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Catholic Life | Category Archive | The Feminine
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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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“Natural Hormones” for Reproductive Health

Some people have asserted that even if there is no proof that “the Pill” causes abortions, it is still wrong for women to use it because there are “natural” hormonal options which will help women. While I am a huge fan of holistic medicine, I have always been suspicious of “natural” options being proclaimed as superior for prolife reasons.

When I was 9 years old my mother went to the healthfood store for something or other to help with her menopause symptoms. But for some reason she hesitated to actually start her new regimen. It turned out that she was pregnant, and my childhood was shaped by my mother’s expressions of thankfulness that she had delayed her natural remedies since it was extremely likely that they would have ended her pregnancy before she even knew about it.

In high school and college I read feminist literature of all sorts, and that included information about ancient, natural means for “interrupting pregnancy.” I cannot find any of the websites now, but the more legitimate looking ones included disclaimers and statistics of this or that method having been observed to work 30-50% of the time, but that it was at least worth a shot before one went to an abortion clinic.

So I tend to view “natural” ways of dealing with gynecological problems with at least as much suspicion as modern medicine. And I am quite bothered by those who tell others that using the pill for menstrual problems is sin, but give carte blanche to all “natural” remedies.

But I am still shocked to see what seems to me to be pretty stinking obvious indications that natural remedies are far more likely to result in abortion/miscarriage than the pill.

I recently read What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Premenopause. It is completely against the pill and instead offers suggestions of natural remedies to deal with various women’s health issues. The section on endometiosis begins with the statement that “endometriosis is very difficult to treat” which filled me with optomism since it seemed as if they were taking it seriously. Then came:

Dr. Lee has successfully treated endometriosis using relatively high doeses of progesterone cream to create a pseudopregnancy state from day 5 to day 28 (or whenever yoru normal cycle ends) of the menstrual month. This involves using 40 to 60 mg progesterone daily during those days, or 960 mg per month. This will often cause the pain to subside by the third or fourth month. In some patients with particularly stubborn endometriosis, he has increased the daily dose to 80 mg per day. Once the pain has been reduced, the dosage may be reduced gradulally each month to find a dose that keeps the pain away.

Progesterone, at doses similar to the first month of pregnancy, limits the endometrial tissue buildup caused by estrogen. By preventing the monthly release of blood in the endometrial islets, the inflammation that previously flared each month will subside, and the healing forces of nature will return the endometrial islets back to normal tissue.  (Source pages 192-193)

That all sounds great, right? It does the same thing as the pill, except it is natural!

Except, of course, for the fact that unlike the pill, it hasn’t actually been tested to prevent ovulation, so you have no idea how the pseudopregnancy state is actually working in your body, and taking the week-long break is setting your body up for miscarriage. In short, you are much more likely to be conceiving and then miscarrying using this method than using the pill. And the troubling thing is that is obvious to anyone who actually reads the entire book. It isn’t exactly a secret.

In the section on infertility, the book offers this advice:

If you want to be pregnant and you’re using progesterone cream, it’s very important to keep using progesterone until you find out whether you’re pregnant. (You can take a pregnancy test a few days after your period would normally be due.) The sudden drop in progesterone levels created if you stop using the cream can cause what is, in effect, an abortion, by bringing on menstruation. This is the same concept used in the so-called morning-after pill, only in that case a very potent synthetic progestin is used in high doses.

So the advice given to women with endometriosis is, according to the infertility section, setting them up to “cause what is, in effect, an abortion, by bringing on menstruation” each month!

And I am no more impressed by the other suggestions that I have seen for herbs to use. For instance, one list of herbs recomended is:

  • 4 capsules vitex
  • 2 capsules blue cohosh
  • 2 capsules milk thistle
  • 2 capsules wild yam root
  • 2 capsules dandelion root
  • 2 capsules pau d’arco

You do not need to look up everything on the list unless it interests you, but “everyone” knows that vitex (also called chasteberry and who knows what else) is contraindicated during pregnancy because of what it does to the uterus, and blue cohosh? That only shows up on all the lists of abortion-inducing herbs. Nothing to worry about. Oh, except for the fact that since you have no idea what strength you’re taking you may overdose and seriously hurt yourself as well.

