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Catholic Life | Tag Archive | Abstinence
Tag Archives: Abstinence

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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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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Sex and Fasting: They Call it Abstinence for a Reason

This post is serious, and not sarcastic except for a few hopefully obvious lines.

My parents told us kids a lot about fasting from food and not-a-lot about married people abstaining from sex. This makes sense given the fact that their sexual relationship was none of our business and we didn’t really have any need to think about religious sexual abstinence in our own lives. But we did know that the main reason the Bible addresses married abstinence is for prayer (not avoiding babies, lest the overly-zealous NFP-pushers confuse you).

So while I didn’t actually learn about the Christian tradition of married sexual abstinence until I was in college, I did not feel like I was learning anything. It simply does not make sense to have sex on a day of penance as sex is happy and penitential days are sad. This was intuitive knowledge. It was less obvious to me why there had been so many restrictions on conjugal intercourse on feast days, but the rest of it required no thought on my part. It was simply obviously true, and while I learned various facts from an academic perspective, my faith required no molding.

A few months before I got married my mother made comments about me possibly being a mother within a year. I knew that Josh’s family was likely similarly speculative, and so I told him that if they started asking questions that I didn’t feel like dealing with, I would solemnly tell them that we were so desirous of children that we’d been fasting and praying for them continually from the beginning. This was to be amusing because everybody knows that the implication is that we’d been trying to get a baby from God while never engaging in the act through which God typically grants children. Everyone knows that if you’re fasting you’re not having sex.

I did not learn the truth until I read infertility blogs. Women who thought of themselves as pious Catholics posted publicly about having sex during HOLY WEEK! There was no “we felt called to try to conceive a child during this holy time of penance” or anything else, just a complete lack of concern for anything other than having a baby.

After much denial, I gradually I came to understand that American Catholics really *are* as liturgically clueless as we are so often accused.

When I jokingly mentioned having sex on a Friday I did not think of it as personal. It was a joke and while I don’t ever directly address what I do or don’t do sexually, it doesn’t seem any more intimate to joke about penitential sexual abstinence than it does to Tweet vegetarian recipes with the #FridayFood tag. They may or may not be penitential for me, and I may or may not be fasting in some form or other, but as someone who Tweets random Catholic things it makes sense for me to say things that fit into a context of Christian tradition of penance, right?

While I don’t go around trying to bring back Ember Days or get Western Christians to give up olive oil, I don’t see why anyone would think of sexual abstinence as somehow randomly disconnected from other penance post-Vatican II or whatever. Yes, maybe our catechesis stinks so much that people really think it is fitting to give no thought to the crucifixion on Fridays and Lent is all about giving up chocolate and skipping lunch on Good Friday. But is it possible that our society is really so sexually dysfunctional that we no longer feel the natural connection between penitential days and sexual abstinence?

I don’t care who does what in the bedroom. I am aware of many good reasons for modifying penitential practices to fit into the reality of family life. I just do not understand why people think of standard Christian practice as peculiar or uber-holy or demanding. You don’t have to study Medieval canon law to just know that it isn’t normal to fast from food while indulging in sex. Or do you? Have our norms changed so much that one really must grow up in an extreme-Christian (or at least Eastern Christian) family in order to find abstinence more meaningful than merely skipping meat seven days a year?

These are questions that I don’t really want answered right now. It has been long enough that I’m no longer scandalized by what is apparently the real norm for American Latin Rite Catholics. But not quite enough time has passed for me to accept the Eastern bashing which insists that Westerners are, well, not exactly Christian, when it comes to penance.

So this is the closest I’ll get to a concession for now, and comments are closed.

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Vegetarian Fridays

Christ Died for Our Salvation on Friday.

Gratefully remembering this, Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitentialobservance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that theymay one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of thetradition of abstinence from meat on Friday where thattradition has been observed in the holy Catholic Church.

