As I mentioned earlier, K and I have decided to help with premarital counseling at my parish.
The first step to doing this is to meet with the coordinating couple and get trained on exactly what we need to do. We will be helping couples with the FOCCUS test. If you are not familiar with the FOCCUS test, it is an inventory of questions about how each prospective spouse will respond to various issues that arise in a marriage. It is highly effective at helping couples spot problems and help them decide whether or not they are ready for marriage.
We also were fortunate enough to be able to help register couples at the diocesan Engaged Encounter weekend. Although we did not present, we learned more about the program and looked at the materials that the couples were given and that the instructors used.
A Realistic Assessment of Marriage…
While the Catholic Church has a very beautiful theology on marriage and very high standards for what is and is not God’s plan for our sexuality, they have a very realistic assessment of the couples who are preparing for marriage.
The Church knows that:
- A significant number of couples preparing for marriage are cohabitating.
- The overwhemling majority of couples preparing for marriage are sexually active.
- The overwhelming majority of these couples are using contraception.
- Many couples are not active in the Church.
- Many mixed marriages involve a non-Catholic partner who may be more involved in their faith than the Catholic partner is in theirs.
Furthermore, Catholic marriage preparation emphasizes that there is no “one right way” to have a marriage. Although Theology of the Body does talk about the importance of the masculine and the feminine, the Catholic Church does NOT teach that couples should follow rigid gender roles in a marriage. Instead, the focus of marriage preparation is for the couples to talk about how they are going to build their life together as a couple.
…With One Exception
On the FOCCUS test, of the questions deals with family planning. While written in a value neutral way, “My spouse and I have discussed our method of family planning and how it will affect our marriage”, many couples had not thought about how family planning would affect their marriage. So this was a good time to mention Natural Family Planning.
The coordinating couple gave us the following sheet to give couples along with a Creighton Model Fertility Care brochure from the local practitioner.
Natural Family Planning is presented as a “learned method of behavior”, that “teaches virtue of chastity”, and is “morally acceptable to all religions”.
I’m sure the average cohabitating couple preparing for marriage is interested in going to all the trouble of “learning a method of behavior” to acquire the “virtue of chastity” in order to be “morally acceptable” in their family planning choices.
Oh, but it’s good for fertility! It “respects and honor’s fertility”! It is “diagnostic of female fertility problems”! It “can help infertility!” Did you see the cute kid in the grainy black and white photo at the top of the page? (Right next to the Comic Sans.)
As for contraception, couples who use contraception are are unchaste, offensive to our religion, don’t trust each other, are ready to have an affair, and are headed straight for divorce court.
This sales pitch is guaranteed to make those already committed to Catholic teaching feel better about themselves, and everyone else confident that they are doing the right thing by completely ignoring Church teaching.
How to Change People’s Minds
It’s a shame, because premarital counseling is an excellent time to introduce couples to Natural Family Planning, and more about Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality.
To change someone’s minds, you have to put things in terms of what they want, not what you want. You can’t shame or belittle them (because that just makes them defensive) but show how your ideas align with their values.
So how about the following:
Natural Family Planning:
- Learn how your body works!
- No unpleasant side effects.
- No chemicals, drugs, or devices.
- Minimal cost after initial classes.
- Can help diagnose women’s health problems.
- When you are ready to have children, NFP can be used to help you conceive.
- Many couples say NFP helps them communicate, builds trust, and brings them closer together.
- And the sex? On average, couples using NFP report having more sex and better sex than those who use contraception.
While I do not believe that people can or should ignore the negative consequences of contraception, NFP promoters should not blame the couple for these negative consequences. The pharmaceutical industry is the one making all the money off of this.
- Treats women’s natural body functions as a disease requiring medical intervention.
- Requires costly prescriptions and doctor’s appointments.
- Can biochemically interfere with couple’s bonding.
- May cause mild depression and mood swings.
- May reduce libido, leading to less frequent and lower quality sex.
- In rare cases, may cause severe injury or even death.
- Masks women’s health problems.
- When you are ready to have children, may make it more difficult to conceive.
- Woman must deal with all side effects, often leading to resentment and division.
Oh, and lose the Comic Sans.
The 85% Solution
The Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception is what it is and it isn’t going anywhere. The Catholic Church clearly teaches that God’s plan for marriage and sexuality does not include any sexual activity that is not oriented toward procreation.
But like God’s plan for everything else, many couples may not in a place where they can be receptive to this teaching. We do not tell couples that they must give 10% of their income to Church or charity right away, so why take an all-or-nothing approach to natural family planning?
Financial Blogger Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich talks about “the 85% solution” when it comes to personal finance. He says that people believe they have to get everything 100% right with personal finance, but since they see this perfection as being impossible, they don’t even try. Instead, Ramit suggests trying to get 85% of it right. This is far more realistic so people are far more likely to do it. And although 85% is not as good as 100%, it’s a lot better than 0%.
And this is where I see the value in taking a “fertility awareness approach” in promoting the method to Catholics. It is the 85% solution. Such an approach is far more likely to have an impact on the twenty and thirty-something women who would need a family planning method.
Plus, taking a non-judgmental, gradual approach makes it easier for couples to rethink the “crazy pills” and all that Big Pharma is selling.
But perhaps this is part of a larger problem. For as much freedom as the Catholic Church gives couples to determine how they will live their marriage vocation, they are unusually micromanaging in the bedroom.
As a result, a lot of valuable wisdom falls on deaf ears.