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Catholic Life | Catholic Prayer Theology Questions Life

Now will you stop talking about using NFP with a “contraceptive mentality?”

Fr. Ryan Erlenbush gets it right:

If any Catholic calls NFP “contraception” or “Catholic Birth Control”, then either that Catholic does not know what the Church teaches, or that Catholic is purposely abusing language (i.e. lying).

Contraception is, in itself, a grave sin (and, thus could very well be mortal much of the time) … to say that NFP is “Catholic contraception” (or a “form of contraction”, as does RK) will very quickly lead many to think that the every use of NFP (in itself, according to the object of the act) is a sin of grave matter (and likely mortal).

If we end up making a couple think that their (legitimate or only venially sinful) use of NFP is a mortal sin (by comparing NFP to Contraception), then we would wrongly convince a couple of mortal sin.
But St. Alphonsus tells us that, if we make a person to believe (falsely) that they have have committed a mortal sin, we ourselves are guilty of a grave sin (which is to say, we could very well have committed a mortal sin).

Thus, the importance of being careful with our use of language! Many, I am convinced, many of the traditionalists that keep comparing NFP to contraception are in serious danger of committing mortal sin by misleading persons in this way.


Words have meaning, abuse of language is wrong … call it a “selfish mentality” or a “sinful mentality”, but if you call it a “contraceptive mentality” you are a liar, you expose the Church’s teaching to the critique of secularists, and you mislead the faithful.

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Examination of Conscience

It has never been easier for people to obtain the gifts of the Church. It’s the malady of the rich–those who are given too much too easily lose sight of its value.

Read the rest here

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How to Eat an Elephant

How do you reconcile feminism with Catholicism?

First you reconcile John Paul II with Catholicism.

You start with the assumption that John Paul II was indeed a real pope (not an anti-pope) and that Benedict XVI (also a real pope) is in the process of declaring him to be a Saint, not merely a saintly person. This will lead to the recognition that John Paul II was not a heretic, and thus you will know that you can reconcile him with the rest of Catholicism, though it may take some time.

Then you take that time.

And when you are done, you will look to the side and see that–by the Great Saint Anne!–you’ve reconciled feminism with Catholicism!

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Another NFP Question

What is the longest that you have known of a childless couple to use NFP to avoid pregnancy? What is the average length of time that childless couples of your acquaintance used NFP to avoid pregnancy?

As always, feel free to comment anonymously.

How long did you seriously use NFP to avoid pregnancy while childless? What is the longest that you know of among your friends/acquaintances?

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A Story

There is a story that I have heard over and over again. It is not precisely my story, though it contains echoes of what I have experienced. Because of all of this I assume that others know it. Not merely that they have heard it, but that they know it just as well as I. And yet it is apparently unknown to many. It is a truth which is whispered only behind closed doors in certain circles. I am free from these circles, though oh so closely united to them, and so I will repeat it here.

It starts with a little girl. She has been gifted with a special love for God, the Church, and the liturgy. She is, in many ways, the most innocently perfect example of what the entire Church should be. She longs to serve God in every way possible, and naturally draws near toward the fullest participation in the liturgy possible. She wants to serve God at the altar.

Her joyful anticipation of giving herself in this way is quickly squelched. She may not serve at the altar because only boys may do so. She is told that this is simply the way things are. The Church wants boys to serve at the altar, and because she is a girl, she may pray quietly in the pew–she may pray for the boys that they will serve God well. Certainly she can see that the boys need prayer, but the news that she is unworthy of joining them in the great privilege of serving at the altar is wounding beyond any of those instructing her can understand, most likely because they have never been full of such a pure desire for God.

Perhaps this is the greatest damage of the situation. But the full ramifications and more obviously problematic results do not show up for years. When the girl is in her late teens or perhaps even her twenties she learns that those who told her she simply could not serve because she was a girl were wrong. There is nothing in the Church’s infallible dogma which prevents her from serving.

The traditions which arose and led to the complete exclusion of women from all ecclesiastical office were a result of Hebrew and Roman influence–not the earliest traditions of the Church. The arguments used to prevent girls from serving at the altar are, in fact, often rooted in a deep misunderstanding of the tremendous privilege of serving at the altar.  Even the language of privilege rather than rights is used as a mask for turning something holy into a petty boys club for the utilitarian purpose of compensating for a culture which has lost its authentic faith and thus lost the Spirit which should rightly inspire vocations.

