The Catholic Church is often at odds with the secular culture we’re surrounded by in our daily lives. Many elements of God’s plan — love, marriage, family — are countercultural, and it’s a challenge to stay true to the faith.

In her new book, “Life and Love: Opening Your Heart to God’s Design,” (Our Sunday Visitor, $18), Terry Polakovic examines the words of the popes who have led the Church through the last century’s social turmoil. 

Kris McGregor: What compelled you to put this book together? 

Terry Polakovic: Someone once told me, you don’t need to read a history book. You just need to look at the Church’s teachings and know what’s going on in the culture. I found that idea fascinating. It’s true, but I never looked at it from that perspective. 

I wanted to see, what came before “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”)? What followed it? Why is it only “Humanae Vitae” that caused so many problems? I wanted to see who the other popes were, what the encyclicals were, and the culture of the time. 

McGregor: The Holy Fathers really had their finger on the pulse, but they saw with the eyes of their hearts about what was happening in the world. 

Polakovic: I feel like they went for the heart of the people — people were straying, and they just tried to bring them back on track. It’s a beautiful way to look at the popes. 

McGregor: Pope Leo XIII is a personal hero of mine. Why isn’t he a saint yet?

Polakovic: He wrote like 90 encyclicals, during the Industrial Revolution, and the beginning of socialism. He predicted the whole church-state thing regarding marriage — you would be married first by the state, then incidentally by the Church. And that Church wedding would eventually go away, and that’s where we are now. 

McGregor: He talks about some of the concerns about the secularization of marriage, and he was so prophetic. 

Polakovic: He said, at some point, you have to stop looking at each other and look to God. If it appears that you can’t solve the issues in your marriage, you should be looking to God — that’s the only solution. I have done that in my own marriage, and I know it’s true of many people. At some point you need help. 

McGregor: Another prophetic voice in the book was Pope Pius XI, with “Casti Connubii” (“Of Chaste Wedlock”). 

Polakovic: He lays out beautifully the responsibilities of marriage: what it is, God’s a partner in marriage, children, the whole bit. He was reading the signs of the times. In the 1920s, it was a very promiscuous time, between the two world wars, the beginning of Margaret Sanger and her birth control league. 

Pope Pius XI just reinforces what the Church teaches. All the other churches began to accept contraception, under certain conditions, but of course it’s widespread now. And he saw it all. It must have been incredibly challenging. You would have to be on your knees all the time, wondering where the world is going. 

Now birth control is such a dividing issue. It became, and still is, I think, the issue that divides the whole world. And Pope Pius XI wrote about it perfectly. 

McGregor: Of course, we have to talk about St. Pope Paul VI, who wrote the incredible work Humanae Vitae. 

Polakovic: The thing that stood out for me in that document, and for many people, is how prophetic he was. Women will be degraded. Children will be left without families. All the stuff he predicted — it all came true. If anyone has any doubt about the teachings of the Church, they should look to this document. 

I found Pope Paul to be a compelling character. He was complicated. I read somewhere that he could command a room without ever saying a word. I found him a tragic character, and I think he’ll be remembered as that. He followed God’s will, even at great personal cost. 

McGregor: I was a young teenager who got all excited when all of a sudden, a non-Italian was named pope. A Polish pope, no less, who was so dynamic and had such an outreach and a great love for us all. 

Polakovic: Yes, John Paul II! He’s 100 percent responsible for my conversion, complete. And I’ve always been Catholic! But I would say reversion, if you will. 

He touched our hearts in such a deep way, it’s still a loss for us. But he left behind incredible writings. He was a profound person who could stand up and speak the truth and defy the culture. 

Culture is what drives the world. At first I didn’t understand that, but now I see it more clearly. If you have a sick culture, that’s what’s driving the world. 

We have a sick culture today, and he knew that. But he did everything he could to change that and to make change available to others, with his John Paul II Institute and his encyclicals and documents on the family, “Theology of the Body” — he did it all. We could follow him and know everything. 

Kris McGregor is the founder of, an online resource for the best in contemporary Catholic spirituality.

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