As some of you probably remember, about a year ago, we at WIT published a post entitled “Women Speak About Natural Family Planning.” When I wrote the post, I was expecting it to be controversial and indeed it remains among our most commented-on posts.
But something happened that I was not expecting. Women started writing in, sharing not their opinions but their stories. They spoke of the toll adhering to the church’s teaching on contraception took on their physical and mental health as well as their marriages.
I found these stories to be incredibly moving and incredibly important. And I realized that there really is nowhere that Catholic women (and men!) can share their stories about things like this with each other. Catholic couples struggling with this issue typically have to deal with it privately without the guidance and support of their communities. Just when these couples are most in need of their communities is when they find themselves most alienated from them.
But non-married Catholics (gay and straight; single and vowed) as well as married Catholics for whom NFP is a largely positive experience also need to hear these stories. If we really are the body of Christ, then we need to know when members of the body are suffering, especially when the church is a source of this suffering.
And finally, these stories make an essential and irreplaceable contribution to moral reasoning. Without them, can we really expect to know the truth about God’s will for marital sexuality?
For these reasons, I am going to begin featuring the stories that originally appeared in the comments section of this post. I also want to invite any Catholic person to share with us the story of her or his personal experience with this issue. You can submit via email (email@example.com) anonymously or provide us with a pseudonym if you so desire.
Note: I will be monitoring the comments’ section very strictly. The entire point of this project is to create a space where people feel safe. This is not the place to argue about or criticize those who are brave enough to share their stories with us. The only comments that will be approved are those expressing support, affirmation, and solidarity.
God bless you for this. This is exactly why I am tireless in saying to people (who frequently roll their eyes at me) why social media is actually a ministry under certain circumstances. This is one of those circumstances.
Thank you for undertaking this and for doing so with such care.
Thanks so much Katie for doing this.
I particularly agree with this that you wrote:
I agree; it’s definitely important to raise awareness of the struggles and difficulties which NFP involves.
A blogger at Vox Nova named Brett Salkeld, a supporter of NFP who has experienced quite a few difficulties with it, brings up this very issue every once in a while. Below are a couple of links to conversations he’s been having about the struggles involved with it. His general point is that it’s bad practice for NFP supporters to paint NFP as some magical cure-all that is not only easy, but the solution to all marital difficulties! Such a message, which he laments is all too common, is not only dishonest, but it isolates and marginalizes many couples who can’t easily discern their fertility and have other difficulties which can end up being sources of significant marital tension. His argument is that if the Church is going to promote NFP, it needs to offer more support and resources to those who have trouble with it.
I don’t know that this is precisely what you’re looking for here, and I won’t feel miffed or anything if you’re wanting to keep this comments section to strictly personal anecdotes and end up filtering this. However, I thought that some might find these links helpful or of interest since they touch on this important issue which you’ve raised.
It’s really wonderful to read these stories without reproach or “mansplaining,” as invariably happens whenever the subject of women’s health or sexuality comes up.
Thank you for this series. Though I am supportive of the use of NFP, it is important to listen to the experience of the faithful in order to discern a way forward. In that regard, I would like to draw your attention to this quote from Pope Benedict and the discussion it encouraged over at Vox Nova when I posted it there. The Pope calls for finding “humanly accessible paths,” something I found fascinating.
I’ve already gushed once, but I will again. I scoured NFP sites to see if I was the only one who was having major “horny when ovulating” issues, or suffering extreme mental distress and depression from the stress of hoping I hadn’t screwed up a measurement and made a baby that we are in no way ready to support, and I’m not sure I’m healthy enough to carry. I feel like I can go to mass again without feeling like I had some kind of scarlet letter, or people calling me ‘selfish’ for wanting to have health, money for food, AND sex with my husband.
Thank you! At the moment I can not put into words how grateful I am tonight to come upon this site and this series of articles. I have my own story to share if I can get ambitious enough to write it.
