February 11, 2012

And Now For Something Completely Different

No. Not Monty Python. (Extra points if you got that reference.) This is another animal altogether. So different, in fact, I feel a warning coming on.

Well, darn! That counts me out. Kind of awkward since I'm the one writing it. I know I usually write about kids, cows, and laundry but the topic today is the Church, contraception, and s-e-x. *gasp!* I know! I'll just have to avert my eyes as I write. That warning up there? I mean it. Last chance.

Still with me? Wow, you're brave.

Recently the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) made an announcement that, like it or not, all employers with more than 50 employees must provide health coverage for contraception and sterilization - or else!

The Catholic Church, with all of her hospitals, schools, universities, charitable organizations, etc. said, "Not gonna happen. Obeying would go against centuries of teaching, violate our consciences, and take away our religious liberty by preventing us from freely practicing what we believe." HHS responded, "You have one year to get used to the idea." To which the catholic bishops replied, "We think you need your hearing checked."

Along with calls, emails, petitions, etc., I have engaged in discussions with family, friends, and even complete strangers (some stranger than others) who have commented online regarding this news. While some agree this is, in fact, an attack on religious liberty in this country, most of their energy is expended in taking the Church to task for her stand on birth control. Apparently, any opportunity for Catholic-bashing is not to be wasted.

"Government shouldn't tell any religion what to believe or how to practice their faith, BUT..."

I could be annoyed the conversation is getting sidetracked, but filtering out the most obnoxious and ignorant comments, I see real questions and opinions that beg to be addressed. And opportunities for this kind of conversation are not to be wasted either.

Disclaimer: If you insist the issue is not about religious freedom, I'll wrestle you to the ground, sit on you,  and rub your head with my knuckles until you cry "mercy."
Also, Catholics are not the only ones speaking out against the mandate, but since I am Catholic that is the perspective I'll be writing from. No, I am not a theologian. I am a mom. I am, and always will be, learning. VOLUMES can and have been written on these subjects. I have not read every scrap of print that has been written on this subject, because... my days are almost completely filled with math lessons, doing dishes, and changing diapers. When I'm not doing those things I like to sleep.

Most comments fall into one of three categories:

  • "Why all the fuss? Why is the Church is taking such a stand? It's not like contraceptives are evil or anything. In fact, most Catholics use contraception, too."
  • "Natural Family Planning (NFP) is just Catholic birth control."
  • "Why does the Catholic Church think she can tell people what to do with their own bodies? What about the very poor around the world, women and families in desperate situations? The Church should not force them to keep having children they cannot provide for!"

Okay. Deep breath. Here we go:

"The Church doesn't say contraceptives are evil does she? Well, does she?"

Oh, man. Really? Do we have to go there?
Fine. I'll say it. I'll be the big meanie.
Yes. Yes she does. In the catechism, even.
Whew! There. Done. Short and sweet. So glad I used my Easy Button.

I'd love to leave it there. I really would. But I can't. There is just too much behind a statement like that to let it stand all alone. Perhaps evil seems too strong a word. Evil is just soooo...EVIL. (Cue creepy music.) Why would the Church use a word like that?

adj. e·vil·er, e·vil·est
1. Morally bad or wrong; wicked: an evil tyrant.
2. Causing ruin, injury, or pain; harmful: the evil effects of a poor diet.
3. Characterized by or indicating future misfortune; ominous.
4. Bad or blameworthy by report; infamous: an evil reputation.
5. Characterized by anger or spite; malicious: an evil temper.

For, well, just for-ever, the Church has maintained that contraception is morally wrong and causes injury, and harm to husbands, wives, and society at large. I'll not spend time here cataloging the physical harm certain forms of contraception can cause. (The harmfulness of artificial contraceptives like the pill or IUD have been thoroughly documented. The more these products are studied, the more health hazards are revealed. Don't believe me? Read the package inserts - like this one, or this one.)

I'd like instead to focus on the harmful effects of the contracepting mentality so prevalent today. In order to do that we should take a look at how the Catholic Church views sex.

