Isn’t NFP Just Another Birth Control?

December 15, 2009

My most recent RCIA class was on the subject of marriage. When we got to the bit about the Church’s teachings banning contraception, there were questions. One woman in particular asked, “Isn’t using Natural Family Planning to avoid a pregnancy the same as using birth control to avoid a pregnancy? Isn’t it just another birth control?” I so badly wanted to answer her, especially because I could see that she was where I was three years ago, but my raised hand was lost in a sea of hands and too little time. I went to find her after the class, but she had left in the middle. What I would have said to her, I can write here for everyone who asks google the difference between postponing births by birth control and postponing by Natural Family Planning.

Proponents of NFP say the ends don’t justify the means, such that postponing births or spacing children doesn’t justify birth control. They usually don’t say exactly why the birth control means is bad except to say that it isn’t open to life. But if you’re trying not to have kids with NFP, you’re not very open to life either, except to the miraculous 0.1% life that may still be conceived. So why is birth control bad? Some say if you use birth control, you’re withholding your fertility from your spouse. But… aren’t you withholding your fertility from your spouse if you don’t have sex with them when you’re fertile?

The difference between NFP and birth control is that with birth control you have sex, but change the act itself such that you deny the natural consequences of sex. When my husband presented this argument to me, telling me that contraception destroyed the natural order of the sex act, I didn’t see what was wrong with changing the natural order of things. After all, we change the natural course of diseases with medicine as best we can, and that is good. Why can’t we achieve the good of postponing births when needed through the same means? There is that difference between pregnancy and disease though. Pregnancy is a good thing for which we were designed. Disease is a malfunction, our bodies falling short of how they are supposed to work. Regardless, I saw pregnancy as sometimes undesirable, and didn’t see why we can’t interfere during that undesirable time the same as when we interfere with our undesirable medical problems.

The “natural order” of sex refers to the natural observation that sex is both unitive and procreative. It brings a man and woman together physically, spiritually, and emotionally. It also is for the creation of new life. This is what the Church teaches, and this is the natural order that they preserve with their teachings. We should not interfere with the natural consequences of sex, whether it be during a fertile or infertile time. Neither should we change and distort the sex act itself to be merely for pleasure, objectifying our partner.

Contraception changes the natural order of the sex act, and its primary goal is to eliminate the consequence of children. If we can change the nature of the act itself to avoid children, then why can we not also change the act itself for other reasons? With contraception it’s easy enough to have sex whenever you want, with your spouse, for pleasure alone. Why not have sex however you want for pleasure? With this goal in mind, there’s no reason to believe things like masturbation and pornography are wrong. When it’s used for pleasure alone, why not have sex with whoever we want, premaritally even, since it becomes merely a recreational activity with no other consequences, procreative or unitive. When we define sex by what we want it to be, not by what it is naturally, there is no objective way to determine where to draw the line. Moreover, all of these steps are extensions of the same line of thought. They all separate sex from its consequences and change the God-given order. They are all attempts for us to define what sex is instead of accepting what God has ordained.

Arguments would not have changed my mind. What has changed my mind is my experiences showing me that changing the natural order of sex leads to evil. I’ve seen the mindset that people fall into when they think it’s their right to distort sex. I’ve seen the extent people will go to in order to avoid the consequences of sex. Because of this, I’ve come to realize the wisdom of the Catholic Church’s teaching.

A breakthrough in my understanding the value of NFP came when I was battling the recently proposed pro-abortion Freedom of Choice Act. In researching things, I read up on Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood. Although much of Margaret Sanger’s work was done at a time when there was poor health care and women often died from childbirth, her work was done in the name of sexual freedom. She believed women were suppressed by men through child-bearing and that only through controlling their reproductivity absolutely could women be free and in turn lower the population and better society. In particular, she believed society would be bettered by lowering the poor and non-Caucasian population. In this, she believed that women should have “no gods and no masters” and be “the absolute mistress of her own body”. Although she thought sexuality was a weakness, she wanted to control the “negative side effects” and worked hard for sex without consequences.

Sanger believed that her most sacred goals of sex without consequences and total individual autonomy would bring happiness to us all. This is the “contraceptive mindset” and it’s alive and well in varying degrees throughout the world. You can see it in the ordinary couple who uses birth control to postpone births, because they want sex without the consequence of children. You can see it at strip clubs when men go objectify women, separating sexuality even from a partner, because they want sex without unity. You can see it in abortion clinics when pregnant and single women go to eliminate the natural consequence of sex, because they want sex without children. You can even see this attempt to change the natural order and have things the way we want it when couples use in vitro fertilization to have children. Many end up with multiples and sadly they are three times more likely to divorce. Our attempts to be our own master, have things the way we want it, and pick and choose what consequences we accept inevitably end in pain because we are trying to have our own will instead of God’s will. Only God’s perfect will entirely contains His own perfect goodness and can bring us whole happiness.