I’ve been coming across the latest NFP internet push with the publishing of the report on “What Catholic Women Think About Contrapcetion” by Mary Hasson. I don’t think she has heard from all women. There is a misconception that couples who dissent from this teaching have not actually studied it or heard it in homilies or spent a great deal of time at those conservative Catholic websites that beat people up for sharing honestly. Let me tell you I have heard it and studied it so much so that it was unhealthy for me. The NFP promoters need to have a different strategy if they are going to get more people on board with their beliefs. The bullying, the arrogance and the name calling I see are not helping them to make any progress. The truth is NFP is not healthy for all marriages and neither is celibacy. And when a couple is facing a life threatening illness they need to use the wisdom God gave them. The truth is many NFP using couples are not being honest.
I’ll try to get that story together!
Excellent, PM. I look forward to receiving and will keep an eye out on the WIT email for it.
As a person who has struggled a lot in the use of NFP and someone who speaks and writes about Church teaching, I wonder if I could introduce some nuance into your claim that “There is a misconception that couples who dissent from this teaching have not actually studied it or heard it in homilies” etc.?
Of course the new study hasn’t heard from all women, but it has heard from many, and I have no reason to believe that those “many” are not representative of the broader population. I am not at all surprised that it found that a significant number of those who dissent from Church teaching on this issue are unfamiliar with the teaching itself. In my own experience of teaching in this area, it is a tiny minority of Catholics who have actually done any reading on the topic at all. Many come with quite serious misconceptions about the teaching, perhaps the most common being that the Church requires that couples only have sex when they intend to get pregnant. Or, at least, that every sexual act must have at least the possibility of procreation. (“Openness to life” simply as a slogan is open to various readings: http://vox-nova.com/2009/05/08/what-%E2%80%98openness-to-life%E2%80%99-does-not-mean/)
The Church doesn’t actually teach either of these things, but they are very widespread ideas.
I think that the truth of your claim is that there are a not insignificant number of people who have seriously studied and tried to implement NFP and who ended up dissenting. I think that is true, but statistically speaking that number is going to be so small as to not override the truth of the idea that most dissenting couples have never really engaged the teaching.
In my experience teaching Catholic teachers at a publically funded Catholic school board in Ontario (i.e., a fairly representative sample of the people in the pews), far fewer than 5% had had any serious engagement with the teaching of the Church on the question.
If my experience is even close to representative, then we can pretty safely say that not more than 10% of Catholics have seriously engaged the teaching (to the degree, say, that they could identify a book or encyclical that they have read on the topic or give a satisfactory explanation to someone who thought that the Church demanded that couples only have sex when they intend pregnancy or that every sexual act must have at least the possibility of procreation).
If my experience is not completely atypical, you have a cohort of less than 10% of Catholics who have seriously engaged the teaching. And if half of those end up rejecting it (I’m really not sure on the accuracy of this, but I feel like 50% is being more than fair, again with reference to my own experience), then you have (a very generous) 5% of Catholics who have seriously studied the teaching and rejected it. (Of course, that number will go up as the number of those who seriously engage the Church’s teaching go up, so in places, e.g., where a serious engagement with NFP is part of marriage prep, this number may be higher.)
I am not saying that these 5% are insignificant, or that their experience should not be taken into account. It absolutely should. But if those who are interested in taking that 5% seriously want to be any better than the NFP cheerleaders who dismiss this group entirely as less than serious Catholics, they need to be just as careful with their claims as they would like those on certain conservative Catholic websites to be.
In this light, I submit that it is not a misconception that couples who dissent have not studied the teaching. It is a very widespread reality. What you rightly point out is that it is not the whole reality, and that there are people, such as yourself, who do not fit the stereotype.
Thanks for sharing your perspective with us. I think the next question to ask is what this means about the church’s teaching? Even if nfp doesn’t work for only 5% what dies this mean for the church’s claim that artificial methods of birth control are always immoral? Remember the church doesn’t just claim that artificial birth control is overused or that nfp is in general the better practice but that artificial birth control is always wrong no matter what
I’ll agree that the difficulty of NFP for some couples should be an important factor in both the Church’s teaching and its pastoral care functions. On the other hand, I am suspicious of leading questions that seem to imply that, because certain situations are very difficult it is incoherent to label artificial contraception intrinsically evil. If we give that line of reasoning credence on birth control, we’ve just given the EWTN torture supporters a free pass as well. They have no problem articulating very difficult situations that allow them to bypass Church teaching about intrinsic evil.
