Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Catholic Family Life - In the Bedroom - Part 4

Catholic Family Life - In the Bedroom - Part 3

Catholic Family Life - In the Bedroom - Part 2

Catholic Family Life - In the Bedroom - Part 1

If you start talking about NFP in a group of active young Catholic couples, it won't be long before the discussion starts getting heated. Even spouses seem to get worked up defending their particular take on how and when to use NFP. Sex is a pretty controversial area that goes to the core of the human experience in a way that nothing else can. It's OK to disagree with your friends about pizza toppings and sports teams, but when you start talking sex - things can get uncomfortable.

My wife and I used NFP to avoid pregnancy for the first 3 years of our marriage. At the time, our reasoning was really rather secular. I'm not sure we would have made the same decisions if we knew then what we know now. Our predominant reason was simply that we thought it would be better to have a couple years of marriage to enjoy before we had kids. Really not a very compelling reason in hindsight. A host of smaller reasons were financial, living situation etc.. It's easy for me to see now that most of those reasons are smaller that I thought at the time. I think our secular culture encourages to think that we should wait on marriage and family until we have our lives all worked out, and are financially successful. I think today's economic hard-times might be putting the lie to that philosophy.

After having taken the plunge of marriage and having a family and all the uncertainty, insecurity, responsibility and JOY that came with it I have a different perspective. I say go for it. Don't wait, life is short. Don't count on ever having enough order, money and security in your life to make everything easy. Even if it is easy, it won't necessarily make you happier than struggling.

Anyway, I sometimes feel a little guilty about the time my wife and I spent avoiding pregnancy. There are many who toss out the term "contraceptive mentality" about other couples who use NFP to avoid pregnancy for reasons that are perceived as not really all that serious. The idea being that a couple can use NFP improperly or sinfully. That marriage is to be "open to life" (CCC 1652, 2366-7) and NFP is only to be used to space children for "serious reasons"(CCC 2368) The Catechism of the Catholic Church wisely leaves the discernment of "serious reasons" up to the couple but states in section 2368 that it must not be "motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generiosity appropriate to responsible parenthood."

However, I've found not shortage of fine Catholic folks that will readily share their opinion that many or even almost all couples using NFP to avoid pregnancy do not have a serious enough reason. There is the specter of the 'contraceptive mentality.'

I must admit, that in recent years, as I've begun to see that our reasons for avoiding pregnancy weren't really all that well thought out, and were mainly the secular culture norms of our day, I've felt maybe my wife and I had used NFP inappropriately and committed the sin of having a 'contraceptive mentality.'

Actually, writing Part 3 of this series has changed my thinking significantly. I'm not saying that maybe my wife and I couldn't have made different decisions. However, when I wrote Part 3 I realized that had we taken the approach of planning children immediately and not using NFP to space or avoid pregnancy in anything but the direst of circumstances, I probably wouldn't have learned to be a real Catholic husband and that frequent sex wasn't my right, or necessary for me male ego.

That got me thinking. I know quite a few couples non-Catholic and Catholic who are on the 'whatever God gives us' program. I started thinking abut the men, several of whom I know very well. I realized that sexual problems and attitudes similar to my own distorted sexuality show up in some of these men too and you can see the effects in their marriages. In fact, at least a few of them have had serious marriage problems - separations and a divorce. I don't know enough details, but I have enough clues to speculate. Broadening out beyond families I actually know well, I realize I know, or know of, quite a few Christian families with 6 or more kids that have ended in tragic divorces. Mel Gibson comes to mind also.

This is a tentative thought, but one I think worth considering carefully. Perhaps there are actually dangers to the absolute 'place everything in God's providence' approach to family planning. Maybe that isn't inherently most sanctifying approach.

I'm leaning toward the view that NFP and self-control can be good in and of themselves. And it isn't just for me individually. It is also in the decisions my wife and I made together. We had to learn to listen to each other, and understand each other, and most importantly consider the needs of the other person. I had to learn to accept that my wife was more committed to avoiding pregnancy at that time than I was. Truthfully she always is more committed to avoiding than I am. In fact, early in our marriage my commitment to avoiding evaporated at about 10:00 every evening and didn't return until 8 or 9 hours later. Learning to really respect, and not just grudgingly tolerate my wife's desire to avoid was extremely beneficial to me. The fact that we were in a more challenging than average NFP situation, having to use special rules and not getting many green non-fertile days was actually a blessing (I'll get in to more ways - probably in the next post).

