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“Ask a Priest: Frazzled … and Thinking of Using Contraception. What Should I Do?”
Q: I am a practicing Catholic and my faith is very important it me. I accept the Church and all of her teachings. However, I am in a situation that is complicated. I have four children and my husband doesn’t want any more. He is not Catholic but is very supportive of me as a Catholic. I feel horrible when I have the opportunity to be intimate with him, but I cannot because I am either fertile or menstruating. I get so lonely and I feel practically celibate. When it is a non-fertile time for me, I am tired, busy or he is gone. It seems so pointless and sad. I hate being only concerned with avoiding pregnancy. I miss the spontaneous affection that eludes us both. We love our children very much and couldn’t think of life without them. But we are middle-aged and stretched thin. I am so worn out feeling lonely and missing him physically … I just don’t care anymore, I want to use birth control! Help! I have not experienced the great freedom and joy other Catholics have about using natural family planning. NFP doesn’t make me feel closer to my husband. It is miserable! -C.E.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: It sounds, in fact, as if you have a lot to be thankful for. You have a loving husband and children you are proud of. You have faith in the Church’s teachings, and you identify yourself as a practicing Catholic. These are all signs of God’s grace in your life.
Certainly you have a cross to bear. Marriage, like other walks of life, has its difficulties. Yet difficulties can be great opportunities to grow in holiness.
You love your husband — that is obvious. Our faith teaches us that to love another person means to be willing to sacrifice for him, and to help him grow in holiness. And holiness involves God’s gifts as well as respecting his laws. Artificial birth control would do neither of these. It would contradict God’s intention for the act of marital intimacy, and it could lead to deep problems between you and your spouse, in part because it would drain the marital act of its full meaning.
You have a special grace to have a husband who supports you in the practice of your faith. Your example of fidelity to Church teaching has likely had an edifying effect on him. You don’t want to jeopardize that by resorting to contraception.
You might, however, want to re-examine some of the views you express.
First of all, with natural family planning you would have a kind of “early warning” when you are in a fertile time. This early warning could prompt you and your spouse to shift your attitudes and expectations; that is, it will prompt you to realize that this is a moment when the both of you have to focus on non-sexual ways to show your love. It isn’t impossible – couples have to refrain from relations for all kinds of reasons: sickness, physical separation, lack of privacy.
The problems you mention, by the way, are not uncommon among users of natural family planning. NFP involves a change in lifestyle, spirituality and relational issues. Most methods will offer some kind of counseling or peer-to-peer type of help to overcome these kinds of problems. Two programs that offer special help can be seen here and here.
Second, is it really the case that every time you are infertile, you are tired, busy or your spouse is away? That seems like an odd coincidence. Or could it be that you are seeing things in the most pessimistic light? Sometimes we can psyche ourselves out. Remember, too, that many forms of birth control pose their own health risks.
Third, communication with your spouse is important. NFP can enhance intimacy if both spouses follow the natural rhythms consciously and intentionally. If you and your spouse are aware of the times of fertility and infertility, then you can fast and feast together, so to speak. This intentionality doesn’t substitute for the spontaneity that you desire, but it can deepen the bond, the respect, and the quality of the intimate encounters. At least, that is the testimony of the spouses who practice it.
Perhaps you might want to pray more about this matter. Ask God to give you the strength and balance to live his will fully. Ask him to help you see things through the eyes of faith, too. You mention that you have marvelous children — have you ever thought that they might be part of the fruits of your own fidelity to Church teaching?
This is a moment when Our Lord is inviting you to hold fast to your faith and to live what you know is right for your marriage. At this stage of your life you don’t want to do things that offend a God who has been so good and loving toward you and your family. (For more reading, see Janet E. Smith’s materials.)
Stay close to the Blessed Virgin Mary and commit your marriage to her protection. With God’s grace and your fidelity, you can help all your loved ones reach heaven. (Contributing to this answer was Father Joseph Tham, LC, dean of the School of Bioethics, Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, Rome.)