A Little Bit of Hope, A Lot of Musing

I have received 130 comments on my Fear, Prayer post, dozens of personal emails, and several facebook messages. I’m honestly overwhelmed by the response that post generated. With very few exceptions, the comments and emails were deeply compassionate. Even those who urged me to reconsider birth control were written with such obvious love and sympathy that I wanted to hug each commenter.

I know this is going to sound cheesy, but this is one of those times when the blogsophere has reminded me of the beauty of humanity. We can be deeply divided on personal, political, religious and social issues and still recognize someone else’s suffering and reach out to help. I know some of my commenters were upset that I received so many “ditch the rules” comments, but I wasn’t. I was grateful and humbled that so many people I’ve never met cared enough about my struggles to try and help, in whatever way they could.There have been many times in the past few years when I have looked at comment boxes and despaired of man’s ability to love his fellow man, but this one time, I looked at the comment box and saw overwhelming love. I said at the bottom of my post that I would pray without hoping, and I meant that I wouldn’t hope for a respite for myself, a reprieve from my own struggles. But, in fact, all of your comments left me with a hope that I haven’t felt in a long time. A hope for humanity, for all of use, that we can put aside ideological differences and choose to love each other. So thank you.

I know a lot of people were wondering, in the comment box, why I follow the Church’s rules on birth control. I think the phrasing I just used, “the Church’s rules”, or the phrase I used in my post, “the Church’s ban”, are part of the problem. I’m a convert, not a cradle Catholic. I haven’t had the rules of Catholicism pounded into my head since I was a child. In fact, I grew up Evangelical, among people who had no problem at all with birth control. I chose the Catholic faith freely, knowing what would be required of me. I went in with  my eyes wide open. I did not understand just how difficult a life of Catholicism would be, as evidenced by my struggles to live it, but I had a rough idea of what would be required of me.

In my quest to understand Catholicism, before I took on the faith, I did a lot of research about the birth control issue. I knew it would be a huge issue for me, perhaps even the huge issue, because I’m not a child-centric person. I’ve never been the girl who wanted nothing more than to be a mother. In fact, I didn’t really even like children until I had my own. Even then, it took some time. I still don’t do well with newborns. I find that stage awkward, difficult and exhausting. Give me a toddler and I’ll be set, but a newborn? No thanks. So I set about trying to understand just why the Church had this ridiculous rule.

I wrote about it extensively here, in one of my first posts. Basically what I found out is that the Church doesn’t make rules. There’s no, “do this or you go to Hell” or “don’t do this or you go to Hell”. That’s the wrong way to understand the faith. Rather, the Church, after much study and reflection, says, “these things are morally wrong, and to do them would be to commit a sin against God.” The Catechism is less a rule book and more a road map, marking areas for us that are dangerous. I understand 100% the arguments against hormonal birth control. They are abortifacient drugs, not to mention Class 1 carcinogens. They are physically dangerous drugs to ingest, both for the mother and for potential children. They also don’t work very well (evidence, Sienna). The arguments against barrier methods and sterilization, however, I’m less empirically convinced by. The idea is that sex is supposed to be both unitive and pro-creative, an anything that falsely separates sex from it’s natural life-given potential damages the integrity of the act. I sort of understand this, but I sort of don’t. After all, during pregnancy, a couple can’t have pro-creative sex. Nor can a couple have pro-creative sex when a woman is infertile. I understand, intellectually, that abstaining during fertile periods is completely different than altering the sexual act to render it infertile. Still, though, it seems like a lot of hair-splitting and philosophizing. Basically, the argument makes sense philosophically but doesn’t hold much water for me when it comes up against the practical reality of babies, and lots of them. That’s where faith comes in. I believe, to the core of my being, that the Catholic Church has both wisdom and truth. I believe that the “rules” in the Catechism are not there to ruin my life or to make me a slave to children, but to allow me to be the freest, most complete person I can be by keeping me separate from sin. I try not to see myself as “oppressed by the rules”, even though I fail regularly. I try to remember that I chose this path because I saw truth, beauty and love here.