In fact I will say unequivocally that for men who have been severely affected by pornography, promiscuity and related issues, practicing NFP to avoid is more than just practical, it is a highly beneficial if not essential experience for such men growing up and breaking free from the bondage of sexual selfishness.

The Contraceptive Mentality

Now I'm not sure that a 'contraceptive mentality' is really an issue for a couple actually practicing NFP. I think it's easy to speculate about a theoretical couple that is using NFP but is somehow sinfully rejecting God's intended gifts of a child, or another child in their family. In reality, I don't see how that is going to happen. The fact is that practicing NFP to avoid pregnancy is fairly challenging for a fertile couple. NFP promotes communication, trust and understanding between the spouses. The fact that every month the couple has to decide to have intercourse on fertile days or not I think makes it pretty hard to have a contraceptive mentality. When every conjugal act is open to life, even if the couple is somewhat closed, I think the openness of the acts will lead to openness in the couple. When the reasons for avoiding pregnancy are something short of grave necessity, I think the attitude of opposition will soon be overcome by the openness of the acts.

In my own case, my wife used NFP to avoid for almost 3 years. At that point, if anything we were further away from feeling ready for children than we were when we got married. Our economic circumstances were more uncertain, we were living in a smaller apartment, our bank account was smaller. Yet, we had grown together as a couple, and we had grown spiritually. We had gone through some very uncertain and difficult changes in life and learned that we probably weren't ever going to get to the point where we could be certain of providing the ideal life for children. We decided to take the plunge and trust. And it really required trust. Our combined income was less than half what it had been when we got married. We were living in a one bedroom apartment, and we had one working car. 6 weeks pregnant my wife had complications and had to take leave from work so we lost even more of our income. Yet, we didn't have any problem at that point joyfully welcoming a child into our family.

You know, it all just works out. It isn't always easy. Expect the unexpected. Trust in God, open your heart to Jesus, say a Rosary and live. Life is precious life is sweet. And Babies are the best gifts of all.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Catholic Family Life - In the Bedroom - Part 3

Catholic Family Life - In the Bedroom - Part 1

Catholic Family Life - In the Bedroom - Part 2

Living out God's plan for me and my wife in marriage is the most difficult thing I have ever attempted and stuck with. Practicing NFP isn't an easy thing, and it hasn't been easy in my marriage from day -120 the beginning of our 4 month engagement when we started learning the Creighton Method. Picking up a box of pills or getting my wife a shot of depo provera looks like it would be a whole lot easier. We had at least 8 sessions with our teacher before the wedding, and we were told we really didn't start early enough because we weren't going to be fully trained in time for the wedding.

The honeymoon was a brutal call to mortification. It turns out my wife isn't the text book model case of NFP. She had irregular cycles, strange mucus, later it turned out a progesterone cycle imbalance and the 6 or 7 days of abstinence per month that I expected turned out to be something like 20 or so initially. And the Honeymoon. 10 days, and not one "green" (definitely non-fertile) day. Not what I had planned for my honeymoon.

Not having intercourse on my honeymoon probably saved my marriage. If it hadn't been for NFP, and our uncompromising Creighton Method teacher I honestly believe my marriage would have ended years ago. I would have caused my marriage to fail because without NFP I would have not learned what marriage was about. In my selfishness and my pornographic mentality I would have used and abused my wife as an object.

Bear with me for a minute.

Our most basic human need is a relationship with our Creator. There is nothing we can obtain, possess, experience or receive that will satisfy this need. The very heart of the fall is the precisely the weakness of "falling for" the deceit that something out there will increase our happiness. We become driven to search for more, seeking to increase ourselves, our dominion and our comfort. It also takes the form of attempting assuage our insecurity, fears and uncertainty through reliance on creation and our own cunning and manipulation instead of God.

None of us is ever entirely free from this disease of the soul. Saints and truly holy servants of God practice mortification of the flesh. By abandonment to the Divine Providence, acts of the will, and the corporal works of mercy they seek to be fulfilled in relationship to God. They practice rejecting the lie that some better satisfaction can be found in any other way.

