7 Quick Takes – Volume 22 (Hope)

Yesterday’s post on why the clergy isn’t very supportive of Humanae Vitae was a bit of a downer. Here are seven reasons why I remain hopeful.

— 1 —

Barack Obama

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Yes, Mr. Hope and Change himself gives me hope.

Why?

Because the HHS Mandate was a wake up call for a lot of Catholics. We would never have reconsidered our contraceptive use if it weren’t for conversations that arose about the mandate.

The more he antagonizes the Church, the more Catholics have to stand up and defend the faith. As Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” (Conversely, “In the absence of martyrs, there’s a presence of thieves.” as the Jennifer Knapp song goes.)  Although bureaucratic interference is far from martyrdom, the Church has always grown through difficulty and stagnated in times of privilege.

Oh, and the HHS Mandate does include a lot of maternity care benefits. It’s not all bad.

— 2 —

Bloggers and Internet Discussion

Much of the discussion over the HHS Mandate and Church teaching has happened over the internet. Some of it good, much of it not so good.

But the important part is that people are talking. People are sharing their stories. People are arguing. Sometimes people are won over.

When we tried NFP earlier in our marriage, we were very isolated and very frustrated. We thought we were the only people who did that, except for the really Catholic mommas with the mantilla and the maxi-van full of kids. (Not that there’s anything wrong with mantillas and maxi-vans.) When we struggled with the method, we had few places to turn to understand why. When we were struggling with issues about Church teaching, we thought we were the only people who did so. We saw Church teaching as limiting our options and forcing us into a certain lifestyle.

Contrary to popular belief, the frump is strictly optional.

Frump is NOT required to use NFP.

Social media has given us access to a wider variety of people. People like us are following Church teaching. People like us are even driving maxi-vans. You can follow Church teaching without having to become someone you are not.

Through social media, we have been able to see the positive side of Church teachings. We have also been able to see that challenges and struggles are normal. It’s not just for the super devout or the extra holy, it’s something that is good for for everyone.

— 3 —

Improved Technology

Technology has made living Church teaching far easier than it had been in the past.

Gone are the days of paper charts, limited information, and the textbook-like Art of Natural Family Planning. Gone are the days of having to drive for an hour to a stranger’s house to talk about the most intimate details of your body and love life.

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Yeah, there’s an App for that.

Electronic charting means no more paper charts to worry about. Online classes via Skype mean that you can learn the method in the convenience of your home. Online research means you can learn more about the methods if you are having a problem or if you are just into that sort of thing.

Technology is also making the methods easier. The new Marquette Method uses a ClearBlueEasy fertility monitor to determine the fertile times. As technology gets better and cheaper and as interest in natural methods grow, I expect more devices to make things even easier.

Still waiting on my tricorder.

Still waiting on our fertility tricorder.

— 4 —

Increased awareness of Fertility Awareness as a woman’s health issue.

People are going green, and filling your body with artificial hormones isn’t compatible with a natural, healthy lifestyle.

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Not only are non-Catholics starting to appreciate the method, but more Catholics are talking about the women’s health benefits of fertility charting. Church teaching is not a burden placed on women by the old guys in Rome, but part of a healthy way to live.

— 5 —

People Crave Challenges and Self-Improvement

People do crave a challenge.  People like to improve themselves. That’s why more and more people run marathons.

NFP instructor Kristin Putnam asks why we don’t apply principles of self-improvement to fertility?

Getting in shape takes perseverance, sacrifice and hard work. But, everyone agrees that the end result is worth the effort. Look at marriage, a career, owning a home, staying out of debt, buying a car, and living life as responsible human being… every aspect of life requires some amount of sacrifice, self discipline and work to achieve a positive, desired end result.

So why is it, when it comes to our fertility, that we all of a sudden throw the need for effort out the window? For some, it is enough effort to try and remember to take a pill every day. The result for this effort? A false sense of security that pregnancy is no longer a concern for the duration of her prescription.

One of the benefits of charting fertility is that it gives women important data about their bodies. As Kati Bicknell of Kindara Fertility put it:

By recording your daily fertility signs a whole world of possibility opens up for you! While it’s true that fertility charting can be, and often is used to achieve or prevent pregnancy, the benefits of it don’t stop there. Fertility charting can answer important questions about our ovulation, luteal phase, cycle health, thyroid function and more.  I have friends who have finally figured out the root of several food allergies, from charting their fertility.  I myself have learned that a diet high in animal fat keeps my cycles regular. One reason I’m so excited about what we’re doing at Kindara is that as more and more women start quantifying their fertility, we’ll start to generate new knowledge about fertility for the benefit of humankind, creating a virtuous feedback loop that will help each woman feel calm and confident with her fertility in her specific situation.

For us, charting allowed K to spot that she was Vitamin D deficient, which allowed me to figure out I was too. By adding Vitamin D supplements to our diet, we were able to avoid the “winter blues” and have more energy.

It also gives couples data about their love life. How many “I”s this month? 😀

All fertility awareness based methods work based on self-awareness, self-control, and self-sacrifice. Making these a part of your relationship makes it stronger. Even non-Catholic couples often notice positive changes in their relationship when they switch from contraception (especially hormonal contraception) to a natural method. Not only is it good for women’s health, but it works to build cooperation between the spouses. Or as life an intimacy coach Kim Animi explained:

Women: Take control of your own body.

Men: Support women to take control. You can do it with them.

— 6 —

Theology of the Body

Promoting fertility awareness as a health and relationship tool is great, but there is more.

For years, Catholic teaching on sexuality was presented very negatively—”Don’t”. The teachings was presented as a series of rules and obligations and often with a very judgmental tone.

Then it became a matter of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, where nobody talked about it.

While Theology of the Body is about far more than just sexuality, it presents Catholic teaching on sexuality in the context of the human person. It’s not about a technical discussion of how God and nature designed the “parts” to “fit”, but about how sexuality fits into friendship and love.

