After one of the talks I gave in Nashville last month, a group of nice young Catholic guys who were, I surmised, discerning the priesthood, came up to chat afterwards and to say thanks for being on campus. We got to talking and one of them in particular was a little taken aback when I enthusiastically expressed my hope for every priest and seminarian in formation to get a basic education from a trained professional (or an experienced married couple) in at least one method of Natural Family Planning.
“But why,” he wondered (sincerely and earnestly, I must say) “would a priest need to know about that…stuff?”
I smiled and started to tick off the reasons one one hand. “Well, for instructing engaged couples, for assistance when giving spiritual direction, for time in the confessional, of course, so that their homilies will be challenging and well informed, so they can walk alongside couples in their suffering and in their joy. Just to name a couple off the top of my head.”
His eyes widened as he nodded his head, “I guess I hadn’t thought about all the ways it could be helpful.”
For parish priests especially, the bulk of their flock will likely be made up of people who are married or will be eventually, so it would serve them well to be prepared to speak on something that is as foundational to marriage as sex and procreation.
Many, many priests with whom I have corresponded or spoken with over the years have reported having little to no formation or formal instruction, if any, on NFP. Is it any wonder that so few Catholics practice NFP when so few pastors have ever spoken of it from the pulpit, let alone in the confessional?
I don’t mean to imply that there are no good priests striving to teach and preach what the Church does on love and marriage. There are! But we need more of them.
Tomorrow morning I will have the privilege of speaking to a classroom full of seminarians, future priests all, God willing. I’ve been invited by their sexual ethics professor to talk about the “lived experience” of NFP, specifically:
“It would be great if you could:
– Offer your testimony.
– Show the different sufferings and difficulties of periodical abstinence/ with the Fertility Awareness Based Methods (NFP) for a couple. Don’t be afraid of making it real. That will be a great preparation for the seminarians.
– Touch on the just causes (psychological, physiological, financial, social) that may make NFP necessary. Why it is good that we (the Church) don’t have a concrete list of situations.
– The blessings of NFP – Even if it is very difficult, it is the only way of living with true love… How NFP has helped you or other couples in their communication… And therefore, why NFP is not “Catholic” contraception.
– Different methods of NFP and contraception.
– Of course your personal experience with couples opposed to NFP
– Experience about how contraception is different…”
So, you know, just the basics. Gulp. I figure I’ll at least have time to touch on what our own experience with NFP has been.
The elevator pitch version goes something like this: get engaged, sit inattentively through CCL (sympto thermal method) classes as part of marriage prep, disregard all charting with joyful abandon and conceive honeymoon-ish baby. Welcome another baby 18 months after that. Nervously learn Creighton (mucus based method) bc postpartum NFP is hell on wheels. Move overseas, change diet and lifestyle radically, conceive “method failure*” Creighton baby. Move back home. Conceive second Creighton baby, this one with some intentionality. Learn Marquette (monitor based method). Successfully postpone for 18 months. Conceive “operator error” Marquette baby. And here we are now, almost 9 years into marriage and coming up on baby number five’s 1st birthday next month.
In sum? We’ve learned – and trial and errored – our way through 3 different NFP methods at this point. Marquette is the clear winner for us, for my physiological makeup, for our circumstances, etc. etc. etc. But we had to keep trying, keep making adjustments, and most of all, keep seeking out help and additional education.
(*None of our children were “unplanned,” or “mistakes.” We are fully aware that the nature of sex is ordered to procreation. That even if all the signs and symptoms point to infertility during a particular time in my cycle, each time we enter into the marital act we do so prepared to welcome new life.)
Fertility awareness based methods of family planning are not for the faint of heart. They aren’t “Catholic contraception,” though as with any human endeavor in this earthly life, they can be used in selfishness.
But they are inherently morally sound.
They require communication, selflessness, patience, sacrifice, continuing education and, yes, chastity. Chastity which is the universal call of every Christian. Chastity which our Church so desperately needs a remedial course in. Chastity which frees us rather than oppressing us, opening up the cramped enclosures of our naturally selfish hearts to be more receptive to the other, to be able to see more clearly the value and dignity of the beloved.
It ain’t easy, that’s for sure. And if you grew up in a family where contraception was the norm, went to public school where the Planned Parenthood sponsored health curriculum was taught from 5th grade on, started taking hormonal birth control yourself as a young teen with “skin problems,” it can sometimes feel like living in an actual alternate reality.
I always like to point out when discussing the current situation of the Catholic Church in America that our pastors were raised in the same cultural milieu we were. If you’ve never heard of NFP until you’re a twenty-something doing mandatory engagement courses in one of the dioceses that actually require NFP instruction, what makes you think that your 60-something pastor who went to Holy Mountain of Mediocrity for seminary in the seventies has ever learned anything about it himself?
We may be starting from a broad baseline of ignorance, in many ways. And it’s good to acknowledge that, yes, the Church has largely failed to transmit this teaching. The Church in the sense of we, the laity, have largely failed to receive this teaching. And the ambient culture has certainly rejected this teaching.
So we have work to do. Let us begin to make progress in supporting the couples who take up the cross of monitoring and consenting to the reality which is their actual fertility, whether it be high, low, or non-existent.
Let us ask more from our pastors, from our bishops, and from the men in formation to become our future priests. Let us take it upon ourselves, as laywomen and men, to continue to delve into the teachings of the rich Christian tradition of marriage and to pray for greater understanding and greater unity with our spouses and with our Lord.
Fathers, we need to hear from the pulpit, in the confessional, and in passing conversation that you understand what the Church teaches about married love, and why.
That you have yourself a basic working knowledge of NFP. That you have resources for your flock, and if you don’t, that you are working to provide them: things like subsidized instruction, free meeting space on church grounds, regular invitations to certified method instructors (multiple methods, please!) to come in and give weekend seminars and postpartum refresher courses for your parishioners. Qualified and orthodox teachers to share the wisdom of Theology of the Body and a basic knowledge of Fertility Awareness with your teens and young adults. Low or no cost babysitting (safe environment certified care providers, of course) for couples who need to learn a new method, or who never learned any kind of NFP at all.
Being a priest in 2018 is, I imagine, no easy row to hoe. We know you’re overworked and underpaid and stretched too thin, and we are profoundly grateful for your yes to Jesus.
We also wish there were more of you.
Teaching Catholic parents about openness to life and the ongoing art of discernment of family size could be a real, practical way to address the vocations shortage in the long haul. It’s no panacea, but it would certainly help.