So the Catholic Church has drawn a line. Do not separate the sex act from its natural and good God-given consequences. During infertile times, there is usually no natural consequence of having a child. During fertile times, if you are unable to handle the natural consequence of a child, don’t have sex. They haven’t created these rules to make things hard on people or make them feel guilty. They haven’t created these rules to overrun the Earth with an enormous population of cradle Catholics. They have guided Catholics in these matters because there is a right and wrong way to handle our sexuality, like every other created thing. There is no Catholic corporate conspiracy motivating their stubbornness regarding contraception. It is only that they stubbornly lead Christians in God’s truth. It is a Christian ideal to surrender your self to God’s will, not to grasp at being your own master. It is Christian to accept the good consequences that God has ordained for our actions, not to try to take what we want and leave what we don’t, inevitably perverting His goodness. I’m able to accept these teachings now because I’ve seen that contraception grasps autonomy and leads down a road of avoiding consequences. I’ve seen that the contraceptive attitude is anti-Christian in nature, because the Christian attitude submits our own desires and will to God’s perfect will.

This post doesn’t address other factors that come into play with NFP, it was really only written to answer the question, “What is the difference between NFP and birth control?” The answer is that NFP does not change the nature of the sex act itself. You abstain from sex instead of separating sex from its consequences. It is the sex act itself that left intact when postponing children with NFP. That is better and more holy than dissecting sex, taking what you want, and leaving everything, including your soul, in pieces.

Now I feel I understand the reasons for using NFP, but it doesn’t always make it easier to follow through on it. Not that it’s difficult or ineffective. By actually doing it, the concerns I had about that beforehand are laughable now. I know a time will come when after we’ve had our five or six children on the menu, we’ll be “done”. We won’t want to have any more. Considering the fact that Chris and I began our marriage eight months pregnant, I know that I will not be open to life indefinitely. I know that there will come a time when I want just me and him, and that will probably be before I go through menopause. After years of practice, continuing to use NFP will not be difficult, but I know my attitude will not be right. I know that I will be using NFP with a contraceptive mentality, wanting to take control of my life and have sex without children. My intent will be selfish although the method will still be good. I pray God will give me the grace to be ready for this challenge by the time it comes, and I will do my best to accept His will in all things and to trust Him.

I Am Changed

May 14, 2009

In a recent post, I mentioned that two of my best friends from college came to visit me for my birthday. One of them, my first roommate from freshman year, has been through some of the darkest moments of my life with me. She even moved out of the room we shared because of my emotional angst. Although most eighteen year olds can’t claim an overabundance of maturity, I was markedly insecure, emotionally unstable, and prone to “moods.” When I first came to college, I was avoiding church, for reasons explained here. I was also dating the first in a short line of bad boyfriends.

Arguably, any college freshman doesn’t know what they want or what their purpose in life is, and I was the epitome of such a neophyte. With relish, I displayed the infantile stereotypical female behavior as seen in P.S. I Love You. If this stereotype could talk, it would say:

“I don’t know what I want, but demand it from others, especially my significant other. Read my mind, though I don’t know my own. Cherish me to the extent that my every secret whimsical desire becomes your command. When you don’t comply, I will respond with withdrawn pouting fits or outright anger. I will try anything to satisfy this instinctual desire to be loved, including guilt and manipulation.”

The book Do You Think I’m Beautiful (highly recommended) brought much of these needs of mine to the forefront of my consciousness, but did nothing to change my behavior. Chris married me in this state. I peppered him with high expectations of romantic gifts and emotional sensitivity. Chris responded with a highly practical Northern Irish “Catch yourself on!” He’s not an overly romantic type, although he does show up spontaneously with flowers. Holidays aren’t much of an occasion for him and love letters are restricted to times of separation. His sacrifices for me are more on a practical level than an emotional one. For mother’s day, instead of a card, I got seven hours out of the house and dinner with my mom and a flower shopping trip.

When I told Chris I was pregnant only shortly after our engagement (unexpectedly, and yes, pre-marriage) he was on a plane and in the country in less than a week, facing the music. He was there rubbing my back to calm me during my vomitous morning sickness and seven months later marrying me, and eight months later in the horrifying birthing room (first time was rough!). He’s provided for me and my children, materially and spiritually. He’s fought me tooth and nail on issues like birth control and even getting a second car, because it’s not good for us no matter how much I want it. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a man like any other and has his good and bad moments. But in everything important, Chris has always been there for me, acting in love. He seeks my good instead of my desires.