When I refuse to mortify my passions, I lay myself open to the slavery of sin. Quite literally refusing to mortify my desires for more pleasure, security, and comfort coupled with holding onto my fears is the source of all my addictions and my bondage to selfishness. No matter how hard I pursue satisfaction through anything other than God I will always need more and I will always be unsatisfied.

Yet, even though I already know the truth.. It is still easy for me to slip into the belief that just a little indulgence will be better than actually trusting in God. Whenever I find myself in the middle of any one of the 7 deadly sins - that is why I am there. I believe for that moment that I can get more peace and satisfaction and comfort from gluttony, or pride, or lust than God will give me if I just trust in Him. And in the end I will always find that I've been chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There is nothing there.

The path to holiness cannot in any circumstances be found in anything except conforming my will to God's will. Marriage is my vocation, and the path to holiness for myself and my wife. We have promised to love each other, and through our love glorify God and help each other to grow in sanctity. That means that my marriage and family is the primary venue in my life for mortifying my disordered desires and coming to trust more fully in God.

Here's a quote from in article on the Huffington Post blog from just today (my emphasis):

Nobody likes abortion. That is not the question being debated. Prevention, not abortion, is the vastly preferred method of family planning. Abortion is an invasive surgical technique, physically and psychologically traumatic, expensive, and potentially dangerous. Whereas responsible adult sex should be as frequent as desired, unwanted pregnancy should be exceptional rather than routine. Part of the adult responsibility commensurate with having an active sex life is prudent and careful use of contraception. Abortion should not be viewed as a contraceptive given the procedures emotional and physical complications. However, if an unwanted pregnancy occurs, a women's right to choose her own reproductive destiny must be protected.
The abortion issue is ancillary to this discourse, but I leave it in because it makes good context. The only "responsibility" is to try to avoid unwanted consequences - children.

There is the essence of a "contraceptive mentality" (I use the quotes because this is a term we'll need to deal with in a later post). I should have an unrestricted right to enjoy sex and avoid any undesired consequences. It may sound course and extreme and I am positive a nice contracepting Catholic will argue that they love their spouse as much as I love mine and that ..... But that is the deceit. That is the lie. Look at the truth. As I ended Part 2 of this series borrowing from Boettger's Blog:

Contraception was NOT invented to prevent pregnancy as there was already a fully effective way to prevent it which, again, I’m confident all of you are practicing as you read this column: abstinence. Contraception was invented to sterilize the fertile period so that if the urge to have sex were to arise during that period, neither the man nor the woman would need to muster up the energy to deny that urge in the fear of pregnancy.
Contraception serves one and only one purpose: allowing adult sex to be as "frequent as desired" without those pesky unwanted pregnancies. And even this promise is hollow because contraception fails and abortion is necessary as a backup.

Once again, the lie of contraception is that "my marriage will be happier and more satisfying if my spouse and I can enjoy sex at will while managing to avoid the responsibility of having more children." And this is a lie because it is precisely the path of avoiding mortification, seeking to wrest our own happiness and satisfaction from the world and denying ourselves the opportunity to trust in God to provide for us. This is not simply because we should want another child or be open to life. It is primarily because we insist on having it both ways. We refuse to trust God to provide us the capacity to love and raise a child and we refuse to accept that we can live a satisfactory life by mortifying our sexual appetites and seeking to trust in God. This in the end denies the primary purpose of marriage - the rearing and education of children, and the secondary purpose of marriage - helping each other to grow in holiness. To contraception of the conjugal act is to "fall for" the lie of the serpent and believe that there is something better than God.

Back to My Honeymoon

Although I'd fully accepted the Church and had become a pretty active Catholic who accepted the authority of the Magisterium and I was seeking to trust in and follow God's law, I still had (and still have) a lot of growing to do. I'd begun the process of getting free from pornography and everything that goes with it, but I wasn't completely free. With 3 years of sobriety from alcohol and drugs I still hadn't learned much about surrendering my selfishness.

I still had a self centered pornographic mentality with regards to marital sex and my wife. Our Honeymoon forced me, yes forced me to confront that mentality - even though I didn't know it. I remember praying in my frustration, and the thought coming: "Why did you marry this woman?"

