George Weigel has famously described John Paul II’s Theology of the Body as “a kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences . . . perhaps in the twenty-first century.” Weigel and John Paul II’s diverse analyses of bombs generally notwithstanding, I have the suspicion that Weigel is right here. Theology of the Body fever is sweeping through the Church. Conferences are held with increasing regularity, a secondary literature is flourishing and the Catholic e-community simply cannot restrain from singing the praises of TOB on blogs and social networking sites.
As a supporter of John Paul’s work in the area of human sexuality this movement gives me hope for the Church and for the future. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that both the credibility of the Church and the spiritual health of individual Christians depend on our ability to be discerning in communicating Church teaching in this area. Too often, TOB is presented in an emotionally charged manner that is high on solidifying Catholic identity over against a corrupt culture and low on practical advice and support for Catholic couples.
One of the key planks in the TOB platform is the rejection of artificial contraception and the promotion of Natural Family Planning. John Paul II himself was careful to make this connection explicit. Anyone who has read TOB with care can pick up John Paul’s frustration that many of the faithful seem to have misread the argumentation in Humanae Vitae. One of his goals in producing the Theology of the Body was to clarify that argumentation and ground it in a Christian anthropology that was credible to the modern reader.
Without suggesting that condemnation of artificial contraception is the sole aim of TOB, it is this topic that I want to focus my comments on in this piece. My wife and I use NFP in our own marriage and I have had extensive conversations with other practicing couples. I have also been able to talk to those who have worked in NFP education for decades. From such experiences, I am confident that there is overwhelming evidence that the way in which NFP is promoted by the TOB cheerleaders is producing casualties.
Too often, Natural Family Planning is presented as a cure-all for marital ill. We’ve all seen the stats. Couples using NFP have dramatically lower divorce rates than the culture generally and, given appropriate caveats about proper teaching and motivation, NFP is as effective as anything else for those trying to avoid pregnancy. But there are other statistics that would be useful for helping us diagnose our presentation of NFP to the faithful. What is the percentage of couples that start their marriage using NFP but, after frustration and guilt, switch to artificial contraceptives? What is the percentage that are forced into long spells of abstinence because they can’t discern fertility and don’t know of any resources available to help them? If you’ve worked in the area at all, you know that those numbers aren’t negligible.
The groups promoting the Theology of the Body need to be more honest in their presentation of Church teaching about what Humanae Vitae referred to as the “difficulties, at times very great, which beset the lives of Christian married couples”. In some situations NFP can be very difficult, bringing anxiety to the love lives of Christian couples. Sometimes the only solution is continence but, at other times, recourse to a certified teacher can help to clear up the issue. In every case, the support of the Christian community and the solidarity of other struggling couples would serve to ease the burden of the couple.
The trouble is that, because we spend so much time celebrating our moral superiority and waxing eloquent about NFP’s advantages, couples who are caught in a tough spot feel isolated. They don’t know that there are other couples in their own parish with the same problems and with whom they could find support. They don’t know that the successful practice of NFP can require regular recourse to professional teachers, especially during illness or after a baby. They feel guilty when NFP makes their marriage tougher rather than easier. And, often enough, they abandon Church teaching.
When I bring this problem up, I am often told that we can’t talk too loudly about the struggles of NFP or we’ll never be able to sell it. In my view this is entirely backwards. The Christian life isn’t about magic benefits, but about discipleship. We are far better off if those with an aversion to sacrifice ignore Church teaching from the outset than if we leave a trail of people whose faith has been shaken because Church teaching wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
On a practical level this means a few things. When we promote NFP at conferences and marriage prep classes, we need to be clear about providing resources for people who struggle. People need to know they’re not alone and that help is available. This also means actually making help available. Start support groups for NFP users. Start them in your parishes. Start them online. (We’d love to hear about and promote such groups here at Vox Nova.)
Groups that teach the actual nuts and bolts of NFP need to be clear that help is available to couples in difficult situations. The rest of us need to teach people that, when they can’t discern their fertility, they need to keep calling for help until they get an answer. We can’t let those who struggle suffer in guilt and silence.
To let people suffer in silence because of a misplaced fear that telling the truth about NFP will scare away potential users is inexcusable in a religious tradition that has always affirmed both the scandalous nature of its own message and that truth is the essential prerequisite for freedom. The bomb is exploding. We must do all we can to eliminate collateral damage.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one. He is the co-author of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.