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On Privilege, Planning, and Progeny: Wading into the NFP debate

Simcha Fisher, in her inimitable style, has set off an explosion in the middle of NFP week with her lastest piece The Privilege of Saying “No Thanks” on NFP. Her assertion, in response to another blog, is that anyone who can say “no thanks” to family planning is coming from a position of privilege. While Fisher focuses most on financial privilege she notes that this is only one kind. Other considerations include the privilege of a healthy relationship between spouses, or the privilege of good health either mental or physical.

When Fisher speaks of poverty she speaks with the passion of someone who knows this suffering intimately. This powerful and purposefully discomfiting language combined with the word choice of privilege seems to have set off a wave of defensiveness from many readers. It doesn’t sound nice. It shouldn’t. Suffering isn’t nice or clean or pleasant. It makes you squirm. If it isn’t clear yet I don’t disagree with Fisher’s article, and I don’t think her words were cruel but it’s unfortunate how often we can’t hear each other because of a particular word choice.

It is unfortunate that camps exist in Catholic family planning land. I call it family planning because whether you use NFP or not you are planning. You’re making a conscious decision about how to conduct your family life. Which is really Simcha Fisher’s point at the end of the day I think. We’re all examining all the factors involved and making a good faith decision to live God’s will for us as best we can. If your will is not constrained in your choice then, well let’s call it lucky or blessed if privilege feels too loaded.

Since both camps exist in a world hostile to our lifestyle, it’s especially sad that both feel judged and attacked by the other. I can see why people who have bravely (and it is brave even if you are privileged) said “no thanks” feel that their sacrifice is somehow denigrated by the “charge” of privilege. As Fisher pointed out in her piece this was not her intention despite tone designed to shake us out of our complacency. There is no fault in being blessed. It’s just good to note that you are, give thanks, and show charity to the less fortunate.

Maybe if hearing this point feels like an accusation, looking at it from the perspective of the other will help. You are not the only ones who feel their position is misunderstood or portrayed negatively. NFP couples feel the same. Let’s flip the camera for a moment. Saying “no thanks” and having a large family does involve taking on large burdens that many in our world would not undertake. If it feels that having those burdens treated as an advantaged position seems dismissive of their difficulty realize this is actually the exact same feeling many NFP couples experience when they are discussed as a whole. Often having fewer children is discussed as a privileged, easier reality when it is one we would happily trade in.

As I wrote in The Generosity of Catholic Family Planning years ago, we find a lot of sympathy for the infertile and a lot of praise for those who do not use any method of natural family planning. But at best those couples who could have children but sometimes don’t are seen as having an acceptable excuse.

It is assumed, at least by the language we use, that all families who have less children than they might have in fact want less children than they might have and have luckily come down with a perfect case of grave cause to justify that desire. No. Couples using NFP as the church allows are very often grieving their position. First there is whatever suffering is requiring the avoidance of pregnancy. But watching the opportunity for a child come and go is often a cross itself. Of course since they have children they are not allowed to grieve. This should be enough for them to many observers. And since they have slightly fewer children their generosity must be slightly less as well to another set of judges.

On the contrary, such couples are making a tremendous sacrifice and I’m not talking about having to go without sex on the days of fertility. I’m talking about sacrificing fertility and potential children out of a conviction that this is what obedience to God’s plan requires of them at this time. Yesterday I packed away the newborn clothes. Without becoming too awkwardly personal I suffer from layer upon layer of separate health conditions which will eventually make it necessary for me to forgo more children. It is the time bomb at the centre of many family discussions. I won’t lose my fertility mind you. No the decision will be a month by month reminder that I could have more kids but shouldn’t. I sadly realized that in all likelihood this would be the last time I took out at least one set of newborn clothes, either girl or boy.  Forever I will either have way too many children for some or not enough for others. A whole set of people, the set I should have in my corner because we’re all in this crazy counter cultural open to life family life together, will forever see me as privileged enough to have only 5 or 6 while that “only” means something much sadder to me and mine.

Here’s the thing, privilege and disadvantage aren’t mutually exclusive. Joy and suffering often go hand in hand, crosses and blessings. None of this is quantifiable and comparable. Placing ourselves on scales and trying to weigh out who has it best and who deserves what praise and what sympathy will lead to jealousy, pride, scrupulosity, and anger. It isn’t a competition. Where we are blessed let us give thanks and be inspired to help each other. Reach out to the big “no thanks” family and help them. Reach out to the NFP family and help them. Heaven knows we all need it. We may find our own crosses bless us with the ability to help others with different ones. Often the best way to lighten a cross just a little is to help carry another’s. It can be a privilege.

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Filed under Marriage, Motherhood, Uncategorized

Why I’m Still Catholic: Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.


There’s a challenge going around for Catholic bloggers to come up with their reasons for being Catholic in light of the Pew poll about more and more people leaving religion.  It reminds me of a homily our priest gave last year where he urged us to come up with our “elevator speech”.  If you were riding in an elevator with your boss what would you say in that brief time to impress him?  If someone asked you why you were Catholic in an elevator what would be your most concise answer?  It boggles my mind.  I can’t imagine a short answer to that.  Because being Catholic to me is everything.  And I mean everything in every sense of the word everything.  I can trace every good thing in my life back to my faith.  Catholicism has given me what I prize of my childhood and the family I grew up in.  Catholicism has given me the personal principles by which I live.  Catholicism gave me my intellectual interests and my educational and vocational choices.  Catholicism absolutely brought me to my husband, forged the love that impelled us to marry, and has kept that marriage vibrant and strong for the last 9 years.  Catholicism has given me all my children.  No seriously, I would NEVER have been brave enough to take on all these kids, or have a baby right after getting married, if I had been raised to believe that marriage, big families, or early motherhood were stifling or unworthy.  No way.  And I am so so grateful that I thought otherwise.  I cannot imagine for a moment life without each one of them.  Catholicism has made my life what it is and I love what it is; so I couldn’t ever give up the source of all that.