Surprise! Surprise! SURPRISE! I didn't marry my wife to have Sex! That's right. I didn't marry my wife to have sex. I married my wife because I love her, and I want to be with her. And no matter how hard things are, it is her that I want to struggle through it with. If something were to happen to my wife or me today that made sex impossible for the rest of our lives, it wouldn't change anything.

I had to learn to trust God in a lot of ways. I learned to trust God that I didn't need to have sex. I learned to trust God that there wasn't some better way to get satisfaction.

It took a while, but I had to learn that my wife is not an object for me to use for my pleasure. In the first few months I did continue to attempt to mold her into my pornographic sex life. It failed miserably. If it hadn't been for NFP I wouldn't have been able to know better, and I would have destroyed my marriage trying to make my wife live up to the fantasies I'd poisoned myself with.

The first three years of our marriage NFP was constantly frustrating. Together we discussed our options, and I certainly thought about the alternatives myself. That moment from the 8th day of our honeymoon stuck with me. Having learned about NFP, and knowing that it is possible to identify when a woman is fertile it became impossible for me to make my wife unnaturally and synthetically sterilize herself so I could use her body without accepting that God had designed her to bring life into our marriage.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Catholic Family Life - in the Bedroom - Part 2

Catholic Family Life - in the Bedroom - Part 1 Another interesting blog post by Boettger

I need to make clear that I am using the term "Natural Family Planning" or NFP very loosely and some will probably object to that. People who know will point out that NFP is 99.7% effective when followed and that NFP is based on observations and the couple communicating and deciding whether they wish to achieve or avoid pregnancy. Just "not contracepting" is not the same as practicing NFP. Sorta kinda following the directions is not practicing NFP. So I know I'm not being really accurate. My reasoning is that NFP or Natural Family Planning is easier to say, and communicates what I mean better than any other term I can think of. The most accurate statement is probably "families who sincerely try to practice Catholic doctrine for marriage" or something like that, and a lot of people who have to deconstruct that to figure out what I meant.

I'm not sure any of the 9 families I'm close enough with to have any inside info on are really practicing NFP. I know two of the couples who are currently pregnant, and another couple with recent twins were seriously charting and planning on avoiding pregnancy. Two of the families in our cohort have actually been practicing the other NFP - NO family Planning, those are the two with 9 and 7 kids. Please pray for both of those families. In each of them one of the spouses is saying enough we need to use NFP and their spouse thinks another 5 or 6 kids is no problem. I should point out that both of these wives are just barely 30, so they could have another 7 conceivably. Also, in one couple it is the husband and in the other couple it is the wife that isn't worried about how many kids they have. This is seriously straining their marriages. The other four couples are somewhere in between and actually practice NFP periodically to space births although they are having large families by today's standards. But even these couples find NFP to be very challenging to practice.

I have to admit also, that for the past 2 years my wife and I haven't really been practicing NFP, we've been practicing AFP - Abstinence Family Planning or maybe CFP - Celibacy Family Planning. That is because for us the abstinence isn't the hardest part of NFP. The observations are the hardest part. And I think this is the problem for the couples that keep getting surprised. If the wife doesn't make good observations, and remember what they are, and remember if she forgot to observe, and honestly admit she forgot and the husband doesn't help record it on the chart there is a great likelihood of a surprise. I'm not about to try to conduct in inquiry with my friends, or accuse them in person, but I'd bet Dollars to Donuts that observations weren't recorded honestly.

My wife and I were originally trained in the Creighton Method of NFP - which I still highly recommend and would suggest over Couple to Couple league and other organizations. What I like about Creighton is that it is very scientific and medically based (not saying sympto-thermal is not scientific or dissing C2CL). Creighton just invests a ton of hours in educating their teachers, and following teachers and clients. Creighton also conducts institutes to train doctors in "Napro Technology (probably another post).

The advantage to me is that the Creighton teacher/coach will really be hard on the client couple. They are trained to ask a series of hard questions at each session and really look for any fudging. It's really about honesty and accountability. If you want to practice NFP seriously, you can't be deceiving yourself and fudging the rules.