The girl, now a woman, is sick. It is not the fact that she could not serve which makes her sick. It is the fact that she cannot trust her Church. If the Church which told her she could not serve at the altar was simply making up petty rules to keep her from God when there was, in fact, no real reason that she could not serve, how on earth can she trust that Church when it says that only men can be priests?

When she does a bit of research she realizes that all of the arguments she has heard against the ordination of women to the priesthood are not in fact from the Vatican. The Vatican says very simply that Christ did not count women among the Apostles, even though they were counted among the disciples, and so, in keeping with that the Church can not count women among her priests.

But it is too late. It is clear that whatever the Vatican may say at any given point, the Church as a whole is still deeply sexist and happy to crush girls at whim in hopes of building up a warring empire of boys. It is clear that the actual history of the Church will be tossed aside in order to make a new tradition based only on the past 500 years, and that TRADITION will, in fact, mean whatever the good local traditionalists want it to mean.

And so, this girl who never would have dreamed of being a priest now questions her Church. She questions not because she served at the altar and thought she should advance in the ranks, but precisely because she was denied the opportunity to serve when there was no valid reason to deny it.

It is precisely the confusion of those who imagine that all actions surrounding the altar are the same, and thus exclude girls when there is no spiritual reason for exclusion, which has led to a doubt which will never be healed in this lifetime. She may continue to live with the rest of her Church and appear to be the most docile of congregants, but she will never trust the way that she should have been able to–the way that she would have--had we not placed worldly ideas of Church organization above the truth that our Lord taught.

Let the little children come unto me.

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Fertile Math

People don’t understand Natural Family Planning. One of the reasons that I wish more would follow Cardinal Sean and use the term Fertility Awareness is that “Fertility Awareness” combined with abstinence is not only a more intuitive way to understand the Church’s teaching, it is also helpful with understanding the reality of how NFP actually works.

Have you ever thought “NFP= surprise babies” or said something like “NFP was the best mistake I ever made?”

Or are you one of those who worries that NFP is misused, used with a contraceptive mentality, too effective at avoiding pregnancy, or over-taught to young couples who have no reason to use it?

If so, have you considered that perhaps you do not understand how NFP actually works? Yes, there can be the occasional purely miraculous surprise pregnancy with NFP. Yes some couples may struggle with separate (I cannot say “unrelated” because all of our life is interrelated) sins of selfishness while practicing periodic abstinence for the sake of avoiding pregnancy. But NFP itself inherently avoids both problems. How? Math.

The effectiveness of NFP is very closely matched to the determination of the couple to avoid pregnancy.

If one is very strongly motivated to avoid pregnancy, then it is likely that one will be willing not only to observe and faithfully chart multiple fertility signs, one will also be willing to accept significant abstinence.

If one desires to avoid pregnancy, but is somewhat less motivated, then one can skip charting in favor of methods that don’t require good records, chart poorly (noting observations on some, but not all days), track fewer fertility signs, or, the most classic of all: abstain less.

There are some people who are simply misinformed. They may mistakenly expect NFP to be 99% reliable for avoiding pregnancy without following the rules that allow for such a rate. Some examples:

The woman who is shocked to be pregnant when she thought she was being so conservative with NFP, even though she was not charting was probably either using the rhythm method or two-day method, or intuition, and while all of those are methods of NFP in the strictest sense, they are all methods where a “surprise” pregnancy shouldn’t be shocking.

The woman who is new to NFP and says that she “ovulated early” and was “not supposed to ovulate until 3 days later” than she did In reality, one has to chart cycles for 12 months before one can say anything about when one as an individual woman is “supposed” to ovulate. The whole “day 14″ thing is just a generalization. If one is depending on a theoretical view of when women generally ovulate,  then one is using the classic rhythm method and should expect a pregnancy within about 5 years of using it faithfully.

