There’s a sequence in Gaudium et Spes that addresses marriage and family, and is often quoted for its guidance on discerning family size. Children are the supreme good of marriage; marriage is ordained for children (though not solely so); educating the next generation; discernment of family size.
This is from the middle of that sequence, but it isn’t among the most well-known extracts. (Well anyway, they’re well-known to me from years in the natural family planning community. In any case, see #s 48 and the rest of 50 for that.) But I pick this bit because it’s a smaller, more-easily processed excerpt, and because I think it really crystallizes the big picture: we are cooperators with God when we bring children into the world, and we interpret that love through the way we raise our children. That’s big stuff!
There’s been an uptick recently in the expression of a point of view that suggests that since we are citizens of Heaven, not earth, we should not pay attention to earthly suffering or strive to alleviate it. The Church says otherwise.
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.
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.
The readings this weekend were all about money. Amos was talking about the dishonesty of those with money–how they were so focused on their own profits that they didn’t really care what happened to the “have not”s of the world. And Jesus said, “Guess what? How you use your money matters.”
Listening yesterday at Mass, it really struck me how those readings should skewer America. The obvious application is the question of income inequality: how many of the huge profits made by companies are held by those at the top of the food chain, how little is actually shared with those down the ranks.
But you know, so much of what we talk about in America centers on money. Many would like to believe we’re a Christian nation, but money–capitalism–is the primary thing that preoccupies our social and political discourse, even among Christians. So many things come back to money: health care and social programs would require more taxes, and we can’t possibly suggest raising taxes. Immigrants are perceived as a threat to American jobs, so again–it comes back to money. The question of whether a president deserves re-election is always about the economy. We’re having all these discussions about China and intellectual property and trade fairness, but nowhere on anyone’s radar is the question of just wages for labor, which is–let’s face it–the only reason manufacturing went overseas in the first place. It went overseas because we, the rank and file Americans, aren’t willing to pay what it would cost to make a product while paying a just wage to the laborer who made it.
We have a lot to answer for, and I don’t pretend to have a pat solution. I personally try to take a step back from the consumer culture by starting with secondhand clothing purchases as much as possible. But those clothes, too, were made by cheap labor overseas, and I order from Amazon just like every other red-blooded American. What do I think God will say to me when it comes time for me to answer for my choices? I don’t like pondering that question any more than anyone else.
In any case, when I was looking through the possibilities for things to share today, this quote from my Beatitudes book seemed to dovetail with what we heard at church yesterday. Because what if? What if, instead of money, we made God’s will, God’s kingdom, God’s priorities, the central principle that guided every other choice?
This insight was a really monumental shift for me in my faith. I knew the truth of it, at least as it related to particular issues of importance, of course. But it was a big deal to realize that whatever ignites my righteous anger, makes me squirm, or breaks my heart in the news–those things are, in fact, a call to action from God, speaking through my conscience.
I recognize them now, though I’m far from perfect about the “doing something” part. Writing “The Beatitudes” reminded me of that every time I sat down to work on it.
My book, “The Beatitudes,” is now available from Our Sunday Visitor’s Companions in Faith series. If you’re not familiar with this series, they’re small books meant to be compact–to get right to the point, because we all know nobody has time to waste. “The Beatitudes” looks at the nitty-gritty issues of real life through the lens of these statements, which encapsulate the Christian faith.
I loved this idea from the moment OSV approached me about it. We hear the Beatitudes so often, it’s easy for them to lose their punch. They sort of roll over our heads without really impacting. This book uses them as a way to examine our attitudes and actions and discern where God might be calling us to grow. You can read a section in about three minutes and spend the next several days mulling over and praying about it. Sounds about perfect for modern life! (Where are the emojis when you need them?)
In any case, I’m very excited about this book. It is perhaps the most compact, focused way I’ve been able to lay out what I mean by the words “intentional Catholic.” So over the next week or two, I’ll share a few quotes from the book off and on. I hope you’ll check it out!
If you reacted to this with, “well, duh,” I hear you. This is the kind of religious platitude that we usually skim right over: so general and familiar, we can nod our heads and move on, totally failing to see how it applies in concrete ways in real life.
What if, in place of the word “others,” we substituted the actual people we struggle to love, i.e. will the best for? For example:
“to see God in and seek the good of…
…. that political figure I think is possessed by the devil. (And people have thought that about more than one recent figure, so be honest and don’t write this one off. It applies to both sides of the political spectrum.)
…those people who hold beliefs contrary to my own on important issues.
… that person who likes the OTHER kind of liturgical music.
…. that person who told lies to me or about me and deeply harmed my emotional well-being.
…. that school administrator/boss/coworker who is combative and uncooperative and makes my life miserable.
…that refugee on the southern border whose desire to come here feels threatening to me on some level.
If you didn’t squirm at this recitation, then you probably didn’t dig deep enough, because I definitely squirmed writing it.
This is the problem with religious platitudes: we can all, whatever our opinions on divisive matters within the Church and outside it, applaud and feel affirmed by such statements as long as we don’t dig down to what they actually mean in real life.
That’s why I’m here, doing this work at Intentional Catholic: because we don’t grow in holiness until we dig deep enough to get uncomfortable with the status quo.
This quote first struck me because it doesn’t make sense. I have a garden. And a lawn I’ve recently reseeded. If I see a weed, I grumble a LOT. In fact, I’ve been going outside lately and pulling crabgrass out of my lawn, in a nod to complete futility. I do not see the swath of green, I see the weed. I see the imperfection.
In this one area, at least, we’re consistent in how we handle the physical and the spiritual world. We are not willing to tolerate imperfections in expressions of faith, either. It’s got to be all or nothing, and the problem is that the more we cling to that, the more people choose “nothing.”
A few years ago, someone asked me for advice on convincing a reluctant spouse to embrace Natural Family Planning. I, in turn, asked advice from a friend, who said, “Tell them to practice NFP. It’s about practicing. You do the best you can. You’re going to screw up. Just keep practicing.“
This was a real brain-stretching thought for me. To me, NFP was an all or nothing prospect. You do it or you don’t. It had never before occurred to me that maybe something so challenging and outside the cultural norm is, by definition, going to be done badly (and here I don’t mean mistakes in applying the method, I mean spiritual choices) and with lots of spiritual mistakes on the way to doing it well. Like practicing the piano, or the violin. You’re bad before you’re good, but that doesn’t make the effort any less laudable or worth undertaking.
Why have we never thought about the spiritual life this way?
My brain is exploding with thoughts on this, but I’ll leave it there for today and take up the question again after the weekend.