This should not be taken as an indication that I oppose herbal remedies. I do not oppose herbs or other natural remedies. I just happen to think that “natural” remedies are much more likely to both allow a pregnancy and then harm it than any pill taken as prescribed. So please do not tell me that “there are effective, natural alternatives to the pill” without telling me exactly what it is you’re so excited about. And if you want to combat reproductive health treatments that might possibly harm babies, you should probably focus on condemning “natural” remedies, not the pill.

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World Breastfeeding Week

World breastfeeding week is next week, and I find it quite delightful that it follows NFP awareness week.

I don’t feel especially qualified to share much of an opinion beyond what I already have, but here are a few links for those of you interested in participating in the week and with Catholic style!

The Catholic Nursing Mothers League

A Catholic Perspective on Breastfeeding in Public

NFP and More Breastfeeding Articles

I hope to read some great posts next week from Catholics passionate about breastfeeding!

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Breastfeeding in Church

Disclaimer: This is an abstract examination of the great gift offered by mothers who not only breastfeed their children, but also publicly witness to the love of Christ through their continued presence in sacred assemblies. This is not an assertion that all women should be mothers, that all mothers should breastfeed, or that all breastfeeding mothers should do so in Church. In reality I would probably fall far from this ideal if I were a mother. But, regardless of how far we are from the ideal, Good remains Good. Breastfeeding is good, and breastfeeding in Church is good.

1494 Botticelli

Yesterday at the National Shrine the lector read of Jerusalem’s abundant breasts and God’s great love for us. The congregation’s eyes glazed over with a lack of understanding rivaled only by their obliviousness about passages which compare humans to sheep. In one of the side chapels a mother hid herself away to breastfeed where no one could see her. It was certainly well within her right to seek privacy, but the paradox was a sad reminder of the pathetic state of the American Catholic Church related to the theology of breastfeeding.

Mothers who breastfeed offer a great gift not only to their children, but also to the Church as a whole through their witness to love. This witness is particularly compelling when they breastfeed in a sacred setting.

Breastfeeding is a sign of God’s great love for us.

Thus says the LORD:
Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her,
all you who love her;
exult, exult with her,
all you who were mourning over her!
Oh, that you may suck fully
of the milk of her comfort,
that you may nurse with delight
at her abundant breasts!
For thus says the LORD:
Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.
As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms,
and fondled in her lap;
as a mother comforts her child,
so will I comfort you;
in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.

When you see this, your heart shall rejoice
and your bodies flourish like the grass;
the LORD’s power shall be known to his servants,
but to his enemies, his wrath

Isaiah 66:10-14

1395 Bartolo

Breastfeeding is a symbol of the Virgin Mary’s truly human motherhood of the Son of God, and thus of the humanity of our Savior.

Glory to that Voice Which became Body,
and to the Word of the High One Which became Flesh!
Hear Him also, O ears, and see Him, O eyes,
and feel Him, O hands, and eat Him, O mouth!

You members and senses give praise unto Him,
that came and quickened the whole body!
Mary bare the silent Babe,
while in Him were hidden all tongues!
Joseph bare Him,
and in Him was hidden a nature more ancient than anything that is old!

The High One became as a little child,
and in Him was hidden a treasure of wisdom sufficing for all!
Though Most High, yet He sucked the milk of Mary,
and of His goodness all creatures suck!

He is the Breast of Life, and the Breath of Life;
the dead suck from His life and revive.
Without the breath of the air no man lives,
without the Might of the Son no man subsists.
On His living breath that quickens all,
depend the spirits that are above and that are beneath.

