Looking back, I’m sure the moment was awkward.
My now-husband and I were on our second date: evening coffee at a laid-back café in St. Paul, Minnesota. We had been friends for years, and I wanted to investigate potential roadblocks as we moved from friendship to something more.
So, I asked, with the coolness of the Grand Inquisitor: did he agree with the Church’s teaching on contraception?
Graciously, my husband has no recollection of this moment. I recall him looking slightly uncomfortable, but he affirmed that yes, he trusted the Church.
Whew, I thought, probably searching for the next conversation non-starter.
The truth is, if he had said no, it probably would have been a deal breaker. I felt strongly about avoiding contraception, and realized I needed a like-minded spouse. The question wasn’t like asking his feelings on vegetarianism, or another lifestyle preference, even one with ethical components. I was asking him, essentially, if he was willing to surrender decisions about our family size – and therefore our personal plans and aspirations – to God’s providence.
Admittedly, it was a big ask.
In Humane Vitae, the 1968 encyclical affirming the Church’s teaching on birth control, one gets the impression Pope Paul VI also knew he was putting in a steep order. He acknowledged that abiding by the Church’s teaching could be a burden for some couples, and told them to focus on eternal life – not a card one usually has to play if the immediate upside of something is blatantly obvious. However, the encyclical is incredibly pro-woman, pro-child and pro-family, which is what has convinced me, and many others, to shape our lives around it.
After Paul VI explained contraception was an unacceptable means to prevent births, he acknowledged that couples who wished to avoid pregnancy must practice self-discipline. He promised it would bear fruit: “It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity. It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities.” And, he added, it’s a good example for their kids, too.
By contrast, he pointed to the potential characteristics of a world rife with contraception use, including marital infidelity; a “general lowering of moral standards”; disrespect of women, making them “mere instruments of selfish enjoyment”; and governmental endorsement (imposition even) of artificial contraception.
Looking around today, it’s hard to argue he wasn’t right.
In March, Pope Francis said Pope Paul VI’s “genius was prophetic.” He cautioned, however, that the encyclical should be pastorally applied with great mercy – something Paul VI called for as well.
As Catholics, we often think of this mercy being expressed in the confessional, but it should be an attitude we in the pews embrace as well. We Natural Family Planning promoters must avoid a better-than-thou air of haughtiness. A certain sense of pride is understandable, given our minority status and the kind of dedication it requires to practice it. NFP is, however, only a tool to space births, not the marital end game. A merciful attitude towards Catholics who struggle to keep this teaching, instead of an us-and-them approach, would serve all lay Catholics well.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t widely extol the benefits of NFP. I love understanding how my body works, and that my husband understands it as well. It also appeals to my crunchy, organic-produce-loving self, as it requires thought and time, but nothing artificial – and potentially harmful – in my body. It also has helped numerous friends pinpoint fertility problems and eventually become pregnant.
I’ve been married – and a mom – long enough to know that this vocation does entail burdens, some that the girl at the coffee shop six years ago couldn’t have anticipated. Those burdens, however, deepen my admiration of my husband and appreciation for my son, and are lightened by the quiet comfort and joy of cooperating with God’s plan for our family.
Maria Wiering is a staff writer at the "Catholic Review," newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. USCCB offers resources for finding a national NFP provider and local NFP classes.