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An NFP Nightmare
On religion, Russians, scarcity, and natural family planning.
Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow for the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, recently shared his thoughts on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Ramani completed his doctoral thesis on Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria and drew on his studies to consider Putin’s possible motives and plans. Ramani highlighted how the West often fails to understand Putin, because Western invasions and wars have tended to focus on geopolitical opportunism or regime insecurity. Given Russia’s previously rising power status and the lack of threat posed by Ukraine politically, such a focus doesn’t make sense. Instead, Ramani highlighted Putin’s apparent interest in legacy-building and identity construction. Putin wants to challenge “the US-led legal order” and have “a superpower-style global reach.” Putin sees Russia as a cultural challenge to Western ideals and lifestyles.
This helps to explain why a crippled Russian economy and the possibility of plunging the Russian people into poverty is a potential source of pride for Putin. Romani writes that the costs of military interventions to the Russian people are rationalized by “highlighting Russia’s capacity for self-sacrifice as a contrast to perceived Western decadence.” In a way, Putin sees economic scarcity for his people as an opportunity to manifest what he sees as a markedly Russian virtue: the ability to persevere under extreme material hardship. If Americans are terrible because of our decadence, Russians are made great by poverty and destitution.
This sort of idealism has an extremely perverse quality about it. The more the Russian people suffer under hardship, under this view, the more they become distinctly Russian. That is, Russian pride can be strongest when the Russian people are poor. So it’s possible that economic sanctions against Russia, rather than deterring a political leader like Putin (who wants to establish himself as a religious and cultural leader to live permanently in Russia’s historical and political identity), would actually embolden him.
Struggles with NFP
Such a dynamic is not unique to Russia. It also appears in parts of Western Christianity, especially in the area of human sexuality. It emerged, for example, in a conversation I hosted recently with a number of women on purity culture, natural family planning (NFP), and Catholicism. The conversation began with women sharing how Catholic purity culture (often driven through such figures as Christopher West, Jason Evert, and others) has left them with ongoing shame and anxiety when doing things like having sex with their husbands, buying pregnancy tests, and even walking by aisles of feminine products at the grocery store. There were a lot of these stories. One woman shared:
“I am married and 33. Needed a pregnancy test and the embarrassment and anxiety I felt about being in that aisle because of purity culture is ridiculous. I’m so upset with how strongly it permeated my life.”
This story became the catalyst for a host of other stories. Many cradle Catholics shared with similar insecurities. They also shared how popular Catholic messaging around sex and NFP left them unprepared for the realities of marriage. One woman wrote:
“Something that I am dealing with is what NFP in marriage is really like. I’m postpartum from a c-section so pregnancy is NOT an option. And nfp pospartum is an absolute disaster. No one tells you that. Sex during pregnancy sucks. Then postpartum you basically can’t have sex. The church did a great injustice in never explaining this to me. I feel totally blindsided.
“Also the most reliable nfp postpartum, Marquette, doesn’t always work depending on your hormones. It ‘works’ but you literally just never have sex. This issue for me has caused me to lose faith in the church because it has become choosing between being intimate with my spouse or ‘going to hell.’”
Some women did share positive experiences with NFP, while stating that they understand it doesn’t always work well for everyone. And even the critics of the rhetoric promoting NFP recognized it can be helpful for many women. But not all. Some women had horrible stories of struggling between constant pregnancies and miscarriages for a decade or more. One woman wrote:
“I started marriage a very committed NFP Catholic. After 5 high risk pregnancies in 8 years, my husband got a vasectomy in sheer desperation. It was the most life-giving decision we ever made for our marriage.”
A few women discussed a mixture of guilt and relief after their husbands' vasectomies. Others shared how they continue to struggle with the frequency of their pregnancies and fears over their ability to take care of their current children. Another woman shared:
“We’ve been married 7 years, had a honeymoon baby, then a miscarriage, then spontaneous triplets born at 28 weeks gestation. We are not in a place to have more kids/multiples right now (indefinitely) so we have just been abstaining like 97% of the time, for four years and counting. I’m only 31. It’s pretty miserable.”
