Relying on Each Other: Catholic couples discuss the realities of natural family planning.

Pope Francis opened the Synod of Bishops on the Family with a call for open and sincere discussion of challenges facing the family, and in many ways, the synod delivered that. Yet transcripts of the testimonies given by the half-dozen married couples chosen to speak at the synod reveal that there was only a cursory discussion of the pastoral challenges involved in couples’ openness to life and of the serious struggles faced by couples who are striving to live out church teaching. The beatification of Pope Paul VI, seen by some as a canonization of his encyclical letter “Humanae Vitae” (1968), can lead to the feeling that all that is needed to foster a culture of life among Catholic couples is a thorough catechesis on the marital and spiritual benefits experienced by couples using natural family planning.

Notably missing from the synod interventions were the voices of faithful Catholic couples who embrace the church teaching on this issue but struggle as they continue to live it out. These couples could offer insight into the real challenges of spouses currently in their reproductive years. Many of these men and women struggle with ambiguous fertility signs, the marital strain of extended abstinence, the complications caused by medical conditions and poor finances, and even unplanned pregnancies, while following all the guidelines for their method of natural family planning.

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For many, these struggles lead to crises of faith, and when they turn to their church communities for answers in handling unanticipated difficulties, they find little help or even understanding. In the past, these couples might have suffered in isolation. But now many have found a place to conduct these discussions on the Internet through blogs, private Facebook groups and other online forums. The members of these communities are well-formed Catholics. Most have read St. John Paul II’s writings on the theology of the body, as well as “Love and Responsibility” and the writings of Christopher West. They embrace the teachings of “Humanae Vitae.” These couples want nothing more than to put into practice the beautiful vision of married love described in church teaching, but they also desire a space to discuss the challenges to living it.

Online Voices Share Real-Life Experience

“A few times I cried myself to sleep over my [natural family planning] chart with my dismayed husband, unsure how to help me. Sex wasn’t an integral part of our sacramental love for each other; it was a rare treat that had to be compartmentalized.” This observation is characteristic of the struggles shared, mostly by women, in these online forums. While abstinence can be a tool for learning discipline, selflessness and communication, extended abstinence presents a serious challenge for many couples who practice N.F.P. Church documents assume that abstinence required in N.F.P. will be fairly short (seven to 10 days per cycle) and fertile periods clearly identifiable. For many, this is simply not the case.

Newlywed couples looking forward to intimacy in married life may discover that their wedding night or honeymoon falls during the fertile time of the woman’s cycle. If they wish to avoid pregnancy, the only option for them is to abstain. Learning marital intimacy takes time, as one woman shared, “Our first awkward attempts at intercourse failed because of my discomfort. Just when we started to figure things out, my fertile signs would appear and we’d have to abstain.”

Newlyweds are not the only ones who feel the chart limits and dictates their lovemaking. Spouses whose work requires extensive travel may find that their time at home together does not match up with the infertile time in their cycles, meaning that couples may regularly miss their window of opportunity to be together. Even couples without challenging work schedules will encounter times when anniversaries, birthdays, vacations or other times especially appropriate for intimate time together do not fall within the infertile period. In time, the responsibilities of raising children may also chip away at couples’ time for intimacy. Faced with this frustration, some couples choose to ignore method rules and then become pregnant in times of hardship.

The postpartum period and breastfeeding also require a high degree of abstinence because of hormonal shifts. The transition to parenthood requires new parents to lean on each other and, ideally, is a time for a couple to grow closer as they face the new challenge of raising a family. Couples using N.F.P. to space their children can find that precisely when they often desire sexual intimacy to remain connected to each other, it is frequently off limits. Many express the feeling that they have to choose between feeding their marriage and the good of their family as a whole.

Additionally, couples share that other factors make it difficult to accurately chart signs of fertility. Stress, irregular sleep schedules (common for new parents or people with variable work hours), certain medications, medical conditions and the transition into menopause make observing patterns in cervical mucus or temperature, both crucial to the N.F.P. process, less clear. Avoiding pregnancy in these situations means accepting extended abstinence, which for many is a damaging burden to their marriage.

Because physical affection is essential to both the partners’ individual physical and psychological well-being and their bonding as a couple, spouses practicing natural family planning in order to avoid a pregnancy are encouraged to maintain high levels of physical affection while abstaining from genital intercourse. But even modest levels of physical affection can lead to arousal, and when that arousal cannot lead to intercourse, many experience frustration. The temptation to seek physical release in illicit ways increases. Husbands and wives may begin to bristle at their spouse’s affection, fearing it to be a near occasion of sin. One woman shared, “As a married couple, we desperately wanted to be together, yet we felt we constantly had to be on guard with each other, just like when we were dating.” Many couples in this situation may consciously or unconsciously scale back on physical affection to avoid temptation. Low levels of physical affection in a marriage, in turn, contribute to increased feelings of disconnection as a couple and to increased levels of stress, anxiety and even depression.

The strain and increasing pressure of prolonged abstinence causes many couples to engage in sexual activities with each other outside of procreative intercourse. This leads some couples to feel guilt and confusion, since these activities are considered immoral, yet may bring much needed closeness in their relationships without the risk of pregnancy. Many couples report that the ban on these activities is the hardest part of church teaching to follow, as well as the hardest to comprehend. One couple shared, “We felt that the teachings which prohibit nonprocreative sexual intimacy also were a burden, as we wanted to be united with one another and bring pleasure to one another; however, we instead had to sacrifice the unitive, as we were not able to take on the procreative.” Another woman shared, “I feel trapped, not free about the rigidity of the rules of marital chastity. I feel that my sexuality, something that I thought was my gift to give to my husband, is limited.”