When He sucked the milk of Mary,
He was suckling all with Life.
While He was lying on His Mother’s bosom,
in His bosom were all creatures lying.
He was silent as a Babe,
and yet He was making His creatures execute all His commands.
For without the First-born no man can approach unto the Essence,
to which He is equal.

From Nativity Hymn 3 By Saint Ephraim

Breastfeeding is a reminder of the truth of the goodness of the body, and the fact that female sexuality exists for the great good of motherhood, not merely for man’s pleasure. For centuries the Church urged women to breastfeed their own children, and elite men resisted in order to retain greater access to their wives for both pleasure and increased progeny. Despite the wishes of ruling men, the Church insisted that the goodness of a mother nursing her child was of greater importance than the desires of their husbands. Even as the Virgin Mother offered herself to her child, so all mothers should love their children. And their husbands should follow the example of Saint Joseph and patiently support breastfeeding, even when it required personal sacrifice.

1383 Bertram

So human and natural is this bond that the Psalms use the image of the infant at its mother’s breast as a picture of God’s care for humans (cf. Ps 22:9). So vital is this interaction between mother and child that my predecessor Pope Pius XII urged Catholic mothers, if at all possible, to nourish their children themselves. From various perspectives therefore the theme is of interest to the Church, called as she is to concern herself with the sanctity of life and of the family.

John Paul II

Cranach the Elder

The Church is not foolish enough to imagine that She should urge mothers to breastfeed while simultaneously holding that it is immodest and inappropriate to do so in public. In fact some bishops will go as far as to suggest that they wish that more mothers would breastfeed their toddlers in Church as it reduces crying.

The idea that women should not breastfeed in Church is a part of a larger misunderstanding of women’s bodies and association of women’s breasts purely with male lust. When such anti-Catholic ideas are allowed to continue without refutation an entire segment of Catholic mystical tradition is lost to perversion. Suddenly the Lactatio of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is a disgusting example of Catholic sexual deviancy, rather than a glorious sign of God’s love transmitted to humans through the beautiful act of breastfeeding. And I cannot even imagine what those who view breastfeeding as “immodest” think of the Saints who fed at Jesus’ breast!


The solution to the great divide between Catholic Tradition and American Catholic practice is not to ignore or “clean up” tradition, but to rethink our views and bring our lives into conformity with the way that the Church has always understood breastfeeding.

A mother who breastfeeds her child gives a great good to her child through the physical reality of her act. She also offers those who see her a vivid reminder of the goodness of the human body and of God’s astounding love for us.

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What if John Paul II Was a Feminist Theologian?

This morning I was thinking about how anyone who can accept MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals (as many of my most conservative young male Catholic can and do) should accept the fact that they can accept feminist theology.

And as I was thinking about what feminist theology really is1 I realized that John Paul II was not just influenced by phenomenology, he was also influenced by feminism2. It is everything but stupid to compare him to Mary Daly and conclude that he was not a feminist. It makes far more sense to compare him to his tradition, to Augustine and Aquinas and past popes.

Off the top of my head I thought of a few ways that John Paul II differed from many of his predecessors:

  • He believed that women were created in the image of God as much as men
  • He believed that women could teach the highest of truths as Doctors of the Church
  • He believed that a woman’s orgasm was important for the completeness of the marital act

And suddenly I was greatly amused at those who spend their time trying to say that John Paul II did not mean it when he called for a new feminism. Not only are their arguments poorly founded, but they may be missing a far larger bear walking in these woods: what if John Paul II was not merely calling for a new feminism, but subtly incorporating it at the highest levels of Catholic theology?

So now I must re-read Love and Responsibility and Mulieris Dignitatem and Familiaris Consortio and Evangelium Vitae as well as the new translation of John Paul II’s theology of the body with all of this in mind. I am not sure that I will be convinced that John Paul II wrote feminist theology, but I am quite certain that I will thank God once again for how much the Church has changed in a few short years. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you read Casti Connubii?