Although I recognized this solid way in which Chris loved me, and married him for it, I wanted more. I wanted what I wanted. For the first year of our marriage and maybe some time after, I kept on with my “moods”. I would lament my sacrificed career. I displayed angst over my confining situation, the menial work, and lack of appreciation for it. If Chris didn’t respond sympathetically, I threw a fit. Sometimes I would sulk all day long if he didn’t instantly make me feel better. I wanted a house and a car, but we had to live with my parents for seven months until he got a work permit. Although we moved into an apartment within weeks of getting his new job, which was almost immediately after getting his permit for all the job hunting he had done, I tormented him with house hunting continuously for the next year.

Basically, I was trying to manipulate Chris to cater to my every subconscious whim, like a mind-reading puppy. You must understand that any failure of Chris’s to satisfy these desires of mine was not a short-coming on his part. It’s ridiculous for either partner in a marriage to put unrealistic expectations on their spouse and look for certain needs to be met by the other person, such as expecting the other person to make you happy. I think typical expectations put on husbands is that they be a warped Cary Grant role, manly and romantic, with a relentless need to make us women happy because they adore us so much. Unrealistic expectations of women tend to involve delusions of hyper-sex kitten status with mysterious allure and lack of need for brushing your hair or teeth in the morning. I’m less familiar with what men want from women, but I know they have different expectations and needs. The male version of Do You Think I’m Beautiful is Wild at Heart. Experts could explain that side better than I! But meeting these needs are not what marriage is about, and that’s not the way to have a successful relationship. My dad always told me you can’t change other people, you can only change the way you respond to them. And nobody can make you unhappy, only you can make yourself happy. Really all you can do is change your own behavior, and stop expecting fulfillment from a mere human.

Slowly, I began to change. I stopped throwing fits if I didn’t get my way. My moods started disappearing, giving way to a more stable acceptance of my daily grind. I started setting budget limits on birthday and Christmas gifts, far below my usual splurges. I satisfied myself with telling Chris what gifts I wanted instead of expecting him to read my mind. I began to value things that others didn’t recognize, things like family priorities and hard work done in obscurity. Suddenly, doing good for the sake of pleasing my God became important, for my sanctification and that of those around me. I focused more on the eternal value of what I do instead of the temporal value, much easier to do once you believe there is eternal value in what we do! With this change of values came a sense of security and peace. I don’t as much require someone to tell me what I’m doing is worthwhile, or need their approval and praise. I know what I’m about and why.

I don’t know when it started, but I know why. As time passed, I began to understand the Catholic Faith more. My entire world shifted off of my self and my desires as my understanding Catholicism helped me better understand what the imitation of Christ actually means. I grew closer to God in that I more desire His will rather than my own. I see Christ in those around me and want to serve them as if He’s standing there, my own Lord and savior. I remember first hearing Mother Teresa speak of seeing Christ in those she served and it sounded like some kind of backward nonsense to me. I had always heard we should be the light of Christ for others, not that they are that for us. Doesn’t that seem so backward now? “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt 16:24) “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33) or “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) Give up our selves. Give up our own perspective, our own desires, our own interpretation of the Bible, our own mission. Follow Christ, obey His Church, become His servant. I get it now, and it has changed me.

Oh, I’m still flawed. I have my days where I call Chris way too often at the office to whine about whiny babies. I have the hardest time seeing Christ in a three year old who far too often repeats “I want…” and “Why does it rain?” or “Why does Daddy have to go back to work?” without listening to the answers. It’s hard to take a servant’s attitude for a one year old who sits in his crib for an hour kicking his aquarium instead of sleeping. I snap and I yell. But now I hazard to call myself emotionally stable. My attitude has changed and my behavior is changing for the better. I’m nowhere near where I ought to be, but I can see a difference in myself and know what I’m working toward. I have peace.

My mom told me quite recently how she was proud to have a compassionate daughter like me, referring to how I treat those in need, the sick, and elderly. She said it seems to come naturally to me. It’s kind of funny, but it really doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I remember when I was young once, the hotels in the town we were visiting were full up, so we had to stay in the nursing home’s extra rooms. It caused me so much anxiety to be there that I got physically sick and was throwing up. Definitely not natural. But the way I see things is changing. I look at my 94 year old grandma, who’s frighteningly thin and has a hard time remembering us, and generally thinks all children are girls no matter how often she’s told otherwise, and she looks beautiful to me. I see her soul near the end of its journey on Earth and on the verge of passing on to meet our Lord, and I’m not afraid or repulsed anymore. She tells us how there’s nothing nicer than a family, and repeats how much she loves us, though she can’t remember exactly how I’m related to her, or how many children she has anymore. She remembers what matters. Looking at her, I realize I’m not as afraid of growing old anymore.