Physical, Spiritual and Economic Challenges

Health problems also can complicate the use natural family planning. Women with hormone abnormalities often experience complex cycles. While charting can help a woman identify health issues, many women do not have access to health care professionals who are able to provide affordable solutions consonant with Catholic teaching. Second, N.F.P. is especially stressful for couples who know that pregnancy would bring a grave health risk. For example, women who experience health conditions while pregnant or who find that pregnancy exacerbates an unrelated condition must rely on N.F.P. if they wish to morally avoid pregnancy, even if they have found it to be ineffective. In extreme cases, a Catholic woman might use natural family planning to avoid pregnancy because another pregnancy would probably kill her. The only alternative offered by the church is complete abstinence until menopause.

The financial burdens facing many young families raise the stakes for couples practicing natural family planning. In the statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for Labor Day 2014, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said that “meaningful and decent work is vital if young adults hope to form healthy and stable families,” and noted that young adults disproportionately bear the burden of high poverty and unemployment, with an unemployment rate more than double the national average. Many young people find themselves strapped with crippling student loan debt and unable to find decent work.  “It seems that N.F.P. (when practiced to avoid a pregnancy) is something that has far more serious consequences for those of us who are financially unstable,” one woman wrote. “A couple whose head of household makes $60,000 and owns a home with several bedrooms faces far fewer challenges with an unplanned pregnancy than someone such as myself, who has $60,000 of combined student loan debt with my husband, an income of far less, and a tiny apartment. We make just enough to pay rent and buy groceries.”

Promoters of natural family planning cite method effectiveness rates comparable to other methods. But many users are disappointed when, despite diligent adherence to method rules and regular follow-ups with trained practitioners, they find themselves facing an unintended pregnancy. This is a matter of trust. Couples who need to avoid pregnancy should be able to rely on their chosen method. Many feel deceived by the church about the efficacy of natural family planning, and often experience a crisis of faith over whether to continue with natural family planning or go against church teaching and rely on artificial birth control.

More than anything, the couples in these online forums want to be seen and heard by their pastors and their bishops. Many had hoped that their struggles would be discussed during the first session of the synod. Now, in this year between the two sessions of the synod, their hope remains that the synod fathers will consider that for many people, living out this teaching is more stress-inducing than lifegiving. These issues demand not a mere reaffirmation of current teaching, but frank discussion and new pastoral solutions in keeping with Pope Francis’ vision of a merciful church, which walks with people as they face the challenges involved in being family.