1. Feminist theology is simply taking feminist philosophy and combining it with theology, just as we have done with many other great philosophies in the past.
2. And I am aware that this is something of a highly scholarly “no duh” for those who are familiar with John Paul II’s incorporation of the work of Edith Stein, but that does not mean that it is obvious to most readers of JPII. And I am a bear of very little brain who quickly forgets such things.

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Does Anything Strike You About This List?

The idea of conventions really appeals to me. You not only get to hear great speakers on the topic that interests you, you also get to meet others with the same interest. Even though I do not attend many conferences, I love to read about them. And what could be better than conferences that focus on natural family planning?

So I was easily engaged with the Couple to Couple League’s 2010 speakers list. Check it out. Then you can read what I thought as I read about who is speaking:

Cardinal Ennio Antonelli of the President of the Pontifical Council for the Family
I would love to hear him!

Bishop Ronald W. Gainer
I should probably know something about him…

Mike Manhart, Ph.D. CCL Executive Director
Makes sense since he runs the organization.

Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. (Fr. Tad) Director of Education, The National Catholic Bioethics Center
I love Father Tad. I still can’t believe that the Vatican seems to be taking his side on the embryo adoption issue. Hm…

Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., Ph.D.

And then there was Joseph Corbo, M.D., James McKenna, Ph.D., Dale Alquist, Ray Guarendi, Ph.D., and Michael Schwartz.
I don’t know any of these guys, though McKenna sounds really interesting.

Then I scrolled through the list again.

I had to be missing people.

I had to be missing women.

No, I had already seen the one woman… a sister. I have no objection to celibate women promoting life, they are crucial! But why is she the only woman listed? Does the Couple to Couple League believe that if NFP-using women want to hear from women who actually live with NFP they should just talk to themselves? Are women and men really so similar that men can speak to these issues just as well as women? Did the conference organizers try to get women to speak but find that they were all so drowning with their own children that they had nothing left to give to others?

I left Couple to Couple League’s website with the sinking feeling that they are crippled in their ability to promote the fullness of what the Church has to offer for women in real life. Am I missing a good reason for avoiding married women as speakers, or does the Couple to Couple League have a tremendous opportunity to grow in this area?

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Our Lady of La Leche Shrine

In October Josh and I visited the shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine, Florida. The grounds are beautiful and astoundingly peaceful for what is treated by many as a tourist destination.


Inside the chapel we prayed silently. I prayed for myself a little, but mostly I prayed for others whom I wished could visit for themselves.


Lovely Lady of La Leche, most loving mother of the Child Jesus, and my mother, listen to my humble prayer. Your motherly heart knows my every wish, my every need. To you only, His spotless Virgin Mother, has your Divine Son given to understand the sentiments which fill my soul. Yours was the sacred privilege of being the Mother of the Savior.

Intercede with him now, my loving Mother, that, in accordance with His will, I may become the mother of other children of our heavenly Father. This I ask, O Lady of La Leche, in the Name of your Divine Son, My Lord and Redeemer. Amen.


O Lord Jesus Christ, through the intercession of Your tender Mother, Our Lady of La Leche, who bore You close to her heart during those long months before Your birth, I place my baby and myself entirely in Your Hands. Free me, I beseech You, from useless and consuming worry. Accept the sacrifice of my aches and pains, which I unite to Your sufferings on the Cross. Above all, most merciful and loving Jesus, protect this child You have given to me from all harm, bestowing the health and vigor every baby needs. Implant in my heart and on my lips the words and prayers of Your Mother and mine, our Lovely Lady of La Leche. All this I ask that my child and I may live to praise forever Your Holy Name.


The many sculptures on the grounds did an excellent job of capturing the beauty of Mary worshiping Jesus as her God, nursing him as her baby, and watching him suffer as her savior.

It would be difficult to leave the place with a carefree view of motherhood.


