Catholics aren't supposed to use contraception. I’ll start with that statement, because I realize that every reader who comes across this blog may not know it. I was married in the Church and went through RCIA and I didn’t know that rather basic fact. We’d gone to the Engaged Encounter weekend at a “convent” and that rather simple, important fact, never came up.
I say “convent” because the location of our Engaged Encounter was a place where these rather grumpy nuns lived (we got yelled at for sitting in a hallway working on a workbook as we’d been instructed)… but it didn’t really look like a convent, with the Buddha statues and the Buddhist prayer maze thing… and actually now that I’ve found their site online and looked at their schedule of events, I guess “center” is a much better description.
Anyways, there were some valuable points in our Engaged Encounter weekend. We learned about the importance of praying as a family. And we talked about how much money spent on an item was considered a “big expense” that needed to be talked over before it was made (in our house that would be $10…). But I honestly don’t remember any talk of contraception coming up.
I knew about NFP (Natural Family Planning) from a class I’d taken during college, but I didn’t really understand why Catholics would use it, because that big piece of the puzzle, the knowledge that the Church hadn’t signed off on birth control, was missing.
For those of you who don’t know, NFP is one way that Catholics, after careful prayer and deliberation, are able to postpone pregnancy if they have a serious reason to. NFP uses knowledge of a woman’s cycle and fertile times, through various methods that include temperatures, cervical position and mucus, to determine when a woman is fertile each month. It can have a steep learning curve, but for some couples, once you get the hang of it, it can be difficult to not know when you’re fertile because the signs become hard to miss (not everyone experiences this, but it has been my experience).
The serious reasons I’ve heard given over the years vary widely and go from “we’re living in poverty” to “I’d like to take a big vacation every year and I’d like for each of my kids to have their own room” (I have really heard that second one given…). Because of the difficulty that many people have using NFP, I’d lean towards believing that most people do use it for bonafide “serious reasons” but every time I hear a reason like the one described above, I kind of wince.
NFP can also be used to achieve pregnancy. By knowing when you ovulate you can know which days are best for trying to conceive. And since there aren’t all that many fertile days in a month it can sometimes help couples who have struggled to conceiving do just that.
Now that we’ve gotten my very basic description of NFP out of the way, I’ll finally get down to the point of this post: I’ve become increasingly bothered by a certain way of thinking I’ve noticed over the last couple of years in the online Catholic world. It’s the idea that using NFP and “avoiding” all the time is almost the default position for Catholic couples.
I know that times are tough. Believe me, I know. These days I’m grateful for things like indoor plumbing and warm water. I’d be a horrible person to have on House Hunters because I would literally walk into every single house and say: “This is wonderful… Look, a house of our own honey… I love it!”
But I wish a little less time was given to saying: “NFP is 99% effective at avoiding pregnancy!” and a little more time given to whether or not we actually need to be avoiding. Should most young couples be avoiding when they first walk down the aisle (If you follow the link you’ll find a great article written by Joseph from Defend Us in Battle for a Catholic Dad’s site) ? Is “we need time to get to know each other!” an actual reason (and isn’t “getting to know each other” what dating is for?)?
Occasionally you’ll even run across those in our little Catholic online world who act as if anyone who doesn’t use NFP, and lets children be spaced as they will, is somehow irresponsible. And that really bothers me. NFP is accepted by the Church for use with serious reasons. It is not required. It never has been.
The path we’ve been on regarding these decisions hasn’t always been easy. But I’ll be forever grateful to the now-retired priest who looked at me like I was crazy when I told him our “Serious Reason” (we’d been saving for two years for a two year backpacking trip around the world and were only two and a half months away from leaving when we found out I was expecting). Rather than just cheering that we had decided to use NFP to avoid becoming parents, he examined my concept of “serious” and shook his head.
Eventually, as a result of that conversation/confession, I began to see being open to life in a whole new light and began to truly see life as a blessing. In our case that no longer involves NFP. And I can honestly say that I hope that it doesn't involve NFP ever again. Because it isn't the default path in our lives, it's the in-case-of-emergency-route... it may someday be necessary but I really pray that's it's not.