My friend from college noticed a change in me as well. During her visit, I told her how I’m so much happier and secure in what I’m doing now than I ever have been, and she can see it. She remembers my dark moments and sees them disappearing. She’s encouraging my Catholic conversion, though I don’t think she understands much of what I’m doing or why.

If someone wants proof of Catholicism, it’s here in the pudding. God gives us the grace to have faith, believe, and be changed, if we only let Him. I know not much we can say will change anyone’s mind, but I pray that God gives every unbeliever who reads this an open heart toward the Catholic faith, and gives believers encouragement in their faith.

Sacraments: “Everyone” or “Anyone”?

March 19, 2009

Before with my post, My Paradigm Shift, I marked the moment when I realized I had changed from a Protestant worldview to a Catholic worldview. Since then, I have wondered what it was that flipped the switch. The best I can do is to trace the force that caused the breakdown of my Protestant mindset back to a conversation with our old priest, Father Chuck, when we met with him to sign the papers to convalidate our marriage. Chris has already written a little about this, but I thought I could expand on the event a little and why this one thing got through to me when it seemed nothing else would.

Chris and I had gotten married before he had officially converted to Catholicism. I knew full well what I was getting into with him, though. He never minced words when it came to laying out his faith for me to accept him with it or reject them both. Living in Northern Ireland in a Protestant family and a Protestant neighborhood, there were many obstacles to his Catholic conversion. It turns out by immigrating to marry me, Chris was enabled to officially join the Church. It was during the process of RCIA, making preparations for the approaching Easter vigil two years ago at which Chris would take his First Communion and our daughter would be baptized, that several couples were getting their marriages convalidated.

I couldn’t understand the other couples’ cavilier attitude. They behaved as if they were just checking something off the list as they went about joining just another church. I had something of the attitude that I was already married and already said my vows, and once is good enough. Otherwise it would imply that we didn’t mean it the first time or our commitment had waned since then and our marriage needed “refresher” vows. But we met with the priest and I was ready to grumpily sign the papers under protest that my husband’s faith forced me to do all kinds of crazy things on his behalf. Chris would have none of my false sacrificial spirituality and so wanted to make sure that I was comfortable with the whole thing before we committed to it. Then we talked about convalidation.

I related my view on vow renewals, that it somehow invalidated our initial vows, and Father Chuck kindly asked why in light of the fact that Protestants rebaptize people. That’s somewhat like renewing vows, isn’t it? I can’t remember what I stammered out in reply to that, but we went on discussing exactly what convalidation was and meant. Father Chuck repeatedly called it a blessing. I thought I understood blessings, and I was fine with that. If the Catholic Church wanted to ask God to bless our marriage or give their approval for it, let them. Then occasionally he threw in the word “sacramental”, saying that a marriage outside of the Church wasn’t sacramental.

Every time the word “blessing” was mentioned, I calmed down. But every time Father Chuck said the word “sacrament”, the hairs on my neck stood up. What’s a sacrament?, I thought. Outwardly I bristled, “What do you mean my marriage isn’t sacramental!?” How dare anyone say my marriage is missing something! So I asked why the blessing of the Catholic Church was necessary to make it sacramental. Father Chuck seemed to be having a hard time warping his mind, trying to understand exactly where I was coming from and why this concept was so difficult for me. He tried to tell me we needed a priest to perform the blessing. “Why do we need a priest? We already had a pastor marry us and bless us.” Because a pastor hasn’t been ordained by the Church to administer sacraments. What’s a sacrament??

In my usual fumbling and incoherent manner, I explained to Father Chuck that I had been raised to believe that God and His grace was equally available to everyone. A lightbulb appeared over his head. He leaned back in his chair and said, “So you think that anyone is able to perform marriages and convey God’s graces?”

Well, no.

I went on conversing with myself:

Well then, who?

Certainly we cannot base it on our own spirituality. I’ve seen how that doesn’t work. We all fall short of the grace of God.

Then, who?

Only those ordained by God through the Holy Spirit.

Who has been ordained by God through the Holy Spirit?

I don’t know. But I don’t think being ordained by men who have formed a church of their own accord is the same as being ordained by the Holy Spirit. It should look like something… like something real… so those of us seeking Him can find His grace…

But I replied to Father Chuck, “Uh… yeah.” We left without signing the papers and still haven’t convalidated our marriage. I think my pride still says “How dare you say my marriage is missing something!” But that simple word change, from everyone to anyone, had worked on my thoughts for a year and a half before I began to understand it.

