Why contraception will never save the world.

Last week, a Huffington Post headline stung: “Dear Pope Francis: Saving the World Requires Contraception.” I clicked it anyway, to find an open letter to the Vicar of Christ.

It is written by John Seager, president of the Population Connection Action Fund, who — like lots of non- and nominal Catholics — is disturbed by the Catholic Church’s proscription of contraception. I — a proponent of all the Church’s teachings — at first was disturbed by what he wrote:

That contraception, for instance, provides people with healthy sex lives. That the pope has a responsibility to ensure that Catholics have the tools to reduce their “carbon output,” including contraception. That 90 percent of the unintended pregnancies in the Philippines “are the result of a lack of modern contraception.”

My heart pounded and ached, because Seager’s letter was a disappointing reminder of the widespread presumption that people can’t not have sex.

So to borrow a few of your own words, Seager, “Don’t get me wrong. You seem like a sincere, congenial man,” and I admire your impassioned desire to combat climate change. But while the pope’s defense of the Church’s teaching on contraception boggles your mind, what you wrote is starting to warm my heart. Continue reading “Why contraception will never save the world.”

Thoughts on the Boston College condom controversy.

You may have heard the news:

A bunch of Boston College students might be disciplined by administration at the Catholic university for passing out condoms on campus. The controversial move, made by school officials and supported by Catholicism, sparks the sort of debate that kind of makes my blood boil.

This is for reasons including but not limited to the following (in very random order).


2. Fact: The Catholic Church is opposed to contraception. Awhile ago, I watched a set of Catholic college students (that is, students who attend Catholic colleges, not college students who are Catholic) give impassioned speeches about lack of access to contraception at Catholic colleges on C-Span. One student said what she expects is access to free contraception on her Catholic campus. To quote a woman who recently wrote an op-ed about Boston College’s current debate, I can’t believe “this is even a thing,” (although she and I can’t believe it for different reasons).

3. I saw a news clip earlier in which a woman all but said that Boston College’s policy — which I haven’t seen in print, but assume says students can’t widely distribute condoms on campus — implies students of Boston College can’t use condoms. But there is no such rule. This is not about a Catholic campus saying you can’t use a condom on a Catholic campus (a Catholic campus would be silly to try). It’s about a Catholic campus saying condoms can’t be distributed on a Catholic campus. Which makes sense, because it’s Catholic. (Refer to line one of point 2.)

4. I see a lot of “being mad at the Church” because it doesn’t validate definitions of love or sex that don’t align with what it says about them. But I promise: the Church isn’t mad at you for doing the same thing.

5. What bothers me most about the debate is the presumption that because “86, or 99, or whatever percent” of Catholic women use contraception, the Catholic Church’s teaching on it is bad, and the Church ought to change what it teaches (God forbid being part of the Church changes you). This is evidence of the Church misunderstood. Of the misinformed expectation that the size of a faction of the Church determines whether the Church alters what it teaches.

The Church is what it is. You love it or you don’t (but that you don’t isn’t going to change the Church).

[Love and Responsibility] Part 3: The magnitude of sex (and how contraception distracts us from it).

This post is part 3 in a sex and love series based on what I learned from my favorite parts of the brilliant book Love and Responsibility by Blessed Pope John Paul II. All quotes, unless otherwise noted or used for emphasis, come from the book.

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I have not forgotten the confirmation class at which a married couple taught us about sex.

“Sex is for babies and bonding,” they said.

…Which is a simple way to explain the purpose of sex – equal parts procreation and unity – to an awkwardly silent room full of high school freshmen.

But we grew up in a culture that disagrees. A culture that says sex is primarily for pleasure, that a baby is a side effect, and that if you don’t use contraception, you wind up like the Duggars.

But, says JP2, here’s what happens when you do:

1. “Neither in the man nor in the woman can affirmation of the value of the person be divorced from awareness and willing acceptance that he may become a father and she may become a mother.” 

In other words, contraception is the rejection of fertility, and according to JP2, rejection of a person’s fertility can’t be part of the affirmation of the value of a person. In suppressing fertility, one may affirm the value of parts of a person, but not of the person as a whole.

2. “If the possibility of parenthood is deliberately excluded from marital relations, the character of the relationship between the partners automatically changes. The change is away from unification in love and in the direction of mutual, or rather bilateral, ‘enjoyment’.” 

When the purpose of sex is primarily pleasure, it is by default at least self-focused in part, i.e. it is at least in part about what I get out of it (and self-focusedness doesn’t foster unity). Some say this is a farce, that “my partner’s pleasure is more important to me than mine.” But if your pleasure is “bound up in” somebody else’s, when somebody else doesn’t experience pleasure, neither do you. Which is a problem when the purpose of sex is pleasure.

3. “Willing acceptance of parenthood serves to break down the reciprocal egoism – (or the egoism of one party at which the other connives) – behind which lurks the will to exploit the person.” 

