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Catholic Life | Tag Archive | Marriage
Tag Archives: Marriage

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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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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Mother’s Day Fun

Before mass started the priest approached us and started talking to Josh about whether he was still doing the sort of work where he could live anywhere, and whether it was really my job that was keeping us from moving back to the area. He then told Josh that Josh was failing in his role [as financial provider] since we were geographically constrained by my job.

I interjected that I would much rather work than be at home doing nothing. The priest responded that I should have children and stay home with them. I replied that God is in control of that. The priest agreed and then suggested that I should spend more time shopping to keep busy, and Josh could spend more time working.

After mass the deacon was handing out blessed flowers to the mothers. As I walked by without taking one the priest questioned the fact that I did not have a flower. I responded that I do not have any children. The deacon confidently added “yet” and the priest countered that I was a wife. I continued walking as this conversation took place and left the church without a flower.

In the car I told Josh that while the priest’s gesture would have been perfectly pastoral for some women struggling with Mother’s Day jealousy, I really, really don’t think that the nurturing associated with being a wife is the same as being a mother! And I wonder what he would have told a single woman? “Oh, but you take care of your pets/houseplants!”

Back at Josh’s parents house I informed his mother that I am a failure in my role as a wife because I don’t know how to fill my time with shopping. She said that the priest was clearly giving advice based on what he sees, and that it works well for many of the couples around here.

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Pope Benedict on the Feast of Saint Joseph, Husband of the Virgin Mary

Taken from the 2009 homily for the Feast of Saint Joseph, Husband of the Virgin Mary, given in Yaoundé Cameroon.

How can we enter into the specific grace of this day? In a little while, at the end of Mass, the liturgy will remind us of the focal point of our meditation when it has us pray: “Lord, today you nourish us at this altar as we celebrate the feast of Saint Joseph. Protect your Church always, and in your love watch over the gifts you have given us.” We are asking the Lord to protect the Church always – and he does! – just as Joseph protected his family and kept watch over the child Jesus during his early years.

Our Gospel reading recalls this for us. The angel said to Joseph: “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home,” (Mt 1:20) and that is precisely what he did: “he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Mt 1:24). Why was Saint Matthew so keen to note Joseph’s trust in the words received from the messenger of God, if not to invite us to imitate this same loving trust?

Joseph trusts God when he hears his messenger, the Angel, say to him: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her” (Mt 1:20). Throughout all of history, Joseph is the man who gives God the greatest display of trust, even in the face of such astonishing news.

Dear fathers and mothers here today, do you have trust in God who has called you to be the fathers and mothers of his adopted children? Do you accept that God is counting on you to pass on to your children the human and spiritual values that you yourselves have received and which will prepare them to live with love and respect for God’s holy name? At a time when so many people have no qualms about trying to impose the tyranny of materialism, with scant concern for the most deprived, you must be very careful.

Do not let yourselves be captivated by selfish illusions and false ideals! Believe – yes! – continue to believe in God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – God alone truly loves you in the way you yearn to be loved, God alone can satisfy you, can bring stability to your lives. Only Christ is the way of Life.

God alone could grant Joseph the strength to trust the Angel. God alone will give you, dear married couples, the strength to raise your family as he wants. Ask it of him! God loves to be asked for what he wishes to give. Ask God for the grace of a true and ever more faithful love patterned after his own. As the Psalm magnificently puts it: God’s “love is established for ever, his loyalty will stand as long as the heavens” (Ps 88:3).

The first priority will consist in restoring a sense of the acceptance of life as a gift from God. According to both Sacred Scripture and the wisest traditions of Africa, the arrival of a child is always a gift, a blessing from God. Today it is high time to place greater emphasis on this: every human being, every tiny human person, however weak, is created “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:27). Every person must live! Death must not prevail over life! Death will never have the last word!

“Hoping against hope”: is this not a magnificent description of a Christian? Africa is called to hope through you and in you! Each and every one of us was thought, willed and loved by God. Each and every one of us has a role to play in the plan of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If discouragement overwhelms you, think of the faith of Joseph; if anxiety has its grip on you, think of the hope of Joseph, who hoped against hope; if exasperation or hatred seizes you, think of the love of Joseph, who was the first man to set eyes on the human face of God in the person of the Infant conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Let us praise and thank Christ for having drawn so close to us, and for giving us Joseph as an example and model of love for him.

