By James Graves
J.T. Finn, founder of Pro-Life America, memorialized, “Richard had a burning passion for Christ, for families, for our country and for our youth. He was truly a great Catholic gentleman … a man of faith, a man of courage, a man of conviction and dedication.”
Wetzel grew up in southern California. He came from a Catholic family, but by the time he headed off to medical school, he had broken with the Catholic Church, believing its teachings on human sexuality to be outdated and unrealistic.
He married his wife, Dominique, in 1985, and settled in Huntington Beach, Calif., about an hour’s drive south of Los Angeles. He began working as a family physician.
Dominique informed him 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. But it was he who would change his mind: “A few years into my marriage and using NFP, I came to realize that something good was going on.”
In fact, he came to believe that contraception was harmful to a couple’s relationship and led to many evils, such as abortion. By 1989, he refused to prescribe contraceptives to his patients. He began studying the Catholic faith intensively and was particularly impressed with Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae. It wasn’t long before he wanted to share his newfound knowledge with others.
As Dominique recalled, “Richard has always wanted to save the world. He was a dreamer. He even thought about becoming a missionary.”
In his medical practice, Wetzel saw the harm sexual immorality had on his patients, not just in terms of disease, but in the effect it had on their relationships with others. He went to work on his first book challenging the popular culture’s perspective on sex, Sexual Wisdom: A Guide for Parents, Young Adults, Educators, and Physicians, which was self-published in 1998. The book presented 17 misconceptions about sex that are held by many in society, and then presented arguments to dispel the myths.
His 17 misconceptions began with Misconception No. 1: “People, especially men, have specific, genital, sexual needs.”
Using natural law and commonsense arguments, Dr. Wetzel argued that sex should be an enhancement of a love relationship between a married couple, not the fulfillment of one partner’s “sexual needs.” The couple’s focus should be on the relationship, not sex. He opined, “We must ask whether genital, sexual activity is part of a relationship or an end in itself.”
Sex, he continued, should “enrich and validate a balanced, healthy relationship.”
His final misconception, which would ultimately lead to his second book, was: “Sex education should be ‘values free.’” He lamented that much of the sex education in American schools was contraceptive-based and destroyed the modesty of more naive students.
Although he didn’t use religious-based arguments or quote Scripture, he received the endorsement of many prominent religious figures. Bishop John Myers, who was then bishop of Peoria, Ill., commented, “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.”
Wetzel took special care when it was time to teach his own children about sex, and turned his lesson plan into a second book, Sexual Wisdom for Catholic Adolescents, a home-based, comprehensive course for older teens (age 16 and up). Unlike the first book, this one was from a distinctly Catholic perspective, including quotes from Scripture and prayers before lessons.
Never intended as a money-making venture, the entire book can be downloaded for free at his website. Copies can be ordered at cost through the website.
In 2007, Wetzel was diagnosed with kidney cancer — an aggressive form, in fact, which quickly kills most who have it. He had a tremendous will to live and sought treatments that, remarkably, prolonged his life for three years. “It’s been a gift that we’ve had him for the last three years,” Dominique said.
Wetzel’s personal piety grew in his final years, and he developed a devotion to the Blessed Mother. Dominique remembers how on a trip to a Lourdes grotto in South Bend, Ind., he insisted the family shiver outdoors in the snow while they prayed the Rosary.
He also came to realize the value of sufferings offered to God. He offered his sufferings not only for his family, Dominique said, “but also that the Church’s message of chastity may be promoted throughout the world.”