God gives us actual grace. He has left us actual means to come to Him and receive that grace, and those means are known as “sacraments”. However, He has not based the conferrence of His grace on our own righteousness or that of the person administering sacraments, because “not one is righteous” (Rom 3:9-10). Instead, He has given His blessing, and enabled some of us sinful creatures to serve as His instruments of grace through His ordination. That ordination can be found in Christ’s choice of the twelve disciples and His life given to them, Him living in them and through them, at the Last Supper, passed on through those men by the laying on of hands to others who would succeed them. By partaking of the sacraments, we acknowledge our utter dependence on God and His grace, denying our own merit to find these things apart from Him and His chosen.

It’s not surprising that the concept of sacraments and things sacred as blessed by those ordained by Christ through Apostolic succession was completely foreign to me. What is sacred in the Protestant world apart from the Bible? I don’t know much about those Protestant churches who retain “sacraments” as they call them, but it is not like the Catholic term. Reading through Luther’s biography, Luther the Reformer: The Man and His Career, I see the reduction of sacraments from seven to two, and the debate of any actual grace being conferred. Though Luther steadfastly held to baptism and the Eucharist and desired reform of the Catholic Church, his contemporaries were looking for a way to separate from the Church, not only from the authority of the pope but also from the power of the priests in the sacraments. If the Eucharist hold the real presence of Christ and real graces are conferred in sacraments, then the priesthood is necessary. They knew there was no turning to our own qualifications to confer God’s grace. If there was actual grace, then we needed those ordained by God. Their solution was simply to destroy the sacred, annihilate the sacraments, and maintain that God’s grace is only ephemeral and handed out on a case by case basis by the Holy Spirit working alone.

Much like the Eucharist drew Chris to the Catholic Church, the sacraments drew me in. I began to understand how God works through us and not by our own merit. This humble reliance on God’s grace was in stark contrast with the theology of glory found in my early evangelical days, complete with pastor veneration and self-proclaimed callings. Things began to fall into place. For me, Sunday fellowship began to depend on the sacraments instead of the pastor’s ability to preach a good sermon. The unity of the Church depends on God grace and our submission to Him, not on the greatness of any given man to lend logic, consistency and loyalty to his theology. All because God chose to use Father Chuck and two little words, “everyone” and “anyone”, to reveal His sacraments to me.

Responding to the Liturgy in Love and Unity

March 10, 2009

I’m not sure I have the delicacy or balance to be discussing the issue of orthodoxy in the Catholic liturgy. However, I have seen many extreme blog posts crying for orthodoxy, and none giving it balance urging acceptance of flaws in the Church community. I will make my best attempt to give such balance, and I beg from everyone that they not take offense. Any reference that may sound like you is not. I assure everyone that the issues I’m discussing are not just found in one or even a couple places.

There is a general cry among bloggers, especially of recent converts to Catholicism or those contemplating conversion, to have a strictly orthodox mass. There are complaints about semi-heretical music choices and flubbed wording in the liturgy. I have heard complaints about the “Judas shufflers” ducking out after communion, which happens to be my pet peeve. Worse, RCIA poorly catechizes initiates and they’re left with confused and vague notions of the Church. Most seriously, there are complaints about poor handling of the Eucharist. Since Vatican II relaxed many things including the liturgy, some believe those on the ground have taken the freedoms too far. Catholic parishes are accused of trying to be Protestant in their laxness and trendiness. Thankfully, Pope Benedict XVI seems to be fighting against this backlash from Vatican II.

This isn’t the whole story. There are plenty of people who love their bishops and I’m one of them. I love Archbishop Naumann and Bishop Finn, who both have urged the priorities of life and charity in their diocese. During election time, they were hugely vocal about pro-life issues, and even now they fight FOCA and similar legislation with a vengeance. More than ever during these economic hardships, they not only urge parishioners to share with their fellow man and give to the Archbishop’s Call to Share appeal, which supports programs and charities in the area (it has already exceeded its goal of $4 million), but they also urge those in need to come forward and give their brothers an opportunity to share with them. One of our priests gives regular homilies on being a proper Catholic, stressing personal encounter with Christ and sincere and complete observance in every expression of it. There are people doing it right, and people who want to do it right, including those bloggers crying for orthodoxy.

Besides those specific examples, the Church as a whole is getting things right. Running in online apologetic circles, I’m convinced more than ever that the insipid, passive, ignorant stereotype of all Catholics is just a stereotype and there are plenty of examples of those well-versed and passionate in the Faith. Also, the Church still stands against homosexuality, contraception, and abortion where all others have fallen by the wayside. Without a strong root of faith and the blessing of God working through His children, we would never see such positive fruit.

Still, there are those who would separate themselves from the failing liturgies and unorthodox communities. Many travel a long way to find an orthodox mass to attend. But why? Doing that is not addressing the problem. I believe it may even worsen the problem by removing those few who do carefully observe from the community that so desperately needs them. What is the motivation in such a case? I do not pretend to read the hearts of men and women, but if the motivation is selfish, so that said person can distance themselves from the rotten apples and experience the pleasure of orthodoxy, then the motivation is wrong. In all things, we must be motivated by love that is not inward-looking and divisive, but outward-looking and unitive.

