In 1998, Dr. Richard Wetzel self-published his first book on human sexuality, Sexual Wisdom: A Guide for Parents, Young Adults, Educators, and Physicians. The book presented 17 misconceptions about sex held by many in society, and then presented arguments to dispel the myths.
Wishing to provide parents with accurate information to teach their older teen children about sex in accordance with Catholic morality, Dr. Wetzel has now released his second book, Sexual Wisdom for Catholic Adolescents. The book’s release has coincided with a personal tragedy that may soon cost Dr. Wetzel his life.
Dr. Wetzel was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. He was one of four children in a family that was more than nominally Catholic, but not by much. He met his future wife, Dominique, at the Catholic Newman Center while attending UCLA. After graduating with a biology degree, he went on to Albany Medical Center in New York. By this time he had broken with the Church, believing its teachings on sexuality to be outdated and unrealistic.
Wetzel and Dominique married in 1985, and settled in Huntington Beach, California, about an hour’s drive south of Los Angeles. He began working as a family practice physician.
Dominique informed Wetzel during their engagement that she would not be using artificial birth control, but Natural Family Planning. Wetzel reluctantly agreed, believing she would soon change her mind. Instead, he would change his: “A few years into my marriage and using NFP, I came to realize that something good was going on.”
For reasons he would later outline in his book, Wetzel came to believe that contraception is harmful to a couple’s relationship and results in many evils, such as abortion. By 1989, he was refusing to prescribe contraceptives to his patients and began studying the Catholic faith intensively. Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae had a particular influence on him, and he grew increasingly eager to share the Church’s wisdom with others.
“Richard has always wanted to save the world,” his wife Dominique says. “He’s a dreamer. He even thought about becoming a missionary.”
In his medical practice, Dr. Wetzel saw the harm sexual immorality had caused his patients, not just in terms of disease, but also in the destructive effect it had on their relationships with others.
So he went to work on his first book challenging the popular culture’s perspective on sex. Using arguments from the natural law and common sense, Dr. Wetzel argued that sex should be seen not as the gratification of one partner’s “sexual needs” but as an expressionof marital love. “We must ask whether genital, sexual activity is part of a relationship or an end in itself,” he wrote. Sex, he continued, should “enrich and validate a balanced, healthy relationship.”
Dr. Wetzel discussed the explosion of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In the 1990s, some 45 million Americans had genital herpes. One in five Americans suffered from an incurable STD, with 12 million new STDs being diagnosed annually. Wetzel discussed the consequences of sexual immorality for children, the most obvious being illegitimacy: 40 percent of American children go to bed in a home in which no father is living.
He described how contraception damages a couple’s relationship, and examined the addictive and unhealthy character of homosexual behavior.
About 28 percent of homosexual men in America, for example, have had more than 1,000 sex partners; less than 1 percent have had five or less.
The final misconception Wetzel addressed in the book was “Sex education should be ‘values free.’” He lamented the fact that much of the sex education in American schools is contraceptivebased and destroys the modesty of more naïve students.
Although he didn’t use religiousbased arguments or quote Scripture in that book, Wetzel received the endorsement of many prominent religious figures. Bishop John Myers, who was then bishop of Peoria, Illinois, said, “I believe that this book will be of assistance not only to parents but also to all of those who concern themselves with the proper sexual formation of young people today.”
The difficulties of promoting a message of sexual morality are many, but there have been many rewards for Dr. Wetzel along the way. He still keeps one letter from a young woman who had experimented with lesbian activity but changed her mind after reading Sexual Wisdom.
Dr. Wetzel took special care when it came to talking to his own children about sex, and turned his lesson plan into a new book, Sexual Wisdom for Catholic Adolescents (SWCA), a homebased, comprehensive course for older teens (age 16 or 17). Unlike the first book, SWCA is from a distinctly Catholic perspective, including quotes from Scripture and prayers before lessons. SWCA begins with a tasteful presentation of the biology of human sexuality, and then transitions into a discussion of the CatholicChurch’s teaching on sex. Then, from a Catholic perspective, it discusses such topics as pre marital sex, STDs, pornography, HIV/AIDS, contraception, Natural Family Planning, and abortion. Never intended as a moneymaking venture, the entire book can be downloaded for free at www.sexualwisdom. com, and copies can be ordered at-cost through the website or from Amazon.com.