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Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
On REAL LIFE This sounds like a rerun of the debate of the sixties when I was in my twenties proving once again the more things change the more they stay the same (of course there was no NFP then only temperature method)...everything here is valuable but let me just comment on the quote below: " N.F.P. is especially stressful for couples who know that pregnancy would bring a grave health risk. For example, women who experience health conditions while pregnant or who find that pregnancy exacerbates an unrelated condition must rely on N.F.P. if they wish to morally avoid pregnancy, even if they have found it to be ineffective. In extreme cases, a Catholic woman might use natural family planning to avoid pregnancy because another pregnancy would probably kill her. The only alternative offered by the church is complete abstinence until menopause." First, it is not clear to me why a woman whose life is at risk by another pregnancy would choose natural family planning instead of tubal ligation, sterilization of male, hysterectomy or some method that would be absolutely fool proof. Since the intent of those who practice natural family planning is also the same (to avoid child birth during intercourse) how are they not separating the unitive from the procreative act as any other method ? Wouldn't it be more logically consistent for the hierarchy to rule that couples should only have intercourse during fertile periods to safeguard the integrity of the unitive and procreative aspects of the act. Second, since only women die at childbirth why is it that only men in the hierarchy get to pronounce what method should be allowed to prevent another pregnancy ? I was pleasantly surprised by this article. The authors laid out the issues in a clear and concise manner. Bravo to Rachel Espinoza and Tawny Horner. One qualification to "only alternative offered by the church:" the church is made up of all baptized into Christ, not just the hierarchy. The couple can listen respectfully to what the authority is saying and then prayerfully make an adult decision based on what is best for the couple and family under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In a few words: follow their consciences.
Abigail Woods-Ferreira
2 years 6 months ago
OK...I don't really have a dog in this fight. I've had "health" reasons to take the Pill since I was a teenager, and I've taken it, all through my celibate college years and 20s, until I was married, and then between my two babies. I'm back on it again now that we are likely "done" actively trying for any more children (though we are always cheerfully open to God's surprises!). Naturally I ovulate, as regularly as an atomic clock every 28 days, and along with it comes a cascade of anemia, horrible cramps, bloating and double digit weight fluctuations, cystic acne, and violent mood swings so bad that when I was 16 a psychiatrist diagnosed me with rapid-cycling BiPolar. The Pill ended ovulation and ended the monthly suffering. I now have stable moods, stable weight, no acne, no anemia, no cramps that keep me home from work. I have never had a single negative side effect. When I went off it to have children, I got pregnant within 2-3 weeks, both times, with healthy baby girls. I would take the Pill if I was celibate. I would take it if I was a nun. I don't take it primarily for birth control - heck, I would happily welcome a surprise baby. But I love the Pill. It has been a great blessing in my life and for my health. I did look up "NaPro Tech" though, because I thought as someone who became Catholic as an adult I should give the whole thing a shot. But the only local practitioners seemed to be some odd group of homeopathic nurses who had links to midwifery, La Leche League, and homebirth on their website. Uhh...no thank you. Support for dangerous "homebirths", obsessive pushiness about breastfeeding, and a negative attitude towards proper medical care in pregnancy told me all I needed to know. I think the so called "Medicalization" of childbirth is one of the biggest advances for women's health in history and has saved millions of lives. Why would I ditch my excellent ObGyn for this? Here is the awful truth - I don't really feel sad about "missing out" on NFP. NFP sounds terrible. And not because it involves asceticism or abstinence - my husband and I have spent a good deal of our marriage, sometimes months at a time, abstinent for health reasons. But the level of obsession with bodily functions, the mucus checking, charting, etc strikes me as being a huge time suck and mental tax, and I can see where for some people it could create a very unhealthy and disproportionate relationship with their body. I just don't have any desire to obsesses with bodily functions or fertility that much. And I'm a Steubenville alum who has yes, yes read Christopher West, Theology of the Body, all off it. And found none of beautiful or convincing - rather it seemed convoluted, abstract, weird, and full of inner contradictions and strange assumptions about married life - especially when contrasted with the happy family I grew up in and the families I have experienced. Perhaps having grown up in a family and community surrounded by very beautiful marriages - Protestant, secular, more liberal Catholic - where contraception was used was kind of a like an inoculation against absorbing any sort of NFP ideology when I was in college. And when I drifted Eastward I found that one can find all of the beauty of Christian teaching on marriage as a Sacrament in Orthodoxy - without the hairsplitting on method of birth control. I've come to develop a habit of cold ambivalence to the Roman Catholic Church on this issue (and it is specifically an institutional Catholic Church issue). Believing it wouldn't change my behavior since my behavior is technically "in line" with the teaching anyway. It would just make me feel better about my relationship with the Catholic Church as an institution. But since my non-acceptance comes from genuinely believing it is not true, accepting it would be lying to myself. It's a mental Chinese finger trap. I'm not sure how spiritually healthy this dissonance is. The only other solution I see as feasible is to become Orthodox or return to Lutheranism and say heck with the Catholic Church. But I have relationships here, in this communion, and I have come to love her. I can't say I'm happy with this status quo, but I'm not sure what else is possible.
Nancy Sandrock
2 years 6 months ago
Again Abigail, you must read this. You are incorrect. https://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2013/12/09/murder-before-conception/
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
delete
Paul McAvoy
2 years 6 months ago
What’s missing from this article is a fair and balanced discussion of NFP and the goods that it can bring. The authors also pass over the theological reasons for the teachings – namely, that if sex is supposed to be procreative and unitive, than any act that separates those functions reduces the fullness and dignity of the sexual act. Instead we get many paragraphs on how unworkable NFP is. I disagree. “Well, that’s you’re experience, but mine is different” you may be tempted to reply. To which I’ll say, “Well, the people interviewed here are talking about their experience, and mine is different.” We’re left at an impasse if that’s our approach. The truth is NFP can be, and is, difficult – but so can many other aspects of marriage. A cancer diagnosis, a sick child, mental illness, an accident – all of these things can negatively impact a marriage. Should we dismiss the institution based on less than ideal experiences? There are many hardships and crosses to bear, and I do not say that glibly or lightly. But if we only focus on the difficulty, and the suffering, then we miss the redemption. As someone who was very (VERY) unconvinced about NFP when I first heard about it, I understand the initial skepticism. As someone who has had difficulty figuring out the signs and fertility times, I understand the frustration. But that doesn’t take away from the beauty of the marriage vocation as outlined by the Church or the responsibility we’re called to as part of that vocation. I’m fortunate to know many couples who embrace the teaching, and have grown in love and holiness because of it – even though, at times, it can be hard. They can be a great resource for when the going gets tough, bringing realism and understanding to the conversation, without outright rejection. I only wish the discussion in this article included some dispatches from that lived experience.
