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What’s the Church Doing in Our Bedroom? Catholic Couples and Family Planning
By: Frank and Jennifer Ricard
The Church first tried to come into our bedroom 15 years ago when we were preparing for marriage. Our priest said that condoms create a barrier between spouses, making the sex act immoral. He told us that Natural Family Planning (NFP) methods have come a long way and are far more effective than Calendar Rhythm. This all made sense, but nothing changed in us.
We used condoms from our wedding night onward until we heard that it could take a year to get pregnant. We conceived our first daughter that month. The same thing happened a year later when we conceived our second daughter, and a year after that when our son was conceived.
Only when we volunteered for our parish’s youth ministry did we start to question our use of contraceptives. Before explaining the Church’s teaching to teens, we needed to consider it ourselves! Jen ordered NFP books and signed us up for classes. Before class began, she started tracking her menstrual cycle. One romantic evening soon after, ignoring Jen’s fertility, we conceived our fourth baby. The bigger shock came when we discovered there were two babies—twin daughters!
Having five babies in just over five years was overwhelming. Jen threw the NFP books into a closet and got a prescription for birth-control pills. Then something unexpected happened: Jen lost her desire for sex.
JEN: It’s difficult to find the time and energy to make love when you have five young children, but more was going on. Sex had become one more thing I had to do for somebody. I interpreted Frank’s affection as selfishly motivated. It seemed that physical affection always had to lead to sex. I loved Frank and our life together and prayed that God would restore my sexual desire.
FRANK: Our hectic lives focused on kids, work and chores. The only time we were alone was in bed, and even then, a child joined us most nights. So, when we were alone, I wanted to make love. Since sex affirms our love, I interpreted Jen’s decreased desire to mean that she loved me less.
JEN: Our priest mentioned contraception during every examination of conscience. I thought, “But we have five children! We’ve been open to life and are physically, emotionally and financially at our limit. How bold of the Church to impose this teaching on everyone regardless of circumstance! Surely Father will agree we’re an exception.” I set up a meeting with him.
This meeting marked the beginning of a slow, sometimes painful, but glorious journey toward understanding God’s plan for sex. Father gave me God, Sex and the Meaning of Life, a CD by Christopher West. Tears filled my eyes as what I heard rang true in my heart. God’s design links sex and babies, yet we’d thought nothing of severing that link. Sexual intercourse is both life-giving and love-giving, and only by safeguarding both essential aspects will “true mutual love” in its fullest sense be preserved (Humanae Vitae, #12). I shared this with Frank, and he agreed to take an NFP class with me.
FRANK: I was skeptical of NFP and feared that Jen might now have the backing of the Church for not having sex. But I was willing to try nearly anything to alleviate the tension and frustration.
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JEN: Once we began NFP, everything felt different. Frank set the alarm, took my temperature and recorded it. I felt taken care of and experienced a renewed tenderness toward him. I liked that he was learning about how my body works. The natural cycle of engaging in and then refraining from sexual intercourse took the pressure off needing to feel always available. As we grew in mutual respect and self-control, our sex life was slowly redeemed.
FRANK: I had no idea of the complexity of female fertility. Charting Jen’s physiological cycles helped me become more understanding and compassionate toward her. I came to see how God had written the gift of our fertility into his plan for sex. This prompted me to change my thinking: As I began to see sex not as a right but as a gift, it was given not out of obligation but out of desire. This change in mindset is at the heart of our conversion.
Living our vows
Every sexual union can renew our marriage vows. We vowed to give ourselves, including our fertility, without reservation and to accept children lovingly from God. Must we intend to have a baby every time we share intercourse? No, a couple can have intercourse when the wife is naturally infertile, but “they should never act to suppress or curtail the life-giving power given by God” that’s integral to their marriage vows (Married Love and the Gift of Life, #8). Seeing fertility as a gift and children as blessings is the foundation of NFP.
As sex became more about giving than getting, more about God’s will than our own, it became an opportunity for prayer. We discerned that God wanted us to be open to a sixth child. Since NFP can also be used to achieve pregnancy, we knew exactly when to try to conceive. Our younger son brings us great joy.
Whether we want the Church in our bedroom depends on how we understand the Church. We used to view it as an institution whose archaic rules need reform. However, as we experience the truth of its teaching, our trust increases.
