There’s a common thread that runs through so many of the conversations I’ve had about NFP lately (and, as this belly pops out more and more, I’m guessing those opportunities are just going to start rolling in gangbusters at Costco and the like) and it’s the very simple and very often understated reality that it’s difficult.
Did you catch that?
There is nothing easy about it, whichever method you practice and however charismatic your instructor and however earnest the smiling couple with 5 mewling children careening about their feet who run you through your introductory session as an idealistic (or perhaps incredibly bored) newly engaged may be.
It’s not easy.
It’s not easy to choose this alternative lifestyle, to live the practical nitty gritty of the Church’s strange and beautiful and salvific teaching on sex and love and human life.
It just isn’t.
I doubt it was easy 200 years ago when less was understood about the female reproductive system, and more was left up to a prayer and a chance.
And it’s not easy today, for we who are often steeped in and strangled by technology, terrified at turns by our ability to procreate and our inability to control, ultimately, this mysterious force at the center of human existence.
It’s heavy stuff we’re dealing with, and it deserves a more serious and frank conversation, at every level of engagement.
On the one hand, yes, we ought to be encouraging and enthusiastic in our presentation of the Church’s beautiful teachings on sex and marriage, but we ought not do so at the expense of reality.
Nobody has ever pointed to a crucifix and said “look how pretty, look how effortless.”
Is it beautiful? Peerlessly.
Is it staggeringly difficult? An incomprehensible level of suffering?
Yes, also that.
There is nothing to be gained from hiding the beauty and the difficulty of living this countercultural reality from those who come to us with questions, comments, or even ridicule.
And there is surely nothing to be gained in failing to advise young engaged and newly married couples, enthusiastic in their love and devotion and early in experience, that the road they are going to walk down is not paved entirely in roses, or rather, that there are thorns, too.
Spouses who practice NFP are less vulnerable to divorce, yes, but not because of NFP alone. There is room in their marriages for charity, for generosity, for communication…but it’s an opportunity that must be actualized by hard work and hard choices and constant death to self. It’s not a guarantee.
And please, for the love, pastors, well-meaning friends, family members…if a couple is drowning in plain sight, overwhelmed by their present circumstances, or just plain exhausted by the physical and emotional strain of parenthood, do the truly loving thing and lift them up. Offer them babysitting help. Take a meal over. Drop off a gift card. Pray for a multiplication of sleep and energy. But don’t lean in in a conspiratorial tone and ask them if they’ve thought about doing something about all those bouncing babies that keep coming their way.
Yes, they’ve thought about it.
And they’ve either discerned that now was indeed a good time for another new life to come on the scene or they’re struggling with understanding their fertility or they just plain made a miscalculation, or God one-up’d them.
Whatever the case may be, they’re not morons who’ve never watched tv, and your suggestions are less than helpful; they’re deadly destructive.
I can’t tell you how many women I’ve talked to who have been counseled by pastors/friends/in-laws, well-intentioned Catholics and less-than-well-intentioned Catholics, that contraception was the obvious and only answer to their problems.
When somebody is drowning in plain sight, you don’t chastise them for getting in the water in the first place. You throw them a life preserver and wrap them in a warm blanket and hold them until the shivering subsides.
To suggest that living the fullness of the truth of the Catholic Church’s teachings on family life is only beneficial up to a point, up to the part where it gets really hard and excruciatingly challenging, empties the authority of those teachings to nothing.
Either it’s life giving and soul saving, or to hell with it.
Tell me that from the pulpit and I’ll sit up and give you my full attention. Anything less is a waste of my time and an insult to my intellect.
Let’s do a better job of talking about NFP. Let’s be bold in our conversations with our Catholic friends who are unconvinced. Let’s be transparent with our curious (bemused?) family members. And let’s be charitable with our incredulous neighbors.
Because there are a whole lot of people searching for real love, and for the meaning of life, and for answers to lots of big questions. Shame on us if we’re not willing to offer some answers, or at least start the conversation with an explanation.
Finally, let’s encourage our priests and our seminarians to dig deep in their study of these difficult, beautiful truths. There is vast room for improvement, on both sides of the altar.
We live in a society steeped in sexuality and yet utterly illiterate in matters of the heart. People are breaking their bodies and their hearts for want of a little love, and we hardly hear a word about it from the pulpit.
I live in a city populated by some of the finest clergy in the world, and I am richly blessed. Our seminary is peerless, and our parishes are full.
But many are not so fortunate. And even in familiar territory, we cannot assume that everyone is on the same page, that everyone is in agreement and has had the same level of catechesis and instruction.
There is so much room for improvement. And, thankfully, so many opportunities to let Him in, to extend grace and mercy and His beautiful, difficult, life-giving truth.
Let’s get to work.