Abigail Woods-Ferreira
2 years 6 months ago
That lived experience which you claim as yours has been heard over and over again in the Church and been amplified far beyond its proportion. This article is about another lived experience, one which is far more common and which is frequently silenced, or spoken of only with online pseudonyms or in dark, quiet private conversations. This is an opportunity to listen to the experiences of others and make space for them. Also, as someone who has a spouse with cancer, I find drawing a parallel between that experience and NFP to be ridiculous. NFP is a lifestyle choice, a discipline you impose on yourself, no matter what kind of abstract theology or external authority you use to justify that choice. You can, in reality, stop using NFP (if you are affluent and live in the first world, that is) and reap the benefits of modern birth control whenever you want. When the struggle gets to be too much or too pointless you can decide you don't believe in that anymore or claim the mercy of God and move on. Many do. Cancer and most of the other struggles of marriage are not a choice. They are real. There is no out. They are there whether you believe in them or not. They are the "in sickness and in health" and they have no other solution but sacrifice and endurance. You can't choose to dissent from cancer. You can't decide to join a church that doesn't believe in cancer because you have decided cancer is stupid. You can't fail to embrace cancer and then go confess it to your priest. Cancer, sick children, accidents - that is REAL stuff. If your birth control method is hurting your marriage, re-evaluate it and move on. If it hurts your marriage and you decide to stick with it anyway, then that is on you and your conscience. That's a marriage struggle you impose on yourself by choice. Even Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have spoken against the idea that people need to martyr themselves for Humanae Vitae and hinted that it is about big principals, not the casuistry of individual cases. No one chooses to have cancer, or a sick child, or a devastating accident. Your comparison of those things shows just how much the NFP obsession has distorted conversations about marriage among some Catholics, far away from the lived reality of most marriages.
Paul McAvoy
2 years 6 months ago
To begin with, I am truly sorry for your husband’s diagnosis – I certainly didn’t mean to minimize your pain or what you’ve been through. The point I was trying to make (rather imperfectly) was that life – and elements of marriage – contain suffering, and if something is worth doing then it’s worth doing in spite of difficulties and challenges. Are some difficulties worse than others? Yes, of course. Drawing the example was not meant to imply equality. I agree that we should listen to people who have had difficulty with living out the Church’s teaching on contraception – but I do not think those conversations have been silenced. There is no lack of articles or published opinions highlighting the “absurdity” of the Church’s teaching. There are very few discussions that, in my view, give a fair shake to the issue by recognizing both the difficulties and the benefits of it.
Abigail Woods-Ferreira
2 years 6 months ago
They have very much been silenced, and there is a lack of published articles dealing articulately with the issue because questioning the Church's teaching has been so viciously stigmatized by self-styled "faithful" Catholics for the past generation. NFP has been given a fair shake in many, many places. It's time for other voices to be heard publically and openly, somewhere other than in anonymous threads at Women in Theology and Caelum et Terra, or behind closed doors in private, hushed conversations. I fully agree that things that are worth doing are worth suffering for. Absolutely. But is NFP is worth suffering for, to the point of doing real damages to a marriage? I do not think it is. Many figures in the Church's hierarchy who think the attempt is worthy don't even seem to think it is worth great suffering over; the idea that one should be a martyr for Humanae Vitae seems to be something that came out of Christopher West and a certain Theology of the Body devotional niche, not the actual teaching emphasis of the Church. I think putting NFP at the center of marriage that way turns NFP into an idol and cheapens the overall dignity and complexity of marriage. As someone who who values marriage very much and was raised in a community and family where marriage was deeply valued and beautifully lived, one of the things that has always turned me off to NFP is how it distorts priorities in marriage and becomes a disproportionate emphasis that overshadows the deeper dignity of marriage and parenthood. I don't think NFP is "too hard", but that putting the birth control issue at the center of Christian ethics and spirituality on marriage doesn't value marriage and the spouses enough and distorts their priorities and discernment process. Much of the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox commentary I've encountered on this subject also makes this connection between hairsplitting on birth control method and undermining the dignity of the couple and the larger meaning of marriage. And nothing I have ever learned or known about who Jesus is has anything to do with what method we use to manipulate our fertility to avoid conception. Jesus did, however, say that "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." I think he would also say "NFP was made for man, not man for NFP." Jesus was merciful and attended to the concrete experience of the person and the interiority of the law and our intentions, not to the exterior and logical gymnastics we go through to maintain the appearance of following it's letter while undermining its spirit. I think Jesus would weep for those who take NFP and Humanae Vitae so seriously they do damage to their marriages and their children, and I think he would condemn as he did the Pharisees those who shame them into doing so or exclude them from communion for refusing to play the game. Edit: Perhaps I've been a little snarky and contentious here, and unnecessarily so. I don't mean to put down those who genuinely find NFP useful or uplifting. I think anything that can be meaningful for marriage is good. But what I take issue with is when it becomes central or pharisaical. I think most practicing Catholics - and Christians in general - want the same thing for marriage and society; we want children to be always welcomed and valued, sexuality to have dignity and moral guidelines within the context of life giving commitment, and sacrifice and asceticism to be understood as a central part of growing in Christ through the marriage vocation and supported pastorally in the Church. When NFP supports this, I think it is great for couples. But I think too often NFP becomes about itself, and turns into a source of disunity both within individual marriages and within the larger church. I don't think NFP is *necessary* to achieving the above things, nor do I think discerning and prayerful use of other forms of contraception is contrary to them.
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
