What to do when NFP isn’t good enough?

Recently I’ve had a few conversations with Catholic friends about family planning where they’ve opened up about their own struggles. One friend, who has several kids, said something like, “The method we were taught failed us many times, or perhaps did not work at all. And when we spoke up about this our concern was dismissed” Not too long after that another friend of mine was telling me that after having one of their kids they had to abstain for six months in order to avoid getting pregnant again right away because their cycles were so weird that following the NFP method meant simple don’t have sex. Another friend is deathly afraid to get pregnant because she has a medical condition that has caused multiple miscarriages and will cause more in the future, so the failure rate of NFP really scares her.  These are the stories about NFP that I’ve come to hear on a regular basis now, couples that find themselves in a place where NFP, indefinitely or for a time, simply isn’t good enough.

When the Catholic Church talks about family planning there are three principles that frame the discussion. The first is that parents have the obligation to be responsible, to look after the common good of one’s family. This means that the “physical, economic, psychological and social” circumstances of the family should be taken into consideration when a couple is considering having another child (Humanae Vitae 10). The second is that artificial contraception, that is, “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” is absolutely prohibited by the moral law (Humanae Vitae 14). And the third principle is that long periods of abstinence in marriage due to spacing children have the possibility of damaging the vows of faithfulness and fruitfulness in that marriage (Gaudium et Spes 51).

In other words, couples need to be discerning about having children, but they can’t use contraception, and an extended lack of sexual intimacy could harm the marriage. Clearly then, there are very limited options for Catholics here, two options to be exact. The first option is do nothing. To let Divine Providence guide one’s fertility and family size. The second option is NFP. For many couples I imagine that the first option is a privilege they wish they had, that they didn’t have the health issues, psychological conditions, economic problems, etc. that force them to do whatever they can to avoid pregnancy. This leaves us with NFP, but what does a couple do when NFP isn’t good enough?

Like the friends I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’ve encountered many people over the past few years who have found themselves on the margins of both the Catholic community and the secular world. These folks are apart of a silent minority of “hyperfertile” NFP users. They have tried multiple NFP methods with multiple instructors but ultimately their only recourse to prevent having a dozen kids back to back has been months (or more) of abstinence at a time. Then there are the couples who have serious, life threatening reasons not to get pregnant, and who also have irregular cycles that make NFP difficult and less effective. These couples are on the margins of a secular society that just encourages contraception and sterilization, but they have also found little support from their Church. Their suffering gets dismissed out of hand with statements like “God must have wanted the baby” or “carry your cross” with little empathy or actual support.

Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

It’s often said in Catholic circles that fertility isn’t a disease, that “hyperfertility” is just someone’s body acting the way it’s supposed to. However, while this is technically correct, it’s also very dismissive. Due to health issues, family issues, financial issues, and the other consequences of sin, hyperfertility can be a genuine and severe source of suffering. In some cases fertility has all the characteristics of an illness. If a woman truly risks death every time she gets pregnant then at the end of the day her and her husband’s fertility is reasonably treated like a disease.

The Catholic community needs to know that these struggles are legitimate. The Church, from clergy to regular Catholics, needs to offer more support for our brothers and sisters who find themselves carrying this cross. We need to recognize that couples in these situations need actual assistance, not just platitudes. Telling someone to just “carry their cross” without at the same time offering to help them carry that cross is the Catholic version of saying “just suck it up.”

We need to listen to people’s actual stories about the suffering in their life caused by NFP instead of constantly being on the defensive about how great NFP is. We need to offer to make dinner or babysit or simply be a friend for the parents of large families. We need to invest more resources into developing easier and more effective methods of NFP.

I think that Catholics (at least in the circles I run in) have done a good job in the past several years of recognizing the heavy burden and real suffering of infertility. We’ve invested resources into ethical treatments for infertility and we’ve made efforts to empathize and support those in our life who we know suffer from this. My hope is that the suffering that comes from hyperfertility and irregular cycles could likewise be acknowledged and supported.

Bishop Barron recently said, “At the core of Jesus’ program is a willingness to bear other people’s burdens, to help them carry their loads. And this applies to the moral life as well. If we lay the burden of God’s law on people, we must be willing, at the same time, to help them bear it.” There are people freely embracing the full weight of the moral law but are finding little support from their Catholic community, what can we do to help change that?

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.

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Trump: Pulling Back the Curtain on America’s Hypocrisies

I think that Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency have unveiled, and exploited, the hypocritical underbelly of the Left, the Right, the media, and Conservative Christianity and put those faults on a national display.