Dear brothers and sisters, I want to say to you once more from the bottom of my heart: like Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary into your home, that is to say do not be afraid to love the Church. Mary, Mother of the Church, will teach you to follow your pastors, to love your bishops, your priests, your deacons and your catechists; to heed what they teach you and to pray for their intentions. Husbands, look upon the love of Joseph for Mary and Jesus; those preparing for marriage, treat your future spouse as Joseph did; those of you who have given yourselves to God in celibacy, reflect upon the teaching of the Church, our Mother: “Virginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God not only does not contradict the dignity of marriage but presupposes and confirms it. Marriage and virginity are two ways of expressing and living the one mystery of the Covenant of God with his people” (Redemptoris Custos, 20).

Once more, I wish to extend a particular word of encouragement to fathers so that they may take Saint Joseph as their model. He who kept watch over the Son of Man is able to teach them the deepest meaning of their own fatherhood. In the same way, each father receives his children from God, and they are created in God’s own image and likeness. Saint Joseph was the spouse of Mary. In the same way, each father sees himself entrusted with the mystery of womanhood through his own wife. Dear fathers, like Saint Joseph, respect and love your spouse; and by your love and your wise presence, lead your children to God where they must be (cf. Lk 2:49).

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Saint Joseph: A Hidden Life

Fr. James Martin, S.J. explains why you should care about Joseph.

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Joseph, Exemplar of Betrothed Love

Guardian and foster-father of the Christ,
Honor to you, so chosen by our God!
Husband of Virgin Mary, you are first
To show us Christian love.

From a hymn by Stephen Somerville

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Saint Joseph, Be My Father

Apparently Mary was tired and needed a break, so Joseph took Jesus and filled in for her this day.

Saint Joseph, Loving Father, Perfect Spouse!
Be my father today and teach me to love my spouse in the way that you loved the Blessed Virgin Mother.
Intercede for me that I may accept with patience all the trials of family life and may at last die in the arms of Jesus and Mary.

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Saintly Marriage: Why it Matters

The ideal of celibate marriage is not one that should be accepted by most couples in the form of renunciation of conjugal intercourse. Instead it should properly be understood as a challenge to examine one’s love for one’s spouse in comparison to one’s love for God.

Sexual activity isn’t what really matters. Love is. What is the honest answer to the question of whom one loves? It should be God. And then when someone asks about one’s love for one’s spouse or children, the answer should be a declaration that obviously one loves them appropriately since one loves God. Yet in comparison to one’s love for God, one’s love for one’s spouse must look like hatred.

The greatest challenge of marriage for me so far has been to learn to love my husband more than myself, and yet still less than I love God.

This week has been a great reminder of how very far I am from that. On Monday night I set the alarm so that I could get up in time to go to Mass before work. On Tuesday morning I turned the alarm off and stayed in bed for another half hour. It was lovely to be there listening to my husband’s breathing. Prior to getting married I could make myself get out of a cozy bed while it was still dark in order to go to Mass. But now the hard floor is too wonderful to leave when my husband is there beside me.

Thankfully God loves me more than I love God and I got the unexpected opportunity to go to Mass later in the day. But there could not have been a clearer indication that my love for Josh won out over my love for God. Yes, there are times in marriage when one needs to put service of spouse above spiritual practice, but it was not as if my sleeping husband cared whether I was there beside him. It was all about me.

Today I walked into a Mass that had started two minutes early. As I checked to insure that my cell phone was silenced I noticed that I had new voicemail from three missed calls. I did not check to see whose calls I had missed even though it was unusual to have new voicemail from the morning.

Then suddenly during consecration I realized that it could have been that something was wrong with Josh. I hadn’t seen him online in the morning. I had assumed that meant that he had closed Gmail in order to work without interruption, but it also could have been a sign of something wrong. Perhaps he was locked out of the apartment and his only way of contacting me was the cell phone which I ignore while at work.

I realized that I was being silly. I also realized that the priest had finished the prayer while I had been thinking about Josh rather than God. Unlike earlier in the week, I had not consciously chosen Josh over God, but Saint Paul might as well have been standing beside me with an “I told you so” look.