Many people think Catholics have all sorts of hang-ups about sex; that we are taught the Church wants us to have as many babies as humanly possible all the while feeling horribly guilty because "sex is bad, dirty, and sinful." After all, everyone knows Church teachings about sex are made up by a bunch of fuddy-duddy old men who don't have sex anyway. It's all about control, and the world wanting none of it cries, "Stay out of our bedrooms!"  

What a bunch of hogwash. That sort of Puritanistic view has always been rejected by the Church.

"So, sex is good?" 
Nah. It's better than that. 
"Sex is great?" 
Getting closer. 
"Sex is amazing!" 
It can be pretty amazing, but no. 
Try this one on for size. Sex is holy.

Well that just sucked all the air out of the room, didn't it? Most of us, myself included, have a hard time thinking about sex in that way. We think of holiness as belonging solely to the spirit, and the body with it's senses, with it's messiness and frailties as somehow beneath any expression of holiness. We breeze past the part of scripture that tells us God looked at his creation and declared it good. Really good.

"So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it... God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." (Genesis 1:27-28,31)
See that? Our bodies are good - and not only good - as images of our Creator they are sacred. Our bodies, masculine and feminine, have a worth that is transcendent. They share in Divine goodness as signs created for and expressive of God's love for us. If we have trouble with that reading from Genesis, what then do we make of the poetic images of love, physical love, found in the Song of Solomon?

"How beautiful you are and how pleasing, my love, with your delights! Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit. I said, 'I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.' May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine. May the wine go straight to my beloved, flowing gently over lips and teeth. I belong to my beloved, and his desire is for me." (Song of Solomon 7:6-10)

It's in the Bible, people. Look it up.

"Okay, so physical bodies and lovemaking are good, but how do you get from that to holy?"

Right here:

"Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it... So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself. For no man hates his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. " (Ephesians 5: 25, 28-32)

The union of Christ and His Church is imaged in the union of man and wife as one flesh. Christ gave totally of Himself to His Bride, the Church, holding nothing back, even His very life. He poured himself out completely, without reserve. His Bride joyfully receives that life, germinates, then brings to fruition what has been given to her. She brings Christ's presence to the world, united with Him as His body.

Husband and wife are called to that same unitive, sacrificial love. The physical human love expressed in marriage reflects an amazing truth about the way God loves us. In a very real way, during sex husband and wife become one flesh, one heart, one soul. They become part of each other. The husband, by virtue of his masculinity, shows the generative, life-giving power of God. The wife, by her very femininity, receives, then grows and brings forth that same life into the world. 
In loving each other, they acknowledge the essential goodness of each other's bodies, male and female. They affirm the essential goodness of their own bodies as they love the other without reserve. They love each other intimately and completely, not rejecting any part of their beloved. 

Sex bonds spouses to each other and opens the door for new life. Babies and bonding. Bonding and babies. Two sides of the same coin. When we try to separate the two what do we have? If sex is only for babies the beauty of the act itself is stripped away and our bodies are degraded from images of God to machines in a factory producing a product. The baby, rather than an expression of her parent's love, becomes an object, a possession to be owned.

If sex is only for bonding than how do we understand the necessity of egg and sperm in the creation of new life? The design of our bodies cannot simply be explained away, because we have no good use for it. Ask women (if you're particularly bold) why desire for sex is strongest when they're ovulating. Ask men (if you don't mind the strange looks they'll give you) why a woman is more attractive to them during that time. Sex is pleasurable by design. The arousal and desire are the motivation. The next generation is the purpose.

Everyone knows what body language is. When someone smiles, shrugs their shoulders, or makes rude gestures with their hands, others understand the message conveyed.

Our bodies speak during sex, too. We are speaking love and acceptance of the other. We speak a communion of total self-giving and trust. It is a language freely expressed and powerful in it's beauty. At least that is how it's supposed to be.

