Monday, February 13, 2012

When "No" Is Beautiful

I have been watching the drama unfold in the media and on my Facebook news feed since the January 20 Department of Health and Human Services issued their final rule to Catholic institutions such as hospitals, schools and charities: you must provide an employee health plan that covers contraception, the morning-after pill, and sterilization services. Facts about the mandate here. The Obama administration issued a compromise, but it has not changed the fundamental structure of the mandate.

The Catholic Church opposes contraception as immoral, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has spoken out unreservedly over the ruling. There are a number of potential consequences for Catholic institutions and the people they serve. You don't have to be Catholic to oppose the federal requirement, and many people are doing so because they realize that their own religious convictions are threatened by the intrusion. In fact, even some supporters of contraception think it's a bad idea, because they realize that punishing Catholic institutions that are doing good work contradicts the common good of all. Some people argue that, practically speaking, contraception and abortion have failed to fulfill the promises made about them, and no longer deserve the public support that has so long been offered to them.

The dimension this debate has taken on in the public sphere is primarily one of religious liberty. I appreciate the threat to religious liberty, and I oppose the mandate for that reason, also. But I sometimes think that contraception gets shoved into a religious liberty corner, without addressing the deeply-held disagreements about its moral legitimacy. At heart, very few really set out to threaten religious liberty. Instead, the mandate reflects a public sentiment that the Catholic Church's assertion about the immorality of contraception fails to promote human love, does not allow individuals to flourish, doesn't make sense, and might even be dangerous.

So, it's difficult to make the word "no" beautiful (as in, "no contraception" and "no sex, at least during certain times of the month"), but I am going to give it a try. I realize that my words, and even the steadfast opposition of the Catholic Church, may not change any minds. But because the truth is beautiful, I want to try to explain the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception to you. Please don't be angry. I'm not angry with you, even though I might think your arguments are flawed. I love this teaching, and I really think it's beautiful.

Also, I hope that if you read this blog for any length of time, you will see the way my husband and I live it with our children. As you can probably understand, I don't share many intimate details, but anti-contraception is more than what happens in the bedroom. It is a way of life. Even more than formulating logical arguments to convince and persuade of the goodness of that way of life, the delightful task that falls to me is to live it. And because the way I learned to love it is by watching other people live it well, I hope I can live it well before you, in this post and in this blog. It's hard, it's messy, and it almost always feels like you're having to hack down bushes and fallen branches to make your path in the wild woods, but it changes you - and the change is good.


Lots of people assume that the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception simply means that the Church thinks everyone should have more children, period. I think it's fair to say that we love children, and the big families in our pews attest to that fact. But I don't think it's the whole story. The use of contraception is not equivalent to saying you never want children and think people shouldn't have them, because even a couple that uses contraception can still end up having a larger-than-average family. For that matter, some couples that use NFP may end up having smaller-than-average families. In a small minority of cases, a couple that never uses any method to prevent pregnancy may never have any children at all (e.g., infertility). In short, in its prohibition of contraception, the goal of the Catholic Church is not only to get people to have more children.

Instead, the intention of the Catholic Church is and always has been the flourishing of human persons. In fact, the reason the Catholic Church likes big families is because more babies = more people to flourish! More children often promotes flourishing for the parents of large families, too. Children almost always improve their parents' lives, especially in their tender early years. Children are the fullest manifestation of love between people, and love promotes flourishing all around.
I am probably preaching to the choir on these points, because I gather that many of our readers are having children because they think they are good. :) This is probably particularly true of our non-Catholic, Christian readers, who surely share the belief that children are a blessing from God. By the way, Jenn and I have respectfully disagreed in the past over some of these issues, but we both love children.

Unfortunately, in a few cases, children can create a burden to a family that the family cannot support. True poverty is one reason. Unstable living conditions are another. Having a child who requires special needs could be another. The average American woman stops at 2 or 3, and I think most of those couples could have more if they released their grip on just a few more of the things that make them comfortable. My husband and I, for example, live with my parents and have a very modest graduate-student income, but we have judged our situation sufficiently stable to make room for one more (especially another boy - hooray for hand-me-downs!). We would also willingly give up my husband's academic aspirations for the sake of our children if a change in our circumstances required it. However, each family is different, and you and your spouse are responsible for making that decision for your own family. You are most capable of assessing your internal and external resources to determine whether your living conditions will permit the adequate flourishing of all the people in your home, including a new child. I will not judge you if you only have three kids.

