It so happens that last Friday, July 25, was the 46th anniversary of Paul VI’s encyclical on married love: Humanae Vitae. Since then, the enormous gulf between those Catholics who believe that contraception ruptures the vital connection between the unitive and the procreative aspects of marriage and those who have no problems using it and ignoring Church teaching over the matter, has widened and hardened. This is a deeply sad situation, undermining the Church’s teaching authority and – dare I say it? – undermining a couple’s capacity to build the loving and enduring marriage that God wants them to experience.
It so happens that I am also reading a very good book on the subject: The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by Simcha Fisher, published this year by Our Sunday Visitor. Indeed, having read lots of articles on this subject over the years, I would say this is the best treatment on it that I have read. It is wise, funny, perceptive and honest and I strongly recommend it to every married couple: to those who are faithful to Church teaching but who are also struggling with it; to those within the Church who have rejected it out of hand without understanding the beauty and wisdom of God’s plan for marriage; and to all couples who have (as yet) no religious beliefs of any kind but who yearn to create a strong and permanent marriage and who realise that “being in love” is not enough to help them do so – especially in our modern climate where divorce is taken for granted when you hit a difficult patch in the relationship.
I would also recommend it to parish priests, who are in the front line where marital problems and sins are concerned. They should read it and then place a bulk order so that they can discreetly give out copies when needed. The point is, Church teaching on marriage is not intended to make couples unhappy or failures or resentful or rebellious. It is intended to help them become happier than they ever thought possible. This is where Simcha Fisher’s book offers practical, non-pompous and non-preachy encouragement.
Just to explain: natural family planning is a way of spacing births in a family when there is a good reason for doing so, without resorting to artificial contraception. It means becoming aware of a woman’s fertility cycle and to work properly it involves the cooperation of husband and wife.
Simcha Fisher calls her book the “Sinner’s Guide” because she starts with the premise that we are all flawed creatures and that God (and the Church) has not made a mistake in reminding us that love and the transmission of life cannot be separated. As she puts it towards the end of this slim book (only 124 pages; it can be read in a sitting though I don’t advise it as there is so much to be pondered in what she writes): “[God] designed men and women to be different so they would complement each other. It was original sin that distorted, perverted and catastrophically skewed this mutuality … Something that was meant to be a delicious and fascinating tension between the sexes has devolved into strife and incompatibility, and gets worse from there, without attention.”
Fisher’s book is not about defending the teaching in Humanae Vitae, which she takes as read. It is not about marriage guidance, or about the theology behind marriage or about being judgmental towards those thought to have a “contraceptive mentality” even though they are using licit means to space their family. It is a frank and humorous examination of love, relationships and how a couple can change a marriage that has fallen into resentment and non-communication into something infinitely better (though not overnight, obviously). Her reason for writing it is because, as she puts it forthrightly, “the marriage-building benefits of remaining faith to Church teaching are real. They are attainable. It’s just that you have to work hard to get them.”
Fisher is also honest about her own past failings. Married for 15 years and with nine children she admits that she and her husband Damian have “struggled, with varying degrees of effort and success, against the spiritual growth that the Holy Spirit keeps trying to sneak onto our plates when we’re not looking.” She makes it clear that Catholics with large families are not saints. Indeed, she adds that although on the outside she and her husband used to look like a “happy, holy, cooperative, trusting, generous, model of Catholic marriage and family life”, really they were “immature and selfish and lacking in self-control.”
The heart of the book is about “whether or not we grow closer to God.” It involves discerning God’s will for your circumstances and then trusting him; in marriage, as in every other vocation, it is a lifelong journey. As she points out, just reasons for postponing (or deciding on) a pregnancy are different for each couple; what might seem selfishness in one couple will be prudent for another, and so on. There is no rigid divide between those who practise NFP and those who practise what she calls “Providentialism”; what matters is the recognition that a couple’s “circumstances change, and you change.”
Fisher also doesn’t duck the fact that “sooner or later, sex is going to call for some kind of self-sacrifice.” Again she is clear that “You’re not going to get away from the Cross. This is true whether you’re male or female or single or married or deployed or divorced or gay or impotent or several of the above … Being an adult in the faith means desiring the good of other people more than your own satisfaction – even if they don’t want that good for themselves.”
Actually there is so much that is quotable in this heart-warming and life-enhancing book that I had better stop here. No – a last one: “NFP; it’s the worst possible system, except for all the others.”
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