Some may protest from their love for God that abuses in the liturgy dishonor Him, and scandalize others, making it difficult to worship Him. Honor and glory given to God is important in itself, but is this the sole purpose of the liturgy? Don’t we all profess the same creed and say the Lord’s prayer, partake of the same divine nature in the Eucharist, to preserve unity of the Faith and of the Body of Christ? Take care with this protest that your motivation is not pure legalism. The liturgy is designed to honor God, but I believe it is designed mostly to unify the Church in the Faith. Legalistic attitudes only destroy the purpose of the liturgy and divide the Body of Christ further.

Yet another reason everyone seems to be so passionate about orthodoxy in the liturgy is because it affects our Faith. This is how we are spiritually fed and how we maintain and pass on the beliefs of our Faith. But we must not make the mistake of thinking messy liturgy causes lazy faith, rather the opposite is true. The poorly catechized and careless individuals are the source of this complaint. We can’t just fix the liturgy when it is merely a symptom. Lack of faith in the people is the real problem, but separating ourselves from them is not the answer. Instead, we must work to strengthen the faith of others by being a good example, giving our fellowship, and volunteering to teach and serve them.

My primary concern is not checking what people are saying or doing, it’s checking the motivation behind their criticism. Our words and actions must be motivated by love, or the most perfect liturgy sounding of the “tongues of men and angels” is worth nothing. For easy reference, I’ve included the entire description of a response born in love below.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)

Maybe we should ask ourselves whether we want orthodox liturgy because it better honors God, or because it better serves a need to feel close to Him. In the latter case, we may be ignoring committed faith which overcomes that empty loss of the presence of God. This kind of faith has become vitally important for me since attending to the needs of my children make it nigh impossible to work up an emotional connect to God, especially during mass. Mother Teresa lived with this kind of emptiness for fifty years. She told Malcolm Muggeridge, who was suffering from the same:

Your longing for God is so deep and yet He keeps Himself away from you. He must be forcing Himself to do so — because he loves you so much — the personal love Christ has for you is infinite — The Small difficulty you have regarding His Church is finite — Overcome the finite with the infinite.

In an article about Come Be My Light, we hear more about abandoning our feelings and working in commitment:

Kolodiejchuk thinks the book may act as an antidote to a cultural problem. “The tendency in our spiritual life but also in our more general attitude toward love is that our feelings are all that is going on,” he says. “And so to us the totality of love is what we feel. But to really love someone requires commitment, fidelity and vulnerability. Mother Teresa wasn’t ‘feeling’ Christ’s love, and she could have shut down. But she was up at 4:30 every morning for Jesus, and still writing to him, ‘Your happiness is all I want.’ That’s a powerful example even if you are not talking in exclusively religious terms.”

I do understand that the liturgy is important, and if we are critical of it out of concern for the corporate Body of Christ and love for God, then there are certain actions available to us. The canon law says it is the duty of the priest to guard against abuses and ensure the nourishment of the faithful through “devout celebration”. It also declares the right of the faithful to take their opinions and needs to the priest, adding that we should act in concern for the common good of the Church and in reverence and obedience to the priest.

Canon 528 §2. He is to work so that the Christian faithful are nourished through the devout celebration of the sacraments and, in a special way, that they frequently approach the sacraments of the Most Holy Eucharist and penance. He is also to endeavor that they are led to practice prayer even as families and take part consciously and actively in the sacred liturgy which, under the authority of the diocesan bishop, the pastor must direct in his own parish and is bound to watch over so that no abuses creep in.

Can. 212 §1. Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church.

§2. The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.

§3. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

Can. 218 Those engaged in the sacred disciplines have a just freedom of inquiry and of expressing their opinion prudently on those matters in which they possess expertise, while observing the submission due to the magisterium of the Church.

Can. 223 §1. In exercising their rights, the Christian faithful, both as individuals and gathered together in associations, must take into account the common good of the Church, the rights of others, and their own duties toward others.

§2. In view of the common good, ecclesiastical authority can direct the exercise of rights which are proper to the Christian faithful.

Throughout, we must be careful of our own behavior. Working for the common good means not only striving for the sanctification of your community through faithful observance, but also avoiding divisive and negative language toward the Church. If our efforts outlined above and our requests directed toward those in authority meet with overruling, we must submit quietly. Love and obedience guide the sound walk of the Catholic faithful. Above all, behave in a manner worthy of the gospel, and, in every thing we do, build up the Body of Christ.