One condition that I am familiar with that might make childbearing inadvisable, however, is a true danger to the health of the mother or the children she might potentially bear. Because I am a Type I diabetic, this is a concern with which I am well-acquainted. I have been told over and over that this is too hard. If you have read this blog for any length of time, however, you will notice that my risk threshold is pretty high, and I am willing to tolerate the difficulty, since each time I do it, it seems to turn out pretty well. So far, we have found that the additional human flourishing added to our home when a new baby is born is exponentially greater than the anxiety and discomfort that come along with it. And so far, no one has suffered any major health threats because of it.

That being said, however, and it being the responsibility of the husband and wife to decide when more children are good for their family, the most natural question that arises is: why is one method acceptable to delay childbearing (NFP) and not another (hormonal or barrier method contraception, or sterilization)? If the goal is to prevent pregnancy, why aren't these methods equivalent to one another? You may, in fact, be screaming this question at your computer screen right now. I'm glad I didn't make any promises about this being a short post.

The first principle to keep in mind when answering the question, "why one method and not another?" is that the means to arriving at any given ends do, in fact, matter, and not all ways of arriving at that end are morally acceptable. We know that to be true in a thousand ways. So, there's our goal (in this case, preventing pregnancy), and then there's a right way and a wrong way to attain that goal. I assume that's a pretty non-controversial statement, but just in case, consider the following analogy. It matters whether you steal your money from someone or whether you rightfully earn it, even though at the end of the day you have $1,000 in your pocket.
In the same way, it matters how you prevent pregnancy, even though at the end of the day, you don't have a child that you could have had. When you steal, you injure the rightful property owner. When you use contraception, you injure your spouse and yourself.

Now, returning to contraception as a legitimate or illegitimate method of pregnancy prevention, we must look closely at the sexual union itself. I mean really closely (sometimes things get awkward right about now).
We are not talking about the general sexual relationship between two spouses. We are not looking at their long-term intentions to include children in their family, and we are not looking at their sexual life as a whole. We are looking at one individual act of sexual union. We are looking at the integrity of each and every sexual union which unites them. Each and every time they get together, it's important. If any man rapes any woman just once, it's a problem, even if he never does it again. For the same reason, our disposition towards our bodies and their potential to create children in each and every sexual union matters, regardless of how many times we end up having babies. This is why I said that the Church's teaching on contraception is not just about big families. Not every sexual union will produce a child. But to promote the flourishing or perfection of the spouses, every act of sexual union must maintain its natural integrity and perfection. Sexual union can only maintain its natural integrity and perfection if the spouses bring their bodies, whole and entire, to the act which unites them.

Contraception then, in each and every sexual union in which it is used, subverts the natural integrity and perfection of the sexual union by placing a direct, deliberate impediment to the normal, healthy functioning of the human bodies in question - specifically, the procreative purpose and capacity of those bodies. It deliberately contradicts the natural integrity and perfection of the human body by impeding fertility. Infertility is unnatural and should not be chosen willingly. Not only does contraception deliberately disrupt the childbearing potential of the union, but it also places a barrier to full union in between the spouses. It prevents the bearing of children, which any number of couples may not be able to do at various times throughout their marriage, due to natural infertility (e.g., post-menopausal) or through infertility caused by disease (e.g., endometriosis), but it also keeps spouses from being fully united, fertility and all. Blessed John Paul II would say that spouses using contraception are not able to make a full gift of themselves to one another.

The best way I have heard this described is as follows. The use of contraception during sexual union is a way of telling your spouse, "I want this part of you, but not the other," or a way of giving only a part of yourself and withholding another. Sexual union is meant to be a full gift of your body to your spouse, and neither spouse should deliberately withhold that which is natural to their body and the union itself.