When we contracept we are speaking a message, too. Whether we realize it or not, we are saying "My love only goes so far. I give you a piece of myself, but not all of me", or "I love all of you - except that undesirable part." Contraception changes the language of sex. When purposely destroying or blocking that life giving power, we say to God, "I reject part of who you made me to be. I withhold it from you. I refuse to image the sign of Your love for the world." We can do that. God does not force us. The choice is ours.

In 1968  Pope Paul VI wrote  a little thing called Humanae Vitae. In it he warned of effects contraception would have on our society should they become readily available.
  1. Moral standards lowered across the board
  2. More adultery, more unwed mothers
  3. Women reduced to sexual objects
  4. Government coercion in reproductive matters
Sound familiar? 

"If that's really what the Church teaches, than why do so many Catholics use birth control?"

That's what I'd like to know. Really. Is it ignorance? There are many who just don't know what their Church teaches. Some may have never been told, some were clearly asleep, the rest probably had their fingers in their ears.  Without clear guidance they follow the culture around them. We need to fix that.

Could it be arrogance? "I know more about right and wrong than any old Church that's only been around for thousands of years." There are an abundance of so-called "cafeteria Catholics", who pick and choose what they want to believe. They form a religion of their own making while continuing to call themselves members of the Church. Their actions ask the question, "Can I not be Catholic and still be Catholic?"

Again, they have a choice. We all do. The Church is not forcing anyone to be Catholic. More like a loving parent, the Church teaches, she admonishes and explains, she implores us to follow the safe path, so that we will live life abundantly and avoid that which leads to harm. The Church says, "Don't run into the street or a big ol' truck will come along and turn you into a greasy smear on the asphalt. I don't want that to happen to you!" But, like any child, we can choose to go our own way and ignore the advice of our parents. We can run out of the safely-fenced backyard yelling, "I'll play where I choose. I want my freedooooom!" Oh, yeah. It's all fun and games until someone goes "Splat!"

"What if you can't feed your 72 kids, and you're homeless, and you have no money what-so-ever, and another pregnancy will cause sudden, instant, and even immediate death?" 

Don't laugh. I have actually been asked questions only slightly less hysterical. According to some of the folks I have engaged online, this ubiquitous problem presents only two options - 
Birth Control or Death
That's it.   

So, are there ever reasons for avoiding pregnancy? Yes. That's where Natural Family Planning (NFP) can be helpful. A couple can learn to recognize signs of fertility and prayerfully decide to delay pregnancy for a time. In our 20+ years of marriage, Matt and I have followed NFP methods to space births during particularly difficult financial times and episodes of poor health. I still remember the dire warnings a doctor gave me regarding a medication I took that could be fatal to an unborn baby, and until that medicine was out of my system we chose to avoid pregnancy. Is it easy to do? Sometimes, other times not so much. The cool thing is that it's free to use. It requires no fancy gadgets. And, unlike the pill, there are no negative side-effects!

"Natural Family Planning is just birth control for Catholics. What a double standard!"

Natural Family Planning (NFP) is like birth control in the same way carrot sticks are like Cheetos.

"Well, I don't get what the difference is. A person using NFP or something as simple as a condom gets the same result. The intention is the same."

Fair enough. Let's look at it in another way. Say we're talking about losing weight. Obesity is a real problem. It severely affects the health and well-being of the people in question. It also affects their families on so many levels - physically (They are likely to become obese too.), mentally (unhealthy attitudes towards food and exercise), emotionally (They worry about the health of their obese family member.) , even financially (Health problems are costly!) There are also consequences to society at large. Something must be done!

The medical establishment says there are healthy ways of losing weight, but those require hard work, time and dedication. Not everyone is going to want to go through all of that.

There are other ways of losing weight. They might not be as safe and healthy, but they will achieve the same end. Diet pills come with side effects, but they are so easy. Fad diets may not be nutritionally balanced or have lasting results, but they are fast. And then there is always bulimia... Gross, but weight loss will be the result. It is the same result no matter which method one chooses, and that is the important thing, right?  Now the Medical Profession urges people to work with the natural processes of the body and these other methods work against the natural function of the human body, but they both have the same intention, don't they? That Medical Establishment is really mean to tell people that one of those choices is better for them than the others. (Catch the sarcasm?)