Marriage is a great gift and beautiful path of salvation. But it is also one of the most alluring temptations of damnation. Women in particular are especially vulnerable to spiritual damage in marriage because many of us are naturally inclined–and all of us our taught–to pour ourselves entirely into marriage. And the harder we work on our relationships, the more we give ourselves to our spouses, and the better our marriages are, the less we are drawn to the Triune God. For our energy is directed to our spouses and we are satisfied with something wonderful; something dreadfully less than God alone.

One obvious help for many married women Saints was wretched husbands who drove their wives constantly back to the arms of God for solace. That is not exactly the sort of aid to salvation that I desire!

And yet as I look at my life it is clear that I am constantly in danger of damning myself through “love” of my spouse! I am not worthy to be the disciple of Jesus Christ. Yes, I continually pray “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word…” but so often I am not really aware of how unworthy I am. For I am too busy loving my husband to notice that I hate my God.

This is why I must look to the ideal example of Our Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph and all the Saints who followed after them in the most perfect of marriages. It is not that sexual intercourse is bad, but rather that forgoing it for the glory of God is emblematic of the pure devotion to God which characterizes all the Saints. And the great love for God which makes spousal love seem like hatred by comparison is precisely what I lack.

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Wedding Nights

I will admit that I started posting about celibate marriage now because I thought that others were disputing the traditional nature of something which seemed indisputable to me. I enjoy the abstract consideration of just about every theological topic and find that blogging not only allows me to clarify my understanding, it also gives others the opportunity to point to what I am missing.

But I have been working on draft posts about celibate marriage for much longer because I think that the misunderstanding surrounding the Church’s teaching on marriage causes very real harm in very real, very normal marriages.

One of the most common errors that I have seen embraced by Catholics is the idea that a marriage must be consummated in order to be valid. I do not regularly talk with people in real life about their sexual relationships, but many times when the topic of natural family planning comes up for newlyweds,  someone will say something about how the couple must engage in sexual intercourse on their wedding night in order to consummate the marriage and make it valid.

This is a theological error which is deplorable due to its consequences in real life.

It is certainly good for a newly married couple to consummate their marriage at whatever appropriate time they so desire. But it is quite bad for them to be pressured into a poorly timed first sexual encounter due to the mistaken idea that they are not really married until they consummate their marriage!

The spiritual benefit of not rushing consummation should be obvious from the readings offered for the wedding liturgy. There is a reason that the Church suggests a reading from the book of Tobit where the couple spend the first three nights of marriage in prayer rather than in “their own wedlock.” In fact, the Douay-Rheims offers this translation:

Then Tobias exhorted the virgin, and said to her: Sara, arise, and let us pray to God today, and tomorrow, and the next day: because for these three nights we are joined to God: and when the third night is over, we will be in our own wedlock. For we are the children of saints, and we must not be joined together like heathens that know not God.

Sure, Tobias had to be more than a little scared in order to make such a point of honoring God rather than lust, but the point is simply that every Catholic should see the goodness of offering oneself to God prior to giving oneself to one’s spouse sexually!

The practical reason for not rushing consummation is, if anything, more obvious. Most couples in our culture go through elaborate wedding rituals which leave them to start married life in a state of pure exhaustion. While exhausted sex may be fine later in marriage, a couple who has engaged in an entirely chaste courtship should be only vaguely familiar with each other in terms of physical intimacy. I am convinced that “betrothed love” allows for greater physical intimacy than that which is otherwise appropriate, but there remains a large distance between what the newly married couple should be familiar with and consummation.

It is nothing short of a tragedy that so many couples who deeply desired to love each other well are led to hurt each other and their marriage by exhaustedly hurrying through what should be a long delightful process, and in the name of making sure that they are really married!

There are, of course, couples for whom consummating the marriage immediately is appropriate for many reasons. But I have heard so many stories of young women who look back on their wedding nights as one of the worst parts of their marriages. And many of them were under the impression that this misery was actually required by the Church!

Stepping back to take a look at what the Church actually teaches about marriage should enable us to correct this problem and appropriately encourage soon-to-be-married couples to do exactly what is appropriate for them to most fully express their married love. For many that would mean not consummating their marriages on their wedding nights.

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