That being said, I’m convinced that the Church does not want me to have a nervous breakdown, to lose my marriage, or to lose my faith. There simply must be a way to track fertility that allows us to determine fertile periods and abstain during them. I’m going to try the Marquette protocol for breastfeeding, and then hopefully after my fertility returns I can figure out a method that combines the different aspects of Creighton, Sympto-Thermal and Marquette that allows us to accurately monitor fertility. I am feeling cautiously optimistic about having the monitor to rely on. I’m also trying to stop myself from issuing threatening prayers at God, like, “This better work, God, or so help me, I will have the doctor tie my tubes the second the next baby is born! I mean it this time!” I’m pretty sure that’s not how praying is supposed to work, although at this point, I’m willing to bet God understands.

But I do think that there is a real problem with the Church’s teaching on the morality of birth control. It’s the same problem that many pro-choicers point out (inaccurately, I believe) when citing the Church’s hypocrisy on abortion; namely, lack of follow-through support. The Church says, “don’t use birth control, have big families” and then when we do, and when we find ourselves drowning because of it, there’s no help. No support. I was angry and upset at Gretchen’s story in my comment box, about how she was bedridden with twin newborns and two small children, a husband who couldn’t take off work, and her local parish said, “sorry, we can’t help”. That is wrong. It’s so bloody awful and heartless that it makes me want to scream. The Anchoress wrote a post about how the Church needs a ministry to young mothers. I wholeheartedly agree. I’d go a step further and say that every parish needs a ministry that provides not only psychological help and comfort, but also physical aid. There are women who are completely isolated with several children, who have no family to help after childbirth, no friends to make meals, and whose husbands can’t take time off to help. These women should not be left to fend for themselves. They often do not have the time or resources to build a network of support for themselves. The Church needs to step up and help. The days of big, extended families all living on the same block are gone. It’s more difficult than ever for a family to try and live in accordance with the Church’s teaching, and there ought to be recognition of that difficulty, and help given to those who are struggling. The more I think about it, the angrier I get at this complete dearth of support and succor for families struggling desperately to do the right thing. I don’t know how such a ministry might be started, but I think that parish pastors have an obligation to try and find some way to help the young mothers of the parish.

Anyone else have any ideas about how to get a ministry for young mothers up and running? And what are your thoughts on the arguments against birth control that I’ve outlined here?


  • Gretchen

    Thank you for your kind words about my response. That was exactly what I felt at the time – that they talked a lot about the wonders of children, but offered no practical help in dealing with them – not even sermons about family. I’ve been to Protestant churches where the ministers gave talks about the difficulties of raising children, and how they dealt with them. I never heard that in the Catholic Church. Even someting as simple as baptism – they insisted that we had to go to training before the twins could be baptized, but there were no babysitting arrangements, and since we were new in town we didn’t know anybody to leave our kids with. Something as simple as requiring people with newborns to attend a meeting without them, and there was no thought about what to do with those newborns. I don’t remember what we did – possibly my husband and I went to 2 different meetings alone, which was how we handled a lot of things in those days.
    I second the poster who says all the older people are working now. I am now 59, and still working my tail off. I’d like to help the younger gals cope, but all my time is taken up with trying to get the bills paid off that resulted from raising 4 children to the best of my ability. I don’t want to be a burden on them when I am old.

  • Ellen

    Thank you, thank you for this post. My husband (a non-Catholic Christian and an ABD in Theology) and I (a cradle Catholic) have been practicing NFP for three years, and just had a huge conversation about all this–what and why and how to stay within the teachings of the Church and still give ourselves fully to one another and be discerning about our family size. It’s so stressful. So thanks for sharing your own struggles. Also, on a hopeful note, we have had a wonderful experience with the Marquette method. Many prayers to you!

    On another note, young mothers are the best support for one another, I think. Encourage your church to have a diverse offering of speakers/retreats/etc for young moms AND to have childcare at EVERY EVENT that they want young adults to attend. Meet people, ask for help, and help them back.

