Catholicism is well known for its opposition to contraception, but some women within the church are attempting to paint the church's stance on birth control as freeing rather than restrictive. How are they going to pull that off? By promoting natural family planning as an accepted Catholic practice for avoiding pregnancy, not achieving it. But, you might find yourself saying, isn't that method a form of contraception? Many people sure seem to think so... Let the controversy ensue!
One of the most public figures in the effort to "rebrand" the church's reputation is Ashley McGuire, who became a Catholic about five years ago. At first, the 26-year-old saw the church's policy on birth control as forcing women into "domestic slavery." However, she gradually began to think the policy really centered around making sex about more than just physical pleasure. She now argues that the church's policy on contraception has been poorly understood. She's promoting natural family planning as an acceptable practice for Catholics, and she hopes people will start thinking of Catholic people as having a "great, communicative sex life, a chemical-free body and babies only when the parents believe the time is right."
So just how flexible is the Catholic doctrine on this topic? Depends on whom you ask. The official word was delivered by Pope Paul VI in 1968. While he said couples could delay or decide not to have kids "for serious reasons," there was no explanation of what exactly those would be. Still, it was clear contraception wasn't welcome at the party. He wrote that couples, "are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life." They must follow "the will of God and remember . . . that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life." And thus began 40-some-odd years of debate.
Before we go any further, let's be clear about what exactly we're talking about in terms of natural family planning. Also called the fertility awareness method (and sometimes called the rhythm method), it involves a woman tracking her fertile periods using signs like temperature and cervical mucus. It's a way to either increase your chances of getting pregnant or to keep from getting pregnant. And while it's definitely a drug free method of contraception, many fertility experts (and many people with unplanned babies) maintain that it's not terribly effective, since there's a lot of room for error.
Whether or not it's considered contraception by the Catholic Church is—you guessed it—up for discussion. While the fertility awareness method has been sanctioned by many in the church, McGuire has been on the receiving end of some protests after saying that official Catholic publications needed to do away with images of women in frumpy pastel clothing holding lots of babies and instead promote natural family planning as a way to avoid getting pregnant. The opposition to this approach says that it's "selfish and un-Catholic" and that it's the same as all the other forms of birth control because "it can enable parents to put career goals ahead of babies." Gulp.
Those in favor of natural family planning say that it's a way to get in touch with your "unmedicated, God-given rhythms." And that it falls within the boundaries of the Pope's ruling, since there's nothing that says explicitly that NOT having sex is a form of contraception. Then again, it kind of goes against the whole they "are not free to act as they choose" bit.
Those in favor of fertility awareness say the church needs to reconsider how it promotes natural family planning. Right now, it uses outdated images of women with loads of babies. Says the Post, "A church-sponsored class on the method uses a book with a woman on the cover, smiling as she balances a grocery bag on one hip, a baby on the other."
McGuire says of this kind of imagery, "My guess is 99 out of 100 21st-century women trying to navigate the decision about contraception would see that cover and run for the hills." Maybe, but does that mean that the Catholic Church should bend to appeal to those women or simply that they shouldn't be Catholics if they don't want to follow God's will vis a vis getting knocked up? While appealing to a broader group of women might be at the heart of this rebranding effort, it's also about helping women who are already Catholic navigate the church's beliefs. Jennifer Fulwiler, a Catholic who has five children and uses natural family planning, says it's all in the way it's pitched,
It ends up being this lofty, ‘Isn't every baby a precious blessing?' Meanwhile, you have one kid with colic [and] some 2-year-old pulling on your pants. It just doesn't resonate. There needs to be a modernizing.
Modernizing the Catholic Church has never been an easy task, and there's certainly an argument to be made that a better way to modernize it would be to reverse or modify its anti-contraception stance rather than worrying about the pictures it uses on it's brochures. But McGuire, who you may not be surprised to learn is pregnant herself, believes it can be done:
"I envision marketing where there are simple phrases associated with" natural family planning, she said. "Like: 'Know your body!' or "Live freely!'"
Ahh, yes, knowing your body and living freely, two things which the Catholic Church has been freely promoting since back in the days of, ohhh, never. It shouldn't be any problem to get them to evolve at this late date.
Image via Ewa Walicka/Shutterstock.