I Spent NFP Awareness Week In Conversation With Questioners

I Spent NFP Awareness Week In Conversation With Questioners July 28, 2018


It was NFP awareness week, and I celebrated it by engaging in a number of conversations about Humanae Vitae.

I almost added “and by practicing NFP, of course,” but I’m trying to recover from that toxic culture in which one has to constantly violate the TMI rule about middle-aged married life, simply in order to reassure everyone that all marital relations have been magisterially approved.

I’m done caring what those people think, done defending myself for having “only” three kids, done arguing that yes, I had “grave reasons” for NFP, and that “grave reasons” is a crappy translation from the original Latin anyway.

No one needs to know whether I was or am practicing NFP or not. And probably most folks don’t care, or would really rather not hear me give the personal details about it.

Connected with this freedom is the freedom to talk about issues people have with the magisterial teaching. And it’s a freedom that, for many of us, has been hard won, because in an intellectual arena where Catholic speakers and writers feel comfortable openly mocking the church’s social teachings, and frequently misrepresent the church’s fundamental moral definitions in order to show how hardass they are, there is a taboo on questioning the teaching on contraception, in any way. Even if it is a purely intellectual questioning on the part of people who have never disobeyed it. Some of these may obey because teachings on contraception don’t personally affect them, in their walk in life. Others may obey because NFP has been helpful for them, and they’ve never felt the desperate need to look to other resources to preserve their marriage, financial survival, or sanity.

Nevertheless, they question what seems to be a teaching hastily thrown together, suspiciously defended on the grounds of “maintaining authority.” They question because the promises of grace through obedience appear not to have been met, for many. Because if, as Humanae Vitae says, contraception is so bad, one ought to see clear evidence of the difference in love, loyalty, and virtue between couples who use contraception and those who don’t.

In the course of my conversations, over this past week, two things became increasingly apparent. The first was the integrity and good faith of the questioners. These are people who have spent years studying and even teaching the content of Humanae Vitae. Some are NFP instructors. Some have poured all their energy into trying to obey. They are not selfish hedonists seeking simply to use the other, or to live a life of materialist leisure without children. Their concerns have to do with survival – survival, often, in the context of large families that give shining evidence of their openness to life and their willingness to sacrifice. Sometimes it’s a life issue. So many women have said, the doctors told me I might die. We elevate the lives of women who died for their unborn babies, rather than abort, but this isn’t abortion we’re talking about. So it seems as though the same people who say all sacrifices must be made for the unborn child have zero concern for the sanctity of life of women.

Willingness to sacrifice – at what point does this become fetishized to a degree that is anti-life, and anti-person?

The other thing I saw was, again, how quickly people bash those who are questioning in this one particular area. That it is sometimes a questioning not only on the level of theory, but through years of painful practice, makes this all the more troubling. Even if it’s not bashing, people are so quick to draw a line in the sand, between “Catholic” and “Non Catholic.”

This is an excellent way to chase people out of the church.

The reality of the human experience is that we are not always able to make everything line up with perfect clarity. We may believe fully in Jesus, the Trinity, in Mary Queen of Heaven, in the Sacraments, the truth of the church. We may be able to recite the Creed with untroubled faith. But if we can not force ourselves to believe this one item – an item not even touched on in the Gospels, not one of the two Great Commandments Jesus gave – suddenly, we’re supposed to just ditch all the rest?

Yet we live every day amidst apparent contradictions, and unsettled conflict. If we couldn’t live this way, no friendship would survive. We live every day in mystery.

Ultimately our membership in the church is about relation to the Divine, not about assent to teachings – framed as they are by merely human teachers, couched in frail and ambiguous human language, often not even taught until fairly recently in the history of the church. So we should not be forced into a “choose A or B” scenario over this one deeply personal issue. Trying to force this, especially at this particular moment, when many are shocked and angry about new sex abuse revelations – and about church leaders’ complicity therein – is a really, really bad witness.

And anyway, whenever a person’s questioning of an article of faith is met with violence and silencing, it looks like over-compensation. It looks like fear. It looks ugly. People need to be able to speak up about their experiences without immediately being pounced on: Are you questioning the church’s teaching? Are you? ARE YOU? 

Well, suppose they are. What then? Are they to be forcibly excommunicated? Screenshots sent to their Catholic employers, so maybe they can lose their job and their income (so pro-family)? Are they to be shamed and silenced?

Or can we, maybe, resume the conversation that got cut off rather abruply back in 1968?

image credit: www.flickr.com/photos/97481684@N08/13966480422

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