At the same time that that is true, my entire life has been punctuated by periods of extreme doubt.  I jokingly say that I’m either a Catholic or an atheist.  For myriad reasons I’m certain that if there is a God he is the God I know.  Yet as far back as I can remember I have been plagued with the fear that there is no God at all.  One of my very earliest memories, one of those flickering disconnected images, is of one of these times of doubt.  I am in my first home, which we left when I was five or so.  There is a high chair in the room, I seem to remember it as mine but possibly it was my younger brother’s making me about four.  I remember fearing that God didn’t exist.  It was terrifying and confusing.  In my memory this fear went on a long time.  Perhaps it was only moments, or possibly days.  What I do remember very clearly is sitting at the table and very suddenly being certain God was there.  I remember blurting out to my mother “Mum!  God’s really up there you know!”  I think she said little more than yes with a rather confused look on her face.  I doubt she remembers the moment, it didn’t seem all that momentous from her point of view.  To me it was earth shattering.  I remember sitting very confidently, a fountain of happiness and peace  bursting in my chest and nodding to myself.  He’s really up there.

I’d like to say I’ve been sure ever since, but I haven’t.  Little moments of confusion happen often with deeper periods of doubt punctuating my entire life.  I remember a bad bout near the end of high school and another a few years ago.  Both of these I worked through by laboriously working through all the reasons I believed to check if I’d made a mistake.  I believe because of history, especially the long and even sometimes sordid history of the church itself.  I believe because of philosophy.  I believe because of theology.  I believe because wise men have believed.  I believe because I look at true believers and the more fully they live out their faith the happier and more admirable they become.  I believe because when I live my faith I am the best version of myself.  These intellectual tallying ups would allay my worries for a time.  Not only that but they satisfied my vanity.  They may not be reasons that convince a nonbeliever but they sound reasonably plausible.  I like that.  I want to look smart and sensible.  So these would be the reasons I would give on that elevator ride.

Then I found out my fifth child might die before he was born.  I thought: this will be the end.  If this child dies, I will no longer be able to believe.  This was not a slight worry.  I was basically certain.  I have fought off doubt this long but this will be the end.  I was frozen.  I could not think how to pray.  I ended up saying those exact words to God.  “Lord, I am afraid I will not believe in you anymore if you do not save my baby.” I imagined what I would do when this happened.  I decided I would pretend to believe, for my children.  That brought me up short.  How strange!  Why would I do this?  The answer made no sense at all:  because I believed that when I lost my faith, I would be wrong.  I believed that I would think I was right but that I would be wrong and I didn’t want to lead my children into my error.  I believed that they would not just be better off believing a lie, but that they would be better off believing the truth while I pursued my lie alone.  I did not want to rob them of the greatest treasure I knew of.  I realized this wasn’t really the thought pattern of someone who didn’t believe in God.  I also realized that it’s a little funny to talk to a person you don’t believe is there and beg him to keep you from forgetting he is real.  Although my son did die at 22 weeks, one miracle happened.  I became again the little girl at the kitchen table.  Suddenly I simply knew.  I did not lose my faith.  In fact I felt stronger in it than I have ever felt before.  I felt otherworldly peace.  It hasn’t lasted forever, the old problems have returned, but it was beautiful while it did.  God held me in the palm of his hand and I knew it with total certainty.

This last incident didn’t “change” why I am Catholic.  It just opened my eyes to what had been behind all my striving and searching so far.  This is why, in the end, I am Catholic: because of God’s love for me and mine for him.  He has always always been with me through every moment of my life.  Underneath all those other reasons, the reason FOR all those other reasons is that I have a deep, personal relationship with the God I believe in.  I talk to him every day.  I cry out to him, I get angry with him, I am grateful to him, I trust him, I am sorry when I hurt him.  I love him.  He is so intrinsically a part of me and of the world he created that in the end I do not know how not to believe in him.  I am Catholic because my God lives and every part of life sings of him.  He may not always grant the miracles we want but he performs miracles every moment.  The existence of everything is a miracle.  Every sacrament is an astonishing miracle, giving supernatural grace for every trial, forgiving sin, knitting together families, bringing God to dwell within us.  He telescopes all of time into the very moment that he died for and saved me in the miracle of the eucharist. All for me.  And for you.  For each of us and all of us.  He is my friend, my creator, my father, my savior, and he’s really up there.

It’s not a reason that makes me look good according to my usual criteria.  It’s the sort of reason a nonbeliever might scoff at, might have trouble understanding or respecting.  It can’t be proven or disproven or argued over.  It just is what it is. I am beginning to be willing to look a fool for the sake of the One I love.  My last reason is a relationship, as complex, indescribable, unexplainable, and powerful as any relationship and the best I will ever have.  It reminds me of the words in my title and of other words from Simon Peter.  These always sound to me like he delivered them almost with a shrug, with a sense of, not defeat, but surrender and humility.  “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.  And we have believed and have known that thou art the Christ, the Son of God.”

For many many more personal answers to this question, check out The Anchoress’ post where she is keeping a roll.

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Filed under Religious Ramblings, Stillbirth and Miscarriage