  • http://homeschoolbooklover.blogspot.com Janet

    At my parish, there is a fantastic ministry called the “Elizabeth Ministry,” where new mothers are brought dinners for a few weeks after a new arrival – this includes newly adopted children. It can also be scheduled around visits from helpful family to be at its most helpful. When I first moved here, that was the very first impression I had of the parish was someone coming up to me after mass (and I was 8 months pregnant, so huge), and told me about the ministry and asked if I would like to be put on the list. I of course gratefully accepted, having no family in the area. Now, unless I am out of town, I try to make a dinner every time I’m notified that someone has had a baby. They’re really organized and have an online care calendar and everything for people to sign up for. Maybe you could bring it up to your priest and he’ll get someone who’s super organized to handle it. True, it’s only 2 weeks worth of dinners, but man it’s fantastic. Plus, of course, the fellowship is nice, too.

    • Lady Harriet

      Actually, this does go on in Ave Maria! It’s not officially run by the parish, but someone in the community usually coordinates meals for each family that has a new baby.

  • http://fathermapple.wordpress.com Mark Mansfield

    It’s important to me to interpret scripture in context. Something I’ve been studying as a lawyer and lay theologian is that there’s a difference between laws revealed through God’s nature and creation rather than his expressed, spoken divine will. If we assume God is just, perfect, infinite, all knowing, sees the consequences of his actions, etc., then there’s no conflicting moral ground between commands to “be fruitful” and to slay every person in a city, as Joshua did several times under explicit orders, or for Jesus (part of Triune God) to commanding us to pray for our enemies and return kind words for insults. While the purposes of these three commands seems contradictory to us it is because we don’t truly know God’s will except in the portion that he’s expressed to us. Abraham had no idea the reason God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac, but knew the promise made by God would be fulfilled, and only now after the moment of almost-sacrifice do we understand the purposes: symbolism of Jesus’s sacrifice, evidence of Abraham’s righteousness, example of God’s sovereignty, etc.

    God’s nature doesn’t change, but his way of interacting does and he is still a personality with desires and feelings that ebb and flow over time, as ours do in a much more un-even way since we were created in God’s image. Moses saw the heart of God change from fiery wrath and then to mercy for the Israelites on Mt. Zion. God’s attitude toward Ninevah changed due to their repentance. Jesus came for to save the Pharisees and the sinners, but spent his time with those who needed to hear it most. So there can be seemingly contradictory means to accomplish the goals of God, but it is because God knows his creations, and knows he did not create us all equal, and so the same approach doesn’t work for every human being. Romans 14-15.

    So, while the old covenant has a purpose post Pentecost, as St. Paul describes so elegantly in Romans (the best written legal brief ever, if I may say so myself), there are many things we do not have to do according to it’s old commands. Doing some really basic internet searchings and online concordance reference, I see the commands in 1 Timothy 5 saying it is bad for a man not to be able to provide for his house, but further on, it is good for women to get married and have children instead of giving in to sensuous desires. 1 Corithinians 7 talks about refraining but resuming “marital relations” so there would not be temptations. I choose to read the Song of Songs/Solomon as a literal example of a great marriage (as it makes more literal sense instead of an allegory of the church and God), and children aren’t mentioned there but there is tons of desire, quite erotically laid out (he even describes something as fruit from a palm tree, which is what you’re thinking of right now!). Eve was created because it was not good for man to be alone. Etc.

    If St. Peter can be told that things previously unclean are clean through the expressed will of God, and this seems to override the “nature” of God that was expressed for the benefit of the Jews through the old covenant in a time where God tried to show himself by having a distinct culture and nation in the Israelites, then there must be purposes we will not understand until God has eternity to explain them to us in Heaven.

    This doesn’t have to be tricky philosophy. Much of the tricky philosophy that has come about because of the Bible in the past 2000 years has led to things like Gnosticism. So my idea is, if you know someone well, then you know how to love them. If the summation of the old law is to Love God and Love your neighbor, and so much of the commands from the apostles was helping misguided Christians understand what that means, then sometimes having so many babies might not be the kind of love God intended us to show our spouses, if you know them well enough to make that decision with them.

