My husband is a professor at our Archdiocesan seminary and I am the social media manager for our Archdiocese’s Office of Natural Family Planning. At first glance, our jobs lead us to minister to two completely different groups. His days are filled with seminarians, and with the concerns of forming men for a life of celibacy. My working hours each week consist in encouraging married couples in their living out of holy, married, conjugal love.
But as the latest round of scandals in the Church has come to light, I have found myself reflecting more deeply on the complementarity of these two vocations. We have all heard it said that marriage and priesthood are complementary vocations, meant to support and encourage each other. But in the past month or so, we’ve begun to see how important the laity are in the Church. Priests and bishops desperately need good, faithful lay people to hold them accountable, and to challenge them to carry the cross.
The Cross of NFP
I suffer from hyperemesis gravidarum during pregnancies, a condition that can be life-threatening if not treated. It causes severe nausea and vomiting which can lead to dehydration and malnutrition. We have been blessed with three children on earth and one in heaven, but each of their pregnancies have been an experience of the cross. Each of their pregnancies have involved willingly accepting suffering so that our little child could live. For me, that suffering involves the physical and mental toll of seven to eight months of severe nausea. For my husband, it involves taking on my responsibilities as well as his own, and having to care for a very sick wife.
I belong to some non-Catholic Facebook support groups for hyperemesis gravidarum, so I know that it is very common for non-Catholic women suffering from HG to choose long term contraception use or sterilization for themselves or their husband. The idea of using NFP to avoid pregnancy would be laughable to them, as well as the idea that a woman would willingly welcome more than a child or two when faced with so much suffering in pregnancy.
Yet, we practice NFP. We have avoided intimacy and pregnancy for long stretches between children (to give me time to heal, physically and mentally) but it has required virtue on our part…sometimes heroic virtue. Sometimes, that heroic virtue is in the form of having to abstain from conjugal love for a long period of time. Other times, it involves trusting God that NFP actually works and we don’t have to abstain from coming together as a married couple.
What I have just described — the normal ebb and flow and need for virtue and self-control in married love — is a very typical experience of NFP. I have many friends who practice NFP, including friends who have had to avoid pregnancy for months to years. They have also experienced long periods of abstinence, as well as needing to trust that NFP will work when they do come together as a couple.
It would feel easier to just give in to the culture – to pop a pill, or to have a device implanted, or a surgery done. It would feel easier to be able to be sure that pregnancy would not result before we were ready.
Thank God for NFP. NFP has saved us from avoiding the cross in our marriage.
Yes, the cross is hard. Yes, the suffering that occasionally comes from practicing NFP is not fun. But embracing the cross of NFP has changed us and forced us to sacrifice, in love, for each other. NFP isn’t fun, but it really does change marriage. When my husband and I were engaged, we would often end our letters and emails to each other by saying, “I can’t wait to spend my life journeying to heaven with you.”
Do you know the one sure path to heaven? The way of the cross. Thanks to NFP, we’re able to live out that desire.
The Intersection of Marriage and Priesthood
The rector and the formation director of my husband’s seminary were recently interviewed about celibacy in the priesthood, and their thoughts are definitely worth a read. In short, what they explain is the necessity of good, solid married men (and their families) being a part of the formation of future priests. When my husband was finishing up graduate school and looking for jobs, we spent a lot of time discerning whether he was being called to continue teaching in a seminary or to pursue a purely academic position at a university. God made it very clear to our family that he was calling us to remain at the seminary.
I say “us” because, for our family, this is a whole family vocation. Yes, my husband is the one going to work at the seminary every day, but our family usually visits him at work at least once a week, at the encouragement of the seminary rector. The rector believes very strongly that the seminarians need to be around lay families, since we are the demographic that they will be serving.
Seminarians and priests need to get to know families and the sufferings of families. But they also need to know more about the cross of NFP.
As we’ve shared meals with the seminarians, the topic of NFP has come up in discussion. Although the seminarians are taught about NFP and the science behind it, they often are shocked to find out how hard it can be to put it in to practice. In a woman with textbook cycles, there is minimal abstinence involved. But the reality is that most women don’t have textbook cycles.
The vast majority of couples practicing NFP are having to abstain from conjugal love for significantly longer than eight days a cycle. That can be a challenge for a couple committed to prayer and growing in holiness together. Even with lots of grace from the sacraments and a shared spiritual life, the sacrifices involved with having to avoid pregnancy can feel heavy to bear. Without a strong shared spiritual life, it can be impossible to live out. Seminarians and priests need to know this, and need to realize what kind of virtue, sacrifice, and self-control faithful Catholic couples practice as a matter of course.
Of course, there are even more crosses associated with NFP that your average priest or seminarian may not be aware of. The idealized image of a faithful Catholic family is typically of one with a lot of beautiful children, not too far apart in age. The reality is that many Catholic families who want that reality can’t have it.
Many couples either face the incredible pain of infertility (without the possibility of IVF) or having to avoid pregnancy for serious reasons (although they may desperately want a large family). Other mothers struggle to avoid pregnancy and are crushed by the weight of physical or mental health struggles as they care for many little ones. All these crosses are painful ones, and often they are hidden.
How Catholics Practicing NFP will Save the Church
One of my initial reactions to the latest round of scandals was, “Wait! The Church teaches married couples that we must practice self-control in marriage. Why aren’t these priests and bishops being held to that same standard?! How dare they tell us we have to do this when they won’t!”
Celibacy for Christ requires heroic virtue and abundant grace…but so does faithful, chaste marriage. Living chaste marriage in our current culture is not easy. Our priests and bishops need to be reminded that they aren’t the only ones being called to live chastely.
Married couples are living chastity, in accord with their state in life. For faithful priests and bishops, couples practicing NFP can be an encouragement. You aren’t the only ones living chastely in a promiscuous culture. For bishops and priests not living chastely, couples practicing NFP are a challenge. How can you ask this of your children and not live it out yourselves?
Either way, couples practicing chastity through NFP will save the Church with their example of love and sacrifice.