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Catholic teaching on chastity is a new way of thinking for traditional Catholics, Protestants coming from “Purity culture”, and secular people accustomed to the sexual revolution. It’s not about saying “No”, but about saying “Yes” to deeper and more intimate relationship. It’s not about rules, but about self-discipline.

As the culture is into self-improvement, the idea that chastity can improve relationships and personal well-being will cause people to be more interested in it.

— 7 —

Pope Francis

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I love our “frank” new Pontiff.

One of his big themes is about the importance of the laity being laity. We do not all need to be Extraordinary Ministers and distribute communion like the Priests. Nor do we need to be amateur theologians, giving our own personal spin to the teachings of the Magisterium.

What we do need to do is live our lives with holiness and joy.

For lay married couples to share with lay married couples ways to make their marriage better does not require the permission of a priest. It’s something that we can all do. It’s part of our vocation, not theirs. We don’t need to wait for Father to give the Big Homily On Contraception, we can tell our friends, family, and fellow Catholics what we have. Here. Now.

And I’m starting to see this promotion on the internet through sites like iusenfp.com, livingthesacrament.com, and many other blogs and websites dedicated to helping married couples have better marriages.

Which is why I am hopeful for the future.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

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Battle of Who Could Care Less

This week begins the USCCB’s Fortnight for Freedom.

fortnight-4-freedom-logoDioceses across the country have special events to commemorate the fortnight. such as this:

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And this

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But the Fortnight for Freedom is doomed to fail.

I’m not too concerned about the HHS Mandate itself. It will likely be struck down by the Supreme Court.  Let’s just say the six Catholics and three Jews on the Court frown upon government intrusions on religious freedom. I fully expect the Administration to get bench-slapped by the Supremes.

Justice Scalia delivered the Opinion of the Court

Justice Scalia is not amused.

So why is the fortnight doomed to fail?

Because even though the bishops may win in the Supreme Court, they are losing in the court of public opinion. Badly.

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The Bishops are frequently the butt of jokes

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and portrayed as out of touch with Catholic women
Womens healthcareand shown as a bunch of political stooges.

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The bishops are being used by a cynical Administration who is quite good at playing politics and buying votes. They make an easy punching bag.

Ummm, you do realize that SOMEONE pays for that.

Ummm, you do realize that SOMEONE pays for that? Probably not.

Because the public doesn’t see the debate as one over religious freedom, but one over women’s health care

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and the bishops are losing.

But Wait! What about Natural Family Planning!

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Natural Family Planning is pretty awesome. (Even though we suck ROCK at it.) It’s a healthy, all natural alternative to artificial contraception with NO side effects.

This side effect is pretty rough on guys, too.

This side effect is pretty rough on guys, too.

It teaches women about their bodies. ALL about their bodies.

Natural Family Planning has answers for women who want to achieve pregnancy, avoid pregnancy, and safeguard their reproductive health.

Charting gave this woman an early alert to cervical cancer—and saved her life!

Charting gave this woman an early alert to cervical cancer—and saved her life!

But how do Catholics promote this alternative view of women’s health? With professional advertisement; prayer, fasting, and special masses; and lots of media attention?

Ehhh, not so much…

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Promoting NFP with Comic Sans. Always with Comic Sans.

When lay Catholic women do try to promote this “revolution in women’s health“, they get a less-than-enthusiastic response.

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The Project Chick says it best. (She’s passionate about NFP for a reason.)BTW, hormonal contraceptives nearly killed this woman. http://theprojectchick.blogspot.com/2012/04/project-recovery.html

So, while the USCCB keeps fighting battles over “freedom”, they continue to lose the war.

But the real losers are women.

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THIS is Women’s Health?

Love and Marriage

I have written quite a bit about sex, but I haven’t written anything about homosexuality.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis talked about why he did not address the issue of gambling:

Ever since I served as an infantryman in the First World War I have had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line. As a result I have a reluctance to say much about temptations to which I myself am not exposed. No man, I suppose, is tempted to every sin. It so happens that the impulse which makes men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion. I therefore did not feel myself qualified to give advice about permissable and impermissable gambling: if there is any permissable, for I do not claim to know even that. . . . I did not think it my place to take a firm line about pains, dangers and expenses from which I am protected; having no pastoral office which obliged me to do so.

Likewise, Lewis did not address homosexuality for the exact same reason—the behavior never interested him. As I have no interest, inclination, or temptation to homosexual activity, I am not qualified to write about whether it is right, wrong, or otherwise. Nor am I qualified to give persons struggling with same sex attraction any sort of useful advice on the matter.

The Meaning of Marriage

I am not gay, but I am married, so I do have something to add to the gay marriage conversation.

My belief about marriage is that God intended for marriage to be between one man and one woman. You can read Theology of the Body, or other sources about marriage to get an understanding behind the theological reasons for why the complimentary nature of the male and the female are an essential element to marriage.  “Complementary nature” does not refer to legalistic rigid gender roles, but more in the sense of the French phrase “vive la difference“, which celebrates the qualities that make the sexes unique.

At the most concrete, physical level, the complementary nature of the sexes is necessary to have sexual intercourse and to have children together. Our experience is that there is nothing more intimate than sexual intercourse and nothing that has had a greater impact on our marriage than having children. Our children are, in a very real sense, the product of us and our union: One daughter looks like her and acts like me, the other looks like me and acts like her. I find this incredibly amazing.

A gay couple can do sexual things, but they cannot have intercourse. They can adopt children or use assisted reproduction, but they cannot have children with each other. (As for infertile couples, those struggling with infertility know more about the difficulties this causes than I could ever write.) While marriage is about far more than sex and reproduction, my own experience is that if these things were missing from our marriage, it would be would a bit like a chocolate chip cookie without the chocolate chips.

The Matter of The Law

There is, as I see it, a difference between “what God intended marriage to be” and “what relationships the law should recognize”. God “hates divorce”, but the law allows it. Even the Law of Moses allowed divorce, despite God’s opinion of it. C.S. Lewis addressed the difference between Christian marriage and legal marriage in his native United Kingdom on the issue of divorce:

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The conception of marriage is one: the other is the different question – how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mahommedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine.

