As the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae approaches, there’s been a lot of talk about the way we present and promote NFP to couples. One message keeps turning up: Enough with the sunshine and buttercups. We must stop telling couples, “Just use NFP, and you’ll automatically become close, learn to communicate, divorce-proof your marriage, and fall head over heels in love with the beauty of the human body.” For too many people, their experience is just the opposite. I literally wrote the book on this topic, and I’m terribly glad to see others addressing it.
The problem with the sunshine-and-buttercups approach is not just that people might happily sign on, then find NFP harder than expected, and then be disappointed. The problem is that they’ll happily sign on, find NFP harder than expected, become bitterly angry that someone representing the Church lied to them, and then leave the Church. Or leave the Church because if it’s so clearly wrong about something as important as sex, it must be wrong about more minor things. Or leave the Church because something that others find easy, they find difficult, so they must not belong. Or they will leave the spouse who still wants to obey the Church. Or they will make the life of that spouse miserable. Or they will quit looking for ways to make NFP work, and just go get sterilized so it’s not an issue anymore. When the promised sunshine and buttercups don’t materialize, it doesn’t just affect their attitude NFP; it affects their attitude toward their spouse, toward the Church, and toward God. Heavy stuff.
So why do NFP programs continue to promote it this way?
First, for some couples, NFP actually does come easily and yield bounteous rewards. Real, live, healthy couples who love each other and enjoy sex do sometimes find NFP manageable and marriage-building, without years and years of harrowing angst and trauma while they figure it out. Their experience is valid and worth acknowledging. So there’s that.
The second reason this approach is popular, though, is that — well, this is how you sell things. You make it look good. If I were selling a house, I wouldn’t immediately drag the potential buyer around on a tour of every squeaky floor board, leaky ceiling, and funny-smelling closet. I’d wouldn’t hide these things, but I wouldn’t lead with them, either. Instead, I’d make sure there were bright flowers planted outside and fresh paint on the walls. I’d make it easy for the buyer to imagine moving in and having a happy life there. Once they’ve taken ownership and settled in, they can figure out how to deal with the necessary repairs and renovations.
“The most effective way to promote NFP is to remind—or convince—couples that using contraception is not in keeping with their dignity, and then to help them act in a more dignified way. This involves presenting the Church’s teaching on contraception in its holistic ethical context; it involves providing resources that help the couple live out the teaching well; it involves communities and families that offer an authentic witness and engage in meaningful accompaniment.”
A tall order, but it’s hard to argue. I wonder how we can apply this approach to other aspects of Church teaching, specifically on sexuality. Recently, a friend passionately defended a Catholic church that chose to fly a LGBTQ+ rainbow flag outside. She considered it a no-brainer: We are the church of love. We do not consider anyone unwelcome. If we don’t signal to the world that we are ready to love and welcome all peoples, then why in the world should we expect them to come to us and have what we have? Put out more flags!
It sounds good, but I couldn’t help thinking how I would feel if I were gay — especially if I were in a relationship with someone, maybe was raising a family together. If I saw that rainbow flag on a church, I’d find it appealing. I’d feel welcomed, and I’d feel drawn to it. I would think they meant it would be easy for me to move in to the Catholic Church and make a home there.
But then eventually, presumably, I’d run into actual Catholic teaching. Actual Catholic teaching is that all people are to be treated with dignity and respect as children of God, but that homosexual acts are objectively wrong. You are most certainly welcome, but you may have to give up far more than what you bargained for. Yes, this is still what the Church teaches. No, it’s not going to change.
I wouldn’t just be disappointed, after having the rug pulled out from under me that way. I’d become bitterly angry that someone representing the Church lied to me, and then I’d leave the Church. Or I’d leave the Church because if it’s so clearly wrong about something as important as sex, it must be wrong about more minor things, so why bother? Or I’d think that reconciling my sexuality with my faith is something that others find easy, but I find difficult, so I must not belong. So long, Catholic Church. So long, body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ.
That’s what you get when you lead with sunshine, buttercups, and rainbows.
I understand the idea of incrementalism. I understand accepting people where they are, accompanying them, and praying with them as they gradually become more open to the fullness of the truth, whether they’re deeply invested in a homosexual relationship or deeply invested in a contraceptive relationship. You can’t accompany someone unless they decide walk through the door, so you want that door to look as welcoming as possible. Plant flowers. Put a fresh coat of paint. Hang a rainbow flag. It is our job to be loving first, so as to make it possible for people to receive the law and then identify it as the same thing as love. I understand this.
But where do we draw the line between accompaniment and bait and switch?
I don’t have an answer, except to say that the very difficulty of the question reminds us how much our success truly lies with the Holy Spirit, and not with our own cleverness.
When we find ourselves the unwilling messengers of hard teachings, we may recoil, as Moses first did when God called him. Eventually Moses did accept his heavy calling (and he enlisted his brother to do some of the talking).
But he was always very clear that the power to change Pharaoh’s heart — and later, the Israelite’s hearts — came from God, not from him. When he leaned too heavily on his own efforts, he failed.
So any time we wonder if we are using the right approach when we present the Church’s teaching to a skeptical crowd, that thought must be foremost in our hearts: This is God’s law, born of God’s love. He’s the one who can draw people into His house. Through our efforts, yes, but by His power, not ours.
In times like these, when messages about sexual morality are met with more scorn, hostility, and disbelief perhaps more than any other time in recent memory, we’re forced to remember that other people’s souls are in God’s hands, not in ours. It makes sense to work hard to find a good strategy, and to quit doing things that make things worse; but ultimately, there is no guaranteed winning strategy. There is only Christ. He is more willing to speak to people’s hearts than we realize, if we would only stop outmaneuvering Him. Christ doesn’t need marketing to maximize His salvific efforts. He needs us to do our best and throw ourselves on His mercy, and that’s it.