"Ruh roh, someone got quoted out of context." That was my first thought when I read Jennifer Fulwiler's words in the recent Washington Post story about NFP. Sure enough, Jen is not entirely pleased about how her comment about clingy children and outdated marketing will sound to someone steeped in a secular worldview.
As she says on her blog,
[T]he contraceptive worldview is like saying that loaded guns can be used as toys as long as you put blanks in the chamber; in contrast, the Catholic view says that guns are not toys, and should always be handled with grave respect. Now, to continue with that analogy, in these latest chats about Catholicism and NFP, folks are seeking to understand the Catholic viewpoint by asking which kind of blanks the Church recommends using when playing around with guns. These kinds of questions questions are bound to lead to misunderstanding, because they are borne from an entirely different understanding of what a gun is in the first place.
Right. When people who are steeped in a Catholic view of sexuality bump up against people who are steeped in a secular view of sexuality, the conversational landscape is about as scenic and lovely as when the continent of Gondwana smashed into Euramerica. Ka-blammo! Not a pastoral scene. But that's how new worlds get made.
Over the last few days, there has been hand-wringing a-plenty as we true believers contemplate talking about NFP in public. What if we're misunderstood? What if we drive people away, or get laughed at? What if we're too honest, or not honest enough? What if we do it wrong? The more debate I hear about the proper way to talk about NFP, the more the question reminds me of a sexual relationship (without all the, you know, sex): Even when your motives are pure, it can get a little messy -- and our motives are not always pure!
Now, some couples live together in harmony. They either practice NFP or they don't, and they work in perfect marital accord, sexually and otherwise, their love increasing day to day.
But many others come to marriage sexually and emotionally wounded, or have difficult temperaments, or simply need to grow up. As these couples (like me and my husband) move forward together in our sexual lives, there will be many misunderstandings along the way, as we gradually learn how to synethize a man and a woman's view of sexuality -- to strike a balance between prudence and generosity -- to learn how to control ourselves without attempting to control God.
As we grow, couples like us hold fast to the things we know are true, while allowing our hearts to be changed to accommodate truths we never anticipated. We realize that our own experiences are not necessarily the norm, and learn not to make light of other people's crosses. We make ourselves vulnerable. We show courage. We accept that the path forward may not be clear, even when we think we know where we want to arrive.
In the same way, conversations the Church's view of sexuality are going to be tricky, even for the best-equipped among us. Say, for instance, that I'm a faithful young Catholic who has been brought up with the understanding that sex is a gift, not a right; that babies are a privilege, not a burden; that marriage is for making children and helping us grow in holiness, not for enhancing our portfolios and giving us a scuba diving partner when we summer in Cabo.
So, confident and righteous, we dive whole hog into conversations about human sexuality, armed with the liberating truth. But then we come head to head with someone whose unfaithful husband refuses to abstain. Or someone with a short life expectancy, who can't admit of even the smallest risk of conception. Or someone who already has three severely autistic children. Or someone who does't have any extrarodinary physical or emotional trials, but who has simply been reared on the world's view of sex, and for whom any amount of abstinence (never mind providentialism) is a mindblowing impossibility. Suddenly, just saying the truth as we know it isn't doing the trick.
In these conversations, just as in a deepening sexual relationship, there will be so many well-meaning attempts to vault ahead to truths that we are not quite ready to live up to. There will be some surprises along the way, some of them which bring unexpected blessings, and some which are just plain ugly set-backs. Some people will hunt for loopholes, and will eventually come around, shamefacedly realizing one more time that the truth is the truth is the truth.
Some people will try to exercise an unseemly control over the conversation, adhering to the truth so rigidly that love is squeezed out of the relationship entirely. And some, overly eager to be accomodating, will let things slip out of control entirely, and there will be a big mess.
There will be a big mess. It's what's has to happen. Can't go under it, can't go around it, gotta go through it. Let's not approach the conversation about the Church's views on sexuality with that fabled "contraceptive mentality," holding back what is good and poweful about our Faith, trying to control our interactions with the secular world too rigidly. At the same time, let's at least give a thought to prudence: you may think you're being all inspired and radical when you just open your mouth and leave it up to God to make something good come of it, but maybe some discretion is really in order.
In conversation, just as in married love , it's not really in our control, after all. Yes, we will be misunderstood when we speak the truth. But that doesn't mean the truth shouldn't be said. It just means that it's going to be a long, messy process. The truth will have to be said again and again and again, in many different ways, by many different people. Alice Von Hildebrand, Christopher West, midwives and theologians, men and women, the continent and the frisky, converts and skeptics, and everyone else: if you know something about NFP, then say it. Don't be afraid.
What's called for, in conversation as in marriage, is love. Love is not afraid. Let's trust the Holy Spirit's guidance and creativity as we watch the Communion of Saints grow.