On the other hand, NFP works with the normal, healthy functioning of the bodies of the spouses. It makes no demands on the fertility of either spouse, and places no barrier between them. It's true that not every sexual union results in a child, but that is because, naturally speaking, it is rarely ever the case that every sexual union results in the conception of a child. For example, during pregnancy, postpartum amenorrhea, when one or the other of the spouses is ill (infertile), and during the days of your cycle when ovulation is less likely to occur. Each and every sexual union that honors the body's natural capacity (fertile and infertile times included) is acceptable. Each and every sexual union that subverts the body's natural fertile capacity is not. To deliberately subvert the natural integrity of the bodies involved in the sexual union is a deliberate choice of imperfection, which deliberately contradicts human flourishing. That, in my understanding, is the definition of a sin.

So, not every sexual union must produce a child. No, thank heavens, no. I only have two and one on the way and I am exhausted. I know women who can tell you about six or eight, and though we all love our children, we are glad to have space between them, too.
A husband and his wife who are practicing NFP will be capable of making the best decisions for the flourishing of their own family, and they are permitted to space children to allow for it. What they may not do, however, is contradict the natural integrity of the sexual union and their bodies so that they may enjoy sexual pleasure and bonding apart from its natural integrity and perfection.
Many people protest that the abstinence required by NFP is too hard, or damages the relationship between the spouses. However, to the extent that such abstinence honors, loves and respects a wife's, husband's, or child's need for space between additional children, it is actually the best way to love your spouse (and your children). Rather than asking your spouse to reduce his bodily perfection so that you can enjoy him (or the remaining part of him), which would be contrary to the flourishing of both of you, with abstinence you respect the integrity of yours and your spouse's body and demonstrate sacrificial love towards him. Besides, it's a relatively small sacrifice. The abstinence in NFP is only for a short time each month. Spouses can intentionally create space for one another on either side of the fertile ovulatory period so that they may come together in sexual union and not conceive. Abstinence in marriage is only harmful if it is non-consensual or spiteful. Those are real but manageable dangers.
Another point about periodic abstinence. While sexual union is the unique way in which spouses give and receive one another, it is not the only way. Spouses demonstrate love (and thereby give themselves) in dozens of ways every day. Spouses are choosing, all day long, between behaviors that will demonstrate love to their spouse, weighing their own personal work and childcare responsibilities, those of their spouse, and other demands placed on their time an energy.

Sometimes, choosing not to have sex and instead getting ready to leave for work, may, in fact, be the best way for spouses to love one another. Abstinence, in a situation like that, is itself a gift. Any NFP-practicing wife whose husband has ever said to her, "let's abstain during your fertile period this month. Our children are young, you are tired, and another pregnancy would be very difficult for you right now," knows this sacrificial love very, very deeply. As with the choice to try for another baby or not try for another baby, any decision to abstain or not abstain must be assessed according to the internal and external resources of the husband and wife, and is a matter to be decided upon prudentially between them.

Consider one final case scenario regarding abstinence. When we make our marriage vows, we promise to be with our spouse "in sickness and in health." If illness makes it impossible for one spouse to come together in sexual union with the other, is the healthy spouse somehow entitled to find another sexual partner to unburden himself of the abstinence that has suddenly become his lot? Absolutely not. As I mentioned before, abstinence is not an unhealthy state per se. Sexual union has the potential to contribute to a person's well-being, but under improper circumstances, sexual union may actually cause psychological or physical harm. Either way, it is not a vital function like breathing or eating, and if you have promised to be with someone "in sickness and in health," you absolutely may not justify marital infidelity according to some supposed health benefit of sexual satisfaction.

In conclusion, Catholics do want people to have more children, because more babies = more human flourishing. When it comes to pregnancy and childbearing, a safe rule is to give until it hurts, and then give a little more. But there are also times when it is acceptable to space children. Pregnancy is difficult, and the spouses' internal and external resources are not endless. Spouses are capable of choosing responsibly when they will seek to conceive a child and when they will wait a few more months or years.

When spacing your children, though, keep in mind that not all methods are equal, and deliberately contradicting the natural function of your body will always make sex something less than what it should be. If you use contraception, your relationship may seem stable and loving and may continue to be mostly happy and healthy for a long time. But it is not right to ask your spouse to make himself imperfect so you can experience a little bit of fleeting pleasure. Do not give less of yourself than you have. When you give it, give it all, and when you can't, offer your sacrifice for the good of your spouse.

I promise, it's beautiful!

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