I love being Catholic. My husband loves being Catholic. But unfortunately we aren’t always the pearly white beacons of holiness we aspire to be. Sometimes we curse at our phones when they don't work. Last time I went to Adoration, I ended up texting someone to come relieve me after an hour. Often, we are that brassy Catholic family that talks too loud and drinks green beer on Saint Patrick’s Day.
That being said, I do try to honor the faith. First and foremost, I follow my conscience. I don’t ascribe to blind acceptance of dogma, but I do give the Church a running start and try to understand her teachings, even when I initially disagree.
Before I got married I was a virgin, and I was pretty proud of that accomplishment (I know; pride ain’t pretty). So when I got engaged and started learning about chastity within marriage, I was miffed. I thought,
I’ve waited 28 years to have sex. Now you’re telling me that I have to wait even more if I don’t want to pop a bun in this oven?! Not fair. And what about the fact that the time that I am most … amorous… is the time that I’m most fertile and therefore won’t be able to have sex with my husband? How is that okay? How is that not sexist and a barrier between spouses?!
With that mindset, I promised, despite my irritation, that I would give the Church’s position a fighting chance. My fiancé was on board, and we agreed we would read the Church’s reasoning, talk with couples that practiced Natural Family Planning (NFP), and come to a thoughtful decision before our wedding night.
As we trudged through thinking, reading, and praying, something weird happened. I started getting mad at other institutions instead of the Church: why have so many feminists decided disfiguring the female pattern celebrates womanhood? Why do we throw 14 year old girls on hormones but buy organic hamburgers (the risks of the Pill speak for themselves)? After I started asking questions, specifically about the Pill’s shortcomings, my heart was softened to the Church’s reasoning for avoiding artificial birth control. The Church’s reasoning seemed sound, but what made it stick for me was something else; something not typically associated with birth control.
The Catholic Church cares about sex. A lot. NFP is not about putting the kibosh on your sex life. It’s simply telling you to not separate sex and the possibility of fertility. NFP recognizes that God built a pretty amazing pattern into women--even if you’re not sold on NFP just yet, at least check out the science for the sake of nerding out. Women’s cycles have a pattern of natural, fairly predictable times of higher and lower fertility. Because it’s part of a woman’s design, recognizing it and using it is not a perversion of that design.
The Church encourages husbands and wives to prayerfully consider their lives and means before attempting to conceive. However, this also calls couples to recognize that sex is always a potentially creative act. NFP seeks to “reflect the dignity of the human person within the context of marriage and family life, promotes openness to life, and recognizes the value of the child. By respecting the love-giving and life-giving nature of marriage, NFP can enrich the bond between husband and wife.” And while I couldn’t possibly get into all the ways I think NFP has helped our marriage, I will say NFP has made me feel incredibly empowered. It keeps our lines of communication open and keeps our sex about sex--it makes me feel so icky when I hear sitcoms joke about sex as a bargaining chip.
Now then, on to the thing that made it all click for me. Something that may turn you off. Something that would probably irritate a lot of your Facebook friends. Stay with me…
Life is neither to be refused nor demanded.
I was already pro-life, and I was tenuously coming around on the birth control issue, but honestly, I had never thought of the “life demanded” part of the issue. The Church denounces In vitro fertilization for the same reason it denounces artificial birth control: because it separates sex and fertility. This matter includes everyone from gay couples who desire a child to traditional couples who mourn an inability to naturally conceive.
And my heart goes out to them. I cannot sweepingly, callously announce to you that every person engaging in IVF is simply stomping their feet and demanding a baby. If anything, the teaching that there are moral limits to achieving pregnancy is harder to swallow than the teaching that there are moral limits to avoiding pregnancy. Sex and fertility are connected, and they’re important.
As a teen, a poem from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet about the relationship between children and adults really stuck with me. Gibran explained that if children are arrows, parents are not archers; they are the bow. In my youth I pondered how this meant parents shouldn’t try to control their children’s destinies. But Gibran’s words come back to me when I now consider adults seeking to become parents:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you...
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow…
In short, we do not own our children and cannot command or deny their existence. This is the basis for both sides of the NFP spectrum. God intended for sex and conception to go hand in hand. To separate the two, either for achieving or avoiding pregnancy, corrupts his creation and intention. If one’s body is injured or has a defect, there’s nothing wrong with attempting to cure the body so that it can conceive--that is in line with design. But separating sex and conception rejects that design.
Though my body is my own, my temple was built by God. And even while sometimes I’d love to change some things about my body, it is beautifully designed. The fact that God gifted me with fertility and breaks from fertility is something I no longer take for granted. It turned out all the Church needed was that running start and open mind.