Contraception makes sex “safe.” Controlled. Predictable. (Albeit sometimes falsely). In the process, we are given permission to relinquish forethought. To act on any urge. To feel ok about having sex when we only want to have sex for self-focused reasons. Relinquishing control of fertility, on the other hand, requires us to acknowledge the magnitude of what we’re doing. To embrace the potential that this might make you a dad, and me a mom. In the process, we are necessarily perpetually pointed toward something other than self. We are given permission (and courage) to consider that sex is greater, and more powerful, than “it feels good.”

Other important points:

  • Practicing Catholics believe we aren’t supposed to unite with someone because it’s pleasurable to have sex with them, but to create a pleasurable sexual relationship with the person to whom we are permanently united.
  • “Contraception implies you should always be able to have sex whenever you want it, that it’s purely recreation. You’re able to exclude creation from (sex) at will. The Catholic Church teaches that it’s ok to have sex when you’re not fertile, (but) it’s not ok to turn off your own fertility.” -Dustin Riechmann
  • NFP is a fabulous method of family planning that requires a couple to work with the body, instead of against it.
  • The Duggars don’t use NFP (and if you do, you won’t wind up with 20 kids if 20 kids isn’t your goal).

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Click here to read all the posts in this series.

[Guest Post] Why my husband and I don’t use contraception.

Guest blogger Stephanie!

I bet not everyone gets to learn about contraception with the help of a Slip N’ Slide. Seriously. Born and raised Catholic, I learned somewhere along the way that the Church never permits artificial forms of birth control, but until I attended this particular gathering of my high school youth group, the one involving said slide, I’d thought birth control was one of those things, like Crocs and the Backstreet Boys, that wasn’t really taken seriously anymore.

I’ve discovered, as it turns out, that birth control totally is serious business. Love, I was told that night, is meant to be free, faithful, total, and fruitful (the slide was supposed to represent this, I think). It’s meant to be given without reserve, promised and sealed in fidelity, to hold back nothing, and to invite a man and woman to become creators of new life. It all made a lot of sense, especially when I discovered that the Catholic Church didn’t insist that every sexual act produce a baby.

So yes; my Catholic faith tells me that contraception is always inherently wrong. If you told me that it’s foolish to follow a bunch of rules just because the Catholic Church tells you to, I’d say you’re absolutely right. The amazing thing about the Church, I’ve learned, is that every time I’ve put a question of teaching to the test, there’s been a perfectly clear, logical answer that emphasizes one’s best good. Rules don’t exist to burden us (there’s a reason why you stop at a red light, for instance, or why your iPod manual tells you not to take your iPod swimming), but to let us live in the most fulfilling way.

The thing is, I don’t want to lead with my religion. I want to lead with who I am. My understanding has since deepened beyond a teenager’s somewhat blind obedience to her faith. The more I learned, the more convinced I became that birth control is one of the greatest inhibitors of romance, intimacy, and true freedom. I’ve come to see that biologically, practically, logically, and even romantically speaking, choosing not to bring contraceptives into a relationship is one of the absolute best ways to foster trust, honest communication, and authentic love. Who doesn’t long for that?

In the past few years, various friends and personal reading have led me to become a huge advocate for what I like to call the crunchy life. You know: coconut oil, kale, homemade cleaning products, and natural deodorant. I know I’m not the only one — in my observation, the benefits of things like green juice, organic meats, and neti pots are becoming commonplace on the pages of many women’s magazines.

It’s a puzzle to me, then, that with all the justified concerns we have about our well-being and environmental impact, so many of us seem to overlook a critical area of our lives: our reproductive health. Biologically, the birth control Pill and other hormonal contraceptives work by releasing large amounts of synthetic hormones, estrogen and progestin, that suppress ovulation and mimic the hormonal symptoms of pregnancy. In other words, they fool a woman’s body into a sort of state of constant pregnancy.

This, to me, couldn’t be further from natural. Consider, for instance, the fact that it’s normal to take medicine when you have a headache. It’s not normal when you don’t have a headache. In the same way, the Pill is marketed to “treat” a condition that doesn’t exist: it’s intended to actually prevent a woman’s body from functioning as it naturally does.

What’s more, the information packet for the Pill contains an extensive list of side effects that are directly related to taking it, ranging from weight gain, acne, migraines, and high blood pressure all the way to heart attack and increased chances of breast and cervical cancer. Ironically enough, the Pill often lowers a woman’s sex drive, the very thing she sought to liberate, as well. While packets are quick to point out that the Pill is merely “associated with” higher instances of serious conditions, and that they are rare, I still personally don’t find that the freedom to enjoy sex without pregnancy outweighs these risks.

I’m angered when I see how readily the Pill is pushed on women, largely in the name of profit. Friends have described taking birth control to me as feeling trapped in one’s own body, not feeling at all like oneself, and living in fear of what might happen to one’s complexion, weight, and future children, if one ceased to take it (you can read more anecdotal testaments here). We deserve so much more. The health-related shortcomings of birth control speak for themselves, but I think the logical case against contraception is just as convincing.