    So there is probably some reason God commanded people to not waste their seed, like Onan in Gen 38, but it might be more about Onan’s intent in shirking responsibilities and his motivation rather than the method of what he was doing. God is a just god, and knows there’s a difference between manslaughter, murder, and self-defense, based on each crimes intent requirement, and the Jews were the first recorded statutes outlining a cause for manslaughter in a society that still believed in honor-blood-revenge killings for accidents. I am sure that intent plays a large part in any scripture that reveals God’s teachings or creation when it comes to our sexual desires, how to meet them, and how many children we should have.

    Also, that 1 Timothy 5 chapter seems to speak very directly to your question of how to take care of women with children in the church – the church is to take an active role in taking care of the widows and their children. But be careful how your bring it up to your church, for Paul also said: 2 Tim 2: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” 1st and 2nd Timothy are full of great advice like this for setting up ministries.

    (Side note: I don’t quote verses too often, because things should be read in context. If that means someone has to go read a whole chapter to double check me… great!)

  • Sunday

    My husband is in the military and so we move around often. One thing that I loved when my two kiddos were small was a group called MOPS (Mothers Of PreSchoolers). It is a Christian based group and they have groups that meet in churches all over. We were put into small groups, there were crafts and usually a speaker or program. Best of all, there was daycare on site! So it was a way to meet other young moms, and have a little time to socialize while the kids were safe and having fun. We would also try to meet up with just our small group, like at a playground or library. I wish the Catholic church would do something like this!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/permissiontolive Melissa@ Permission to Live

    I grew up with all the teachings against birth control pounded into my head, and I knew exactly what was getting into since I saw my mom have baby after baby and struggle to take care of them much less enjoy them. I married completely convinced that birth control was wrong (even NFP) and we had 3 kids in 2 1/2 years. Even though my perception and beliefs have changed alot, I know what it is like. I’ve been there, confined to home with to many young babies to count on them listening if I made myself go out, heck I still am there since the oldest of my 4 is only 5. While am grateful to have changed my beliefs and not have that constant stress of wondering if I am going to get pregnant at any moment, and then feeling like a failure the few times I would get my period (because I wasn’t pregnant), parenting is still hard. I think all parents feel the way you wrote in your post sometimes. Just know that you don’t have to be perfect and to take things one day at a time. And I am glad you are getting medical help as well.

  • Lynn

    Anybody not convinced of the Church’s rejection of sterilization might have a look at the side effects of tubal ligation and vasectomy. It was a *huge* eye opener for me, and I have since discovered both male and female friends who truly suffer from the side effects. I always thought the snips were simple and just kept eggs or sperm from getting to their goal, but it turns out there is a whole lot more going on.

    • pagansister

      Several folks in my family after having their children, had their tubes tied or a vasectomy. Absolutely NO problems or side affects except the great relief at not worrying about another pregnancy.

  • Emily

    I know this wasn’t the main point of your post, but you reminded me of something I wanted to share. I’m also a convert, and have also been in the “agree, obey, but only sort of get it” camp. But a year or so ago I heard a great description/explanation of the unitive & procreative issue, which helped me feel like I “get it” a little more. I don’t remember where I read or heard it… I think it was likely Peter Kreeft or Christopher West, but it might have been someone else.

    Anyway, the gist of it is that sex is (or should be) an act of giving yourself totally to the other person, of saying “I give my whole self to you.” This “whole self” includes whatever fertility you may have at that time (so if you’re pregnant or infertile you’re still giving your whole self). Having sex while using contraception is holding back part of yourself, is saying “yes” while doing “no” – is in a sense telling a lie with your body. However, NFP is permitted because abstaining during fertile periods is merely “remaining silent” rather than telling a lie.

    Hope that might be as helpful to someone else as it is to me!

  • Nina

    How to start such a ministry? Someone’s gotta be the first to speak up, is all. That’s usually all it takes. Stick a flyer on the parish/school/church bulletin board. Ask your parish secretary if you can put something in the Sunday bulletin about it. Do you have a parish facebook page or twitter feed? It often seems like everyone else is waiting for the first person to speak up. Perhaps you can enlist the help of an older woman in the parish and do it together — she can work on her circle of contemporaries, and you can contact the young mothers with small children?