Whether you are using the Mucus only method like Creighton or Billings, or the Sympto-Thermo like C2CL, observing the woman's vaginal mucus during the pre-ovulation phase of the cycle is the critical piece of NFP. Creighton teachers stress over and over that observations have to be done every prescribed time with no exceptions or the whole day goes down as a "missed observation" which means you must assume the day is fertile and wait three days of completed observations with no signs of fertility before having intercourse.

This is the part that I know has been toughest for us, and at least a few of our friends. I've heard plenty of "woman talk" about the subject and it seems to be universally agreed that it's a pain. I also think it is the most likely suspect for where some couples might be fudging at least a little.

In my marriage at this time we just can't do this. My wife is working full time (I'm home with kids) and doing graduate school. Even before, she had a hard time remembering to observe every time she used the restroom, and remembering what those observations where. It was always easy for her to get confused with "was that yesterday, or today." Now, with her other focuses, she just isn't able to commit to doing that. And for the same reasons, we really feel the need to avoid pregnancy for another few months at least. Thus, our method is abstinence. It hasn't been Total but I'm a little nervous that others, even close friends would be pretty critical of our decision, since it is pretty extreme.

This post on the moral difference between contraception and NFP just happened to show up today. I like this:

Contraception was NOT invented to prevent pregnancy as there was already a fully effective way to prevent it which, again, I’m confident all of you are practicing as you read this column: abstinence. Contraception was invented to sterilize the fertile period so that if the urge to have sex were to arise during that period, neither the man nor the woman would need to muster up the energy to deny that urge in the fear of pregnancy. It is precisely this truth that opens new horizons of understanding between contraception and NFP. While contraceptive sexual acts risk enslavement to the sexual urge, NFP frees one from the all-too-real threat of sexual addiction through periods of abstinence. This makes NFP not only permissible but even virtuous! After all, one’s ‘yes’ is meaningful only when one has the self-mastery to say ‘no.’ However, this level of self-mastery is impossible outside the grace of God concretely and most powerfully manifested through the sacramental life of the Church! May God be Praised!
I think for families in the past once a certain age and a certain number of children was reached, relatively long stretches of abstinence was probably not that unusual, and I don't think my wife and I have a "contraceptive mentality" for precisely the reason stated in this quote combined with the fact that I know we both are not totally closed to having another child, we just have grave enough reasons at this time that we prayerfully believe that we are doing the right thing by avoiding pregnancy at this time.

I'm not sure what we will decide in the near future. We will still have several concerns about having another, and also we both would enjoy another baby. My wife is now over 40 so there are questions and concerns we haven't considered much in the past. Knowing that the end of our fertility as a couple is in sight brings a little urgency to the circumstances.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Catholic Family Life - in the Bedroom - Part 1

It's not exactly a trend and certainly not a "fad" but by my impression starting about 20 years ago, the modern Natural Family Planning movement began to break back into the mainstream of Catholicism - okay we're still working on that. Anyway, that's when people I know started using NFP.

Now, after 12 years of NFP marriage myself I want to begin sharing some of my thoughts and experience and wisdom with NFP. I think this will be at least 4 parts, and may become an ongoing theme for this blog.

Before I begin - I really want to ask you all to pray for NFP families. Especially three families I know that in their own unique ways are struggling with how NFP is 'working' for them. Praise God for the blessing they have experienced in their families that they would have missed if they had contracepted. But also pray that they remain strong as they face the challenges that have come with those blessings.

My Perception - Where my Friends are after 10 tp 15 years of NFP

My wife and I are close friends with 9 other NFP families that we have known for around the length of time we've been married. We also are more casually acquainted with quite a few other faithful Catholic families. I think that gives me a fairly representative exposure to the experiences, struggles, blessings and opinions that might be common in families that have been using NFP for a decade or so.

Living out an authentically Catholic Marriage in the bedroom is no piece of cake! At this time, 3 of the families in our 'cohort' are expecting, and none of them was intentional. This will be child 9, 7, and 5 respectively for these families. 2 of these families have been actively giving us second hand clothing because they were 'done' - ooops. It's one thing to be 'counter cultural' and pass on many of the luxuries and treats that most families around us take for granted. You get used to not eating out, wearing second had clothes, driving 10 year old cars, camping and staying with relatives for vacations. But.. it gets hard when you have to dig even deeper. When the 8 passenger minivan isn't big enough anymore. When you can't fit the whole family into the dining room at once. When you've taken 2 pay cuts, had your overtime eliminated, had your hours cut, and the house you could barely afford and that felt too small 2 babies ago needs to make room for 1 more. What do you do?

