Why the Pope’s Recent Comments on Limiting Family Size Were Not Actually “Compassionate”

Why the Pope’s Recent Comments on Limiting Family Size Were Not Actually “Compassionate” January 20, 2015

While in college, I converted to Catholicism. I went through the full process and was received into the Church. I still have the dress I wore that day. As a newly married Catholic, I relied on natural family planning (NFP) to plan and space out my children. Even after I found that I no longer believed in God, I continued using NFP, largely because I liked that it was natural and I was taught growing up that artificial birth control was little better than poison. While today I have an IUD, I used NFP (and did so successfully) until after my second child was born.

It was as a former Catholic and former user of NFP that I read this description of the pope’s recent remarks while visiting the Philippines:

The pope cited the case of a woman he met who was pregnant with her eighth child after seven Cesarean sections. “That is an irresponsibility!” he said. The woman might argue that she should trust in God. “But God gives you methods to be responsible,” he said.

He said there are many “licit” ways of regulating births that are approved by the church, an apparent reference to the family planning method of monitoring a woman’s cycle to avoid intercourse when she is ovulating.

“God gives you methods to be responsible,” he said, according to the National Catholic Reporter’s account. “Some think that — excuse the word — that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No.”

I’ve seen a lot of people point to this as evidence that the pope is being compassionate, and human. This leaves me a bit confused. So let’s talk about this.

There is no change in Catholic doctrine here. For over fifty years now, the Church has held that artificial birth control is not allowed but that natural family planning—choosing not to have sex during the days a woman is fertile—is. Specifically, using natural family planning when there is just reason for limiting or spacing births is permitted, but using NFP for selfish reasons is not.

The pope says that “God gives you methods to be responsible.” I have to wonder, why is NFP the only method God allows? I know the justification is that artificial birth control negates the procreative purpose of sex, but doesn’t using NFP to prevent pregnancy do that as well? You know what’s interesting? Of all methods of birth control, it is NFP that is most difficult to use. NFP also only works with complete cooperation of the male partner, which prevents a woman from making independent decisions about her own reproduction.

It’s often been said that this pope is a compassionate pope who is restoring the “human side” to Catholic teaching. But wouldn’t true compassion mean giving women the pope himself admits have good reason to limit the number of births effective means to do so?

Not only is NFP difficult to learn and use, it also doesn’t work for everyone. I have a friend who planned to use NFP to space out her second child from her first, but ended up giving birth to an oops baby only 16 months after her first. After her second birth she told me she would be more careful, but then she had a second oops baby 11 months later, three children in only two and a half years. And to top all of this off, she had a condition that made her morning sickness so severe she could barely care for the children she already had. After my friend’s third child was born, her husband had a vasectomy.

How can the Church be “compassionate” while condemning my friend’s decision—a decision that has given her freedom from her condition and allowed her to finally spend meaningful time with her children? Had my friend gone to a priest, she would have been told to give NFP another try. Perhaps she could have made NFP work if she’d given it a third try, but even then she’d likely live in fear of another “oops” baby—and based on my own experience with NFP, that fear would likely bleed over into her sex life.

And it’s not just my friend, either. Take a look at this post by a Catholic blogger and mother of four. In this it, the author writes about being failed by NFP multiple times despite her best efforts, and about trying to cling to the Church’s teaching even as her sanity slips and her family’s financial security is thrown into question.

Here is an excerpt:

[My husband] didn’t say much. We’re in the same boat, me and him. Me terrified of the physical, mental and emotional toll wrought by more children, and him terrified of the financial weight on our already sinking ship. To tell the truth, I think he’s equally terrified at the thought of losing me to a complete nervous breakdown, or a heart attack or stroke brought on by overwhelming stress. And neither of us have any answers. We know what the Church says. We know that we ought to have faith, and trust. Personally, I don’t think I have any faith or trust left in me. I think that well was depleted by the last two pregnancies, immediately following courses in new methods of NFP. Ones that, we were assured, would really work. Is it possible that we did it wrong, that I misread signs, that it’s all down to user error? Absolutely. I’d even say it’s probable. But there’s only so much perfection in reading signs and charting that can be expected from a sleep-deprived, over-stretched mother whose every bathroom break is accompanied by a toddler or two. And there’s only so much abstinence that can reasonably be expected of a couple not in a Josephine marriage. Seven, eight months last time? I lost count. How long this time? A year, two? And how do we deal with the incredible strain that so much abstinence places on our marriage? The frustrated desires, the feelings of rejection, the guilt, the anger, the loneliness?

Telling women that limiting their number of pregnancies is reasonable—even that it is their responsibility—but allowing them only NFP to do so is not compassion. I was able to make NFP work for me, but only by being very very careful, and I spent years being paranoid that it would fail (and for good reason!). Indeed, the years I spent using NFP wreaked havoc on my sex life. NFP defenders might say I should have worried less, but if I had I might well have ended up like my friend.

While I’m at it, I really have to address something else, too. In his recent remarks in the Philippines, the pope also said this:

“Every people deserves to conserve its identity without being ideologically colonized.” 

I appreciate this remark, which is about five centuries too late. It’s also highly selective and more than a little disingenuous.

Use of contraception in the Philippines is a contentious issue, as the Philippine government only recently approved contraceptive access against forceful opposition from Catholic bishops, the National Catholic Reporter said.

In other words, the pope made his remark in support of bishops who sought to maintain a ban on artificial contraception. The 2012 Reproductive Health Law, which offered filipinos access to free contraceptives and survived legal challenge from the Catholic Church, was welcomed by 72% of filipinos, according to one survey. Another study found a similar level of support for contraceptives among husbands and wives as far back as 1993.

In other words, you could argue that the Catholic Church’s efforts to prevent filipinos from having access to birth control—access that is widely supported by the filipino people—is an act of ideological colonization. Yes, the Philippines is a very Catholic country, but the pope’s remarks nevertheless represent the efforts of the global Catholic Church hierarchy working to force its will on the filipino people.

The Philippines is in the middle of a severe crisis that has resulted in widespread poverty and even starvation. The Philippines is the size of Arizona, but has a population roughly one third that of the U.S. Most filipinos rely on a diet of rice and fish, but the surrounding fish populations are suffering from severe overfishing. If the country’s population continues growing at its current rate, it will double by 2080. It’s no wonder the filipino people view artificial contraception positively.

As one headline put it, Philippines birth control: Filipinos want it, priests don’t.

What I find most ironic in all of this is that the pope is seen by so many as being compassionate for calling a woman who had eight children irresponsible and at the same time barring her from using the most effective and user friendly methods of birth control. The pope’s teachings put the filipino women into a double bind where they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They are expected to reduce their birth rate . . . but are only allowed to use natural family planning to do so.

Natural Family Planning is incredibly difficult to do correctly. It involves monitoring body signs, including temperature and cervical mucous—a dangerous proposition in a country with hazardous sanitation, I might add. It requires complete cooperation from the male partner, who has to be willing to go for without sex during a woman’s fertile days. It involves keeping careful records of body signs, charting fertility, and determining when ovulation has occurred (based on sometimes conflicting signs). Think you that it is compassionate to expect this of women in poverty, struggling to put food on their children’s plates?

No, my friends. The pope’s remarks were not compassionate at all. Rather, the pope continues to put doctrine over people—and it is the people who suffer.

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