"I think putting NFP at the center of marriage that way turns NFP into an idol and cheapens the overall dignity and complexity of marriage. As someone who who values marriage very much and was raised in a community and family where marriage was deeply valued and beautifully lived, one of the things that has always turned me off to NFP is how it distorts priorities in marriage and becomes a disproportionate emphasis that overshadows the deeper dignity of marriage and parenthood. I disagree with the Church's teaching not because it is "too hard" but because it doesn't value marriage and the spouses enough and distorts their priorities and discernment process" The above quote says it all in my opinion and here are a few examples off the top of my head that are deeply personal and close to home. My mother was very fertile in her twenties. She had five babies and loved them but one day her youngest fell in a tub of scalding hot water while she was in another room preparing to take a bath. The child died that evening. My mother never had another baby. I remember asking my father once, as he sat silently staring at an empty crib, if we were going to have another child. He answered, "no, it is too hard on your mother." My mother and father did not go to communion. I asked my mother once why she didn't go and she said, "I holler too much." This was a woman who never missed the Miraculous Medal Novena on Tuesday night. She started this novena as a promise she made for the healing of her son who had epilepsy. My parents are both now deceased but their marriage lasted till they died. I think my mother had a tubal ligation and was probably advised that she had committed a sin and could not go to communion. (If Pope Francis happens to call I will advise him to canonize them both as the saints that they are.) My wife was advised after two difficult pregnancies and two Caeserean deliveries not to have any more children. We did not remain celibate. After two attempts at the temperature method which were interrupted by deaths in the family, one morning, I took the thermometer out of my wife's mouth and smashed it. One of my most adult decisions I believe. A young woman I know overcame cancer and married and has two beautiful girls. She is not having more children because of fear that cancer may return. I asked my sister once why she only had one child and she answered that her Vietnam veteran husband was unstable and could not handle children. Later that same husband took my sister's and his own life, leaving his one daughter to deal with the reality. This is the marriage reality that NFP ignores. I have respect for people who practice NFP, especially the women who are the only ones who can deliver a child. The problem is that many of those who practice this form of birth control are the first ones to throw Humanae Vitae in the face of anyone else who uses another form and preach the integrity of the unitative and procreative act of intercourse. By the way, non-rational animals always keep the two aspects together to increase and multiply. Humans are of a higher species of animals, blessed with prudential reason. Again I reiterate the false and ambiguous use of the word Church. The People of God and their experience and inspiration by the Holy Spirit should not be excluded as church in this conversation. This too is Catholic Dogma. Read Lumen Gentium. And I agree with comment below expanding the use of the word Church to all ecclesial realities. St. Paul had the broadest definition....'anyone who says, Jesus is Lord."
Abigail Woods-Ferreira
2 years 6 months ago
I think we also need to expand the word "Church" to include Christians who are not Catholic - Lutherans, Evangelicals, Anglicans, Orthodox. These Christians all came to much different conclusions about the meaning of marriage and sexuality when the issue became prominent in the early 20th century. The Orthodox in particular have, even by Roman Catholic standards, a valid apostolic tradition with much different conclusions on marriage. My parents wanted a big family - four to six kids. They thought even numbers were good and had generous intentions. They ended up having three children. My sister was a horrible, dangerous pregnancy, and after she was born my parents discerned that they were not being called to have any more children, that additional pregnancy would be dangerous at worst or compromise their ability to parent the children they had at best. It was a sad and humbling decision to come to. But as one of their children I am glad they not only felt free to make that choice (which was certainly right for our family) but also that they were able to utilize the medical means that worked best for them. I learned from both my parents that the primary end of marriage is the unity of the spouses. They have both been clear about this. The bearing and raising of children comes from unity but it doesn't justify it. The bearing and proper raising of children is, in fact, only possible in a home where the spouses put their unity first. By demonstrating the primacy of their unity in all ways, they were a witness for me. By being unified, they also provided a beautiful and stable home for us, their children. Modern birth control helped to make this possible. NFP and letting an abstract connection to the "procreative" aspect dominate their intimate life might have strained their unity and undermined their ability to be emotionally and spiritually life-giving towards the children they already had. God already distinguishes the unitive and procreative aspects of sex in the way he created us. All methods of contraception, including, NFP, take advantage of or manipulate this God given separation, some more easily and effectively than others. While this should not be abused to exclude children from a marriage or for selfish means, I think most Christian couples can be trusted to responsibly discern how to use the knowledge and many technological advances God has given us through our reason to plan families in a way that helps us to fulfill all our responsibilities with integrity, without having contraceptive method micromanaged by very abstract and questionable principles.
Martin Eble
2 years 5 months ago
There is nothing false or ambiguous in the use of the word “Church”, as Lumen Gentium clearly points out. The Church is hierarchical, led first by apostles sent by Jesus as He Himself had been sent by the Father, then by their successors the bishops, and in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. Lumen Gentium reaffirmed the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, and the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God. "In contemporary usage, the term 'Church' has come to include a variety of meanings, which, while true and consistent, require greater precision when one refers to the specific and proper functions of persons who act within the Church. In this area, it is clear that, on questions of faith and morals, the only subject qualified to fulfil the office of teaching with binding authority for the faithful is the Supreme Pontiff and the College of Bishops in communion with him. The Bishops are the ‘authentic teachers' of the faith, ‘endowed with the authority of Christ,' because by divine institution they are the successors of the Apostles ‘in teaching and in pastoral governance': together with the Roman Pontiff they exercise supreme and full power over all the Church, although this power cannot be exercised without the consent of the Roman Pontiff." https://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFADTU.HTM Christian sects neither participate in its governance nor do they share in its teaching authority. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html
Ana Vago
2 years 6 months ago
Thank you Abigail. You are telling the truth, so no apologies are needed. The vast majority of couples, of Catholic women, realize that the teaching on NFP is so flawed that there is little real decision to make - choose the method of family planning that best supports the couple, the marriage, and the family. For some it might be NFP. For about 90% it is not. In reading the Catholic press and the bulletins in churches, you never find even a whiff of honesty on the part of those who promote NFP - not because it builds the marriage but because the celibate males who run the church have told them it's the only moral choice for family planning. I have heard so many stories like those told in this article. Congratulations to America for running this. For the first time that I remember in reading this journal for several years, an honest account of the challenges and potential damage to marriages of well-meaning couples who dutifully use NFP has been published. Perhaps the atmosphere of fear about publishing articles such as this is dissipating under Francis. Avoiding the truth of NFP does not do the church any good. It is a flawed teaching and the church should simply bless the right of married couples to choose the method that best supports their individual circumstances in their marriages.
Nancy Sandrock
2 years 6 months ago
