I’ll be honest, when I first heard of the Catholic view of sex and marriage (being open to life and Natural Family Planning), I thought it was crazy. “You mean, nothing? No birth control at all? How is that going to work?”
I am a lay Catholic who has been married for nine years and practicing NFP since my wedding (actually, since before, when my wife and I first took classes on the method). At first, I did not understand how it could work, and I doubted the science and didn’t know the theology behind it. Over the course of time I grew to know it better. Thankfully, my wife helped me to embrace it, even through the questioning phases and doubt, and we were supported by family and friends in our journey. It took time – years, in fact, for me to fully get on board and feel like I could talk about it with other people. It required a shift in perspective about life, family, children, sex, and my role as husband and father. It wasn’t easy, especially since this change in perspective took a lot of faith and it went against much of what I thought I knew (and much that is out there in modern culture). As the years went by and I moved from skeptic to writing a public letter about it (I would have been the last person in that category not too many years ago), I saw how being open to life and using NFP improved my marriage and my family. Understanding the science behind NFP has helped us through a period of infertility, as well as helped us better understand the way my wife’s body worked.
Throughout this time I read a lot about the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception and NFP. A lot of what’s out there, especially in secular sources, had a subtext that ranges from skeptical to downright dismissive. The arguments against following the Church’s teachings typically are along the lines of, “This is an academic theory that was developed by celibate old men and doesn’t stand up in the real world,” “this is completely out of touch with modern life,” or, “this is the ‘rhythm method’ which doesn’t work. It’s flimsy science.”
These arguments are baloney. The more I read that type of criticism, the more disconnected they seemed with my experience. I wondered if anyone making them even understood (let along tried) to follow the Church’s teachings. Sure, self-denial is not popular; it never has been, and I’m not a superhero – my wife and I are just average, ordinary people trying to do our best. We’ve had our struggles with NFP – I’ve felt the frustrations and difficulties when things aren’t working “the way they are supposed to.” It hasn’t been easy; but it also hasn’t been impossible.
The more I practiced and learned about it, the more the Church’s position seemed fully human and fully respectful of human dignity – much more so than an industry which encouraged me to use my spouse for pleasure and turn off our healthy and functioning fertility because children were to be avoided as an unfortunate by-product of sex.
Add to all of this the pain I’ve seen in modern life wrought by artificial contraception, the psychological and physical damage done by chemicals and devices, the damage caused in relationships by not properly channeling desire, and the intelligence of the Church’s position dawned stronger and brighter.
That’s why I continued to be confused by people saying the Church’s position did not make sense and that it didn’t square with married life. Yes, it has its challenges. But I found it made intellectual sense and practical sense – it just took a while of living the experience and a deeper understanding of marriage, love, and sex to realize it. On the surface it doesn’t fit in neatly with a wholly modern view of sex and the idea that we should control every aspect of our bodies, and that’s why most people reject it out of hand without bothering to get to know more about it. That’s the real tragedy.
An article in Zenit (linked here) is what really set me off on this path of this letter. When I read it, I thought that I was one of the many couples who were trying to live out the teachings with joy and fidelity. And I know I’m not alone.
The more I read on the upcoming synod, the more apparent it became that the Bishops were getting plenty of input from people who reject the Church’s teachings, but what about those who embrace it and live it? Who was speaking up for the people living an experience like mine? Surely we didn’t find it crushingly burdensome; no, we may have gone through struggles, but we had also experienced the joy, growth, and understanding that the teaching promised. Surely we were not aberrations of the human experience; no, we are not modern oddities, and our marriages are not minority exceptions in the human experience of marriage.
This open letter is meant to provide perspective; to reinforce the humanity and love of the teaching, and to say (in no uncertain terms) that yes, this teaching is fully achievable in the modern world. Like sowing a garden, there is a reward for the patient practitioner at harvest time. It takes time, love, thought, focus, and faith to gain a deeper understanding of what the Church is saying – but isn’t that true in all aspects of life, for anything worth doing?
My goal is to present this letter (or a link to it) to Bishops around the world in advance of the synod. I hope and pray they will see, and hear from, those of us who are living this teaching with great joy.
If you signed the letter, thank you for your witness. If you would like to know more about NFP, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/natural-family-planning/ There are many benefits to following the Church’s teachings and I hope you explore them for you and your marriage.