The frustration of living with rejected efforts and careless liturgies may be hard to deal with, but take heart. St. Josemaria Escriva contemplates the dual-natured Body of Christ, that of humanity and that of divinity, in In Love with the Church. Perhaps he can help us see past the despairing treason in the Church, and love her, flaws and all.

In the visible body of the Church, in the behavior of men who make it up here on earth, we find weaknesses, vacillations, and acts of treason. But that is not the whole Church, nor is it to be confused with this unworthy behavior. On the other hand, here and now, there is no shortage of generosity, of heroism, of holy lives that make no noise, that are spent with joy in the service of their brothers in the faith and of all souls.

I would also like you to consider that even if human failings were to outnumber acts of valor, the clear undeniable mystical reality of the Church, though unperceived by the senses, would still remain. The Church would still be the Body of Christ, our Lord himself, the action of the Holy Spirit and the loving presence of the Father.

The Church is, therefore, inseparably human and divine…

It would be a serious mistake to attempt to separate the charismatic Church, supposedly the sole follower of Christ’s spirit, from the juridical or institutional Church, the handiwork of men, subject to historical vicissitudes. There is only one Church…

Faith, I repeat. Let us believe more, asking the Blessed Trinity, whose feast we celebrate today, for greater faith. Anything can happen, except for the thrice holy God to abandon his spouse.

I believe we should approach the Church in the same way we approach marriage. A marriage based on unrealistic expectations is doomed to fail. One in which both partners are grounded in reality, aware of their duties and committed to them, and willing to overlook a good deal of imperfection is bound to be happy and fulfilling. Like in a marriage, we need things from the Church, but she needs us as well. Although we go to her so that our needs can be met, our duty is to perform our specific function with perfection. We must know our place and perfectly fulfill our call, trusting that Christ will fulfill his promise and meet our needs in return.

Despite the loss of orthodox liturgy, we are still needed to serve the broken Church in the hope of healing her. Your broken and sinful communities need you. If you know more about the faith than the RCIA instructor, get certified as a catechist, and volunteer to teach. Befriend your fellow Catholics, join the community, be a good example of how a devout Catholic should behave at mass. Request traditional songs of your choral director. I requested Latin hymns to the chagrin of our old choral director, but she complied. You may be surprised how God can use your effort.

I urge everyone, do not abandon your communities, do not rob them of your fellowship — you are needed right where you are! Don’t separate yourselves from them because they are not good enough. None of us are. Don’t grumble, and do not speak out of turn and correct those in authority over you unless it’s serious enough that the mass may not be valid. Be certain that you strive for personal perfection in the body of Christ because of a sincere and holy love for Christ and his Spouse, and not out of an obtuse legalism. When our motivation is always, first and foremost, love for God, and, secondly, love for our neighbor, then we will not go wrong.

Living in a Mixed Marriage

February 2, 2009

A vital part of marriage is sharing your faith. Living in a mixed marriage, myself being some sort of non-denominational evangelical Protestant and my husband being a Catholic convert, has shown me firsthand exactly why so many people put an emphasis on being equally yoked in this respect, and how hard it can be when you are not. It is not impossible to have a happy mixed marriage, but there are many difficulties that arise and a lot of opportunities for compromise and growth!

Despite our differences, I have been blessed to be able to share my faith with my husband even from the beginning. His authentic faith is what drew me to him in the first place, and it’s something that I continue to admire in him and it’s one of the things I love most about him. God has given me a perfect match, in which I feel unbelievably blessed. The circumstances of our meeting convince me that God had this planned all along. His plan is better than anything I could come up with, so I’m all in. Here’s some of the work He has done:

In a mixed marriage, there are many opportunities for growth that come in the form of fervent prayer and frustration accompanied with heartache – sanctification at its best. There is an inability to share the deepest part of yourself with the person most important to you in the world. If you’re like me and have a hard time expressing yourself, the frustration is compounded by an inability to help the other person see your perspective. From my experience, the best advice I can give is to beg for understanding first, before acceptance. Communication is top priority. A huge relief can come from just knowing that the other person understands what you’re saying, regardless of if they agree. For me and my husband, this involved a lot of repeating back (a tried and true counseling method) to check that we’ve listened correctly, and a lot of yelling phrases like “Please let me finish and just listen!” As a woman, I’ve had to overcome my innate need to be treasured which gets twisted to me wanting to be understood without having to say everything. Don’t ask me, I just live with it. So I’ve had to work to tell Chris when I need something from him or I’m angry or whatever might be going on with me. Hard work to change your twisted self-centered nature, I tell ya what.