Often these experiences left women with feelings of failure and abandonment. One woman wrote:
“I feel the Catholic Church has totally failed me. I feel abandoned. I followed the rules. I got pregnant 10 times in 10 years, 6 births, 4 miscarriages. The fifth baby led to PPD. I was so scared about my sixth pregnancy (because I’d once again ‘failed’ at NFP) that I didn’t tell my husband until I was six weeks along. I love all my kids but the constant more or less unintended pregnancies have been hard on our marriage. He had a vasectomy last year and I felt such shame, but also a lot of relief… I was in a parish with lots of gold star Catholics who all seemed to have figured it out, or at least who appeared to delight in their massive families, whereas I felt like I was drowning.”
Many women shared struggles to still “follow the rules” when it comes to Catholicism and sex. One wrote how switching from Marquette to Billings was helpful. But the majority shared how, rather than the “total, free, fruitful, and faithful” vision of a wonderful sex life that was advertised to them by Catholic speakers, sex and sexuality within their marriages was more characterized by shame, anxiety, and fear. Fertility was experienced as a “huge burden” and a “barrier to the intimacy that we were made for.” But the positive experiences of some Catholics when it comes to NFP can blind them to the hardships of others, some argued. One woman wrote: “All the catholic influencers are women who love their nfp journey and can’t imagine it any other way.”
The glorification of suffering
Sometimes when these hardships were brought up, they were glorified. Women shared with me stories of going to their NFP practitioners or spiritual mentors with their struggles, and being told simply that their suffering was beautiful and to unite it to the Cross. A sort of Putin-style glorification of suffering came up in response to these women who shared horror stories related to NFP. One person who teaches the Marquette method responded in a way that many of the women had complained about:
“I think many of these responses are people who truly don’t understand NFP - whether logistically… or the spiritual aspect of it. I try to be very realistic with my couples - abstaining sucks… We could definitely do better about talking about the hard aspects. That being said, the Church teaches us suffering is GOOD and HOLY. Abstaining (when it’s particularly hard) gives us a reason to grow in holiness… I think that is a key part of NFP teaching that’s being missed - the hard parts can be beneficial to us and our marriage if we let them, if we lean in. Redemptive suffering is beautiful!”
A number of women shared strong reactions to this Marquette method teacher. It’s important to note that if they didn’t understand something “logistically,” and this misunderstanding led to 6 births and 4 miscarriages in 10 years, it’s not the woman’s fault. If there are this many stories of failure, and the failure is because of a lack of understanding, then the problem is probably with the teacher. If a large number of a mechanic school graduates don't know how to safely fix a car, then the school has a responsibility for the lives impacted. Failure in this area is not low-risk. It’s a problem costing some women hundreds of thousands of dollars and weeks or months of not being able to work. (For the women who work in Catholic schools, they may not have paid time off or full healthcare coverage.)
But what most struck the women in the response of the Marquette method teacher was the disposition towards suffering. One women shared in response:
“Totally respect different perspectives and I do believe suffering can be beneficial, but… I think certain aspects of Catholicism border on masochism. Life is so full of suffering that is out of our control… It seems like adding to that suffering with something that can be more controlled is unnecessary to me. I don’t think the Church would encourage someone in pain not to take painkillers or people who are depressed not to take antidepressants. I can certainly see how self control and surrender can be beneficial and if NFP works for you and makes your marriage more holy, awesome! But it seems like it’s actually pushing many people farther from God, themselves and their partners, and it’s hard for me to accept that’s what God intends for love. I’m not ready to fully disregard Church teaching, but I just don’t think the suffering is good idea helps.”
Another woman shared in response to the Marquette method teacher:
“It’s this mentality right here that you are either ‘doing it wrong’ or ‘can’t appreciate suffering properly’ if you’re struggling with NFP, is what has caused so many women to give up. I understand my body and NFP perfectly fine; that has nothing to do with my circumstances. Having lost a child due to the genetic condition my husband and I both are carriers for and having one that will need major life saving surgery in the future due to this same condition does not mean I don’t understand NFP or suffering. Sometimes things are unbearably hard… Yes, we are all called to grow in holiness and to embrace inescapable suffering as a means to holiness. I think what is being stated here by so many women is that we are questioning whether the suffering caused by NFP is inescapable.”