So right now I am praying for my friends. I'm praying because a couple of them sound like they are considering the unthinkable. I'm praying because they are stressed. I'm praying because the financial balance they've been struggling to maintain is looking more and more impossible. And I'm praying for my marriage because our own need to space births for the past # months is being achieved at a cost that may be straining our relationship. I'll get into details of that (vaguely) in another post.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Extremists Perceptions and Perspective

In a despicable and cowardly attack a man named Scott Roemer shot and killed Dr. George Tiller inside his Lutheran Church in Kansas City, KS. It was murder, pure and simple. People are right to condemn Roemer's actions. They are right to condemn this violence. I pray for the family of the victim and for his soul.

This is front page Head line, top of the hour news but not because it was a murder, or even because it happened in a Church. This is lead story news because Dr. Tiller was a focal point in the abortion controversy. Instantly, we are all tittering to find out who did it; we assume it can only be about abortion. Because it is about abortion, this murder is important.

A little perspective.

This week, here in the Northwest a Mother threw her two kids off a high bridge into the Willamette river, killing her 4 year old son while her 7 year old daughter amazingly survived. In another incident a father shot and killed his two kids in a nature preserve. Just tonight a teenage young man was shot and killed in a local park.

A few months ago, a gang member shot another gang member in a local church during a funeral. There have been dozens of shootings and murders in the past year, just in this region.

These murders don't make it past the local news. They don't get national attention. Even the funeral murder didn't get more that a few passing mentions in the wrap up section on the late news.

The perspective? These murders are no more or less wrong, outrageous, objectionable or tragic than the Dr. Tiller murder. Yet 100s of such murders are occurring across the country and it's not cause for every politician to speak out about it.

A Little More Perspective

The news about this murder is because it is wrapped up with abortion, but even more importantly, it's wrapped up with the specter of 'right wing' 'extremist' domestic terrorist anti-abortion protesters.

The perspective? An estimated 100,000 people and 8 Catholic Bishops marched on the mall in the nations capital on January 22, 2009 (here are a few pictures) it was barely covered at all in the national media, and none of the evening news shows carried any video.

Here in the Northwest, on the Saturday before over 7,000 people gathered for 4 hours of prayer, and speaking in Pioneer Courthouse Square in the center of downtown Portland and it got absolutely no coverage - yes you heard me - absolutely no mention in the LOCAL paper or on the LOCAL news. Nada, zip....

A little over a month ago we finished the "40 Days for Life" in 129 cities in the United States with groups praying in front of abortion mills for 12 or 24 hours each and every day for 40 days. How much media coverage did that get? We pray in front of our local Planned Parenthood location one day every week year round and that is never on the news. At literally hundreds of locations across the country thousands and thousands of pro-life warriors pray week after week with no news coverage.

We have a pro-life cenacle rosary group every Thursday with 10 to 30 people attending and thousands of other parishes around the country have pro-life prayer groups. Knights of Columbus groups host hundreds of pro-life events every year.

None of this is ever on the news.

Some Real Perspective

39 people decided to protest at Notre Dame by defying the university and taking their protest on campus. The scenes of their arrest was carried live by the cable news channels and was shown on every national news program for 3 days.

1 man acting alone commits a horrific crime and before any details are known the "anti-abortion extremists" are front and center on the news.

Dozens of prominent pro-lifers issue immediate statements denouncing the murder and the murderer and condemning violence but the one quote Fox news can't resist is the Randal Terry quote.

I Do Have a Point

The point is that people are very bad at putting things in perspective. Virtually everyone is more nervous about flying in an airplane than driving a car - despite the fact that they are much more likely to die in a car accident. People are generally afraid of nuclear power and anything nuclear, but they don't mind riding a bicycle without a helmet, or talking on a cell phone or even texting while driving.

So they form a perception that most "anti-abortionists" are a bunch of kooks. They certainly aren't reasonable like the nice spokespeople for Planned Parenthood.