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 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?
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!
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.
“But I’m too busy…” It’s always about busy-ness, isn’t it? Which means, actually, it’s about my priorities. Am I so caught up in “things of the world” that I haven’t carved out time to serve God? God gave me these hands, these feet, this voice. How am I using them for him?
It’s a balancing act I know I’ll never get 100% right…but I have to keep working at it.
I doubt anyone reading this would argue with me when I say abortion is the central, pivotal issue at the heart of the divide in America today. In recent weeks, with different states passing various abortion bans as test strikes against a new Supreme Court, the magma that simmers uneasily beneath all our toxic discourse has erupted.
Current discussions are excruciating for someone like me, who believes we as Christians have too long taken a facile approach to this issue: A child is a child, a life is a life, end of discussion. Any protest issued by the pro-choice movement does not require answer, because it can’t possibly outweigh that central, fundamental tenet.
Well, a life is a life; it’s true. It’s not that the core belief is wrong. But I heard a quote recently. I haven’t been able to verify it, but it resonates as true to what we as Catholics believe about God:
When God sees sin, he sees wounds.
(For what it’s worth, I heard it attributed to Julian of Norwich.)
What I hear, in the hysteria of those who are pro-choice, is pain.
The pain of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. The pain of discrimination. A thousand pinprick wounds (and plenty of traumatic ones, too). The pain of deep wounds not healed. People who encounter a hardline “life is sacred, and there’s no more to talk about” stance—a stance which fails to address their pain—will experience a further ripping of wounds they might not even recognize they have. Wounds they have no idea how to heal, because the God that could heal them has been too often represented by people who don’t acknowledge their pain, and in some cases are the cause of it. Which means they dig down and become even more entrenched and unable to hear.
We are not changing hearts when we focus our efforts in this way. And if we want to create a culture of life, we have to change hearts.
So how do we change hearts? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I’ve realized that not one of the moments of conversion in my life ever happened because I was scolded, hammered with a truth I wasn’t ready to receive, or told my concerns were irrelevant. It always happened slowly, organically, through insights that grew from truths I already recognized.
If we want to change hearts, we have to learn to speak in such a way that the people who need to hear the message are actually able to receive it.
If we who believe in the sanctity of life can only answer the sincere, heartfelt anguish of people who are pro-choice with a “mic drop” argument that means nothing to them (no matter how true it is), then we are tone deaf. We are noisy gongs, clanging. We are without love.
So the next question is: what pain, what concerns, of the pro-choice movement are we ignoring, to the detriment of our goal of creating a culture of life?
My spiritual director once said that the intersection of faith and politics is a mess, because it’s like a bowl of spaghetti. Tug on one thread/issue and you dislodge dozens of others. Abortion simmers beneath everything else because it’s connected to almost everything.
An author in the National Review recently wrote that something she wrote years ago has been quoted both pro-choice and pro-life writers: “No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.”
This resonates with both sides because it’s true. Women really don’t go around looking for excuses to kill their children. They seek abortion because they truly feel they have no other choice.
Now why would that be?
It can be because they’re in abusive relationships, and they simply feel they’re not capable of bearing one more burden. Or because they are in poverty, and can’t bear one more burden. And yes, a child is a burden. A joyful burden, we hope, but a burden nonetheless. We all complain about parenthood too much to pretend otherwise.
It can be because health care (before and after ACA) is astronomically expensive and handled by private companies in a callous and punitive manner, in which profit counts more than the good of the customer.
It can be because mothers know the system is stacked against them. If they don’t have a support network, how can they care for a child and also work?
It can be because schools in poor areas are a pale shadow of what more affluent families (i.e., us) demand as a given. Or because discrimination still exists, in ways we can’t fathom, because we won’t accept the word of those who experience it, preferring to think they’re overreacting.
The upshot is that women seeking abortion feel—with reason—that they are simply birthing a child into a desperate life of discrimination and struggle and pain.
And again, we know any life is better than no life. But is that facile response going to cut it when we face God? I can’t help thinking God’s going to say, “Thank you for working so hard to protect the unborn ‘least of these,’ but what did you do for all those OTHER ‘least of these’?”
The upshot is: it’s not that we’re wrong to say the baby’s right to life outweighs all other concerns. Of course it does.
But that doesn’t erase the need to address all those other concerns. And my entire life, the prolife movement has been singlemindedly focused on the legal question of abortion, while actively working against attempts to address these other issues at the level of society.
I have more to say about this, but this post is too long already, so I’ll close for today and pick up again tomorrow.