This past summer, I was honored to be invited to speak at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians national convention. Among the presentations I gave was this one, “Being Catholic in a Messy World.” I was asked to give a fifteen-minute reflection on what I mean by “Intentional Catholic.”
I have so many thoughts, I never imagined it would be a difficult talk to write, but it was–because the topic is so huge. The through-line that eventually emerged was how I wrestled with being “pro-life” in the wake of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. I’ve often said that my daughter’s birth was the earthquake that changed everything for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. This is that story. It encapsulates many of the difficult issues we’re wrestling as a nation (badly). I hope you’ll set aside a quarter hour to listen!
My husband and I have been natural family planning users since day one of our marriage. NFP saw us through infertility (the data from the charts facilitated treatment), four babies conceived without medical intervention, and another eight years of charting.
I bring this up because Church teaching on birth control probably represents the biggest sticking point for many people in the modern world–the biggest perceived encroachment on “personal rights.”
I used to be a lot judgier on this issue than I am now. NFP is hard for some people, and often the reasons are not as easily dismissed as many NFP devotees would like them to be. Sometimes it’s physical (tough charts, long abstinence), and sometimes it’s emotional–when practicing NFP causes people to excavate deep, long-standing wounds, wounds with ripple effects that make marital intimacy a point of contention rather than an opportunity for intimacy.
Also, none of us are perfect at the way we use our sexuality. None of us. So I’m less, well, judgy these days.
Nonetheless, I still believe passionately that NFP is a great thing. The self-knowledge that comes from charting has been liberating and empowering to me as a woman, and I see the practice of NFP as a source of healing for a world where relationships between men and women are suffering the wounds caused by dominance. Where sex is used as a bludgeon, mostly by men against women. To use NFP successfully requires two people to respect each other in all their God-given dignity, to hold in honor and awe the total gift of the way the other is made. Not to try to turn off an entire healthy, functioning system of the body.
It’s also a no-brainer for environmental stewardship. Pharmaceuticals go back into the water, and not all chemicals are filtered out. Lawn & agricultural chemicals in the water supply were half of our infertility issues.
And I see the fruits of NFP in my relationship with my husband. The openness, honesty, and mutuality of communication surrounding this most sensitive topic has helped me understand what total security in a relationship means. What true intimacy means.
Which is not to say we’re a happy-happy couple. Those who know us know we pick at each other all.the.time. And sometimes the conversations are hard–it’s not just “do we try for a child or do we try to avoid?” It’s “I don’t feel close to you” and “I don’t want to be close to you when you do X or Y.” It’s “I feel resentful because of Z.”
But we always grow in love because of them.
So this quote strikes great resonance for me. NFP is a big limit, but it’s also freeing–in many ways, but I’ll focus on one: it’s a limit forces the issue of dignity and mutual respect. It’s not that you can’t have mutual respect and treat each other with dignity if you don’t use NFP, because clearly you can. But being successful with NFP–by which I mean “We are equal members of the team,” not just “we didn’t get pregnant”–REQUIRES us to pay attention to issues of dignity and mutual respect.
Last night, I cuddled up with my youngest to do First Communion homework. In the Dynamic Catholic sacramental prep book, there’s a page of cartoon character saints, and I started telling him the stories—what we know and what are legends about them. One of the saints was John Paul II.
I had to leap up and go get this:
When I was five years old, my parents packed me, my big sister, my little sister, and both my grandmothers into an RV and drove to Iowa to attend the Pope’s Mass.
Here’s what I remember: it was a really, really, really long walk to the bathrooms. And they were porta potties.
Yup, that’s all I remember.
But I’ve always treasured this book. I love pulling it out to show the kids the snapshots my mom glued into the front cover, and the letter I got when, evidently, I wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II afterward. (I don’t remember that, either.)
I don’t think about that Mass very often, because we were far, far away and I was short and I probably saw none of it. But in the years since, I made a really good friend who lives in Des Moines, and the first time I visited, I recognized their diocesan symbol as the one from the cover of my book. I got unreasonably excited.
And last night, when for the first time I actually started reading the book (rather than just the handwritten note on the inside cover), I realized I now know something about the place where the Mass was held. We haven’t made it to Des Moines’ Living History Farm yet, but I know right where it is from past trips.
I was also startled to read the words “rural life” in the invitation sent to the Pope. (“Possibly one of the most young and enthusiastic groups of representatives in the Church in America today is our own rural life people.”)
I only encountered Catholic Rural Life five years ago, when it was spoken well of in conversations with NFP contacts living in Ohio. I learned that this organization espouses a beautiful and very Catholic view of the relationship between us and the earth. Unfortunately, no one in my highly agricultural state has started a chapter. Being a farm kid myself, this makes me sad.