But even in a place perfect to contain the sorrow of every woman longing to be a mother, there was the joyful reminder of the child born to Our Lady of La Leche: the child who grew up to draw children to himself.  He remains the one who draws each of us to himself and offers his mother as the perfect mother for all women, whether longing for motherhood, suffering through motherhood, or entirely oblivious to the wonder that is motherhood.



It is truly fitting, Mary, that we should honor you.

For God chose to honor you by making you His mother.

The prophets of old spoke of you with their fairest praises, the glory of Israel and of all womankind.

The angel bowed in reverence as he addressed you who was chosen to be God’s Mother.

And all generations have called you blessed.

So joyfully, Mary, we praise you;

We praise you in your purity, far more radiant than that of the brightest seraphim and cherubim.

We praise you in your maternity, in which you were privileged to nourish your God and creator at your breast.

We praise you in your virginity, which you kept so preciously together with your holy maternity.

We praise you in the honor which through you has been given to holy motherhood throughout the ages.

We praise you in the courage your pure and holy example has given to Christian mothers in a sinful world.

We praise you, too, in your motherhood, which by God’s decree has made you our mother and us your children.

Yes, always and at all times and in all places will we praise and honor and bless you, as it is proper to do, holy Mother of God, ever-blessed virgin, mother of fair love!


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Failing NFP & Learning a Bit of Charity

I was full of dread as I approached the door to enter our final natural family planning class. When it was time to review my chart I nervously joked to the instructor that I had found a way to “fail” natural family planning before I was even married. It wasn’t that I was pregnant; I had started hormonal birth control and had an early temperature spike to prove it.

Thankfully the instructor was perfectly gracious. She was not especially surprised since my first month’s chart was disturbed by a laparoscopy which had confirmed endomentriosis but done nothing to ease my pain. She asked whether  the doctor had a plan other than keeping me on hormones for life. The doctor did not have a plan, but my primary goal was to get through the semester. I did not have the option of seeking out a specialist for another surgery, and I could not continue to function through the pain.

The hormones worked so well that I wondered why I had spent years insistent on avoiding them. It was so very wonderful to be able to function normally and I was thrilled to be able to concentrate on an intense semester. Then summer came. As I waited in a long line for the Sacrament of Reconciliation I thought about how easily I am distracted from God. It seemed that I turned away from every opportunity to join myself to the Savior’s suffering. And so I returned to the pain of my normal menstrual cycle.

Two months after I got married I again had a very strong need to be able to function physically. I tried the same hormones that I had been on before, but without success. It did not reduce my pain and I observed the signs of my fertility with the wry thought that it was a good thing I was not using the hormones to avoid conception! I got a prescription for a different mix of hormones, but by the time I had waited for my body to adjust I simply did not want to go through it all again. So I gave up on artificial hormones.

I am profoundly thankful for my experience. Without it, it is quite possible that I would be one of those Catholics who say things like “the pill is never a good option for Catholic women!” It does not matter how clear the Church is that artificial hormones are permissible for therapeutic purposes. Some continue to insist that no health issue can possibly make resorting to the evil of hormonal contraception legitimate.

I would never have directly questioned the fact that artificial hormones were allowed, after all Humanae Vitae could not be more clear:

the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.

But I was all too ready to agree with those who asserted that doctors were just lazy and there was no reason for any woman to be on artificial hormones. I still think that the pill is over-prescribed, and I am still glad that I made the choice to have a laparoscopy rather than starting hormones without knowing the source of the problem. Information is good, even without pain relief. But the fact that many doctors are too willing to prescribe hormones without considering the underlying health issues does not negate the fact that there are very good reasons for therapeutic use of artificial hormones.

Even minor surgery has risks and it is somewhat naïve to imagine that it is always affordable and effective. I wish that no women had to deal with the physical pain of reproductive disorders, but I am thankful that there are many options for treatment and pain-suppression. If you know a woman who is able to treat pain with something as simple as a birth control pill, please consider suspending judgement long enough to ponder thanking God that she does not require anything stronger.

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