My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

The purpose of legal marriage, as I see it, is to encourage a stable, healthy society. It is about more than reproduction, otherwise, there would be an age cutoff. Likewise, if marriage were about reproduction, the minimum age for marriage would be puberty, not legal adulthood.

The law encourages marriage and discourages divorce. Even with “no fault divorce”, in my state, it takes 24 hours to get married and one year to get divorced, unless evidence of fault is proven. The law encourages relational stability: North Carolina still has Alienation of Affection and Criminal Conversation laws, where an aggrieved spouse can sue a third party “homewrecker” for breaking up their marriage. Stable families create a stable society. Monogamy and fidelity prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The state has good reason to encourage marriage for reasons beyond reproduction.

So, where do gay couples fit in?

Some have argued that gay people have the same right to marry a member of the opposite sex as anyone else. I know several gay people who have married opposite-sex friends. Nearly all of them eventually divorced. Encouraging gay people to marry friends they aren’t sexually attracted to isn’t exactly a recipe for relational and social stability.

Others have argued that gay relationships are less stable than heterosexual relationships. Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is true, the issue in allowing gay couples to marry isn’t preferring same-sex relationships over heterosexual relationships, but preferring stable same-sex relationships over unstable transient ones.

Still others make a quasi-theological argument based on Natural Law. They argue that gay sex is unnatural and harmful, therefore society shouldn’t recognize same-sex relationships. The problem with this line of thinking is that if such activity is indeed harmful, then gay marriage opponents should be able to provide clear evidence of the harms to those who choose to engage in them vs. those who have the inclination to pursue them, but choose not to. Arguments based in the Natural Law must be supported by nature, otherwise, they are merely arguments from authority in disguise. In this case, the evidence that most people with same sex attraction are worse off in a committed gay relationship instead of attempting a heterosexual relationship or remaining celibate is scant. The argument is philosophically sound, but the facts to support it are lacking.

Others make the argument that “marriage” means something. I irritate those on both sides of the debate by disagreeing with this assertion. I do not care if legal recognition is called “civil union” or “civil marriage”. Words describe principles and concepts, they do not have “inherent meanings”. I doubt that many gay marriage opponents are fighting for the “one man, one woman, children optional, for as long as we feel like it” that is the reality of civil marriage.

Finally, some argue that gay marriage will have all sorts of negative consequences for adoption law and for religious freedom. Both of these issues are legitimate concerns, but they are best dealt with separately. In the case of adoption law, adoption law is based on the best interest of the child, not the rights of the parents. If children are indeed better off with a heterosexual couple than a same-sex couple, then you are going to have to show that this is so and convince society to make sure that adoption laws reflects such findings.

As for religious freedom, if gay marriage has a negative impact on religious freedom, then the problem is that protections for religious freedom are too weak across the board. The controversy over religious groups providing contraceptive coverage has everything to do with religious freedom and absolutely nothing to do with gay marriage. (What do gay couples need with contraceptives, anyway?) If religious freedom is ignored over gay marriage, it will probably be ignored in many other areas, and the problem should be recognized for what it really is.

Faith and Reason

People on both sides of the debate are very sure of themselves, but this issue isn’t an easy one. Especially for heterosexuals who really can’t understand what it’s like to have same-sex attraction.

There can be no conflict between true faith and sound reasoning. True faith leads to truth; sound reasoning leads to truth; truth cannot contradict truth.

If faith appears to contradict reason, the problem must be either mistaken faith or flawed reasoning. Truth is not hidden—it wants to be found. What is true in faith will be confirmed by reason and the natural world, but if the natural world contradicts what the faith believes (such as the case of the theology of the Ptolemaic solar system) then we must re-examine our faith to see if we have misunderstood something.

To say something is “natural” or “unnatural” requires an understanding of nature and while nature doesn’t change, our understanding of it does.

As for the politics, my own prediction is that in the broader view, gay marriage is much ado about nothing. The most stable gay couples will take advantage of it, heterosexual couples will marry (and unfortunately, divorce) like they always have, and life will go on. It is neither the “Civil Rights Movement of our era”, nor the end of Western Civilization.

Let’s Talk About Sex (Follow Up)

This is the entire follow up post to my article about changing the conversation on sex.This was originally only posted at Real Catholic Love and Sex, but then I realized that some people might have problems posting because of internet filters. I have enabled comments, for anyone with this issue.

When I posted the original article, I noticed that a lot of the Catholic conversation on sex was very legalistic and focused on technical issues. I asserted that Catholics should change the conversation on sex.

And boy did I ever get a lot of conversation about sex! Some people agreed with me, others disagreed with me. Some were very informative. All were respectful and civil.

So, what I have learned?

Good Catechesis is Essential

Growing up, I didn’t hear anything about Catholic teaching on sex and marriage. I knew the Church frowned upon premarital sex. I had some vague idea that contraception wasn’t officially approved, but I was pretty sure there was a loophole.

The first time I heard why the Church opposed contraception, it was presented as a negative. Contraception was sinful, led to divorce and abortion, and was causing the downfall of Western Civilization.

When I first heard all the teachings on sexuality, they were presented as a series of rules based on this Natural Law reasoning. It was even in Question and Answer format, just like the old Baltimore Catechism. It was a list of things we should do because they are virtuous and a list of things we should not do because they are sinful. The only explanation given was because the Church said so and as good Catholics, we were to obey the Church.

The Baltimore Catechism fell out of favor because although it was good at teaching children the details of the faith, without showing them the big picture, it was easy for children to get confused about what the Catholic faith is all about. It was easy to think that Christianity was just a series of rules where you have to earn God’s love.

But Christianity is a love story. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his first encyclical, God is Love.

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should [not perish, but] have eternal life” (3:16).

God loves us unconditionally. Although we may refuse his love, we need not earn it, nor worry about Him withdrawing it.

