I’m not Catholic, but I’m part of a religious tradition that embraces children and affirms large families. I had absolutely no idea how counter-cultural this was until I became an adult and was surrounded by contraceptive messaging. When I got married, my girlfriends gave me copies of books such as the one pictured here. They told me stories about how they spaced out their children or learned how to get pregnant. I think, in fact, that as many people who use what is frequently called “Natural Family Planning” are doing so in order to achieve pregnancy as to avoid it.
In any case, this is one of those topics that religious women talk about all the time and the Washington Post picked up on a recent incarnation of this with a story headlined “Young Catholic women try to modernize the message on birth control.” The story features a woman I know, Ashley McGuire, who runs the AltCatholicah blog. She talks about how she was drawn to the church because of what it taught about sex:
Yet the images the church uses to promote its own method of birth control freaked her out. Pamphlets for what the church calls natural family planning feature photos of babies galore. A church-sponsored class on the method uses a book with a woman on the cover, smiling as she balances a grocery bag on one hip, a baby on the other.
“My guess is 99 out of 100 21st-century women trying to navigate the decision about contraception would see that cover and run for the hills,” McGuire wrote in a post on her blog, Altcatholicah, which is aimed at Catholic women.
McGuire, 26, of Alexandria is part of a movement of younger, religiously conservative Catholic women who are trying to rebrand an often-ignored church teaching: its ban on birth control methods such as the Pill. Arguing that church theology has been poorly explained and encouraged, they want to shift the image of a traditional Catholic woman from one at home with children to one with a great, communicative sex life, a chemical-free body and babies only when the parents think the time is right.
You know how when you read a story about something you know, sometimes you think that what you’ve read bears no relation to your personal experience? That happens so frequently with me that I’m
pleasantly surprised downright shocked when the opposite happens. See, whenever I’ve talked with Catholic or Lutheran friends about natural family planning, one of the main things that men and women will say they enjoy about it is that it leads to greater communication between the spouses. And far more now then even a few years ago, I hear people talking a great deal about their concern over how hormones affect their body and the general environment. I don’t know how much we need to go into that here, but I just love that my personal experience matched up with something I read. I know, this should be happening all the time. But it doesn’t.
So we learn how the Obama administration’s mandate forcing religious employers to provide contraception coverage over their moral objections has led to Catholics talking more about contraception. It’s a great, fresh hook on this story.
The new movement’s goal is to make over the image of natural family planning, now used by a small minority of Catholic women. But natural family planning, which requires women to track their fertile periods through such natural signs such as temperature and cervical mucus, is seen by many fertility experts as unreliable and is viewed by most Catholics as out of step with contemporary women.
“It ends up being this lofty, ‘Isn’t every baby a precious blessing?’?” said Jennifer Fulwiler, a Catholic writer with five children based in Austin who uses natural family planning. “Meanwhile, you have one kid with colic [and] some 2-year-old pulling on your pants. It just doesn’t resonate. There needs to be a modernizing.”
My doctor always says it’s as reliable a method as you are (you’ll have to read the book on natural birth control to figure out what that means). In any case, the article quotes these women who are following the practice and they all give the reporter interesting and realistic quotes. We learn, too, that educational seminars about family planning are being held at local dioceses. We learn about some of the debates surrounding natural family planning and the intramural battles are interesting. It’s all very multi-dimensional.
One reader who submitted the story said about it “It’s not terrible, but there are some definite ghosts (the biggest one I see is that they don’t make even a cursory attempt at explaining the Church’s opposition to contraception).” But I thought the section with the subhed “Papal Guidance” included some helpful information:
Pope Paul VI wrote the contemporary teaching on birth control in 1968, a few years after the Pill was approved. It says couples can delay or decide against having children “for serious reasons.” The term is left undefined, but the big picture is clear.
Couples “are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life,” it says. Instead, Catholics are to seek “the will of God and remember … that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”
Even though the pope never defined what constituted a justification to delay a pregnancy, large families became a hallmark of Catholics who wanted to show their fidelity.
I’m always skeptical when reporters claim to know what motivated all those folks with large families. Who’s to know whether their large families were a result of fidelity to church teaching or not? It’s also an interesting choice to say they “wanted to show” their fidelity instead of just that they “showed” their fidelity. I have many friends with large families and they just genuinely believe that children are one of God’s greatest blessings. They’re not having large families to “show” anybody anything. In the same way, another couple might be perfectly faithful to church teaching but, due to infertility or other problems, not have any children. They’re not barren because they “wanted to show their infidelity” to church teaching, are they? It’s just kind of a bizarre construction.
All in all, though, I thought this was a very interesting story. What did you think?