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By Dr. Jay Boyd, Ph.D.
I received this email from a woman named Amy Merhaut just the other day, and she has kindly agreed that I might post it here. Please read it all the way through — whether you are single, married and young, married and old, or anything else. There is a lesson and a truth here that goes beyond the rhetoric of the NFP debate. (I've added a few emphases.)
My husband and I had practiced and promoted NFP for 14 years and aggressively promoted it to engaged couples in our Vicariate Marriage Preparation program. We were obnoxious about trying to persuade engaged and married couples to discontinue using artificial contraception and try NFP.
About two years ago, we began experiencing what I can best describe as a "nudge." Suddenly we had feelings of doubt regarding NFP. We noticed that we were lacking in humility because, let's face it, abstaining during the fertile time in your cycle is really, really difficult and takes great restraint. We mistook our restraint as power, and spent many years believing we were very important people, with a message from God, that artificial contraception users desperately needed to hear — or else they were on the fast track to Hell. We also realized that we, as well as other NFP Promoters in our Marriage Preparation program, were constantly trying to come up with new ways to "get the NFP message out there." Several times a year, we would brainstorm ways to repackage the NFP message to make it more appealing to engaged and married couples. We always felt an urgent need to persuade people to use NFP instead of artificial contraception.
And then, it finally sank in. The Catholic Church does not requires its members to use NFP. All (as if this "all" is small beans!) the Church asks is that Catholics couples not use artificial contraception and that they remain open to new life in their marriages.
But allow me to digress ...
Four years ago I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The very first thought that went through my head was, "Oh no! No more babies!" I was devastated, as our eighth child was almost 2 and my husband and I were hoping for more children. We decided to use NFP to prevent pregnancy and considered my MS a serious reason to do so. I became pregnant soon after, and I remember thinking and saying, "What did I do wrong that I became pregnant?" Sadly, my pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Two more times I became pregnant, and two more times I wondered what I was doing wrong that I kept ending up pregnant. Again, those pregnancies ended in miscarriage as well.
The third miscarriage was something from a nightmare. Unlike the previous two pregnancies, I actually felt pregnant. I had morning sickness, I was tired, I felt new life growing inside me. Then the spotting began again. I went in for an ultrasound at 12 weeks and saw a beautiful, perfectly formed baby — with no heartbeat. I was truly blindsided. The "demise," as they called it, occurred at 10 weeks. I chose to miscarry at home rather than endure a gruesome a dilation and curettage abortion that would tear apart our beautiful child. It took three weeks for the miscarriage, and then I almost died on our bathroom floor from blood loss. It was recommended to us that we not conceive again because another miscarriage could end my life. With heavy hearts, we agreed.
We had to figure out what we had been doing "wrong" with our NFP use so I would not become pregnant again, which meant more abstinence. On top of that, we were deeply grieving our lost children and the realization that our childbearing years were over. I was barely surviving. Slowly, as the days passed, my husband and I settled into a new normal. Our youngest child was now over three, and we could leave our children for a few hours at a time. You could say my husband and I started dating again with the time we made for each other.
The more time alone my husband and I spent together, the more difficult abstinence became. We started cheating on the NFP rules, knowing full well pregnancy was possible, but just kind of winging it and trusting in God's plan for us.
After 3 months of blatant NFP rule-breaking, I was pregnant again … and terrified. But this time I did not feel like we had done anything "wrong." We knew in our hearts we had left the option of pregnancy up to God, not prayerful discernment or physicians. Still, I prayed for an early miscarriage all day every day, as images of our lifeless baby haunted my every waking moment. I went to reconciliation, explained our story to the priest, and confessed what I had been doing. I received loving words from the priest that encouraged me to change my prayers and continue to trust in God. My husband and I set small goals for our pregnancy, and each time we reached one, we rejoiced. Then our midwives ordered an ultrasound to check for fetal viability. I lay on the table waiting, waiting, and I saw our baby. There was a heartbeat! Praise God! As I write this, I am nursing our sleeping nine-month-old baby boy, born on my husband's birthday.
During my pregnancy, I admitted to my husband that I never wanted to use NFP again. Thankfully, he agreed. Despite my MS, and despite my age (43!), I had never felt better. I truly believe it is because I was with child — exactly how God wanted me to be. We were given the gift of our son because we trusted God to plan our life, not doctors, not ourselves.
So back to the nudge ... In retrospect, my husband and I were guilty of the "theological narcissism" that Pope Francis has been speaking of. We felt empowered by our NFP knowledge, quoting Theology of the Body and Humanae Vitae ad nauseum. We lived life looking for moments to insert NFP into a conversation, all the while using phrases and words like: "God's Plan for your life," "effective," "in harmony with Catholic teaching," "safe," "natural," "affordable," "green," "enhances communication," "open to life," etc., etc., etc. But is NFP open to life if you are preventing pregnancy? No. Is using NFP truly God's plan for your family if you are preventing pregnancy? No.
We believe our initial nudge turned into God shoving us off our high horse so we could land in the dirt and have nowhere to look but up … at Him. John 3:30 says, "He must increase, I must decrease." We resigned from teaching our marriage preparation program because it has an NFP agenda we cannot support. We no longer feel the desperate need to promote NFP, all day, every day. Our NFP friends keep their distance from us now. And we feel an extraordinary peace, knowing that at least in this aspect of our life, we are truly trusting God to mold and shape our marriage and our family.
My husband and I believe the main reason couples aren't interested in learning NFP is because we promoters are hypocrites. Whether you are using artificial contraception or NFP, the end result is the same — no babies. All the lingo that I listed earlier, which NFP promoters use to inspire couples to learn NFP, is simply church-speak for Catholic birth control. We started using NFP after we delivered our fourth child in six years. I had previously taken the pill, but had too many side effects so I stopped using it. My husband and I were expanding our family quickly, and we wanted a natural way to space the babies. We learned about NFP in a diocesan marriage preparation teacher-training program. We embraced learning about and using NFP so we could begin spacing our children.
So there you have it. Despite being a devoutly Catholic couple, we were contraception-minded, and NFP is contraception. Thankfully, we have used NFP to prevent pregnancy maybe 12–15 months in 14 years of knowing NFP. But how many souls did we purposefully prevent from being in our family? I grieve just thinking about it. Even worse, how many souls have we prevented blessing this earth by encouraging other couples to use NFP? May God forgive us.
There really is no way to promote being open to life other than to genuinely and faithfully live what the Catholic Church teaches. Hopefully, when people see our large family, they will notice our happiness and our peace, and they will want what we have. We certainly don't have the most money, or the most fashionable clothes, or the most up-to-date electronics, or the most well-furnished home, or the coolest vehicles (although our 12-passenger van is legendary for the fun you may have as a guest passenger!). We struggle and we sacrifice, sometimes a lot of both at the same time. But we have a wealth and abundance of love, playmates, helpers and friends. There is no hypocrisy in that.