To have a truly Catholic view of sexuality, one must view sexuality in the context of this love story and our relationship with God. Love is never legalism.

Because God loves us, he wants us to succeed. God wants us to love better. Catholics believe God’s grace can change people to enable us to grow in virtue and come closer to him. That’s why He gave us the sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

But we cannot do it alone. If we try to follow the law without God’s help, we will be miserable and we will fail.

Natural Law Arguments Against Contraception Aren’t Convincing

Traditionally, the Catholic teachings about sex were not based on the relationship we have with God and each other, but were thought of as coming from the Natural Law.

St. Thomas Aquinas

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the purpose of sex is procreation, therefore, a reasonable man would not want to use his sexuality in a way that contradicts procreation. Deliberate wasting of semen was a serious sin. However, sex that did not lead to conception “by accident”, such as if the woman were infertile, was no sin because the spouses did not intend to frustrate the process.

Aquinas, though a brilliant theologian, was limited to the science of his time. He had a very different understanding of the nature of semen than modern science does. He had no understanding of the menstrual cycle or times of infertility.

Aquinas paid little attention to female sexuality.  He condemned male masturbation as worse than rape(!) for wasting the seed, but did not address female masturbation at all. His idea of the purpose of sexuality being only for procreation, fails to address the clitoris, an organ which serves no other function than female sexual pleasure.

The Catholic Church has progressed since the middle ages, and Aquinas’s writings were never official doctrine. Still, Aquinas’s logic is the basis of the modern Natural Law understanding of Catholic sexual ethics.

The Church recognizes correctly recognizes the bonding the spouses as a second purpose of sex, but insists that the bonding aspect cannot be separated from the unitive aspect.

Modern science also seems to have found a third purpose for sexuality: Sex is good for your health. Regular orgasms bring health benefits. This is especially true for women, although the concept is nothing new.

With modern understandings of reproduction, is non-procreative sex really that immoral? With the bonding and health purposes of sex, is it that unreasonable to engage in non-procreative activities when regular sex is not available? These are reasonable questions and an Natural Law argument alone cannot answer them.

That being said, the Natural Law arguments against sterilization are common sense, though less often presented. Note that the birth control pill and other forms of hormonal “contraception” are not really “contraception” at all, but temporary chemical sterilization.

The problem with sterilization is that healthy human reproductive system is designed to reproduce. Surgically or biochemically altering a working reproductive system to have more sex is very unhealthy and seriously disordered. This alteration has multiple unpleasant health consequences, from annoying to deadly, whether chemical, bioactive, or surgical, for men and for women. Charting your cycle and avoiding these side effects is good for your health and good for your marriage. Additionally, treating fertility as a disease to be medicated is a profound negative social statement about our bodies. This is why I believe fertility awareness is good for ALL couples, not just Catholics.

Confusing the argument against contraception with the argument against sterilization weakens both.

Understanding Theology of the Body is Critical

So, how does sexuality fit into our relationship with God? How do we few sexual ethics as driven by something more than just nature and reason? Does our sexuality have a deeper purpose?

In the late 1950s a young Polish priest recognized that the old Natural Law arguments were resting too heavily on Church authority and convincing fewer and fewer people. So, he set out to rethink the reasoning behind the teachings. Instead of starting with nature and reason as Aquinas did, he started with the human person.

What is the ethical way to treat our fellow humans? The dignity of the individual makes it unethical to use others as objects for our own ends. What is the meaning of love? Love must be self-giving. It is acting in the best interest of the other. To use is the opposite of to love. The purpose of our sexuality is to love, not to use. An ethical use of sexuality is one that “uphold and affirms” the dignity and value of other persons. Using psychology and ethical reasoning, he re-explained the reasoning behind Catholic sexual teaching. The result is the book Love and Responsibility.

Pope Paul VI invited him to be on the Papal Birth Control Commission, but Communist authorities in Poland kept him trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps Humanae Vitae would have been better drafted (and better received) had he been there.

The priest became a bishop, then a cardinal, and eventually Pope John Paul II. One of the first acts of his Papacy was to present a series of lectures called “Love in the Divine Plan”, or Theology of the Body.

Pope John Paul II

If Love and Responsibility is the “reason” side of John Paul II’s philosophy on sexuality, Theology of the Body is the “faith” side. The lectures cover the following topics:

  • The Original Unity of Man and Woman [before The Fall];
  • Blessed are the Pure of Heart;
  • The Resurrection of the Body;
  • Virginity for the Sake of the Kingdom (consecrated celibacy);
  • The Sacramentiality of Marriage; and
  • Reflections on Humanae Vitae.

The central question of Theology of the Body is that if we are, as the Catholic Church teaches, a unity of body and soul created in the image and likeness of God, then what do our bodies teach us about God? Likewise, what role do our bodies play in living out the gospel in our lives?

A full discussion of John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body are beyond the scope of this blog post. But John Paul II changed the question:  The proper use of our sexuality is not one of nature, but one of vocation. Theology of the Body does not contradict Aquinas, rather, it further develops Catholic doctrine on sexual morality.

The question Catholic sexual ethics attempts to answer is how do we use our sexuality and our bodies for “the good works that God has prepared in advance that we should live in them”? (Ephesians 2:10). Such an question demands not just a series of rules about what we should and should not do, but a lifestyle based on showing love: to our neighbors, to our spouses, to God, and to society.

See, don’t they look happy?

Because loving and giving of ourselves is what we were created to do, only in using our sexuality consistent with these purposes can we find true sexual satisfaction and true happiness.

When we want to use our sexuality in a different way, this is often a sign that something is wrong. Sometimes the problem is primarily physical. But we should not mistake a “scratching an itch” to satisfy a physical urge for the total self-giving and communion of persons that God has called us to. In fact, knowing that the fullness of sexual expression in a marriage may not be prudent for unusually long periods of time may be a prompt to better learn her body or to seek medical attention.