It’s striking to me, as an adult reading this book about an event I have only the haziest memory of, how strongly the vision of Catholic Rural Life was woven into that Mass. Repurposing wood from a corn crib to make the altar, building an “asymmetrical” platform for the altar so as to work with the contour of the land, and so on.
I suppose the reason I’m sharing these thoughts today is that it was really affirming to see that John Paul II, the darling of traditional Catholics, tied himself so closely in this event to a movement that prioritized stewardship of the earth. The false dichotomy between “traditional” or “conservative” Catholicism and care of the earth is a source of great grief to me; I can’t fathom why people deny climate change and resist the Church’s consistent teaching about societal responsibility to ensure environmental stewardship. But it’s especially baffling in the rural community, who would (one would think) be more in tune with the land. Yet it seems like rural areas are the center of resistance to climate action.
It was lovely to see that at least in the pope’s Iowa visit, there was no false dichotomy between “traditional” Catholicism and stewardship of the earth.
Context is important…Gaudium et Spes was published in 1965, during the cold war, and no doubt the bishops who wrote it, as well as Pope Paul VI, were thinking about the threat of nuclear war. But it’s interesting how much these words resonate today, isn’t it?
My husband and I taught natural family planning for sixteen years. So often, during that time, people would say, “What’s natural about resisting the body’s impulses?”
I thought a lot about that, and I realized what I was hearing was frustration: a desire to have the best of sex while avoiding the related hassles.
The first time I encountered the Thomas Merton quote I shared last week, it seemed made to tackle the connections among desire, freedom, and consequence. In spinning out the implications, a blog post was born. Most of that post follows today:
I’ve come to a realization lately that I think all women, and frankly
all men too, need to come to terms with. For me, it was a long time in
coming, considering how obvious it is.
There is no such thing as sex without consequences.
Proponents of natural family planning and proponents of artificial
means of birth control both seem unable to grasp this simple truth. The
NFP community likes to harp on the side effects of birth control and its
potential to damage human relationships. Those who use birth control
deride NFP as ineffective and contrary to human nature because it
requires people to fight their instincts to come together at women’s
most fertile time.
We would all like to think there’s some magic bullet that takes away
the sacrifice and, dare I say it, suffering that is part and parcel of
reproductive life. We want to be able to enjoy the coming together
without the side effects/consequences. There are basically three courses
you can take: you can impose artificial controls on nature
(contraception); you can work with nature (NFP); or you can do whatever
you want and let the chips fall where they may.
Photo by einalem, via Flickr
But every one of those paths has consequences.
If you use natural family planning, you have to deal with occasional
(and for some people, frequent) ambiguity in the signs and the need to
abstain when the woman is most interested in sex. There’s no question
that requires sacrifice and, sometimes, suffering.
If you use chemical contraception, though–assuming it does what it’s
supposed to do, and fools your body into thinking it’s pregnant
already–you’re giving up that increased sex drive altogether. Which is
why I find it puzzling when proponents of birth control criticize NFP
for the abstaining when the sex drive is highest. I mean, it’s not like
contraception solves that issue. And besides, there’s that whole thing
about side effects, and environmental impact, and blood clots. Again: sacrifice, and sometimes, suffering.
Your third option is to let the chips fall where they may. You get
the best of both worlds: sex whenever you feel like it, without side
effects, without increased risk of blood clots. But there’s a natural
consequence to that, too, and it involves bigger cars and bigger houses
and a humongous grocery bill, to say nothing of college costs. And a lot
of time pregnant and breastfeeding and exhausted. So again: sacrifice,
and sometimes, suffering.
The reality is that sex does have consequences, no matter
what you do. You can gnash your teeth all you like, but that’s the
reality. Our job is to make the most responsible choice we can, based on
as much information as we can. And the longer I’m involved with natural family planning,
the more thoroughly convinced I become that NFP, while not without
consequences, is the best option. It’s not the easiest, but it is the
best–for women, for couples, for the world.
My passion for environmental stewardship was born because of infertility.
For three years, we tried to start our family and couldn’t.
It was excruciating. I started metformin to treat PCO; I had surgery for
endometriosis. But in the end, what allowed us to conceive was a water filter.
Yes—a water filter.
The water where we live contains alachlor, diazinon, and
atrazine—herbicides and insecticides used in lawn care and agriculture. These
three chemicals also suppress male fertility. We don’t drink much soda; water
is our staple. We installed a PUR water filter, and four or five months
later—time enough for the change to impact the male reproductive system—we were
Were there other ways we could have overcome our
infertility? IVF? Most likely. But even if it weren’t against what we believed
as Catholics, IVF isn’t the answer to infertility caused by lawn and agricultural
chemicals in the water supply. The fix is not to have those chemicals in the water supply in the first place.
