized.

I went back to the booth area with one question: "If a doctor wanted to practice in an area of the country where Catholics followed this Church teaching, where could he go?" Two places were mentioned: Arlington, Virginia, and Lafayette, Louisiana.

Lafayette was well known to me. I had lived there twice as part of college and residency training. My mom and sister lived there. Ironically, an Ob doctor whom I knew from my residency had called just a few weeks earlier to invite me back to Lafayette to work with him. We still did not want to leave Dothan, but if we were going to move, it would at least be a move home, not to a faraway part of the country. We headed back to Dothan, praying for the will of God to be revealed.

Once we were back, I called a hospital in Lafayette that I had been told was recruiting. The hospital was familiar to me from my undergraduate days. I asked the physician in charge of recruiting whether it would present a problem if I did not prescribe contraception or do sterilizations.

"No problem," he said. "We are a Catholic hospital." I planned a look-and-see visit for mid-August.

For the trip to the conference in Omaha, I had asked one of my partners to switch weekends with me. He later asked why I wanted to switch.

"You don't want to know," I replied, as he was the partner most bothered by my new practice habits.

He insisted, "No, really. Where did you go?"

"I went to a meeting to celebrate the twenty-five years that the Church has taught that contraception is immoral," I replied. I did not know at that time that the Church had actually taught that for two thousand years.

"You were right, I didn't want to know," he replied.

A few days later he came to my call room to talk. I could see the anger in his eyes. He said that the Pope had no right to tell us what to do and that very few Catholics followed those teachings anyway. I sensed a change in the wind.

Things did not look good for my future in the group. I soon received a proposal, which seemed more like an ultimatum, from my partners. I could stay in the group if I would at least do tubal ligations for patients who delivered when I was on call. Friends who knew of my situation thought this was reasonable enough. I would have to do about fifty sterilizations a year. Surely, they reasoned, this would be okay with the Pope since I would be doing them against my wishes. And I was certainly acting better than all the other Catholic doctors, they added, who did all kinds of things that the Church said we should not do.

I knew better. My mind and heart had already been firmly convinced by the truth of the contraception issue. Bonnie and I decided to go to Lafayette in early August 1993 to check things out.

Even then, we still fought the idea of leaving Dothan. I had hoped that I could stay in Dothan and, if needed, perform a rare tubal ligation, only when a woman had repeat cesarean deliveries. In my ill-formed theology this seemed acceptable to me. We considered the trip to Lafayette a "just-in-case" visit in the event that things did not work out in Dothan.

At the Omaha conference a few weeks earlier, Bonnie had purchased a set of cassette tapes by Scott Hahn on the book of Romans. We brought the tapes with us. As I pulled onto the interstate to begin the seven-hour drive, I popped the first tape in.

One of the first points Hahn made was that obedience to Christ was, in fact, necessary for salvation. Prior to this trip, my Protestant friends were attempting to persuade me that because Christians were now ''under grace, not law,'' I could morally perform some tubal ligations and not be concerned with whether this ''sin'' would separate me from God. Hahn explained that the Church clearly taught otherwise. Obedience to Christ was necessary if one wanted to avoid rupturing one's relationship with God.

By the time the tapes were done, I was convinced that, when it came to matters of faith and morals, Christ wanted me to submit my will to the authority of the Church. This would be a major turning point in my life. I knew I had to take seriously this possible move to Lafayette.

We met with the physician recruiter and a financial representative at a restaurant in Lafayette. They expressed their need for a doctor with my specialty and their hope that I would start soon. They said we could look at some office space and see the labor and delivery facility the next morning. Bonnie then mentioned that I did not plan to prescribe the pill. The financial representative seemed shocked but said nothing. In the morning I received a phone call.

"Did you really say that you won't give out the pill? Don't you know that most Catholics take the pill?" he asked. "I am afraid we aren't sure we want you."

Later he called to say I could have the job at a significant reduction in pay from the original offer. So we went back to Dothan to pray and consider our fate.

In the meantime things were coming to a head with my partners in Dothan. If I could not stay in the group, I considered the possibility that they would let me start my own practice and provide call coverage for me so that I could have an occasional weekend off. In return, I would cover for them and even take some of their more difficult shifts. We set a meeting for September 17. This would be a providential date.

A few months earlier someone had given me a desk calendar with Scripture meditations for each day. One day the calendar had fallen open to a particular quote: "When you find yourself in times of trouble, wait on the Lord and He will answer in His time." Because I liked this Bible verse, I had left the desk calendar open to it and the corresponding date, September 17! My answer was in this verse. I would wait for God's answer.

I went to that meeting with an overwhelming sense of peace. My partners informed me that they would not cover for me. I would be in practice totally on my own.

Bonnie and I decided that it would be best for our family to move to Lafayette.

I still did not believe that an NFP-only practice would survive. God knew otherwise. I predicted that after a year of failure (the length of my contract with the hospital), I would retire and fish for a living. Today, eight years later, my business is not only surviving but stable and even very strong at times, although there were very challenging moments.

At the time of my conversion to the NFP-only belief, there were only a handful of Catholic gynecologists in the country who were faithful to the teachings of the Church. Today there are nearly four hundred who are part of a national NFP-only doctors directory. There is also a website ( to support these doctors with free and low-cost pamphlets and other resources for their patients. I have had the opportunity in recent years to share my experiences with these doctors and to hear of their own struggles and blessings.

There is a new excitement moving across the country about NFP. Catholic and Protestant couples alike are discovering that, even though the practice of NFP requires some sacrifice, the benefits are manifold.

When I look at my professional life, I see that the adoption of these strong Catholic beliefs has brought a unique form of suffering. It has made me an anomaly in my field and caused daily rejection by patients. Especially disheartening is to be rejected by fellow Catholics, who have been given access to these profound truths through the teaching of the Church. This is a great source of frustration for Catholic Ob-Gyns who know the physical and spiritual dangers that artificial birth control can bring.

And as a Catholic doctor who believes and promotes the Church's teaching, I must fight the sins of pride and self-righteousness that come with knowing that I am making serious sacrifices for the truth. I assure you, though, I still have far to go in this area.

Although I have witnessed some conversions to this important teaching on human life, I have come to see that the fruit of most of my efforts will not be seen in this life. I must learn to be content in knowing that my life is based on the truth and that God will somehow bring good from the effort I bring to my practice.

God has used suffering as an instrument in my conversion, primarily in Brad's death but also in the death of my self-centered beliefs. I am pretty sure that I would not have come to understand God's glorious teaching on marital love without the catalyst of my son's death. I would not have my renewed faith. I would not have my other son, Stephen (nor the little baby whom we miscarried and who, we believe, will be in heaven with us too). I would probably be retired by now, living on an island without attorneys, and I almost certainly would not be truly happy. I see Brad, in one sense, as the sacrificial lamb for our family, just as Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb for the family of God. And just as Jesus rose to eternal glory, so too will my son rise to eternal glory.

It has been more than twelve years since his death. Bonnie and I still miss him dearly but take enormous comfort in our belief that we will see him again. We often think of the unimaginable joy we believe he is experiencing now in heaven and the joy he must have in seeing his parents' renewed faith. And although we have not been blessed with more children, the past ten years with Stephen and Jennifer have been incredibly fruitful. We have received countless blessings.

We have Brad to thank for this. In his death he found new life. And in his death we found new life. Thank you, son.

(From Amazing Grace for Those Who Suffer by Jeff Cavins and Matthew Pinto. © 2002 Ascension Press, LLC. All rights reserved. Used by permission.)

© Matt C. Abbott


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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