Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
When I was giving a talk early last year, two women in the front row caught my eye. They were about my age, nicely dressed, and seemed to be friends with one another. They attracted my attention because they radiated a certain anxiousness: They nodded politely through tense smiles, but I half suspected that there was another speaker after me whom they were waiting to see.
After the talk I chatted with some folks, then packed up my things to leave. When I reached the exit, the two women were standing there waiting for me. Let's call them "Amanda" and "Laura."
They introduced themselves and said a few kind words about my speech, which was about atheism. Then Amanda said bluntly, "We didn't really come to hear your talk. I don't even know any atheists."
Laura finished for her: "We came to talk to you about contraception."
We settled into some empty chairs at the back of the room, and they explained that they are both cradle Catholics who have gone to Mass pretty much every Sunday for their whole lives. They love their faith and are proud to be Catholic. They volunteer at the parish, fast during Lent, pray the Rosary when they can. And they both use artificial contraception.
They explained that they had not fully understood that the Church was serious about this teaching until the blowup surrounding the HHS Mandate; before then, they explained, it was easy to assure themselves that contracepting must be fine since so many other people in the pews were doing it. For example, after Amanda's second child was born, her Catholic mother warned her sternly that it would be irresponsible not to get on the Pill. Laura once had a confessor assure her that contraception was a matter of personal preference, not an objective moral issue. Neither Amanda nor Laura had heard anything about the topic in their many years of Catholic school and religious formation classes. And so for all of their married lives they'd used various forms of contraception, never questioning how it might jibe with the doctrines of their faith.
Now that the issue has been brought to the national stage, however, they understood with clarity that the Church opposes artificial contraception. There was no more room for willful ignorance, no way to avoid the topic. They now saw that, according to their own belief system, their reproductive choices were sinful. They were confused, stressed, and maybe even a little bit angry. They didn't see how this could possibly be true, or, if it were, how anyone could say it was fair. Yet they weren't willing to give up on their faith. As crazy as all of this sounded, as much as it went against everything they'd ever been taught about "responsible parenthood" and "women's freedom," they did not take the easy path and just walk away from the Church. Deep in their hearts, they knew that they had encountered something real in the sacraments, that there was something special about their Catholic faith. They wanted to live according to Church teaching; they just didn't see how it would be possible.
Amanda and Laura were the first to talk to me about this issue, but they weren't the last. In fact, I have had dozens of women come up to chat with me about this (often after I have given talks about entirely unrelated topics) and many others have contacted me by email. More and more Catholic women are awakening to what the Church actually says about this issue, even though they are currently using contraception. I've now had long conversations with a lot of ladies in this situation, and, contrary to the impression given in many of the "98%" reports, I do not see women who display a blatant disregard for what their Church teaches.
Instead, I see women who love their Catholic faith, and who genuinely desire to live in accordance with its tenets.
I see women who have been bombarded by secular wisdom on human sexuality, yet who have never heard a detailed explanation of their own Church's beliefs in this area.
I see women who have never been exposed to the idea that this teaching is an articulation of an objective moral truth, who have instead been led to believe that the Catholic stance against contraception is rooted in nothing deeper than the personal whims of men in the Vatican.
I see women who are utterly maxed out by the challenges of modern motherhood, and are terrified that making any changes to their current family planning choices could send them over a mental or financial cliff.
I see women who endure hostility and ridicule for their efforts to explore this issue further, who are surrounded by people who consider contraception to be a modern necessity akin to electricity or running water.
I see women who have asked around at their parish for resources to help them gain a better understanding of these ideas, and who have been turned away by folks who are as confused as they are.
I see women who are beginning to see that artificial methods of birth control come with their own problems, and whose gut instincts tell them that there just might be some truth to this idea that contraception has not been a good thing for us.
In short, I see a generation of Catholic women who are poised to reject the lies of secular culture and embrace the fullness of their Church's teaching, but who will need a lot of help to get there. First, they need to hear more about this topic in their churches, whether it's through homilies or classes or other outreach ministries. They need access to thorough explanations of the why's behind the Church's stance on this issue, phrased in a way that resonates with someone coming from a totally different perspective. They need to hear the truth that throwing away their contraception is actually the key to true reproductive freedom. They need practical advice -- not only in terms of how to practice natural methods of family planning, but suggestions for what to do if their husbands are closed to the concept. They need to encounter other folks who are making or have made this journey, preferably at the local level, who can provide them with prayer support, and with the occasional shoulder to cry on.
Most of all, I think it is of the utmost importance that natural family planning outreach efforts not discount the profound changes that come with switching to this method of child spacing. As effective as NFP can be, it is not as simple as popping a pill or getting an injection. Contraception is branded as a quick-fix solution that allows couples to live lives of freedom, and therefore reinforces the cultural message that being able to have sex whenever you want on whatever terms you want is a critical component of a fulfilling life. NFP, on the other hand, is a sacrifice-based system that requires that couples to re-think entirely their attitudes toward the purpose of human sexuality. The women I've talked to are right to suspect that their marriages, their lifestyles, and possibly their carefully-set family size would change if they were to embrace Catholic teaching on family planning; especially in the cases of people who have no support system, it's understandable that they'd be scared. (Which is why I've long believed that natural family planning should be pitched more as an alternative lifestyle than as just another method of birth control.)
Unfortunately, I did not get the contact information for Amanda and Laura that day that we talked in the empty auditorium, and I haven't heard from them since then. Both of them seemed frustrated, scared, and deeply torn -- yet beneath all that I sensed a thirst for truth and a love of their faith that was powerful enough to conquer their fears. I often think of them, and wish I could run into them one more time. I wish I could take each of them by the hand, look them in the eyes, and say: "You are right to be freaked out, because when you embrace this Catholic teaching, it's going to turn your life upside down. You will lose a certain amount of control -- not because it will be taken from you, but because you'll find that you didn't want it as much as you thought you did. Your relationship with your husband will change. Your relationship with your kids (both existing and future) will change. Your relationship with your own body will change. Your relationship with God will probably undergo the biggest change of all. I can't promise you that it will be easy, but I can promise that you'll never regret it, and that when you look back on your life, you'll see it as one of the best decisions you ever made."