Dr. Wetzel’s oldest daughter, Susan, now a 22-year-old senior at a Catholic college, was the first to take the course. “It’s called Sexual Wisdom for Adolescents, but that’s misleading,” she said. “It’s actually a good book for older teens and young adults.”
She took the course over four months. “It really opened my mind to what a great gift human sexuality is, and how important it is to have a good and proper understanding it,” Susan said. She stressed that spirituality plays a prominent role in SWCA, such as beginning lessons with a prayer.
Although she is attending a traditional Catholic school where most in the student body share her beliefs regarding sexuality, Susan says that she has a better foundation than her fellow students. She tries to spread the message when she can; recently she shared the book and discussed some of its material with a fellow female student preparing for marriage.
Joan Wetzel, age 20, Dr. Wetzel’s second daughter, is an English major attending the same college as her sister. At about age 16, her father began taking her through Sexual Wisdom for Adolescents a chapter at a time. Joan remarked, “It was one of the best things my parents ever did for me.” She continued, “I’m a sensitive person, and it would have been horrible to learn about sexuality ‘on the street’ on my own.”
As she matured, Joan felt comfortable approaching her father to ask him questions about sexuality. And it didn’t hurt that he was a physician: “It did me so much good, I knew I could always go to him with things I didn’t understand.”
Attending a conservative Catholic college, some of her friends are uncomfortable talking about sexuality, but at appropriate times Joan is prepared to have such discussions in an honest and respectful way. Should a young man approach Joan about dating, she makes it clear she won’t do anything that would compromise her Catholic beliefs. Joan understands clearly what abuses of sexuality can lead to: “Not only do I want to be chaste so that I can be true to my faith, but a person who is promiscuous can catch a disease and die.”
In 2007, tragedy struck the Wetzel family. While sitting at dinner in a restaurant, Dr. Wetzel, at age 48, felt a lump in a lymph node near his neck. Although he felt no physical symptoms, his training as a physician told him this was a likely sign of disease. The following day he had a biopsy, which ultimately led to his diagnosis: he had kidney cancer. His kind of cancer, in fact, is particularly aggressive, and quickly kills most who have it.
“It’s been difficult,” admitted Dominique. “I was particularly concerned for the children still living at home.” Dr. Wetzel remains hopeful, and has a strong will to live. Using his medical knowledge, he sought treatments that he hopes will keep him alive until drugs are developed that can save his life. One treatment in which he was involved for a year took him monthly to Detroit.
Family and friends prayed for his recovery, as the family struggled to cope. Daughter Joan wondered why this would happen to a man who had done such good in his life. A priest friend was able to offer her some consolation: “He said we’re not perfect here on earth, but we will be perfected in heaven, where we can do greater good. We need to be ready to accept God’s will, whatever happens.”
Dr. Wetzel’s daughter Susan described herself as a “lukewarm” Catholic when she arrived at college, but has since made a commitment to a more zealous practice of her faith. She recalled, “Dad was diagnosed with cancer when I was a freshman. I went to the chapel and realized I had a choice to make. Was I going to be lukewarm about my faith or give it my all? I chose to give it my all.”
Dr. Wetzel nearly died last fall, andis now in and out of the hospital. Despite his will to live, he is in tremendous pain, which has taken its toll on his body. As of this writing, doctors are uncertain whether or not he’ll survive. The family is preparing for the worst, although hoping he’ll bounce back once again. “It’s been a gift that we’ve had him for the last three years,” said Dominique.
Dr. Wetzel’s spiritual life has deepened during the course of the illness. He has developed a devotion to the Blessed Mother. He cherishes an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe given to him by friends; Dominique remembers how on a trip to the Lourdes grotto in South Bend, Indiana, he insisted the family shiver outdoors in the snow while they prayed the rosary.
He has also realized the value of sufferings offered to God. According to Dominique, he offers his sufferings not only for his family, “but also that the Church’s message of chastity may be promoted throughout the world.”