But in other cases, struggles are the sign of deeper psychological, relational, or spiritual problems:

  • Is the couple using sex to get intimacy because they have not fully developed their sexuality?
  • Does the couple have an inappropriately strict view of chaste behavior? For example, married couples should remain close, even when abstaining from sex. Engaged couples should be growing in closeness in preparation for marriage.
  • Are individuals or couples using the pleasure of orgasm as a drug to escape the problems of life?
  • Are there sexual issues in the marriage that make sexual satisfaction difficult during the infertile phase?
  • Does one spouse not respect the body of the other, seeing the other spouse as “legitimate” means to an orgasm?
  • Is one spouse unusually afraid of pregnancy to the point of being fearful of sex?
  • Does the person have a negative view or sexuality, thus failing to see understand the concept of how sexuality can be an instrument of love and not just a physical act?
  • Does the person have a negative view of women’s bodies, thus failing to understand the value of the self-knowledge of fertility awareness?
  • Is there a misunderstanding about the nature of God and our relationship with Him, leading people to view chastity as a negative, enforced by an angry God?
  • Does the person have unresolved issues from past sexual, emotional, or spiritual abuse?

When struggles bring issues to the surface, it can be painful and difficult, but it also makes them apparent so that we can deal with them.

As St. Augustine once said: “God does not command the impossible but while He commands, He warns you to do what you can and to ask for the grace for what you cannot do and He helps you so that you may be able”. Sometimes God’s grace works by pushing you to seek professional help.

Not All Abstinence Messages Are Created Equal

Another part of the problem is that sometimes Catholics get confused by non-Catholic messages that are superficially similar, but in reality are very different than what the Church teaches.

For example, when I was a teenager, a common tactic to convince young people to abstain from sex before marriage was to compare those who had sex before marriage to licked Oreos/dirty spit cups/unsticky tape. These tactics were most common among evangelical Christians, but were also used by some Catholics and even secular groups, especially in 1990s where abstinence based-education was often driven by fear of HIV/AIDS.

Such fear-based tactics are both theologically and psychologically problematic and, while well intentioned, sent the wrong message.

Instead, the Catholic concept of “chastity” is a positive message. It is one of self-control and self-mastery, not repression and denial. Indeed, viewing sexual morality as a series of prohibitions and obligations without the context of a loving relationship, both with others and with God is a guaranteed recipe for misery. Abstinence is a behavior and virginity is a state of being, but chastity is a virtue. Chastity is not saying “no” to our sexuality, but saying “yes” to it in a way that is truly loving.

Conclusion

Catholic teaching on sexuality is more than just a series of rules or technical requirements, but is a way of using our sexuality to be the people God created us to be. Unfortunately, the teaching has been poorly presented, often misunderstood, and occasionally mixed with non-Catholic beliefs.

Furthermore, from those of us who were raised with the overly simple “Jesus loves you” catechesis of the 1980s and 1990s, to those who were catechized with rules without explanation, like was common before Vatican II, many of us don’t really understand the big picture of the Catholic faith.

The solution to this is to learn what the Catholic Church really teaches.

Theology of the Body is critical to understanding Catholic teaching. Unfortunately the writings of John Paul II that are accessible to us are the English translation of a Pole speaking Italian on very dense theological matters.  So most of us will need some help.

Edit: I recommend Men and Women are from Eden by Mary Healy as a basic introduction to the topic and an excellent alternative to Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners.

Love & Responsibility Foundation and Fr. Roger J. Landry have some great resources on the subject. Dr. Edward Sri’s series on Love and Responsibility is an excellent summary of the rather dense book. Many people like Christopher West, although I, personally, am not a fan of his style. The Family Honor program teaches parents how to communicate this message to their children, with age appropriate material for children to teens.

Because Catholic sexual teaching can only be understood in the context of ALL Catholic teaching, you may need to brush up on that, too. Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals are fantastic. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is an authoritative source for what the Church actually teaches and can be found at the Vatican’s website. For something a bit easier, a new youth catechism, YouCat, was released in 2011.


Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is incredible. We’re going through this in Adult Religious Ed (what the parents do during CCD) and I’ve learned something new every week.

This is the Year of Faith, so I encourage everyone to learn more about their faith. Think of it as something good to do for Lent.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Somehow I became an amateur Catholic sex guru.

I’m not quite sure how this happened. I contacted a woman whose blog I enjoyed, wrote a guest post for her, and the next thing I know, I’m the Catholic Dr. Drew along with my co-blogger, Kate.

Ok, so Google is laughing at me for that one given the blog stats. Google is also telling me that a significant number of the blog’s readers were looking for “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” (or something like that) and apparently got lost.

Still, we have been nominated for a Sheenazing Award!

But anyway…

In this role, I’ve learned a lot about sex and relationships. My relationship with K has always been pretty good in this area, so I’ve learned a lot about the problems people have from this experience.

I have learned just how many people have had religion mess up their sex life.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this. Humorist The Oatmeal sees weird anxieties about sexuality as a one way that people suck at their religion.

sex

The Oatmeal is wrong: Nickelback albums are NEVER the will of a loving God.

Many people have written about the anxieties caused by Protestant “Purity Culture”, from seeing sex as something men need and women tolerate, to treating women who have had sex outside of marriage as damaged goods, to making female virginity a super-special virtue that would guarantee “happily ever after”, to instructing young people to “guard their hearts” through emotional and sexual repression.

By comparison, Catholics are relatively normal. Catholics can manage to wear purity rings and read Joshua Harris’s terrible (non)dating advice and still have happy, emotionally healthy marriages. We may have Catholic guilt, but at least we don’t have to worry too much about bad relationship advice.  We free to date and marry whomever we choose, not just devout Catholics. The Catholic Church doesn’t push people to the altar to avoid sin, but wants to slow them down to make sure they are ready to make a lifetime commitment.

Every Sperm is Sacred?

Instead, Catholic anxiety over sex is more technical.  The Catholic Church teaches that because sex is designed for procreation and bonding, the only “natural way” to have sex is the way that you possibly could use to make a baby. Everything else is an unnatural perversion.