    As for the BC issue, well…it’s just so intensely private and each couple’s situation is so different. At the end of the day, it all comes down to intent. If a couple is using NFP, with or without a monitor, for the explicit purpose of avoiding children, they’re not doing anything a couple that uses a diaphragm with the explicit purpose of avoiding children is doing. We’re whole beings, not separate pieces of a being all sort of strung together. Our reproductive systems, sexual organs, minds and hearts are part of one whole, not separate entities, each acting on its own morally. If your head and your heart have already said, hey, I’d like to have sex, but I sure don’t want to have another baby right now, so let me see how I can work that one out, you’ve already divided the procreative from the unitive. You’ve already said yes to one aspect of sex and nothanksnotreally to the other. So all this dickering over how method A is somehow more moral than method B (not talking about hormonal contraceptives in this case) is beyond me. I’ve heard the arguments, and I’ve heard the over-the-top and highly unlikely claims of how NFP is just so wonderful and makes all marriages sooooo much better (ha! that lie is probably more evil than a case of condoms and a year’s supply of Today’s sponges together), and I’m not buying any of them.

    It is how we use the free will that God gave us that counts. If we are open to life, if we want families and we want to do the right thing, but we know that it would not be good to have another baby so soon after the previous one, or during a time of extreme stress (financial, emotional, physical, et al.), then it’s not immoral to say we’ll use what we know is most effective for our particular situation and physiology (again, I’m only addressing NFP v. barrier methods).

    Also, some of the language used regarding NFP by younger women only goes to show how they are actually using NFP with a “contraceptive mentality”, but think anything, any reasoning behind it’s use is okay as long as it’s NFP. Not so. There’s a lot of “you’re doing it right/wrong” or “we’re not good at this”, etc. I mean, if the rationale is that NFP is the only acceptable form of BC, and that it’s God who wills each child regardless of the circumstances (let’s not even go down the Akin/Mourdock road here…oy), then it’s “contraceptive mentality” to think that NFP “failed”. If it’s God’s will, and He only wants you to use NFP, then NFP is fail-proof. If you don’t get pregnant, it worked. If you get pregnant, it worked. Which is a pretty fatalistic approach, IMO. Also, in a weird way, it takes responsibility out of the couple’s hands. It’s almost childish, ya know? And I cannot tell you how insulting and rude and hurtful it is when Catholics say that anyone who used a diaphragm would have an abortion if they got pregnant, or didn’t really want the children they conceived in spite of diaphragm or condom (or pill) use. That’s no more true for them than it is of women who got pregnant while using NFP. It’s such an ugly, hateful thing to say, and if that’s the NFP mentality, count me out. I was told by my mother, point-blank, that I was not wanted and that I was “God’s joke” on my mother because she got pregnant while breastfeeding me around the clock and everybody told her she couldn’t get pregnant if she did that, blahblahblah. Frankly, it would’ve been much better if she’d used birth control that worked. For both of us.

    If you really, really 100% cannot be pregnant, then the only really, really 100% effective way to not get pregnant is to not have sex. And your husband can just deal. I actually agreed with the one person who brought that up. Why is this always on the woman? Why can’t the guys keep their pants zipped for five minutes? Catholics go on and on about celibacy and the priesthood, and chaste single celibacy, but the second a dude gets married he has to have sex every three seconds or he’s gonna fall over and die? Please.

  • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna

    The difference between NFP and any kind of contraception is that NFP works with God’s design for our fertility, whereas contraception acts to deliberately frustrate that plan (or attempt to do so). Leila @ Little Catholic Bubble wrote a great post about the difference: http://littlecatholicbubble.blogspot.com/2011/03/important-follow-up-to-natural-family.htm

    • pagansister

      JoAnna, this is said with no disrespect–but God’s plan really should have no control over a woman’s body. That is entirely up to the woman. (and her spouse if there is one involved, but ultimately the woman’s). Women are far more than just vessels for carrying and giving birth to babies. In all honesty, God isn’t raising those babies, and neither are those supposedly celibate priests who continue to push the NFP. Would you consider that God would want a woman to just continue having babies no matter what that is doing to her emotional and physical health and her marriage? Would you consider that “God’s plan”? I’d have a hard time worshiping a being that didn’t care about me, since all I was supposedly created for was reproduction.