With NFP a couple's combined fertility is not treated like a disease that must be medically relieved. Rather their fertility is an intricate, sophisticated, awe-inspiring, inseparable part of the amazing created beings they are. I love that the times we used it I never felt taken for granted. Indeed, in order for NFP to work Matt has to love my whole self and respect the natural timing of the way my body works. We appreciate knowing when it's possible to conceive. If we have a serious reason to delay another pregnancy or limit our family size we have the means to do so while respecting that same natural timing. It does require periodic abstinence which I'll admit can be frustrating, but there is a payoff. Imagine desiring your spouse and knowing that you have both decided to wait until the infertile times of the month. Together you both begin looking forward to the time being right, and then it is! Instead of looking at those times of abstinence as a burden, see them as a courtship that builds up to a lovely honeymoon! 

"Other than the fact that it's "natural", how is NFP different from other methods of contraception?"

It's true NFP can be used with a contracepting mentality, but using Natural Family Planning to avoid pregnancy - month in, month out, year after year - is not the desired norm for couples. There is some truth to the joke, "What do you call a couple who uses Natural Family Planning? Parents." Not because it is not effective (Studies show 98.8% effectiveness.), but because those who use it tend to be more open to having children. Matt and I have found our mutual desire does give us pause when we are discerning a need to wait. "Is our reason serious enough to keep our hands off each other?" And really, NFP is about more than avoiding pregnancy. It's about knowing the way our bodies work and respecting our dignity as a children of God. It's about letting God be God, and being open to new life. It's about receiving each child when they do come as a gift. Many couples use NFP to achieve pregnancy, too!

What's not to love?

"If any Catholics object to contraceptives, they don't have to use them; but it's not fair to deny them to non-Catholics who merely work in Catholic institutions. Not everyone believes as you do. And what about the poor all around the world?"

So, we don't have to use them, we just have to pay for something we believe is completely immoral? Our words need to be backed up by action. If we really believe something, we should act as though we really believe it. Contraceptives are available elsewhere - often free of cost. We are not keeping women from obtaining contraception, but no one needs to get them from us. To supply or be forced to pay for anything that we truly believe harmful would make us liars. How then can we be people of Truth?

There is no denying there are situations where prudence tells us pregnancy should be postponed, even indefinitely in severe cases. If the situation happens to be particularly desperate, how much better to empower husbands and wives with the knowledge and support they need, with a method of avoiding pregnancy that does not rely on money, does not expire, and will not make things more difficult by adversely effecting their marriage or health.  So much better than throwing pills or condoms at  the problem! It works. Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity teach Natural Family Planning to the poorest of the poor. Missionaries around the globe have found success in teaching NFP in conjunction with other health care. You can read about a parish in Kenya who has just begun this important work. It's really good stuff!

 Did you really read all this to the end? Wow. I'm impressed.  I'm exhausted. I've never written a post this long. My head hurts. My fingers hurt. Can I ask a favor?  I need your help. I need you to pretend I came up with a fantastic way to end this post, tying up all the loose ends and writing a smooth conclusion. Got it? We good? Okay. Time for bed. Good night!


Anonymous said...

Once again, Marcena, this was worth waiting for. I love how you use humor to teach me things that I have wondered about but not known how to explain. Thank you for all the effort you put into all the cartoons, videos, links, etc. Really makes a fairly long post seem short and entertaining. It's nice to know that when you delve into these issues there are actual reasons for things I've just always sort of muddled through in faith trusting that the Church had my and my family's best interests at heart. Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

Nice job, Marcena. Very well written. So much to take in, I'll need to read it over a few times.

Aimee said...

Amen! This was a great explanation, and it didn't seem long at all.