Whoa Nelly ! The Eastern Catholics and Orthodox absolutely DO NOT believe in artificial forms of birth control. I am sure there are individual dissenters out there just as there are plenty of Latin Rite dissenters, but that does not change the teaching of the church. Here is a recent article from the Orthodox to illustrate. The Eastern Rites are the same (My family is Ruthenian ) https://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2013/12/09/murder-before-conception/ ALL forms of hormonal contraception are abortifacient, as are IUD's. Which is just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to issues and problems caused by artificial methods of birth control. After being married for 34 years, I can vouch for NFP being difficult at times, but you can't blame the methods for your decision to have sex or not. The methods only tell you if it is a day of fertility or not. If you choose to use the day, than that is your decision. If someone is having difficulty interpreting their cycle, there are lots of different NFP methods available that might be a better choice to use. Lets not also forget that we are called to abstinence only for serious or grave reasons. As one commenter pointed out, it is not to be used as birth control. Anything that is worthwhile is worth sacrifice, children and marriage are no exceptions.
Abigail Woods-Ferreira
2 years 6 months ago
Nancy: Almost all mainstream Orthodox Theologians who have written or spoken on the topic - Evdokimov, Harakas, Meyendorff, Hopko, Zafiris, Constantelos - accept that artificial contraception is acceptable to some degree (though they differ on reasons and range of circumstances, with Thomas Hopko probably being the most conservative in restricting it to dire circumstances). Most Church bodies - such as the OCA and the Greek Orthodox Church in the US - state the acceptability right on their websites. A few Eastern Catholic bishops are well known for their support of a more Eastern approach to the issue, also, notably the Melkite Patriarch at Vatican II and Archbishop Joseph Raya. I'm doing my MA thesis on Eastern Christianity and spirituality of marriage, though my focus is on gender and asceticism, not birth control. However, I've encountered the same qualified and careful acceptance of artificial birth control - if it is used with discernment and not to exclude children altogether from marriage - over and over and over again. I think it is important to remember in all Christian discussions about method of birth control that no one is advocating for promiscuity, no one is rejecting the importance of sacrifice in marriage, and no one is denying the value of life or the incredible joy that children bring to marriage. Using any method of birth control, including NFP, is, for a Christian, is an occasion of sadness and concession to the circumstances of life and human limitation. In a perfect world, we could all have 10 babies with no financial, health, or social problems compromising our ability to be good parents to them all. But we don't live in a perfect world, and while having a large family can be a glorious Christian witness to the value of simplicitiy and generousity, against the materialism of our society, there are also circumstances when continuing to have children you can't reasonably care for or that might physically endanger their mother is tempting God and stealing life from the ones you already have. This is a discernment to be made by each couple with a spiritual guide. All that is being niggled over is method. I think the brief words of Patriarch Maximos IV of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem at Vatican II have an incredible wealth of beauty in them, in their simplicity and respect for both the dignity of marriage and Christian freedom: “The Church does not penetrate into the nuptial chamber. She stands at the door.”
Gerald Jansen
2 years 6 months ago
I am a practicing agnostic. I was born into a catholic family and attended a Catholic High school and one year at Seattle University, taught by Jesuits. The church has always ruled, not guided, through fear, guilty and power. The current pope is a breath of fresh air. However, i don't believe he will be able to eliminate the corruption and abuse of power that has existed in the church for about 1600 years. In approximately 400 ad women were denied equality in the eyes of the church. In the middle ages education was denied the masses. In the feudal era the church held sway over Kingdoms. This same church today still controls its "flock" the sheep of the world, through fear of sin that is man made. N.B.C makes no sense, given our knowledge, given science. Children, are not gifts from god as I was taught. They are a result of a biological act, an act the can be motivate by hormones or love or both. That act should be confined to marriage. However, the church/god should have no say in when. Until the sheep of the world begin to think for themselves the church will to continue to control the flock and profit from it.
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
Were only NFP couples invited to be auditors at the last Synod in Rome ? If so and I believe from this article we can surmise, the answer is yes; that in itself speaks volumes. We hear so much these days about supporting our troops. How are soldiers who come home after many months overseas supposed to deal with NFP on a two week leave. I met someone in our parish like this recently. He has children and maybe he thinks it is best not to have more. What is he supposed to say: " honey I am home. What's that! We cannot have sex because it is time for us to abstain for a few days according to the consistency or lack thereof of the mucus in your vagina ?" Good Grief !!!
Theresa Notare
2 years 6 months ago
Although the topic of the difficulties of NFP use among some couples is currenlty under the public spotlight (e.g., the book "The Sinners Guide to NFP," various blogs, the current edition of Family Foundations, this opinion piece, etc.), there are a number of problems with this article. To begin, the authors demonstrate no knowledge of the support of NFP couples that currently exists in many (not most) Catholic dioceses of the United States. Where a strong diocesan NFP program exists, there is plenty of support for couples having difficulties with NFP use. That said, in this Internet generation, I wonder why the couples who are experiencing difficulties don't rush to find help on-line? The American NFP national providers, for example, have the resources to help such couples. In fact, the Marquette Model of NFP (Milwaukee), has become a real "go to" provider for difficult cases. Secondly, to the real but broad issue of the weaknesses of some NFP methods, why do the authors think the Church holds the answer to this conundrum? There are many competent NFP scientists who are currently working on trying to simplify as well as strengthen NFP methods, but they are in the minority. Why not put the public pressure on getting the health care community to invest in NFP research? And, happily, when the Church is able, I can testify to its assistance of NFP researchers and educators--we are still trying to assist where we can! In any case, the Church supports NFP as an ethical tool to live out God's design for married love. The role of the Church is to preach Christ crucified and risen from the dead. Part of that salvation history is God's original plan for the human person, marriage and family. The Church needs to find ways in which to help people live these truths. It should therefore make sense that the only effective thing a Synod of Bishops can do on this point is to "urge" people of science to continue to work on improving such methods. The other stance the Synod can take is to urge clergy and lay leaders involved in catechesis and marriage ministry to more effectively teach clearly and compellingly about God's vision of the human person, human sexuality, and married love and be clear about the immorality of contraception.
Douglas Fang
2 years 6 months ago
“The immorality of contraception” – What is so immoral about contraception? – After all, NFP is just another form of contraception, albeit the most convoluted form of contraception. If it is so natural, why do you need an army of scientists to “ work on trying to simplify as well as strengthen NFP methods”? Sexual desire is one of the most basic instincts of mankind. Married couples have sex because sex brings about pleasure and because they love each other. Sexual pleasure becomes immoral if it is outside the context of marriage and love. As a biological entity, a person seeks all kinds of pleasure. Do you feel guilty if you enjoy something material like good food, especially steak or lobster, the kind of food that requires the tremendous amount of natural resources? Similarly, should we feel guilty when we wear fancy clothing and jewelries, driving fancy cars, living in fancy houses, drinking fancy wines, etc? All of these are not necessary to survive and yet most of us are working very hard to obtain these things. Even the Church hierarchy seems fall prey to this desire for material things. Do you remember the story of bishop “Bling”? Do you remember the story of many Archbishops in America that have to apologize for living too large? Condemning sexual acts for married couples as immoral without the intention of procreation is a complete ignorance of human nature. Again, NFP itself is practiced by married couples without the intention of procreation.