My husband and I are big believers in NFP, because we have
experienced firsthand what the use of chemicals by human beings can do to the
natural environment. To us, Church teaching on birth control simply makes
sense. Working in conjunction with the way God made us is a best practice for
living. It puts us more in harmony with God’s creation. With how God made us.
Self-knowledge, better marital communication—all these are real benefits, but
the basic truth is that planning our family through NFP allows us to live as
God made us, without harming ourselves or the world around us.
For me, it’s no leap to generalize the lesson to a million other questions of environmental stewardship. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Ecosystems work because all the pieces are in place. God designed them to work in a particular way. If one species goes extinct, it upsets the balance; the ripples go out from there. I was mocked a few months ago by a supporter of the border wall for sharing a link outlining the negative impact on migrating species. It was a reminder that we have an unfortunate tendency as human beings to compartmentalize rather than recognize how all things exert a push and pull on each other.
Here’s my favorite example of this ripple effect:
Just one species, long absent because humans had tried to
eliminate them, made all that difference.
How can anyone cling to the belief that human beings couldn’t
possibly be causing climate change?
We often try to separate issues into “these issues are faith
issues, and the rest are not.” It simplifies life, for sure—makes it easier to
process a complex world. But it’s not accurate.
What I find so beautiful about Laudato Si’ is that it makes the connections. In fact, if we live in a world created by God in a certain way–with intention, in other words–then all issues are faith issues.
As a mom of boys and accordingly well-steeped in superhero lore, I read these words and they automatically translate to those of Uncle Ben, in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Responsibility to discern, to self-reflect, to make sure my actions beliefs –and when they don’t (as is true far more often than I’d like), to confess and vow to do better.
And again: although this is in the context of stewardship of the earth that keeps us alive, it applies across the spectrum of a lived faith.
One of the things I love about Laudato Si’–and all the documents I am mining, in fact–is how lessons about the primary topic apply in so many other, seemingly unrelated, areas of life. Take this one. It’s about living more sustainably, but his point is that the chasing after the wind that is the consumption culture (new phone! Better streaming service! New clothes!) leads to being unsatisfied with life–skipping along the surface without ever really sinking into the moment. This resonates with me so deeply. It applies to the pursuit of physical goods as well as one’s reach and influence. You can imagine how much that topic preoccupies someone with an online ministry. Stats! Followers! Shares! Engagements! SEO!
But it also applies to being too busy, trying to gorge on everything on the buffet table of life instead of choosing and savoring. We all recognize this as a perennial problem we face in modern life.
When we (and by “we” I mean American culture–media, social media, etc.) talk about climate change, environmental stewardship, etc., we focus pretty much exclusively on policy: the Paris climate accord, rollbacks of protection initiatives, opening up preserves for drilling, etc. I remember when Trump first decided to pull us out of the Paris Climate Accord, I posted my “ways to be a good steward of the environment,” suggesting that if all of us examined our lives, we could still make a big difference ourselves. Someone I know poo-poohed the idea that we as individual people could have an impact.
But this clip from Laudato Si’ points out an uncomfortable truth: that it’s human nature (especially when profit is involved) to look for loopholes, to figure out how to be the exception so as not to have to do what is difficult, costly, or uncomfortable. Law, in other words, isn’t going to fix the problem of poor stewardship of the earth by itself. We as individuals have to step up and do our part.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean big, earth-shattering things. My family is saving for solar, but in the meantime, a big part of how we form our kids is a focus on reducing waste and initial consumption. Things as simple as those stupid party bags full of useless, disposable junk that you tend to get at birthday parties. Why? Every bit of that is going to end up in the landfill sooner rather than later.
Things like (and those who know me will say “oh here she goes again”) turning off the car when you’re waiting on kids, sitting in the grocery store parking lot, or checking your phone. There’s almost always an option–sitting under a shady tree when it’s hot; going inside when it’s cold. The vast majority of the time, the only reason to leave the car running is one’s own comfort/convenience. Comfort/convenience is one of the most insidious, invisible idols of modern life.
The increasing number and severity of natural disasters hasn’t yet touched *most* of the First World (though even here, we’ve had fires and superstorms and hurricanes). Acting like our daily choices are divorced from the greater good of the earth and those who shelter on this tiny oasis of blue in a vast universe is not a mark of true discipleship. Being a Christian means examining our daily choices–in other words, our habits–and being more intentional about them.
The news about the Amazon has had me very troubled lately; perhaps that’s why Laudato Si’ has been on my mind again lately. I went back to see what quotes I hadn’t used, and this seemed so universal, not just in relation to stewardship of the earth, it practically leaped off the screen.