It's true that NFP CAN be used with a contraceptive mentality, and that's just as wrong as using artificial birth control. And yes, there are lots of Catholics (sadly) who don't agree with the Church's teaching on birth control and who use it regularly. BUT, even if 99.99% of Catholic women took birth control, that does not mean the Church's teaching is incorrect in some way. The Church should not be forced to violate Her conscience just because a lot of people are okay with contraceptives.

Popular opinion does not make something true or right.

Lisa said...

OK -- First of all, have I told you that you are my favorite writer, bar none, on the internet?

Excellent, excellent post -- and very well explained! I made it to the end with ease, looking for me -- only to find one of my favorite end-credit scenes of all time. (Just like a reward!)

The only thing -- and I mean the *only thing* I would beg clarification for is the way I read your explanation about the Church's stand on NFP sounded like you meant the Church *expects* us to use it, or even encourages it. Did you intend this? We have been taught (and, keep in mind, we are Tridentine from day one) that it is used as an exception and with permission from our Confessors, and only considered when there is truly good reason: the health of the mother -- or father (physically or mentally); or dire financial problems, etc... Is that not the general teaching out there? Or did I interpret your explanation wrong?

Lisa said...

*Ahahaha! Sorry! I just re-read that comment and saw that I had accidentally typed in something I just said to one of the kids in the text of it! (Ohmygosh!) Can you find it?

AnchorMama said...

To Lisa, was it "Looking for me?"
Who was looking for you? Where were you? Where you hiding? :)

I'm so glad you brought NFP up! It's so funny you asked for clarification about it when you did. I had JUST re-read the post and came to the same conclusion!

You are absolutely correct! I did make it sound like using NFP was the recommended norm for all married couples. That was not my intention. As Amiee said above, "NFP CAN be used with a contraceptive mentality, and that's just as wrong as using artificial birth control." True!

I wrote what I did after debating with someone who kept bringing up terribly desparate situations to force me into saying giving women the pill was the only solution. I was touting the benefits of NFP with that man in mind, to show him that there was a way to approach those situations that did not offend God.

My husband and I have been grateful to NFP for allowing us to prayerfully postpone pregnancy during some pretty difficult times. (We joke sometimes that after 20 yrs. of marriage, we are still waiting for the richer and health mentioned in our vows. we've had/have the poorer and sickness.)

I've never heard anyone mention talking to their confessors about it. Really? I love that!!! :)That's so cool! I guess I still have a lot to learn. Sadly, we've often felt we were on our own to figure things out. I've only encountered a couple of priests who encouraged us with respect to having a larger than average family. I even had a priest tell me (back when we had four) "You've done your bit for the Church. You can stop now." *sigh* I do believe things are getting better. Our parish priest is WONDERFUL in this respect!

Pj said...

Great post! And I'm not even Catholic! I'm glad to have found your blog!

AnchorMama said...

Thanks, PJ!

AnchorMama said...

Lisa, I talked with our priest after Mass on Sunday, and... yes! We are asked to talk to our confessors about using NFP. I never knew that! When I brought it up in the past, priests always seemed so uncomfortable and told us to just pray about it. I wish we had had help discerning the "if and when" to use NFP in the past.

I'm so glad you brought it up! I love learning good things! And, have I mentioned how much we appreciate our Fr. Pat?

AnchorMama said...

I have now revised my post. Hopefully my treatment of NFP is what I intended in the first place. :)

Lisa said...

The best explanation of NFP -- and the subject, in general! ~ that I've ever read. Still! Written in a wonderfully accessible way. :0) This is bookmarked as as resource for me to send folks to when I don't want to argue it out myself. You've said it better than I ever could!

Missed you! Glad you're revving up the blogging motor again! I keep trying to do the same thing, but keep konking out. But, you've inspired me to try again. Blessings, blessings! You rock.

Anonymous said...

So glad to see that you put this back up. I'm trying to find what you changed but it's hard to tell since I don't have the old one to compare it with.

Anyway, I still love this post and am so proud of you for your writing style and presentation of such a crucial topic.

Thanks so much!
Love you,

Anonymous said...

I forgot to say that the Cheetos, carrot stick thing cracks me up! He's a funny guy!

Mom, again...