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
Anyone who has been raised with love knows that the greatest blessing that God can give a couple is a child, one or more than one, even many, In one of its Documents, Vatican II points out that children contribute to the holiness of their parents. (What parent doesn't know that, LOL ?) This should not be lost in this discussion. And not every couple is blessed with a child through biological birth. Many are blessed through adoption. Some are blessed through in vitro fertilization. Even lesbian couples may have a child through in vitro through a donor. Gay couples can also adopt.Some are blessed as single and/or divorced parents. All of these forms of becoming parents are a great gift of God. My family and many families in the church have been blessed through all these means. Praise God from whom all blessings flow !
Bill Mazzella
2 years 6 months ago
The reason Paul VI went against his own appointed commission of birth control in HV was because of the deviousness of Cardinal Ottaviani who lied to the pope and told him the panel was equally divided which it was not. John Paul II was on that commission and came out against birth control ( His litmus test for bishops was that they had to support Humanae Vitae. Thus giving us the worst bishops in the history of the church.) The great Catholic mother Pat Crowley who spoke about birth control the way Abigail and others have done here, led that commission which was overwhelmingly in favor of artificial birth control. Crowley spoke of many women who suffered terribly with NFP. Besides deceiving Paul VI Ottaviani told him that he could not decide in favor of birth control because it would go against Casta Connubi in which Pius XI declared birth control immoral. As if that would affect the credibility of the church. Ottaviani's reason was/is seriously flawed as many popes have made mistakes in their encyclicals, apostolic constitutions etc. I give you Boniface Viii, and other popes, who declared that the pope was the ruler over all secular governments as well as the spiritual world. The other hypocrisy of Benedict XVI and others is stating that this matter can be settled in the "internal forum." In other words it is no big deal. You can confess it and all is well. Thus assuring that Catholic couples have endless guilt and humiliation when they are solicitous about doing what is right.
Mike Escril
2 years ago
This account is 100% false. Pope Paul VI went into the debate over birth control OPPOSED to reversing the ban. He did not think there was a theological justification for any contraception, but especially The Pill. The birth control pill was the one area that was new as opposed to other methods. That would be the only approved method IF and ONLY IF Casti Connubi was not threatened. The Catholic Church was not going to admit that the Protestants were correct when they OK'd birth control in 1931 at the Lambeth Conference. As Fr. Ford and Germain Grisez have documented, the committees were stacked with birth control reformers and a lack of theologians. So support for reform was not surprising. But this was not a popular vote -- the committees had to make the case to Paul V1. They did NOT. The early leak of the so-called "Majority Report" to sympathetic press in the U.S. helped lead many to think that a change was coming. It was not. Germain Grisez has recently released documents that prove what went on in Rome in the 1960's is not what many have written since.
Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
The authors correctly note that the only moral alternative in this difficult situation is complete abstinence until menopause according to teaching which was set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2). A Catholic is seriously obliged to form a conscience which conforms to the Church's teaching. Therefore if a Catholic is aware of the Church's teaching, a decision - prayerful or unprayerful - to disregard that teaching is a decision to sin, and the attempt to form a conscience contrary to the Church's teaching constitutes a second sin. Invoking the name of the Holy Spirit as a fig leaf to cover these sins, as though the Spirit would bless the decision to disregard the Church's teaching, is a third sin of blasphemy. Being a moral Christian is a hard path, at times requiring heroic virtue. Sexual abstinence is a difficult cross to bear, but it does not rise to the level of being fed to lions, burned at the stake, imprisoned in a North Korean gulag, crushed under rocks, or any of the other heroic sacrifices other Christians have been called to make. God always provides the grace to follow his commandments.
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
It is church teaching that even an erroneous conscience must be followed if sincere...
Martin Eble
2 years 5 months ago
The actual teaching can be found in Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis humanae, and is summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed. 1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits. The Church has with extreme clarity from the infallible Deposit of Faith consistently taught, reaffirmed in Humanae Vitae, and over and over again reiterated that artificial interference with the reproductive act is intrinsically sinful. http://americamagazine.org/issue/who-am-i-lead#comment-72478 If one chooses to purposely ignore this teaching, and malform the conscience accordingly, the conscience is not “sincere” (as would a pagan or Protestant’s conscience be, unaware of the Church’s teaching in their invincible ignorance), the sin remains, and an additional sin is committed by purposely misinforming the conscience. As Lumen Gentium taught: “All the Church's children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.”
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
Martin, my brother, the guilt machine was put into storage with Vatican II, a pastoral council without one anathema sit....you need to get on board with what Pope Francis calls The Joy of the Gospel. "All the Church's children: some have chosen to become adults and that also can be a "special grace of Christ" as well. To your point...to say someone who follows his own conscience is responsible for his erroneous conscience is the kind of thing that makes people leave and avoid the Catholic Church. On the one hand you quote 1790 giving conscience the support and taking it back with the other hand quoting 1791. In your mind 1791 trumps 1790 in all cases. This is nothing but the Pharisees attacking Jesus. Is that your intention ?
Martin Eble
2 years 5 months ago
The material quoted was Vatican II and post-Vatican II. Humanae Vitae was post-Vatican II. It is the Church which teaches that you can be responsible for your erroneous conscience, not your brother Martin. It should give you pause that over and over that with which you are in conflict is in the Church’s teaching documents. If being told the truth causes people to leave the Church, then they should leave the Church. That is more honest than sinning and pretending sin is virtue. What you have described is jamming your fingers in your ears as to the Church’s teaching and its authority, choosing instead some erroneous concoction from Charles Curran or similar heretic, perhaps with a Richard McBrien seasoning, bending your conscience to conform to the error, and then feigning righteousness. That would not be the course of action I would advise for someone I care about, and whose eternal salvation is important to me. It is not consistent with Catholic teaching. It is not a wise course of action. I have commented because you are promoting this error, presenting it as a “Catholic” solution to a difficult moral problem. It is not.
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