The Catholic position on many things, not just on issues of sexual morality, is that difficulty and the possibility of imagining easier and/or better outcomes is not sufficient to make something justifiable. In my own struggles with NFP, I have asked the question about change in Church teaching, but I am, in fact, grateful for the category of intrinsic evil despite the hardship it causes me. (Charlie Camosy recently had a great comment about the liberating function of the category over at Catholic Moral Theology under one of Jana Bennet’s recent posts.) And, as I get older and look back on our years of struggling with NFP, I see grace that would not have had the space to get in, had we taken the easier option. I know that that is personal experience and cannot be generalized or expected of everyone with such struggles, but it is valuable nonetheless.
My wife and I considered contributing to this series, because our own struggles with NFP have been fairly serious and we are very interested in providing a space for couples in these situations to talk to others and find out that they are not alone. I am certainly aghast at the conservative websites that PM references. In detailing my own struggles over at Vox Nova, I have run into my share of incredulous NFP cheerleaders who simply assume that, if NFP is tough, you’re doing it wrong. Or, if you talk about your struggles, you are necessarily against the Church. After e-mailing with you, however, we were not satisfied that this forum is as open-ended as is sometimes implied. We are very interested in sharing our story and helping people in tough situations feel supported and find a way forward. But we are not interested in contributing to what looks to us like a predetermined conclusion: if it’s tough to follow, it mustn’t be intrinsically evil. To us that looks like Christianity without the Cross.
Who said artificial birth control could be morally acceptable
Bc nfp was “difficult?” Please try to avoid straw
I also resent your implication that I am somehow
Being deceptive (“this forum is not as open
Also people support torture not bc they
Think not torturing is “difficult” as you
Imply but bc they think it is just.
So the question then is not what is “difficult”
But what is just and what promotes human
Flourishing aka what reflects the God of
Love’s will for Her creation.
The cross is not a call to needless suffering.
Engage with these women’s stories. Specifically
I encourage ou times read party Crowley s
Testimony before the papal birth control
As to your actual question, ” Even if nfp doesn’t work for only 5% what does this mean for the church’s claim that artificial methods of birth control are always immoral?”
I think this begs a few questions. For example, what is your definition of “doesn’t work.” Does that mean it is difficult? Does it mean that one cannot discern fertility accurately? Or does it mean that one’s symptoms are not simply difficult to discern, but actually lead one to believe with great confidence that one is infertile when one is not and therefore leads to pregnancy? In the strict sense, only this last category actually looks like “doesn’t work” and defined that way, it will include a tiny tiny minority of people, and then only some of the time.
Or does “doesn’t work” mean, following on the details of my calculation that people read about it seriously, try it, and then decide not to use it? That might be 5% of Catholics, but that is hardly a rigorous definition of “doesn’t work.” Who knows what personal factors weighed into that decision? A doctor’s advice? Family pressures? “Permission” from a “liberal” priest? Anger at the Church over other issues? A disagreement between spouses about sexual expectations? etc. etc.
In other words, what it means for Church teaching (and, I think we should add, pastoral care) will be heavily dependent on the particulars of the situation at hand. Even if something is intrinsically evil, the Church has all kinds of categories to apply in particular cases relating to personal conscience, level of freedom and culpability etc. These considerations are not cancelled out by the use of the category of intrinsic evil. The Catechism’s treatment of masturbation is the classic example here.
Finally, your question leaves me wondering where I fit in. Does NFP “work” for me and my wife? No, if you mean can we use it to accurately gauge our fertility. Yes, if you mean, we have studied it, tried to implement it and not abandoned it. We’re not in the hypothetical 5%. We stick with it, which, when you can’t use it to determine fertility, basically means long stretches of celibacy. But that too is determined by very personal factors. One of us would be quite happy to simply roll the dice at this stage, but the other is quite apprehensive about having another child given some current health issues.