Don’t get me wrong, we are big fans of the “natural way”.  Most couples are. We also know fertility awareness is a much better option than contraception. It is empowering to women, healthy, and can make a couple’s sex life better, even with the abstinence.

My problem is with saying that “everything else is an unnatural perversion“.

Or as Monte Python sarcastically put it:

Every sperm is sacred.
Every sperm is great.
If a sperm is wasted,
God gets quite irate.

On teh interwebz you can find Catholics talking about sex, on topics such as:

  • Wives debating about the “proper” way to receive their husband’s semen.
  • Wives bragging about just how long their husbands can go without sex.
  • Couples thinking that risking pregnancy is the “price” they have to pay for sexual pleasure or their marriages will be consumed with selfishness and lust.
  • Couples fearing hellfire for doing something that is not “Church approved”.
  • Couples abstaining from all sexual contact for months because they cannot figure out fertility and cannot risk pregnancy.
  • Couples risking pregnancy when they have serious reasons to avoid because their relationship is so starved for intimacy that they downplay the risk.
  • Couples risking pregnancy when they have serious reasons to avoid because they have become aroused and believe that continuing to sex is the only proper way to finish.
  • Couples encouraged to “just risk it” because it’s the wedding night.
  • Couples encouraged to “just risk it”—without even discussing the charts—because they have a nice hotel room.
  • A woman taking birth control pills for medical reasons who is horribly confused about why the Church thinks her and her husband’s sexual relationship is selfish and unloving because of her medication.
  • Women discussing how a nun can write about sex when her writing shows she doesn’t fully understand her own sexual anatomy.
  • Young virgin brides-to-be terrified of their wedding night because they are afraid that they have to finish the “natural way” whether they are ready for that or not.

This begs the question “what is natural“?  Because discussing a sexual relationship in these terms certainly isn’t.

Faith and God and Sex

Perhaps instead of looking to pagan philosophy on the nature of sex, Catholics should look to Scripture on the nature of love?

Perhaps we should look to verses like

Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8.

and

For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.‘” Galatians 5:14. See also Matthew 22:37-40.

Instead of asking whether various sex acts are “natural” or “unnatural”, perhaps we should be looking first to the state of our minds and our consciences towards our spouses and our sexuality?

“To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted.” Titus 1:15 (RSV-CE).

Popular evangelical author Rachel Held Evans asks whether evangelicals expect too much of their pastors, including being sex therapists when they have absolutely no qualifications for doing so. But she sees this as part of a bigger problem:

It seems like common sense that couples should feel free to engage in [a variety of sexual] activities if both partners enjoy them, so long as they don’t become obsessions. The fact that Christian couples seem to need the approval of a pastor along with some strategically placed Bible verses in order to engage in such activities is a bigger concern to me. It seems that we are once again demanding more from the text and from our pastors than they can and should give.

She concludes:

When sexuality gets relegated to the realm of religious absolutes and strictly enforced roles, the focus tends to shift from serving one another to servicing one another. And that’s no way to love.

The same is true for Catholics. While Catholic theology on sexuality is far deeper and more developed than that of the average evangelical megachurch, our pastors take vows of celibacy. There is only so much you can understand about marriage and sex when you aren’t married and aren’t having sex.

And this is why Catholic sexual teaching, while philosophically quite sound, should be heeded with caution: what sounds good in theory may not work in practice.

Yes, I see the wisdom in Catholic sexual teachings. They are intended to be a “positive option for couples” and many couples have found following them to be a wonderful and very rewarding way to live. Catholic teachings are a beautiful ideal that speaks the truth about our sexuality. The Church teaches how the two spouses can truly—physically and sacramentally—become one flesh, mingling like “ointment and oil”, as St. John Chrysostom once said. And if this love creates new life, then this is an amazing wonder and a blessing from God.

But I also see just how easy things can go horribly, horribly, wrong if you have to deal with unpredictable cycles, ambiguous signs of fertility, long periods of abstinence, and struggle with the demands of pregnancy and parenthood. Things can also go wrong when couples, especially women, worry about following all the rules while still learning their sexuality. While exceedingly spiritually and relationally mature couples may be able to handle more difficult situations, couples who have problems risk doing serious damage to their marriage and their faith.

Furthermore, the Church’s understanding of the Natural Law on sexuality has changed over time. For example, sex during menstruation was prohibited under Mosaic Law, condemned by Aquinas, and remains a taboo, yet modern Church teaching sees nothing wrong with it.

For these reasons, a Catholic conversation about sex in marriage should be less about the technical details of how sex “should” be and more about the nature of love and how that plays out in a marital sexual relationship. This includes making sexuality “a source of joy and pleasure in a marriage” as well as being truly generous and open to new life.

Unfortunately, positive, frank discussions of marital sexuality from Catholic sources are generally lacking. For couples who need advice, I have found that many of the non-Catholic sites on Christian sexuality, especially those written by women, are better sources of information. If you need help beyond that which you can find online, don’t be afraid to get professional counseling.

Great sex may not always lead to a great marriage, but it sure doesn’t hurt. 😉

So, dear readers, have you been harmed by religious beliefs about sex? Have you been helped? Do you have any advice for couples who want an intimate, loving, spiritual, and, yes, fruitful, sexual relationship in their marriage?

Edit: An unintentional “rebuttal” from April at My Feminine Mind. Be sure to read the comments:  http://www.myfemininemind.com/2013/01/loyalty-for-some.html

Going to the Chapel and We’re Gonna Get Married

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.

bad_nfp_promoThe pharmaceutical industry couldn’t have come up with a better way to keep couples away from Natural Family Planning if they tried.

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.

Contraception:

  • 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.

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

A recent comment from a secular fertility awareness advocate discussed the difference between secular Fertility Awareness (FAM), where the couples can do what they please during the fertile period, including using barrier methods and alternatives to intercourse, vs. Natural Family Planning (NFP), where abstinence and taking a chance on pregnancy are the only options.