Once we understood each other a little better, it was a lot easier to start swallowing all that pride and make compromises. A lot of the compromise happened on my side of things for a few reasons. First, I’m a woman and as such I am submissive to my husband. Secondly, I wanted to maintain unity in our family, so I rejected a few of the compromises Chris offered on that basis. Lastly, I had a more permissive faith which allowed me to acquiesce to the restrictions of Chris’s faith so as to not cause his conscience to sin (1 Cor. 8:9). Looking back, each compromise took a lot of effort and I resented it somewhat at first, but a peaceful home is priceless.

I’ve detailed the compromises on baptism and contraception in a previous post. But we also had to decide where to go to church on Sunday mornings. That implies a lot more than just how you spend your Sunday mornings, because where you go to church determines the spiritual atmosphere of your home. Chris offered to go to Mass alone and we could all go to my parent’s non-denomination church together on Sunday mornings. I hated the idea of him living out his faith without me. Maybe I’m clingy. But I also believed I could live my faith out in a Catholic church as well as I could in a Protestant one, and I have. I believe that maintaining your faith in Christ regardless of your surroundings is an incredible witness. I ended up being witnessed to instead.

There are some issues that we still haven’t worked through. For instance, we were married before he officially converted, so when he did convert, it came time to have our marriage “blessed” by a priest. I am not comfortable with these vow renewals and the reasons behind them, so we have not done this, and I think we only will if I do convert. He was careful not to push me into the blessing, and only wants me to do it if I am alright with it. In fact, Chris’s attitude in this whole thing has been a wonderful. He never expected me to convert and never asked anything of me that I didn’t volunteer apart from the obvious things regarding how we live our lives.

Logistical problems aside, it takes a lot to understand and be understood when you live out a five hundred year old squabble in your family life. But it is worth every single minute of it to come out on the other side. I can’t explain how much I better understand my own faith, where it has come from, how it applies to my daily existence and how best to live it out. I’ve worked out problems that I’d shelved with Christianity as a whole and come to a secure and solid belief in God. In this process, I’ve changed more than my husband with respect to beliefs, but these changes were a completion and not a negation of the faith I already had.

I remember at one point, after I had lost a small fight with my husband, I told him, “I’ll be so mad at you if you’re right about all of this!!!” and he replied, “Why? Wouldn’t you love it if we were unified as a family?” It now looks like that’s where we are headed, and I am not angry. There’s a peace and joy I feel that’s wholly unexpected, but very welcome. I pray for all those in similar situations that they can experience that as well. After all, the main reason I began this blog was the hope that I could help others overcome the same obstacles that Chris and I have.

So I married a Catholic

November 24, 2008

I can very clearly remember the moment I realized Chris was the man for me. We were three days into our acquaintance, sitting outside of a bar with several other astronomers, sharing a bench. My boss brought to light my Christianity while harassing me about drinking a beer. Chris responded with the most welcome and lovely rant about the truth of God, His undeniable existence, and how science and God were most certainly compatable. I was looking at a man with a real and solid faith, and couldn’t help thinking “I could marry this man!” A year and a couple days later, I did.

The fact that Chris was Catholic never entered into the equation in those early days. I only saw a Christian, a man of God, a man of faith, a man who could lead me in the spirit. Weeks later, when we were talking long distance, we began to encounter obstacles in combining a Protestant and Catholic life together. It’s hard even to remember now, having come so far in our understanding, what those difficulties were and what frame of mind I was in. In following posts, I intend to do my best to outline these things, in effort to help others spot the misconceptions.

Obstacles still remain, not in sharing a life together, but in my contemplated conversion to Catholicism. I can’t join the church if I don’t believe in transubstantiation, can’t accept the authority of the pope, or believe Mary was “ever virgin”. But these things didn’t really make an appearance until later. In the beginning, it was the more common and ridiculous misconceptions that got in the way.

For instance, I thought the pope was the Antichrist and Chris would follow him against Christ and into Hell. I thought he worshipped Mary. Banning the use of contraception seemed barbaric to me. Baptizing babies was ludicrous. Praying to the saints was idolitrous. All the liturgy seemed dead. Where did they come up with Pergatory? And why wasn’t I allowed to take communion?

Now, I have come to see the Catholic Church as a marvelous and massive force for good standing alone in a world of despair. There is so much support for Christians in their local churches. There are so many Catholic charities worldwide. It seems the Catholic bishops were the only ones screaming in outrage when Obama promised unregulated abortion as his first act in office. There is so much guidance, and two thousand years of tradition and understanding to back it up.

I think if anyone is trying to overcome their misconceptions with the Catholic Church, the first thing they need to do is to actually attend one for a while. You’ll quickly see that Christ is at the center of Catholicism. Then you should find someone who knows what they’re talking about and discuss (or argue) things with them. Finally, you should clear up any doubts or questions you have by reading up on issues. Things are not always as they’re represented. Ironically, I think Hollywood has a better idea of what the Church is like than Protestants do.