Part of the problem for these women is that the response of some NFP advocates can at times border on: “If it’s hard, that just means it’s working! Because it’s supposed to be hard! Praise God!” There are certain dispositions towards sexuality among Catholic influencers that border on Putin-style masochism. It subtly gives the message: “It is suffering which makes us Catholic, and so the more we suffer the more we are Catholic, and so when I hand you something that brings more suffering I am offering you a more Catholic life!” After a time, the anxiety and shame are not just tolerated as a means towards a good end, but become a source of pride in themselves.
And this response was also emblematic of a sort of bait-and-switch when it comes to NFP. Catholic couples were sold NFP as part of a fairy tale marriage. Then, when actual sex in marriage became a nightmare, it was suggested that the nightmare was part of the actual ideal. This sort of dynamic, interestingly, is common in cult communities.
Woman and death
Perhaps for the reasons above, one can see certain Catholic leaders respond to the suffering of others with a sort of perverse glee, as they seem to do with the death of St. Gianna Molla. Ellen Koneck notes how Catholics almost never praise Molla just for being a successful doctor and mother, but often reduce her to her death, which was subsequently reframed as a simplified anti-abortion story. Contrary to what activists might claim, Molla didn't die because of the fibroma that led doctors to recommend abortion, but because she developed post-operative septic peritonitis. What really made Molla great was not her rejection of abortion, but the entirety of her life. But this life tends to be overlooked. What actually makes her noteworthy, for many Catholics, is her pregnancy and death.
Koneck writes that the "tradition of esteeming women for either their fertility, intact virginity, or death is getting tired." In this tired tradition, St. Gianna is often most notable for the fact that she died. In this way, certain popular Catholic narratives more closely resemble pagan death cults than the life of the Gospel. Consider also the glee with which Catholic (often male) apologists seem talk of the brutal killing of St. Maria Goretti, alleging that she died to preserve her purity (as if her purity were a prize that could be forcibly taken by a man). (In reality, she rejected her killer’s advances because she did not want him to commit a mortal sin.)
This suggests to women that the greatest thing that they can do is die, preferably after refusing something related to sex. We lose sight of the full lives women like St. Gianna, who bucked cultural trends to forgo the life of a stay-at-home mother, become a medical professional, and tell her husband to work less and see the kids more. (According to Stephanie Gordon in Ask Your Husband: A Catholic Guide to Femininity, Molla should have never been allowed by her husband to work and should instead have been a stay-at-home mother.) And we suggest to young women that rape renders them impure. This is not the spirit of Mary Magdalene. It's an anti-Augustinian glorification of Lucretia.
Just as Putin seems to make poverty itself a Russian virtue, some Catholic influencers seem to make sexual anxiety (and sex-related death) itself a Catholic virtue. Whereas Putin glories in his people’s sufferings as a challenge to Western material decadence, some Catholics glory in women’s sufferings as a challenge to secular sexual decadence. It’s not that suffering can’t be redemptive, but these moves risk overlooking ways in which certain sufferings can and should be avoided, and reduces people to their poverty and death. In both instances, people suffer oppression until they are left feeling that they are not truly Russian or not truly Catholic, until they eventually reject what their leaders have had to say and work to forge a better identity.
If you’re a Catholic with struggles similar to the women above, one resource I would recommend is the Reclamation Collective. It’s a group of mental health professionals committed to holding space for folks navigating Religious Trauma and Adverse Religious Experiences. They have a list of recommended therapists and resources, and they also hold workshops from time to time.
I’ve had some interesting responses from friends to this piece, and I’ll share a few of them here.
From Lauren Greil:
“Yeah, it’s also worth noting that birth control and ‘planned parenthood’ culture can be pretty brutal for women too because there is this idea that women should be responsible and have babies at the ‘right time,’ which often means that women should delay having babies to a point where pregnancy becomes more risky and less likely absent hugely expensive fertility treatments. I now know so many people who were on birth control for a decade only to then discover fertility problems and women’s health issues that they would have identified much sooner had they not been on birth control. This can be devastating and lead to feelings of betrayal by doctors and society at large that promised that women can do this on their ‘own time.’”
From another friend:
“In fairness, there's pretty much no way to have triplets that wouldn't completely upend your life. A disabled child can be similarly life-changing. These are risks that every couple takes on when they conceive a child.
To be open to life is always a risk. Some of this rhetoric may be rooted in that brutal fact, trying to make sense out of it and to see God's plan in it. It may be a response to trauma rather than purely ‘perverse masochism’.”