Five years ago, my wife, Kristina, and I had just had our fourth child, we were dealing with postpartum anxiety, depression, infant-induced sleep deprivation, and the real, daily struggles of having four kids under five years old. On top of this, we were learning and using our third method of Natural Family Planning (NFP). Our third method because the first two were exactly why our children were born so close together.
NFP and anxiety do not mix well, not when accurately interpreting vague biological signs is essential to avoiding pregnancy. After our third baby we were talking with our instructor monthly, if not more. We dropped hundreds of dollars on followup visits. And when we found out we were pregnant with our fourth baby, after months of playing things extremely conservatively, our instructor was at as much of a loss as we were as to when or how that happened.
So here we were, using a third method of NFP, somehow playing things even more conservatively than before, and desperately trying to not get pregnant right away again. All of this, needless to say, took its toll on our marriage, our mental health, and our faith. I felt utterly cornered.
Our own struggles opened up conversations with many other couples in similar, and often more difficult, situations. Couples who were absolutely drowning as they attempted to follow the Church’s teaching about family planning. All of this caused bitterness towards the Church’s teaching to grow in my heart. The Church’s teaching on contraception felt like a law imposed without any grasp of the real suffering that flesh and blood people were going through to try and live it out. This also led to bitterness towards God. How could he allow his Church to do this to people?
But God is always faithful. His grace somehow kept that bitterness from overwhelming me. Particularly through our Blessed Mother and Pope Francis, the Lord broke into my life and gave me what I needed to keep on with the struggle and stay in the Church.
During that time, I wrote a blog post titled “What to do when NFP isn’t good enough.” In it I proposed that there was a pastoral need for couples who are trying to follow the Church’s teaching on family planning but who, for any number of reasons, find themselves in difficult-to-impossible situations with their health, fertility, or marriage. I didn’t have any real solutions though. I just raised the question. The response from that article was surprising. Some the replies were defensive, holding a line that forbid any criticism of NFP. But there were also many messages and comments from people who felt heard. But being heard and having a solution to this feeling of being cornered are different. Nobody seemed to have solutions.
Over the course of several years I listened to a lot of personal stories, read every document the Church has written about marriage and sex in the past century (there’s a lot!), and talked with several theologians. I came to see how so much of my suffering came from the Catholic NFP subculture that had helped form my conscience for years and not from the Church’s actual teaching. That culture damaged my conscience and my ability to relate with God since I was a teenager. It took the Lord years to free me from the legalism, pelagianism, and fear that once saturated my understanding of the Church’s teaching about sexual morality.
Through this experience, the Lord purified my heart of the judgement I had often felt towards those who struggled with the Church’s teaching. He also lit a flame of desire to find solutions for couples who are suffering through similar things. So that’s what I tried to do.
Two years ago, I wrote an article for Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Sweetness of the Yoke of Christ. It was the fruit of tremendous grace, personal experience, listening, prayer, and research. Of all the things I’ve written, this one is perhaps the closest to my heart because it is part of the good that God promised he would bring from the suffering we had experienced. Also, in preparation for NFP Awareness week this year, I recorded a podcast episode sharing my story and the content of my article.
Please listen, read, and share with couples who you know are struggling or with instructors and ministers who work with those couples.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
There is an unmet pastoral need for couples who are trying to be open to life and follow the Church’s teaching on family planning but who feel utterly cornered because they live in fear of their marriage deteriorating, of the health risks that would come from pregnancy, or of cutting themselves off from God by living contrary to Church teaching.
How can we minister to couples who feel like they are in an impossible situation so that they do not resort to permanent sterilization, walk away from their faith, or remain Catholic but grow deeply embittered at the Church?
Pope Francis teaches that “realities are greater than ideas” (Evangelii Gaudium 233). The real suffering of couples demands a response. We must avoid the temptation to get defensive and dismiss the difficult cases in order to promote the Church’s teaching.
If not rooted in the concrete reality of the couple, even kind words about grace and the cross can often feel like an empty platitude, dismissal of their actual suffering, or an exhortation for them to just try harder.
We need to offer couples a real path forward, and we must be able to do this without lowering the demands of the Gospel or dismissing the Church’s teaching about contraception.
I believe a significant amount of the burden couples carry in these circumstances comes from an incomplete understanding of the moral law and of mortal sin, both of which are rooted in not knowing God’s identity as a loving Father or the depth of his love and mercy. In this regard, the pastoral teaching of Pope Francis presents couples in these situations with real solutions.
I would like to present the Church’s teaching about the moral law, the law of gradualism, conscience, and God’s mercy and apply them to couples struggling to live out the demands of the Gospel when it comes to family planning.
These teachings present a very personal and real way forward. In this way, I believe husbands and wives can experience “the sweetness of the yoke of Christ” as they strive to live out God’s commands about marriage and sex.
A version of this article originally appeared at Pope Francis Generation.
Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.