(Obviously I’m making generalizations here, not every individual in these groups is responsible. Though it’s clear that these generalizations aren’t void of some truth.)

First, in the past few months we have seen the violent intolerance of the tolerant left. One of my old professors used to say “The tolerant cannot tolerate the intolerant,” and this has been displayed at places like UC Berkeley where free speech is something to fight against and not for.

Second, one of the things that set Trump apart early in his campaign and helped attract such a loyal base was his nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric. He taped into the underbelly of American Conservatism that in one breath wants the Ten Commandments in courtrooms but also ignores the command to welcome to stranger. Who in one breath says “we are pro-life” and “all lives matter” while also saying “America First” and refusing to recognize the dignity of the foreigner fleeing violence and poverty.

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Third, Trump has revealed and exploited the subtle (and not so subtle) liberal bias within the media. The very bias that has refused to call pro-lifers anything by “anti-choice” and has consistently ignored the March for Life every. single. year. The very bias that has driven conservatives toward “fake news” for years because people do not like being continually deceived and misrepresented.

Finally, Trump’s campaign put the hypocrisy of American Conservative Christianity on full display. For years the Christian Right spoke of “family values,” the “sanctity of marriage,” and, in the era of President Clinton, they insisted that “character matters.” Then when Trump was the only Republican left standing they, without apology or hesitation, publicly endorsed a thrice married adulterer who makes money off of porn and who treats women as sexual objects. They proved that their Party comes before their Faith.

Politics runs downstream of culture. President Trump isn’t the cause of our woes, he is the symptom. We who made winning a higher priority than our principles created President Trump. We who claimed a moral high ground with lectures on tolerance while totally demonizing those we disagreed with created President Trump.

He is my president because I am guilty of this hypocrisy, he is our president because he is who we deserve.

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.

Schools of Unconditional Love

My wife, Kristina, and I were blessed to be able to attend the World Meeting of Families conference back in 2015. The wonderful Professor Helen Alvaré gave one of the keynote talks during that week that really struck me.

Professor Alvaré was talking about how the love we give and receive within the family grows and overflows into the wider world. Specifically, she spoke on how a parent’s unconditional love for their child “organically and divinely” grows into the unconditional love of strangers. She said:

Eventually, if you have asked God day in and day out to work His will with you, you begin to see every child as if they could be your child…You won’t be able to look at the homeless, the sick, the depressed, the fatherless, without remembering how they are someone’s child or sibling or mother and then converting that co-suffering converting your maternal and paternal selves into action.

This comment resonated with me at the time and still resonates with me now.

Just a few weeks before this conference started, there was a picture of a little boy that was circulating online. The boy was three years old in this picture, just a little older than Simon, my eldest son. In the picture he was lying down with his knees tucked under him, his arms off to his sides, and his head full of light brown hair turned sideways. It looked just like Simon when he slept.

Except this little boy wasn’t sleeping in this picture, he was lying on a Mediterranean beach after drowning in the Aegean Sea. His name was Aylan Kurdi, and his family were refugees fleeing Syria.

I remember staring at this picture when it came across my newsfeed and it totally captivated me. This little boy reminded me so much of Simon. I realized at that moment that this little boy, Aylan, was loved by somebody as much as I love my own son. Aylan smiled and laughed and cried and played like my own son. Aylan drowned in the Aegean Sea along with his brother and mother because his dad wasn’t able to hold onto them. I just sat in front of my computer and cried.

 

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Aylan Kurdi – Daily Mail, “Daddy, please don’t die”
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3223447/Daddy-don-t-die-Drowned-Aylan-Kurdi-s-tragic-words.html

We’re supposed to see Christ in others, because all of us bear the image of God. We are especially supposed to see Christ in the poor and the hungry and the homeless and the refugee because He said, “Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.”

But that’s really hard to do.

I mean, Saint Mother Teresa saw Jesus in the poor, but she’s a saint! The best I can muster up when I see a beggar is pity…not the love and respect due to our Lord. Yet God is so wise. He knows that it’s hard for us to see His image in the stranger, so He gave us our families to be training grounds for unconditional love. He lets us first see every child as if they could be our child so that we may eventually learn to love the outcast like we love our own children. He gave us our family as a school of love.

As a Christian, I must resist looking at the poor, the homeless, and the refugee as “people,” as an abstract group or “issue.” I must see every human person for the unique and valuable individual that he or she is. I must see the poor as I would see my own family. I must love the homeless as I would my own family. I must treat the refugee as if they were my own family.

As Professor Alvaré put it, “We start with family and end with strangers in need whose only link is our common humanity.” Go love your family, and let that love overflow into the whole world.

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.