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!
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.
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.
This is where society sometimes gets it wrong: assuming that simply cutting the number of children will fix the problem. The “issues” Pope Francis lays out in Laudato Si’ should make us all squirm. Our entire culture is built on convenience (which is to say, disposability) and consumption–the more, the better.
In my neighborhood every week, the amount of trash and recycling that goes out in households with 2-3 people is often three to four times larger than what we, as a family of 6, put out. Sustainable living is a value that parents have to prioritize in our own lives and intentionally pass on to our children–just like respect for life and the centrality of the Eucharist. Two kids raised in an atmosphere that is cavalier or thoughtless about consumption will do as much or more damage to God’s creation as six kids raised with a heart of environmental stewardship.