The woman who “must have ovulated twice, or something” This is the reason God invented thermometers. And cervixes. And patience. And fertility monitors. And diligent following of the rules of the BOM-based method if that is really what one wants to use. Though, if this is an issue for you then I can’t imagine why a woman with access to computers would want to only use one sign of fertility and ignore all the rest. But that is another issue.

The woman who carefully follows her 96% effective method only to find herself in the 4% who become pregnant This may be the result of starting  a method that assumes infertility for the first 6 days, and being one of the rare women who has cycles so short that this rule is inapplicable. Or it could be only making external observations of cervical fluid when you are a woman who really needs internal observations. Or it could be counting as infertile days prior to ovulation where there is no cervical fluid, even though it will start an hour later. These are not precisely the same as the previous cases, but the couples who choose to follow these methods need to be aware of the likelihood that they may indeed be the reasonable exceptions.

The man who does not know what rules were being followed, or even anything about his wife’s fertility cycles, he just knows that they were “using NFP to avoid” and she got pregnant These are always sad cases because they indicate the fact that, while NFP is never contraceptive, men can experience it in the same way that they experience contraceptive methods which are simply left to the wife to take care of. Men, for practical purposes, if you don’t understand the logic of where your wife is in her fertility cycle and why conception is unlikely, you should assume that it is likely.

Now, if you were one of the people on the other side, you should now have a slight inkling about what it is you were missing when it comes to assuming that NFP is selfishly overused. NFP requires a lot of dedication. In order for NFP to be used as an extremely effective tool for avoiding pregnancy, a couple must be willing to abstain a lot. Yes, NFP may be a good tool for avoiding pregnancy without a lot of work or abstinance for a few women for a few cycles, but eventually it takes both serious dedication to observing and charting fertility signs and significant abstinence.

If a couple does not have a good reason to avoid pregnancy, then it is highly unlikely that they will be willing to put in the diligent effort that it takes to practice NFP in a way that is highly effective. Not only is God always in charge of conception (or the lack thereof), fertility awareness + abstinence for avoiding pregnancy is specifically orientated toward being ineffective for those who do not have a serious reason to avoid pregnancy.

Ultimately the NFP equation of fertility awareness + abstinence =no pregnancy means that NFP is incredibly scalable in its effectiveness for avoiding pregnancy. Those who are seriously motivated to learn rigorous forms of NFP, and then continue to be motivated to chart faithfully and abstain as much as is necessary are incredibly unlikely to experience a surprise pregnancy. But those who are not willing to put forth the dedication and self-control will find NFP significantly less than “very effective” for avoiding pregnancy.

This is why it is incorrect to see NFP as either inherently ineffective or easy to misuse. NFP is both effective and challenging. And that is precisely why it is such a wonderful tool for a couple who seeks to follow the Church’s guidance in determining the number of children that is appropriate for their family.

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Family Planning, Money, and Health

Some of the comments on my recent post on family planning reminded me of how differently I think from a “typical” American–whomever that is. I completely understand the idea of discounting money when having a child because there is never enough money. But perhaps my parents trained me so well in this regard that applying this logic to myself would lead to the sins of self-indulgence and irresponsible parenting.

In my mind one does not have enough money to have a child (in the US) if one does not have enough money to pay for nutritious food for the child, and more immediately for the pregnant mother.

For me it would seem incredibly virtuous and self-sacrificial for a couple to delay children under such a circumstance, even if it did mean never having children.

It is sometimes a challenge for me to remember that the rest of the (good, conservative) Catholic world (in the United States) views children so very differently than I do. I view children as a supreme gift from God, and in many cases the greatest blessing of marriage.

Others seem to view children primarily as an obligation which can only be avoided for grave reason. And so, while I am inclined to think of what I need to do in order to be adequately prepared for the awesome privileged of being a parent, others are inclined to think of whether they have a good enough reason to get out of being a parent.

I am sure that all of my dear readers are now judging me as judgmental (and I’ll post more about that another time) so I feel the need to explain that I do not presume to know enough about others to have any idea of how they make their actual choices (talk, especially online, does not necessarily correspond that closely to behavior in reality). All I know is the implications based on what they say to me, and the tremendous sins into which I would fall if I accepted their counsel. This is, as usual, all about how I think.

