So this is the post where I’m promising answers, and I need to be very clear up front: I don’t have them. If you find that you are backed into a corner with no way out, you feel powerless and depressed, long stretches of abstinence are setting you and your spouse at each other’s throats, every time you give up in desperation and “cheat” with your spouse you feel suicidally guilty, you hate your fertility your body and your chart, and you’re starting to consider just getting pregnant so that it will be over, even though you know that’s an unbelievably stupid thing to do – I understand. I’ve been there. But I don’t know what you should do.
Here’s what I do know: this isn’t okay. For a long time I thought that I was the only woman who has seriously given this teaching her all, and who had experienced this kind of grinding despair. I now know that our stories are common – possibly just as common as the stories of women who absolutely love NFP. I also know that when Natural Family Planning gets talked about in Vatican circles, the discussions are too often led by NFP instructors and NFP cheerleaders. Every so often there are rumours that someone in authority has acknowledged that hard cases exist. Supposedly Benedict once said that they needed to be handled on a case-by-case basis, and Francis has spoken about the need to have compassion in individual life circumstances. Vagueries like this do not give us enough to go on. Not when we are surrounded by a claxon of judgement from pro-life Catholics who often treat us as if we are in dissent because we won’t pretend that this is working for us. Not when we approach priest after priest and bare our souls, hoping to have our individual circumstances addressed, only to find that the priests feel their hands are tied and don’t know what to say.
I know that the single most helpful thing that I have found in ecclesiastical teaching to help with situations like ours is the Winnipeg Statement. You may have heard that it is heresy: it has never been condemned. You may have heard that the Canadian Bishops are in dissent against Humanae Vitae: if they are, the Vatican has had decades to discipline them and has not. You may have seen the “offending paragraph” quoted out of context: read the whole document instead. Obviously I have the advantage here of actually being Canadian, and therefore the comfort of knowing that these are the words of the spiritual fathers entrusted with the care of my nation. Even if you are not Canadian you may find some solace in knowing that somewhere there are bishops who have at least tried to grapple with the reality of our struggles and who have had the courage to rock the boat a little in order to offer compassion to the suffering.
I also know that it is not my job to solve the problem – but it is my job to speak about it honestly and to humbly submit the truth for the consideration of the Church. I know, being a mother myself, that often I tell my children to do things and then, sometimes hours or days later, I discover that they have been struggling in vain to carry out instructions that are impossible for them. The question I always ask is “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you ask for help?” The Church cannot adequately respond to pastoral problems unless She is made aware of them. Sometimes, She will need to be made aware of them more than once. Recall the parable of the woman pounding on the door of the judge, demanding that he render justice in her case. We are told to pray like that, and I think that if this is how we are to come with our problems to God then it is reasonable to think that this is also how we ought to come with our problems to the Church.
I can state what we need. We need pastors who are capable of offering real solutions, and we need priests who have been trained to deal with situations like ours. I’m not saying that it needs to be a part of seminary formation, but if we can’t rely on adequate care from pastors at our individual parishes then we need clear direction on where to go. NFP instructors are not the answer. They are trained in a medical technique, not in the care of souls, and they do not have the capacity to speak with the authority of the Church.
I can also offer some ideas for things that Catholic culture, generally, can do to help. First, we can stop behaving as though everyone who gives up on NFP gives up because they are selfish, lustful, or because they didn’t really try. A lot of people persevere to the point where they are no longer able to cope, where they are making desperate choices to avoid divorce, suicide, or health problems so severe that they will be unavailable to the children they already have. Treating people in this situation as if they wishy-washy, sex-addicted, dissenting, salad-bar Catholics is a severe lapse of charity, and it is scandal. I know of more than one person who hit this wall, found no compassion, and left the Church. These people are Christ’s faithful driven away by the unjust condemnation of the self-righteous. It has to stop.
We also need to stop behaving as though there are only two possibilities: NFP and the Pill. I do not support artificial birth control. I would never consider it unless it was medically necessary for “legitimate therapeutic reasons” as outlined by Paul VI. The problem that we face at the moment is that there is absolutely no incentive for a Catholic in a desperate situation to prefer alternatives that do less violence to a woman’s body, or less long-term damage to her fertility. Mutual masturbation is a mortal sin. Getting the Shot is a mortal sin. Being sterilized is a mortal sin. Statistically, a very large number of women who start out using NFP resort to sterilization when they can’t make it work. I understand what they’re thinking: you get sterilized once, you go to confession once, and then you can have guilt-free sex without pregnancy for the rest of your married life. On the other hand, a couple who occasionally resorts to condoms or “creative cuddling” must return again and again to make the same embarrassing confession – sometimes to confessors who treat them like shit. There is no discussion of the relative gravity of different acts, and the psycho-spiritual consequences of choosing the least grave offences are more onerous than the consequences for more serious sins.
Finally, those who find NFP easy, those for whom purity comes naturally, or those who have never married and don’t know what it’s like, need to cultivate compassion. Instead of berating or criticising people who are struggling, volunteer to babysit our kids. Wash our dishes. Do it nicely, without sneering at the mess. Take the screaming baby outside so we can have a moment of peace at Mass. Offer to pay one of our bills . Instead of laying on burdens, help to bear your brothers and sisters up.
Photo credit: Pixabay