Her post implied that FAM was superior because couples had more options. I can’t say I disagree with her. For most couples, FAM is the better option.

Nevertheless, I still believe that only NFP is fully living the complete truth about our sexuality.

Why I like Fertility Awareness

I am big fan of fertility awareness. Women are infertile most of the time, so why not learn her body to take advantage of natural infertility? Why bombard her body with hormones every day when pregnancy can only occur for a limited time out of every cycle?

natural-family-planning

Philosophically, fertility is NOT a disease. Giving healthy (fertile) women medicine to create an unhealthy condition (infertility) is a really bad idea. Anthropologically, a society that promotes this behavior is saying that there is something pathologically wrong with women’s bodies as they are made. Is it any wonder why so many women in our society have body image disorders?

Fertility awareness works through self-knowledge and self-control. Knowledge is power and self-control is a virtue. Switching to a fertility awareness based method has improved our sex lives and the rest of our marriage.

Fertility awareness is common sense family planning.

Why I like Natural Family Planning

As for Natural Family Planning, which involves complete abstinence during the fertile period, there are some things I really like about it.

natural-family-planning-poster-2012-470x364

I agree with the philosophy behind natural family planning. No, it’s not because I am afraid of going to hell for using a condom or think that the best sex advice comes from a celibate man.

I agree with this philosophy because it speaks about the nature of sex. Sex is designed to be unitive and procreative. It is designed for making love and making babies. Not every sex act leads to conception, in fact, frequently conception is impossible. The problem is with actively removing the procreative element from sex. Because when you remove the procreative element, you change sex, meaning that also lose much of the unitive element as well.

In cases of natural infertility, such as during pregnancy and postpartum, after menopause, and during the infertile part of the cycle, sex is as it is: Nothing is removed from sex and nothing is changed.

Barrier methods are just that: Barriers. We have found that they are psychologically contradictory, trying to come together as one while wondering if the barrier between you will fail. Furthermore, our experience is that nothing else, however mutually enjoyable, is quite the same as intercourse. Nothing is as intimate and nothing brings you together in quite the same way. We have found that these “other forms of sex” are “sexual junk food” compared to the “feast” of intercourse.

On the positive side, remaining abstinent challenges you to be creative at showing your love in your marriage outside the bedroom. Plus, couples have to decide every month whether they will pursue new life or abstain, which is an important conversation to have.

NFP also makes you be “All In” with the method. If you know that your sex life is entirely dependent on being good at the method, it pushes you to be a lot better at the method. It gives you a reason to find those extra days (and days you may have not considered before) as well as fix minor health issues that can extend the period of abstinence.

Both FAM and NFP respect a woman’s body and her health and allow the couple to have “all natural” sex for most of the cycle, but NFP also incorporates the discipline of marital chastity as part of the method. NFP is far more of a lifestyle choice than FAM.

Why I hate Natural Family Planning

Yeah, I get all of that.

But that doesn’t mean that this is easy.

So, here is yet another “Why I hate Natural Family Planning” post. Here are the reasons why:

Natural Family Planning isn’t fair

Some people find natural family planning to be a wonderful experience, even with the abstinence. But often times this is due to factors beyond the couples’ control. Some women have “textbook cycles” with regular periods and clear and obvious signs of fertility. Some women have short periods of fertility and relatively long periods of infertility. Some women have light menstrual periods, which reduces the abstinence there.

Some couples have less serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, which means both less abstinence (more comfortable with risk) and less stress.

frustrated-couple-in-bed-fuse-e1299005809913

Unfortunately, not all couples have things so easy.

Some women have unfavorable cycles. Some women have symptoms that appear to be long periods of possible fertility. Long, heavy menstrual periods may create a second time of abstinence. Sometimes these two times of abstinence may merge together to form one long block. Short cycles may leave few days available for sexual intimacy.

Some women have ambiguous and difficult interpret signs of fertility. They may need to try multiple methods before finding one that explains how they work. This involves more classes, more time, more cost, more study, not to mention increased abstinence (or increased risk of pregnancy). Some women have health problems that are causing their cycle disorders. While the fertility charting is an excellent tool for diagnosis and many women have been able to find effective treatment as a result, sometimes it can take some time to resolve these issues. And sometimes the couple may not have the resources to pursue treatment.

Some couples may have very serious reasons to avoid a pregnancy, leading them to use the method in a more conservative way, just to be sure.

NFP advocates often talk about the beauty of a woman’s body. But when charts show not beauty, but dysfunction, it can be very difficult to accept. NFP advocates often talk about the beauty of our sexuality. But when periods of abstinence are long, “safe days” few and far between, and you crave even any bit of sexual intimacy with each other, no matter how imperfect, such talk feels like a cruel joke.

Then there are problems caused by our lifestyles. It is hard to live by the cycle of the woman’s body when you kept apart by work-related travel or similar issues. A couple that would struggle to get time alone without worrying about fertility has to struggle that much harder.

What I hate about NFP is that two couples of equal virtue and equally strong marriages may have radically different experiences with NFP based on factors beyond their control. This isn’t fair and I hate that this isn’t fair.

Natural Family Planning requires the commitment of both partners

There is no way around it, NFP requires the commitment of both partners. NFP pioneer Dr. Evelyn Billings has stated that without cooperation of both partners, NFP is impossible. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have stated, quite clearly, that the virtue of marital chastity that is key to practicing NFP is a joint effort.

But if you’re spouse isn’t on board, you aren’t going anywhere.

What do you mean you're fertile?

Of course, FAM also requires the cooperation of both partners, but the commitment is considerably lower. If he doesn’t want to abstain, he can use a condom. If she wants an orgasm during ovulation, that doesn’t require intercourse.

Some people take the view can the spouse that wants to abstain should abstain and tell the uncooperative spouse to (literally) go f— themselves. But this is no way to have a marriage. It only leads to division and resentment with the uncooperative spouse using their sexuality outside of the marriage.

But sadly, there isn’t really any good solution. Something has got to give.