We now see the Church’s teaching against contraception as an unchanging truth for marital love. We know the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and desires to lead us into a deeper, more meaningful experience of love. We’re thankful that the Church led us to a family-planning method that’s 99% effective and healthy for our bodies, souls and marriage.
By allowing the Church into our bedroom, we’ve grown: Once at our limit, we welcome new life; in place of frustration, we find tenderness and joy; and lack of desire gives way to greater passion. The Church teaching we didn’t think applied to us became our pathway to much happiness and love.
Learn more about the Church’s teaching and NFP at www.usccb.org/prolife/ issues/nfp/index.shtml.
Permission to Publish received for this article, “What’s the Church Doing in Our Bedroom? Catholic Couples and Family Planning,” by Frank and Jennifer Ricard, from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 3-30-2009.
Frank and Jennifer Ricard have six children and live in Hudson, Ohio. Frank is part owner of FirstPower Group, LLC. Jennifer teaches Theology of the Body for Teens and is working toward certification at the Theology of the Body Institute. Together they teach Natural Family Planning to other couples.
By: Frank Frost
Like any really good movie, Tootsie (1982) holds up well over time. That’s partly due to fine cast performances and direction by Sydney Pollack. And partly because it’s an effective comedy in the mistaken-identity tradition in which laughter allows us to look at some serious human issues. An issue in the case of Tootsie is the way intimate relationships are compromised by lack of honesty.
■ “Every sexual union can renew our marriage vows. We vowed to give ourselves, including our fertility, without reservation….” What new insight do you gain as you apply this to family-planning methods?
■ What will you do to more completely open your heart and mind to the Church’s presence in the bedroom?
The story involves Michael (Dustin Hoffman), an actor who can no longer land a job because he quarrels with directors—a case of misplaced emphasis on authenticity. So, to make a point that he can act, he cross-dresses as “Dorothy” and seeks and gains employment on a TV soap opera as a woman. He is extremely effective both because the role changes his behavior and because his assertive tone bleeds over into the character of the woman he plays. “Dorothy” challenges the director who calls her “Tootsie.” (One of the reasons the movie was so effective in the 1980s was its early feminist statement against patronizing and exploiting women.)
But the problem with this deceit is twofold: It makes Tootsie so popular with audiences that it traps Michael in a role he can’t escape and—more importantly—it prevents him from pursuing a love interest he develops in his fellow actress, Julie (Jessica Lange). In one key scene he craves intimacy with Julie and tries to disclose his secret to her, only to have her rebuff him: “I really love you, Dorothy, but I can’t love you.” On one level this is simply good comedy and the law of unintended consequences, but on another level it’s a statement about the way the withholding of one’s true self in a relationship ultimately compromises it.
Next time you watch Tootsie, ASK YOURSELF:
By: Joan McKamey
Natural Family Planning is really just fertility awareness. The way we use NFP in our practice is by getting a woman to understand her cycles, her fertility. This empowers her to make decisions,” says Bob Laird, executive director of Divine Mercy Care, the nonprofit organization bringing Catholic health care to northern Virginia.
■ How does Tootsie’s elaborate deception create inauthentic intimacy with his friend Sandy (Teri Garr) and cause unintended hurt?
■ How do other characters (e.g., Dr. Brewster, Ron Carlisle) represent the wrongheadedness of false intimacy?
■ How might Tootsie’s withholding of his true self cause the loss of his heart’s desire?
Bob and his wife, Gerri, were involved in teaching Natural Family Planning and marriage preparation during his 22 years in the military. Once he left the Army, this nuclear engineer joined the Office for Family Life staff of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.
Recognizing a need for Catholic health care in the area, one of only three U.S. dioceses without a Catholic hospital, Bob encouraged Dr. John Bruchalski to open a pro-life OB-GYN practice there. In 2005, after 13 years with the Office for Family Life, Bob became executive director of this growing practice and, soon after, of DMC. He says, “Now there are six doctors in the practice and more family-practice doctors in the area who are faithful to the Church.” The OB-GYN practice, Tepeyac Family Center, was joined by a pro-life pharmacy in October 2008.
Being faithful to the Church is one of the three tenets that guide the mission and ministry of Divine Mercy Care. The other two include serving the poor and practicing good medicine.
