This past year, my wife and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary. Like every year, I was reminded at just how much has happened since that day, and the years leading up to it. A year before we got hitched, she dropped what probably remains the single most controversial topic of our marriage, only this was best described in three letters: N-F-P. Until then, I just assumed that like everyone else, we would be using birth control after we got married, although admittedly I had given the topic very little thought. But when she first mentioned this issue, I could only think of one thing: show me the evidence that natural family planning works (to prevent pregnancy) because I did not want ten kids. As I detailed in my book, “Into the Rising Sun”, I became an ornery, at times, obnoxious consumer. I challenged our instructor that it was no different than contraception. I challenged Amy on the notion that NFP was a sensible option as I prepared to go back to school (clinical psychology) for a long time, and her teaching job would be our only income. I was perfectly content foregoing this Catholic teaching.
But I knew she was serious, and I knew she was not budging. And I had loved her for so long and so much already, and I knew if it was that important to her, there really was no option. So we plunged in head first—fear, uncertainty, and all. Along the way, I slowly, and I mean slowly, began to recognize that something might be right about this antiquated belief. And for the first six years, thankfully no kids came. Then, when graduation loomed on the forefront, we decided that it was time to start using NFP to achieve, not prevent. Month after month, no kids came, and to this day, I have never seen my wife so distraught, so upset, at the swelling reality that she may not bear her own brood.
But a move back to St. Louis changed everything, and suddenly we had two. Yes, twins, Zach and Emma. Twenty-one months later, we had one more—Matthew. Twenty-one months later—Noah. Twenty-three months later—William. And just six days shy of two years later, Louis showed up a few weeks before Christmas. Once the first two had come, her monthly cycles became very difficult to discern no matter what we tried. A couple of the pregnancies seemed to defy reproductive science. We joked that a divine conception must have occurred with the last one. I still did not want ten kids.
As I reflected on all this the past week, I found my musings intermingled with the published reactions from the Hobby Lobby ruling, and the ongoing battles regarding the Health & Human Services (HHS) mandate. Beneath all of the political rhetoric and trench digging, three seemingly very important, and yet often lost realities, pushed at me. The first regards the reaction from much of the medical community that women are being deprived of adequate medical care. Besides the fact that birth control has long been available like many other optional prescriptions, and that agencies exist to provide it at little or no cost, a stranger omission is the simple fact that sterilizations and contraception seemed to have little to do with adequate medical care. Given that pregnancy remains as natural, and as important to sustaining our species as calorie consumption and regular hydration, the idea that birth control was equated with necessary medical care (please don’t send me letters about my imperfect analogy) is like saying that gastric bypass (if it could become minimally invasive, with few obvious side effects, and financial viable) should be available and provided for all. It would be nice to eat freely without regard for what might come. But as Thomas Merton once said, eating is a moral act. So is sex. It seems we must be particularly cautious about divorcing the act from the morality, and the natural consequences that may ensue. Both could save us a lot of money and be a whole lot more convenient in this current world. Both might be missing a hugely transcendent point, and have unforeseen consequences that we are only beginning to understand.
But there is a second viewpoint that also confuses me. Over 220 years ago, when our Founding Fathers set forth the Constitution, and the much debated Bill of Rights was instituted, the free exercise of religion was established. At the time, Catholics were certainly a minority in the United States. But they were there. Charles Carroll, a Catholic, signed the Declaration of Independence. Daniel Carroll, a Catholic, signed the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, along with Thomas Fitsimons from Pennsylvania. And many Catholics were integral in the Revolutionary War. So when the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights was ratified expressly protecting religious practices, it’s safe to say that the authors knew what they were getting into with regard to those Catholics, and their anti-contraceptive, sterilization beliefs, which at the time looked a lot like their Protestant brothers and sisters. Although some may argue that these were different times, it does not change the fact that the originators of the much debated religious rights knew exactly what they were agreeing to when they said we could practice our religion freely, just as we do today.
But before we Catholics quickly jump on the political bandwagon and throw stones, there is one last reality that I cannot ignore, and has been gnawing at me for a while. It almost never makes it to the pews. All of HHS controversy would have never have happened if for not one thing: almost all Catholics apparently believe that birth control is okay, and their practices reflect this. Statistics indicate that 90-95% of Catholics use some form of contraception. If it wasn’t for my wife, I would have been one of them. If even 50% of Catholics actually followed this church teaching, the HHS mandates would have been nothing short of political suicide. And we know it. The only reason this ruling ever had a chance was because most Catholics have foregone this seemingly inconvenient belief, and the current administration sensed that most of these people would remain quiet, and even silently (or not so silently) supportive of the mandate. It seems we may have ourselves largely to blame for this conundrum.
But just like many other topics, the emotional reaction regarding the experience (or perceived experience) became synonymous with analysis of the topic. They are not the same, and at times, are not even in the same arena. From my humble vantage point, it is not really that controversial of an issue. People cry that the recent ruling prevents adequate health care. What they really mean to say is that it forces some people to spend more money to live the way they want to. People cry that religious employers should not infringe on the basic rights of the people. What they really mean to say is that peoples’ desires of today should supersede religious beliefs that have stood for millennium. And people cry (often silently) that the Catholic teachings regarding birth control are out of step, and unfair, with regards to current societal trends. What they really mean is that following the teachings seems too hard, too uncertain, too scary, too expensive, and too inconvenient in a world where we all want to be insured that things will be just fine, even as ironically our country is on the verge of being below replacement standards because we are not having enough kids. The basics of this discussion seem rather straightforward (although I realize that some people will cite certain exceptions to contradict what I have said). The human reaction and condition, regarding the potential ramifications in this area, as always, are anything but clear. But it seems we shouldn’t confuse the two as being interchangeable when it comes time to really approach this topic from a legal and religious standpoint.
As far as myself, I understand much of this. I was there. Some days, I still am, as birth control seems much easier. I am really happy with seven kids. If I hadn’t gotten to know and love the ones I have, I probably would have been happy with three. I still don’t want to have ten. But strangely, as the thought of having a twelve passenger “bus” still seems a little strange, I know my wife was right more than ever. I could tell you all the reasons why, but that is for a future article. But I will tell you this. It is not because I don’t fear a bus full of kids, or the cost or stress they may incur. It is because I am more afraid of what would happen if I turned my back on two millennium of collective church wisdom that is undoubtedly smarter than I am. I can deal with hard. I can deal with inconvenient. I can even deal with repeated screaming and neediness, although as a recent family vacation will attest, I must find my daily silence and reprieve somehow. But what I can’t deal with right now in my life, or at any point for that matter, is the thought that my fear, and my conformity to the culture I reside, resulted in my disobedience to Whom my faith tells me will make the final decisions of all. This would keep me up at night, and I really need my sleep. And this would separate me from my desire to seek out the Truth, at whatever price it may be.