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 expecting.
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?
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.
We all have our preconceived ideas about what elements of modern life run counter to God’s plan. I could list mine, and no doubt some of them would be quite different from yours. Contradictory, even. We’d probably get into an argument about it. Isn’t that what happens every time we talk about guns, immigration, health care, poverty initiatives, race, or climate change? Half of us think the kingdom points in one direction; the other half sees that direction as heresy.
When God works in our lives, we are challenged to grow. Growth requires change, and change is threatening to our equilibrium. So we resist. We come up with a hundred ways to dismiss what we recognize as a threat to our own comfort.
How, then, do we truly discern when God is at work, challenging our preset assumptions, as opposed to when something is truly counter to God’s plan?
I would argue that we have to start by subordinating our preconceived opinions long enough to think around divisive issues and see them from another side. We might not change our minds. In some cases, we shouldn’t. But we’ll recognize the nuance and complexity of the issues, and that would allow us to enter into conversations in a productive, rather than toxic, way. It would go a long way toward bringing us, collectively, out of the place of acrimony and extremism in which we, as a nation, have become imprisoned. And that, in turn, would bring us closer to God’s kingdom.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: you tell a kid to put away a piece of clothing, and ten minutes later you look and discover it hasn’t been done. You tell them to do it again, and this time it makes it up the stairs and gets dumped on the floor. By the third time, you’ve pretty well lost your temper, and it’s all downhill from there.
This is my life right now: dishonesty, serial disobedience, and difficulty discerning how much is developmental and how much is spacey personality versus testing behavior. My husband reminds me we’ve been through it before and we’ll get through it this time, but it’s wearying.
Why does this warrant a blog post on a site about living the faith?
Because I’m starting to recognize that this parenting issue has a lot to teach us about love—real, self-giving, sacrificial love. How can we teach such a big concept to our children without starting with small, intimate relationships and small—maybe even petty—examples?
Little kids experience the world in concrete ways, after all. I need my child to learn that love doesn’t just mean cuddles and kisses and being tucked into bed at night and giving me a hug on the way out the door. That’s a tiny child’s version of love, but as they grow, they need to learn that a bare minimum, love means you don’t do things that harm the other.
And since Jesus Christ was never in the business of bare minimum, I’d go a step further and say, as the Catechism says: love means willing the good of the other.
So your actions show your love—or the lack of it.
To wit: if you cause your favorite parent to LOSE HER EVER LOVING MIND because you just don’t feel like doing what she asked you to do, then you’re causing harm and you’re definitely not willing the good of said parent.
In other words: NOT. LOVE.
Okay, it’s petty, I know. But really, if you start spinning out the implications, this is a big deal, and not just for the kiddos, but for us as adult Catholics.
a) everyone is our neighbor (Luke 10:29-37), and
b) loving God means loving our neighbor (Luke 10:27-28; Galatians 5:14), and
c) love means willing the good of others (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1766)…
…then we’d darned well better be thinking about willing the good of asylum seekers at the southern border.
And how to erase discrimination (which might mean, for a start, acknowledging that it still exists).
And how to create policies that put the good of workers and society before personal or corporate profit.
And how to protect victims of abuse and assault, rather than shame them and blame them and assume they’re lying for underhanded political reasons.
Because with every word we speak about those issues and every policy solution we advocate (or fight against), we show our love for Jesus Christ.
Or the lack of it.