For me, it seems that sex is so connected to procreation that it is irresponsible to engage in sexual intercourse without first considering whether one has sufficiently prepared for the likelihood of conception following from that act. It seems to me that basic justice would dictate that if one has not taken basic steps needed for responsible parenthood, then one should abstain from the act which would lead to the conception of a child who would be hurt by one’s lack of responsibility.

We are not currently able to fully eradicate miscarriage or congenital disorders. But we can take the basic steps necessary to dramatically reduce them. To me it would be basic responsibility to ask myself whether I have been able to take care of my body (and my spouse’s) for the last few months in order to do what is reasonably possible to reduce harm to any child who might be conceived. If the answer was that no and I had not been able to get adequate nutrients (particularly in the past several weeks–think of the importance of folate etc. preconception), or that my husband has not (months ago) been able to consume the nutrients that we know are necessary for preventing miscarriage, then I would consider myself obligated to abstain from sex if it were at all likely to result in conception.

Because of my understanding of responsibility, and justice, it is difficult for me to see how others can think of engaging in conjugal intercourse as nothing more than an issue of generosity. It is certainly an issue of generosity, but for those of us who believe that sexual intercourse must irrevocably be tied to procreation, it is about so very much more than simply having sex when we like and generously accepting whatever God happens to throw our way.

I know that for many of us simply having a child is the best way for us to mature to the point of loving self-sacrificially. But I do not think that that means that we need to ignore the reality of the ideals of justice and responsibility and hold up thoughtless sexual activity as the standard of generosity.

So, while I can appreciate the idea of not expecting a perfect moment for a baby (and certainly letting go of the idea that one needs to have the next 18+ years paid for!), I do not find the counsel to ignore finances to be universally sound advice.

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Let’s Talk About Fertility

I have a nice long post sitting around about Fertility Awareness/NFP and how it requires a lot of work/abstinence. But over the past few years I have become aware of the fact that others have a very different view of this than I do. It has also been 3-5 years since I was reading NFP studies and I am beginning to realize that I don’t remember as much as I’d like to think I do. So, this is a call for help.

In your experience, how many days in a typical cycle would you identify as fertile for the purpose of avoiding pregnancy? And by “identify as fertile” I mean abstain from sex on the day in question, not which days you’d guess were actually fertile once you were looking back on the completed chart after the cycle was over.

The second request is for you to provide studies that show how effective your method is for avoiding conception.

For instance, CCL cites a study that indicates a 99.6% method effectiveness for avoiding pregnancy. And when you look at the actual study you see that there was an average of 13 days per cycle that were identified as fertile and required abstinence.

Based on my understanding of NFP, there are 6 days per cycle that could really be fertile (sperm life + egg life), and an additional 3 days (to account for the possibility of double ovulation and to confirm that it was indeed ovulation– not merely a disturbance in temperature or cervical fluid building up to ovulation but then stopping without ovulation). That means that unless one is either counting on lower fertility (for instance, assuming that a woman will only have a few days of fertile cervical fluid so the sperm could only survive 2-3 days) or else taking chances with not really confirming ovulation, the minimum number of days a (blessedly healthy) woman can expect to identify as fertile is 9.

I recently re-read through the instruction manual for the method that Josh and I learned while engaged (the Cross-Check Method: think STM flirts with Marquette) with the goal of figuring out the least amount of abstinence possible for a healthy woman who was seriously determined to avoid pregnancy. After playing around with the various rules, the shortest that I could come up with was 10 days. A quick review of our practice charts (theoretical, not my body’s data) revealed that the shortest was, in fact, 10 days.

And I am just focusing in on the shortest possible length of time. I know quite well that for many women there will be many months where they must abstain for much longer if they are truly serious about avoiding conception.

So, help me out here. Does your experience or training indicate something else? Please, please, please do direct me to studies. At this point I am thinking that a week of abstinence may get many women a 90-95% method effectiveness rate for avoiding pregnancy, but I just can’t see how it would take less than 9 days to get to 99%.

What am I missing? I don’t want to be ignorant and say silly things in future posts. :-)

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To Whom Do You Confess?