Most heretics in the history of the Catholic Church have been the rigid moralists like Tertullian or who have forced logic to its extremes like Arius. You remind me of both. Heresy comes from the Greek meaning to choose. To choose one truth to the exclusion of all others. To use one arrow in the quiver and neglect the others. To confuse the part for the whole as you do Brother Martin by continuing to refer to Church documents out of context with the total Christian message. We are nether intimidated nor amused by your Pharasaical comments. One word you studiously avoid in your comments is the word love on which the whole Christian message is based. God is Love. Jesus said love for God and neighbor summarizes the whole moral law. Who are you to put Law above the Love of God ?
Martin Eble
2 years 5 months ago
Let us parse your argument. You equate Paul VI with Tertullian and Arius, calling him a “rigid moralist”. It is worth pointing out Jesus Himself would also fit your definition. You purposely and consciously disregard a very clear teaching of the Church with a wad of pseudotheology, and then attempt to take the curse off it by using an argument that led Curran and others to have their Catholic credentials canceled. You assiduously avoid citing passages from the Church’s teachings to support it because there are none. http://www.consciencelaws.org/religion/religion040.aspx Your argument is with the Church, with Paul VI, and with the ordinary Magisterium teaching from the infallible Deposit of Faith, rather than with me. As Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae: "Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter - only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man."
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
No Paul VI was certainly no heretic. The notion that Jesus fits my definition of heretic...well even brother Martin knows better. I am waiting for your response to Jesus who said the entire commandment is found in the doctrine to love God and love your neighbor as yourself....God is Love.
Martin Eble
2 years 5 months ago
Jesus said "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." The extent and depth of teaching of the Church that your position is untenable as a Catholic one is so overwhelming that I feel no further need to expound on the matter.
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
Jesus said: why do you point to the splinter in your neighbor's eye...rather take the beam from your eye...(or something like that ). I asked you for your credentials Martin and you could provide none. You are a self appointed interpreter of official documents of the Catholic Church. Good luck on that.
Martin Eble
2 years 5 months ago
Rather than being a "self appointed interpreter of official documents of the Catholic Church", I have merely quoted them directly and cited their plain meanings and official interpretations. The ability to read and write high school level English is sufficient for that. Your argument with the Church. Your argument is with Paul VI. Your argument is with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Your argument is with the Bishops of Canada. Your argument is with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Your argument is with John Paul II. Your argument is with John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, John the Faster, and with Caesarius, all of whom considered artificial interference with conception murder. Your argument is with Patriarch Athenagoras who stated his full agreement with Pope Paul VI: “He could not have spoken in any other way.” Let us not pretend that there is any other Catholic position than the Church's teaching in Humanae Vitae or that one can morally form his conscience in opposition to the Church's plain and binding teaching. If you wish to disobey the Church, be the man about it and do it without this mincing and equivocating.
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
No doubt all the sources you mentioned above are smarter and holier than I. In that we agree. But not one of them will be asked to answer for me at the final judgment. That will be my responsibility and I accept it relying on and hoping on the mercy and love of the one who in His goodness created me.
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
Charles Curran is a holy priest in good standing with his diocese who has devoted his life to teaching moral theology. Richard McBrian, God rest his soul, devoted his life to teaching the Catholic Faith. I know in attacking them you are just repeating the ideology you learned in Nebraska but it would be helpful if you could tell us where you got your degree in theology and if you have published any books on the same subject. To paraphrase Shakespeare, even the devil can quote the documents of the church to his own advantage.
Martin Eble
2 years 5 months ago
Charles Curran is a material heretic who, after a two-decade battle with Catholic University, was forced out in 1986 as a dissident against the Catholic Church's moral teaching thanks to a decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that he was unfit to teach Catholic theology. Banned from teaching in a Catholic institution, he took employment at a Methodist university from whence he continued his attacks on the Church, its teachings, and its institutions. Richard McBrien’s major publication, “Catholicism”, had its imprimatur removed when he refused to make needed corrections ordered by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops in order for it to accurately present Catholic teaching. A legend in his own mind, his heterodoxy was a matter of record. I appreciate where and from whom you formed your impressions of Humanae Vitae, the proper formation of conscience, and the authority of the Church and am sure you will recognize the author of the statement that "spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the value and sacredness of marriage.” And that sort of youthful misdirection is the source of your conflict with the Church.
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
What the hell is a "material heretic" ? Put that damn guilt machine away brother Martin. And stop diagnosing others. You have no right to do that.
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
Brother Martin writes: "If being told the truth causes people to leave the Church, then they should leave the Church. That is more honest than sinning and pretending sin is virtue." Could there be a more anti-Catholic statement that that one. Notice the bottom line is he cannot quote any Church document for that deeply un-Christian position. But St John writes if anyone says he is not a sinner, then he is a liar. That sinner stuff includes brother Martin, does it not? Should that mean he should leave the church. I hope not.
Paul Ferris
2 years 6 months ago
There are so many errors in Mr. Eble's analysis below I don't know where to start. Have a nice day Martin.
Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
A mere 204 words, with two very clear teaching documents to parse - Lumen Gentium 25 and Humanae Vitae - would be child's play were there any "errors" beyond repetition of what the Church itself has to say on the topic. http://americamagazine.org/issue/who-am-i-lead#comment-72349
Joseph Keffer
2 years 6 months ago
Thank you to these authors for a truly honest and candid portrayal of the realities imposed on the faithful by the eroneous teaching of Humanae vitae. I refer readers to another excellent and detailed recent My 18 article by Peter Steinfels (former Religion correspondent for the NY Times) in Commonweal entitled Contraception and Honesty. It is a telling story of the dishonesty of the teaching magisterium with regard to this subject. As a physician, I have searched for credible research as to the efficacy and reliability of NFP and it is lacking.
Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
http://americamagazine.org/issue/who-am-i-lead#comment-72349
Paul Ferris
2 years 5 months ago
I just downloaded on Kindle a book called A Sinner's Guide to NFP by Simcha Fisher . In the first 'few pages the author reveals she has had nine children in fifteen years and hopes to have more while she is still fertile. The book purports to tell the unvarnished truth about NFP meaning how difficult it can be. Really ? I will not be reading the rest of the book, not to mention Ms. Fisher is still a supporter of NFP. I hope she sells a lot of books. She is going to need the royalties to feed and educate her kids.

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