What I hate about NFP is that no matter how much one spouse believes in it, an uncooperative spouse can prevent them from trying it.

Natural Family Planning requires relational maturity.

In the post Three Things I Secretly Hate About NFP, Rae Jericho writes that NFP requires self-control and maturity and the couples who could benefit the most from NFP often were short on both. This is a fantastic post, go read it.

NFP requires relational maturity. It requires couples to develop their intimacy beyond sex. Because sex is a great way to “patch up” a relationship. It’s a quick fix. Yes, couples can overly depend on it, but sometimes couples just need the closeness, the release, and the happy hormones to get them through a rough spot. NFP requires that couples either find another way to get through the rough spot or accept that having sex may lead to making a baby. Children are wonderful, but they are generally not the solution to marital problems. Developing the relational tools to get through rough spots without sex is very liberating and empowering, but it’s also very difficult and it does take time.

couple-in-bed-embarrassed

It doesn’t help that NFP is hardest when couples are young with high fertility and raging hormones.

NFP also requires couples to be good at sex. Counter-intuitively, high libido couples may have an easier time of NFP than low libido couples. High libido couples can “make the most” of the infertile period, making the period of abstinence a “welcome break” instead of a deprivation (unless, of course, there are extended periods of abstinence). Low libido couples have a surprisingly more difficult time. Anecdotally, many women say they are most interested in sex during ovulation. A common complain among women who “hate NFP” is that they could only have sex when they weren’t interested.

Couples absolutely can learn to enjoy sex during the infertile period, but for inexperienced couples this may take time and effort. Men have to take an extra effort to learn how to please their wives. They have to learn how to get her interested when her hormones could care less. It means taking his time to get her body in the mood for sex on the night when he is READY. TO. GO. NOW. For inexperienced couples, practicing NFP can make the sexual learning curve that much steeper.

Natural Family Planning requires spiritual maturity.

Nearly all the couples who choose NFP over FAM do it for religious or spiritual reasons. Unfortunately, without a well-developed and mature spirituality, NFP is a great way to make you and your spouse “lose your religion“.

The couple needs to have the spiritual maturity to be able to stick with the method, despite the difficulties. It is the spiritual maturity not to blame NFP for the problems in marriage, but life circumstances, cycle disorders, work schedules, or our own flawed human nature for the frustration. It requires accepting that sometimes you can’t always get what you really want, no matter how badly you want it.

But the couple also needs to have the spiritual maturity to properly understand what God requires of us. Catholics believe that God does not ask us for more than we are capable of. Because of our flawed human nature, sometimes the best we can do is an imperfect response to God’s commands. Our own efforts to improve ourselves are doomed to failure; it is only through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit that we can change. Or, as St. Augustine said, “God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes you do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and aids you that you may be able.”

People get in trouble when they view chastity as a series of rules that are to be obeyed under fear of hellfire. They try to do too much at once. Because they are not capable of what they are trying to do, even if they follow the rules, the problems come out in other areas of their lives. They burn out and give up.

When Humanae Vitae was released in 1968, the Archdiocese of Washington released a pamphlet defending the controversial encyclical. Most of the pamphlet defended the logic of the encyclical and urged couples convinced that “rhythm doesn’t work” to learn “modern rhythm” (i.e. early symptothermal methods of  fertility awareness) which is “extremely effective—more effective than most methods of contraception”.

But an interesting section urged couples who were struggling to try their best. It reminded readers that couples who tried and failed, even failed repeatedly, had not necessarily turned their backs on God. It was a recognition of the difficulties of Catholic teaching on the subject and that even good Catholic couples committed to “rhythm” would occasionally use a contraceptive.

Put another way, the pamphlet recognizes that what amounts to FAM would be the best that many couples could do. But it also leaves room for relational growth and spiritual development.

Basically, I hate NFP because although NFP is a way of gaining maturity, it requires a great deal of maturity to do it successfully and the young married couples who need it often don’t have it.

NFP vs. FAM

I would recommend FAM to nearly anyone. It’s far easier than it used to be. Need help tracking multiple symptoms? There’s an app for that (Android, too). Want something simple? Try Billings. (Online classes available.) Have cycle issues? Creighton Model FertilityCare has a good track record in treating them (Billings, too). Edit: So does Justisse Healthworks for Women. (Thanks, Laura.) Want to just pee on a stick and let the computer do the rest and are willing to pay for the convenience? You would probably like Marquette. Breastfeeding? Marquette is great. So is Billings.

Then the couple can decide how best to use the fertile days. That requires talking about sex, values, family planning, and all those wonderful topics that couples don’t always talk about, but should.

Which leads to happy sexytime.

As for NFP, I do recommend it, but only for couples who are well aware of what they are getting into. NFP can be very rewarding, but it can also be very frustrating, which can be very dangerous if the couple is not prepared to handle it.

Couples need to be committed to it, not out of fear of hellfire, or in an effort to earn “heaven points”, or to prove that they are a “good Catholic”, but because they have a very specific, dare I say—very Catholic view of sexuality. They need to believe that nothing will truly satisfy other than sexual intercourse as nature intended and that they would rather abstain than settle for less. Because if couples believe, as most couples do, that sexual enjoyment between a couple is good in itself and any link to procreation is unimportant or undesirable, then choosing NFP over FAM really doesn’t make much sense.

This is why I get frustrated with people overselling NFP or scaring people into it. Because NFP is not always easy, and NFP has it’s own dangers and pitfalls.

This is also why I prefer the “FAM way” of promoting the methods: It is far more respectful of the couple’s autonomy, personal beliefs, and individual situation. It also focuses exclusively on the science and leaves spiritual advising and moral instruction to those better qualified to do it.

So, do I recommend NFP or FAM? It depends on what you believe, what you value, and what you and your spouse can handle in your marriage. It depends on how much you want to put into it and how committed you are to doing so.

Do you have experience with any of these methods? Did you find that FAM worked better in your marriage, or was the sacrifice required for NFP worth the effort?