Yet another (serious, and not sarcastic, though of course I can rarely resist making a few jokes here and there) post in my ongoing consideration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I have been incredibly blessed by the comment so far, and after letting this post sit for a while I now look forward to comments on it as well. It is perfectly fine if you have a different experience or view of the God we Catholics worship, and I am interested in how this plays into your experience of confession in a sacramental space.

Edith Stein divided up the prayer of the Church into the public (liturgy and Eucharist), and the private (solitary dialogue with God). My prayer life is incredibly lopsided toward the former. One of the many downsides of being so warped is that no matter how much I know about God, in fact no matter how much I know God, I am still mismolded by the Church’s imperfect language.

The Church’s public liturgy is not obsessed with God as male, but its poor wording naturally leads to misunderstanding in the deepest sense possible. My own soul contains the problem of the day, and God is conflated with Father.

This problem is no where more obvious than when trying to live out the acts of the penitent. A good examination of conscience is impossible for me when I only think of confessing to God as Father, because such a limited view of God shrinks my conscience and my awareness of my relationships and responsibility. When I think of God as Father, I think of a loving, just, and merciful God who created me in HIS own image, allowed me to be born with the stain of sin, knows all of my weaknesses, and sent HIS only son Jesus to redeem me. I think that HE graciously provided the Church so that we can have the sacraments here on earth as means of grace our our way to finally live with HIM in heaven forever.

I know all of the rules set forth by the Church, and I obey them. I never knowingly disobey them1. I even maintain the appropriate Catholic sense of guilt for not doing quite enough, without it mattering what exactly enough is (um, that part was a joke. Laugh. Haha).

With this understanding of God in mind, I have very little to confess. And when the Holy Spirit somehow breaks through and gets me to confession, priests are often quite ready and willing to remind me that God is Father. God is Father. Father is pleased with me for making a point of knowing what should be on the checklist, and then checking it off.

And priests are busy. They do not have time for people who don’t understand that God is Father; for people who do not understand that only those sins that violate the Father’s commands need to be confessed. If one does not have the most fearsome of universally mortal sins to confess, then one should start out every confession with “bless me father for I have sinned. It has been 11 months and 30 says since my last confession.”

If reconciliation simply means confessing my sins to Father Priest who sits in the place of Jesus as mediator between me and Father in heaven, then it is of incredibly little use in my life. It is, in fact, a complete puzzle why God should have chosen so many amazingly wonderful sacraments, and then tossed in one that is all but pointless. After all, the only people who need to confess to Father are those who are so far from God that they would never bother to confess.

I first realized the extent of this problem two years ago during Advent. I knelt in Church examining my conscience, and finding nothing. And then I looked at the crucifix and saw a sister hanging there. And instantly I felt it all: the knowledge of my sins, the perfect contrition, the complete awareness of my utter brokenness and horror at how I had broken the God who loved me through death.

Last night I realized it all over again. As I said my act of contrition, I realized that despite the happily generic word “God,” I was saying it to Father. I had sought reconciliation because I had been given an understanding  by a God who transcends such human categorization, and in fact demands more words in order to not be trapped by that one male word. But, going through the motions of confession, I was once again returning to the limiting understanding of God which keeps me away from the grace of reconciliation.

And that, I suppose, was one of the reasons that my stomach remained tight, even as I left the confessional amazed at God’s grace. The Holy Spirit was clearly present, but was being quenched even as I said the words for the purpose of accepting the sacramental grace into my life.

I have been formed to confess to Father, and unless I actively counter that tendency, confession is meaningless in my life. There is the grace to overcome my inclination, but every day I must accept it instead of absorbing the limiting understanding pressed upon me by miserable language.

To whom do you confess? Do you share my tendency to confess to a loving, just, and merciful Father?  If so, do you find it helpful or harmful? Has your understanding of reconciliation radically changed, and if so, how has it changed the way in which you embrace the practice?

1. That was true when this was written a month or two ago. It is no longer unambiguously true, but that is the subject of another (hopefully forthcoming eventually) post on reconciliation.

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To Try to Preach

To try to preach without referring to the history one preaches in is not to preach the gospel.

Many would like a preaching so spiritualized that it leaves sinners unbothered and does not term idolaters those who kneel before money and power.

A preaching that says nothing about the sinful environment in which the gospel is reflected upon is not the gospel.

Oscar Romero, pray for us.

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