In short, what I think it means is that Catholics who promote NFP (including those in positions of teaching authority) should be aware that for many couples NFP will be a struggle and that this should be incorporated into the teaching and promotion of NFP. How that happens will vary widely depending on the particular struggle, but a basic awareness of this reality and an ability to deal with it honestly and sensitively is essential. Spreading that awareness is important to me and it is what I had fondly hoped was the goal of this series in the first place. Of course, Humanae Vitae itself was not unaware of this dynamic, speaking of “difficulties, at times very great, which beset the lives of Christian married couples.” It would be useful if HV’s biggest supporters didn’t skip over that line.
I’m sorry to have so deeply offended you. My wife and I tried to write with you to get a sense of the goal of this series when we were considering contributing and that was our impression. Maybe we were wrong, but I can honestly say we did give you the benefit of the doubt.
As for torture advocates, I know they believe it is just, but it looks to me like the arguments they use to demonstrate its justice are something like, “Look what would happen if we didn’t torture? Are we really willing to let that happen?” To me that bears a striking resemblance to the kind of argument implied (you’re correct, it is not explicitly stated) here.
I’m sorry if you are not actually implying a “because it’s difficult it mustn’t be intrinsically evil” argument, but that is the impression I am picking up from your contributions to the conversation and your responses to our e-mails. Maybe I’m reading you entirely wrong. Such things are not impossible in such forums.
And of course, the cross is not a call to needless suffering. (Whether NFP is “needless” suffering or not cannot be presumed here. It is precisely what is in question. I, being convinced that it is evil, would hardly consider the suffering it engenders “needless.”)
As for engaging the stories, I have read every one of them. I even called my wife over and got her to read Patty Crowley’s testimony with me. I believe we shared several knowing glances and a little tear over that one. But not only have we engaged their stories. We have lived our own. Our impression, however false that may be, is that our story didn’t fit the narrative here. Your suggestion that we have not engaged the stories of others because we do not draw the conclusion you want us to only reinforces that impression.
Look you aren’t making any substantive arguments
And you aren’t making any specific comments about
Any of the posts in the series. (For ex you said you’ve
Read Crowley’s testimony but have yet to say anything
About it etc)
Your main objective seems to be to scold me
And cast aspersions at me.
So I’ll just let you get it out of your system.
Like I said, maybe I’ve read this all wrong. I don’t know. I tried to qualify my comments accordingly.
I thought I made at least some substantive arguments (though I acknowledge that other things I had to say were merely giving my impression of a situation), but that is not for me to determine.
In any case, thank you for allowing my comments even though you find them exasperating. Perhaps some day we will meet in a context where it is less easy to misunderstand one another.
I did not come here to engage in dialogue about whether the church teaching is right or what it means when NFP doesn’t work. My husband and I have more than seriously engaged the teaching (!!!!!!!!). We dissent not because we are unwilling to suffer or do something that is hard. Nor have we had an easy road.
Rather we dissent because we believe the church is not correct in the teaching. I’ve been thru all the theological gymnastics of the teaching. If I thought it was correct I would follow it regardless of how easy or hard it was.
There are plenty of places you can go to engage people in this discussion. And there are plenty of places where you can share your story and convictions. (Although often there is alot of name calling and disagreement among this bunch) I’ve heard plenty of stories of couples that find NFP hard but continue to use it. You could probably share your story here as well. It is not something I have never heard before.
The group in the church that embraces the legalism of NFP would be better of if they changed their marketing strategy. If they truly want to reach couples with the truth of what they are living they need to just live it. The fruits of the Holy Spirit overflowing in their lives should be evident to all. The Holy Spirit is the one that changes hearts.
I wish you well on getting the message out to the majority you believe has never heard or engaged the teaching. You can do what the study says and get all the priests to talk about it in homilies and see what results you get. I personally think it is obvious that the people of faith have spoken and they disagree with the Magisterium.