Free, faithful, total, and fruitful. It seems that even to a nonreligious individual, these four elements of love and sex are, at some point in a relationship, very desirable. I think most would agree that the body speaks a language, and that sex and love speak the same thing, whether one intends them to or not. They say, I want you, and all of you, forever. Isn’t that what we’re all longing to hear?

If one of these elements is missing, the body essentially speaks a lie. I want you, it says, but not all of you. It’s a conditional promise. When the fruitful aspect of sex is artificially eliminated, there’s a withholding of one’s fertility and the accompanying responsibility it bears.

That exact sense of unconditional love and responsibility is my biggest reason of all not to contracept. I met my husband Andrew four years ago, and when we became a couple, it didn’t take long for either of us to know we’d never go on another first date. Not only was he a handsome lover of words who’d hide notes around my apartment, he shared my take on birth control. During our engagement, we signed up for Natural Family Planning (NFP) courses to prepare for a contraceptive-free marriage.

Choosing to forego birth control in our marriage comes down to love. Karol Wojtyla, the man who became Pope John Paul II, wrote that the opposite of love is not hatred, but using another person. One need only look to the culture, I think, to see that hookups, friends with benefits, and cohabitation have left so many of us broken. We’re promised freedom, but are left instead with deep wounds. No one’s body or heart is meant to be used only for what it can offer sexually; it’s meant for love that sacrifices and heals.

Each of us is so much more than just a body, but in our humanness that can be easy to forget. Even in a loving marriage, there exists the possibility of desiring one’s spouse for self-gratifying purposes, rather than a desire to express love for the other. It’s a daily battle to let love prevail over lust.

I want my husband and I to have the best possible chances of winning–when birth control takes pregnancy off the table, I can only foresee a greater temptation to use one’s spouse, even unintentionally, to take sex for granted. Birth control, I think, could easily become a crutch to mask a lack of self-control for one another’s sake.

In our attempts to not take sex for granted, we’ve found NFP a powerful way to understand sex as good and beautiful without idolizing it. A far cry from the rhythm or calendar methods of old, NFP is a scientifically precise, observation-based method of simply tracking, rather than altering, the existing conditions of a woman’s body in order to determine periods of fertility and infertility throughout her cycle. When used correctly, NFP is as effective at postponing pregnancy as the Pill.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard not to giggle, at first, when we learned that cervical mucus was one of the observable signs of fertility. We discovered that planning to use NFP in the abstract and actually sitting in a classroom learning it, trying to pretend a couple wasn’t standing there talking about ovulation the way most people talk about the weather, are two completely different things. You get used to it.

It’s actually something I’m so thankful for–I’d venture that, between texting my husband about my mucus while I’m at work, filling in my chart together each night, and constantly discerning a prudent time to begin a family, we have a more goofy, more intimate, and more joyful sex life than we ever could with contraception. The responsibility of planning our family doesn’t just fall to me as I take a daily pill or replace a monthly patch; it’s shared by the both of us. The self-control required to abstain during times of fertility sets us free to truly give ourselves to one another.

Intimacy isn’t a right to be demanded. It’s the fruit of loving, willful submission. Sexual freedom, we’ve seen, doesn’t mean a total lack of responsibility for each other. It means a willful choice to love in a pure, self-giving way. “Freedom,” said John Paul II, “exists for the sake of love.” That is, when you love someone, you actually desire to place their happiness before your own. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

Love that is free, faithful, total, and fruitful; love that sacrifices and unites. It’s nothing less than any of us deserve. I’d say that’s definitely worth a trip down the Slip ‘N Slide.

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About the blogger: Born a hop, skip, and jump from the Chesapeake Bay, Stephanie Calis now resides in Appalachia, thanks to love. Her sweet husband Andrew teaches English there. She delights in bike rides, good books, puddle jumping, The Avett Brothers, hammocks, avocados, and Andrew’s many argyle sweaters. She is thirsty. Knowing so many others are, too, she spent a missionary year with Generation Life speaking to students about human dignity and authentic love. Her passion is telling young women they possess immense worth and that pure, sacrificial love is real; she thinks a truthful understanding of sex and love is medicine for an aching culture. Stephanie blogs about love and wedding planning at Captive the Heart.

“Teen Pregnancy Isn’t the Problem.”

It is an honor to have been invited to write as a columnist for Ignitum Today, “the social network of the JP2 and B16 generations” ( aka popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI). My first post appears today. Here is an excerpt, followed by a link to the column:

One recent evening, I shook a bottle of hot sauce over my burger and watched the news from the kitchen table.

Popular that night was the story of a set of New York City schools that are part of a pilot program in which female students who are 14 and up can access Plan B, the emergency contraceptive also called “the morning-after pill.”

The program was part of a media hullabaloo, partly because of what the pill is used for, partly because of how young the girls are who can participate in the program and partly because – according to some sources – if a child’s parents consent to her participation in the program, she can access the pill later and nobody has to tell her parents she did.

A man on the TV turned hopeful eyes toward the crowd in front of him and from behind a podium, he spoke about the Plan B program. It provides a solution, he said, to a problem that has lifelong consequences: teen pregnancy.


Click here to read the rest.