Sometimes the US bishops are quite a pain. In much of the world Catholic vegetarians do not have to think about Fridays as any different than the rest of the week. They know that meat is forbidden on Fridays, and they don’t meat any day, so there is nothing to think about.

But years before I was even born the pesky US bishops had to make such a point of emphasizing Fridays as a day of penance that they downgraded abstinence from meat from a hard and fast command to just a really, really strong suggestion. And in doing so they made it very clear that Fridays are still days for profound penitential conversion.

I cannot be satisfied with the fact that I never eat meat. Instead Fridays should find me

doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.

I know all of this, but somehow I constantly fail to keep Friday as a special day of penance. Oh I’ll try to skip some food sometimes if I remember, and I may toss in a few extra prayers or refrain from taking painkiller for a mild headache. But often I do next to nothing, and what I do do is of little service to others.

If I weren’t a vegetarian I would follow the bishops’ instructions to give first place to abstaining from meat on Fridays, and not stress too much about what else I was able to add to that. But as it is I struggle to find a penitential practice which works every Friday. I need something which is so fitting that I can do it every single Friday and form a habit which will protect against the Saturday morning effort to figure out whether I can justify calling what I did or did not do “penance.”

The best thing that I can figure out for right now is to pray the complete liturgy of the hours on Fridays. But I also know that I personally need to do something of more direct service to others. And I have no idea what that should be.

I suspect that most of my readers do not find abstinence from meat to be the most meaningful way to follow Christ on Fridays. So, will you please share your penitential practices for Fridays? It’s not bragging, it is giving me a chance to copy you! And if you really can’t get over your fear of what others might think, then fake names are always allowed.

Note: I realize that this is something which simply is not a part of the religious lives of many Catholics today. If you don’t currently keep Friday as a day of penance, why not start by giving up meat for a meal or two? I suspect that you will soon find that it is fairly easy to give up meat for Fridays.

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Can't Justify the Cheese

I really, really, really like cheese. I like fresh mozzarella on homegrown tomatoes with fresh basil. I like cheddar-jack piled liberally on top of steaming mashed potatoes. I like feta tossed in a salad with just enough arugula and fresh thyme. I do not understand the point of pasta without sufficient parmesan (not the dried stuff!).

I have never had much expensive cheese, but I am quite fond of the typical American fare (with the exception of American cheese!).

But this is not an ode to cheese. Because as much as I love cheese, I cannot justify buying dairy products.

1. Over-consumption of animal products is bad, bad, bad for the environment.

2. Dairy products are in no way helping my body. When I buy dairy, it is the cheapest, non-organic, hormone-laden sort available. And while I am not a part of the China Study fan club, I have been unable to convince myself that consuming dairy is actually good for bones.

3. Most of the animals used to produce eggs and milk are not treated well. For a vegetarian, I am not much of an animal rights activist. But the catechism is clear that “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” And “causing animals to suffer needlessly” seems like an apt description of the source of most of the cheapest dairy products.

These concerns would not be as strong if one were thinking about milk from a pet goat. But I do not have a pet goat. I also do not have good options for local organic dairy.

Even if I had a good source for dairy and I had the money, I am not certain that I would feel justified since I am not convinced that consuming diary is a good use of resources. It is not merely an issue of my money to be spent on dairy as opposed to being given to a more worthy cause. I am also very concerned about the world’s resources in general. Dairy is not an efficient way of maintaining Earth with a large well-fed human population. My preference is for adults to drink less milk, and more babies to be born and breastfed.

Ultimately I do not need perfect reasons to stop purchasing dairy products. My faith teaches me that abstinence is good for the soul. It can be difficult to actually fast on days when energy is needed, but giving up dairy only requires self-discipline.

When Advent started I thought that I would give up dairy for the season, and return to eating it at Christmas. But the more that I think about it, the more it feels wrong. After Advent I will still eat dairy in food prepared by others, but it seems that I must, at the very least, stop purchasing it myself.

What are your thoughts on consuming dairy products? Do you have any good resources to recommend for more information?

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