“We don’t limit our patients to only those who practice NFP,” Bob says. “We have an evangelization mission also. It’s conversion by example. We ask our patients, ‘Why would you do that [artificial contraception] to your body?’
“I encourage people to give NFP a try. When we talk with couples, we find out that they’re often not happy with their birth-control choice. The side effects are all over the place. Our doctors go over the negative effects of artificial birth control. A huge one is that they’re being used. What does God do best? God loves. We love people and use things. Often a woman uses artificial birth control to be used by the guy—or to use the guy; that happens too. It’s all about use, not love. When they change to NFP, they get their dignity and respect back.
“Our patients want to learn NFP. Once they learn it, they begin learning more about their cycles. Women begin to take action on their own behalf and live healthier lives. Another tangible benefit of NFP is that it improves marriages.
“We provide an opportunity for our patients and staff to practice their faith. Doctors want to be able to practice medicine in a way that follows their consciences,” Bob says. That’s why DMC opposes the Health and Human Services proposal to rescind a conscience-protection regulation for health-care workers.
“One of our doctors tells us that, once he realized what he was doing in his previous practice was wrong, he had to ‘wash the moral scum off’ his hands before joining his wife and kids after work in the evening. Faith and health implications go together. We are building entities that support our own practice of the faith as well as that of our patients. It’s a win-win situation.”
Learn more about Bob’s work at http://www.divinemercycare.org
By: Theresa Notare
A real scenario
Eleven-year-old Andrew is an only child. He comes from a loving family, lives in a middle-class neighborhood, goes to Catholic school, serves at Mass and plays baseball and video games. What’s missing? Andrew will tell you—a brother or sister!
Andrew has been hounding his parents for a sibling. He recently discussed this with me, his aunt, explaining that he needs a sibling not just to play with now, but also to be with “when we’re old.” He reasoned: “What would my parents do if I become a priest and they don’t have any grandchildren? They need backup!” I remarked that having children wasn’t only for the parents and kids; “it’s also for the world.” His eyes lit up as he exclaimed: “T, that’s right, that’s the circle of life! Don’t they know that?”
Andrew’s hopes for a sibling reveal what we all want—to love and be loved—and also point to a central aspect of the mission of married couples—to have and care for children. Today many couples are convinced they should limit their families to one or two children. It’s critical to remind them that, despite the economic and psychological burdens society places on them, their generosity to life is key to the future happiness of all.
The family is the best environment for nurturing children. It’s the building block of society, where children learn to love and give. And the family is the “little church”— where children learn about God and salvation. A healthy, holy family contributes to the well-being of its members and the nation.
Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) addresses the Church’s teaching on married love and the gift of life, illuminating God’s plan for spouses, especially with regard to procreation.
Catholics, especially the engaged and married, should prayerfully reflect on Humanae Vitae. This prophetic document beautifully and insightfully presents Christian teachings on married love and its unitive and procreative nature. It describes the total vision of men and women that is not man-made, but God’s design. “Children,” it states, “are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare” (#9). And as my nephew Andrew says, “They provide backup!”
For the text of Humanae Vitae, see www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_ 25071968_humanae-vitae_en.html.
Theresa Notare, Ph.D., is assistant director of the Natural Family Planning Program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This article first appeared in Life Issues Forum.
Used with permission from the NFP Program, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved.
By: Jeanne Hunt
(for praying alone or with others)
Place several small plastic babies (available with cake decorating supplies), a bouquet of flowers and a small dish of oil on a prayer table.
Creator God, we know you as the Father of all life. We praise you for the care you extend to all creation, and especially to us, made in your image and likeness.
Good and gracious God, extend your hand of protection over all those who bear life and those who nurture and support life in any way. Give your strength to us that we may never give in to the fears that may tempt us as we support life in all its forms. Bless our families so that we may welcome and nurture the life of which you are the source. Amen.
Read Psalm 8: “How majestic is your name in all the earth!”
You are invited to come forward in silence to dip your finger in the oil and make the Sign of the Cross on your palm. Pray silently for the inner strength to support life. Then take a tiny baby and resolve to place it where it will remind you to honor God’s law of life.
As each of us steps forward, please pray for the one at the prayer center.
Let us pray together the Glory Be: “Glory be to the Father….”