Just Cause

A contentious topic that seems to re-emerge in NFP discussions in cycles is the necessity of using NFP and how to tell if you have “just cause” to use NFP to postpone child-rearing.  Contrary to popular belief (at least the circles I run in), the Catholic Church does not want you to have as many children as possible in order to fill the pews.  On the other hand, marriage is for children and faithful married Catholic couples are not necessarily given free reign to postpone children for their entire marriage either using NFP (incidentally, the same for Protestants).  The Church promotes responsible parenthood while still acknowledging the intrinsic goodness of having children.

[For those of you struggling to have children and living through the very real part of your marriage vows “Do you promise to accept children lovingly from God?” – not demand, I had a hard time reading this at first since all I could imagine was, “What if there was a way I could formulate a ‘just cause’ letter to God to know that we have ‘just reasons’ for wanting a child?” If only!]

Nevertheless, this might be a good resource for someone.  While I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be on the journey I’m on (judging by the fact I’m leaving everything up to God at this point), I can imagine how hard it must be to feel like you were in control with normal fertility and still have the need to discern family size.  There are many more things to consider, many more outside pressures, and I would personally be constantly wondering if I was doing the right thing.  I love how the Church provides help in forming our consciences appropriately, but acknowledges how only a couple in the situation can evaluate their situation appropriately.  There is no cookie-cutter solution, although there are important points to consider!  Hopefully this article will help someone.

WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 16, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a question on bioethics asked by a ZENIT reader and answered by the fellows of the Culture of Life Foundation.

Q: Are there any conditions to follow Natural Family Planning (NFP) by a married couple, or is there blanket approval by Catholic Church? Wouldn’t NFP be against life if the intention of the couple involved in sexual act is just pleasure and not life, provided they don’t have any valid reason to postpone pregnancy? In this case, can NFP be also considered similar to using condoms? Thanks and Regards — D.R.P, Bangalore, India

E. Christian Brugger offers the following response.

A: This is an excellent question, and one that I have been asked many times over the years by devout Catholic spouses. The answer is “no,” NFP is not unqualifiedly good and can be used wrongly. The reason for this is subtle and needs to be stated carefully, because there is a popular, although erroneous, belief among some Catholic couples that NFP is “second best,” and that if a couple is seriously Catholic, they will not self-consciously plan the children they conceive, but simply “let God send them.” I do not mean to offend anyone’s practices, but this “come what may” attitude is found nowhere in Catholic teaching on procreation in the last 150 years. There is no decision more serious to a Catholic couple than whether or not to participate with God in bringing a new human person into existence. The more serious a decision, the more it is due prayer, discussion and discernment. I teach my seminarians in Denver that God has a plan for every married couple; that the plan includes how many children they should have; and therefore if a couple is concerned about doing Jesus’ will, they should try to discover whether Jesus wishes them to have more children. They should have all the children that Jesus wants them to have, no less, and no more. Therefore, whenever they are conscious that they might become pregnant, they should discuss and pray over the question: “Does Jesus want us to have another child?” The idea that this question is intrinsically tainted with selfish motives is rigoristic and should be rejected. Every potentially fertile couple, as well as infertile couples capable of adopting, has the responsibility to ask it.

At the same time, NFP can be chosen wrongly. Pope John Paul II summarized the Church’s teaching in this regard during an audience at Castel Gondolfo in 1994; (note the seriousness with which he says couples should take the decision to have a child); he writes: “In deciding whether or not to have a child, [spouses] must not be motivated by selfishness or carelessness, but by a prudent, conscious generosity that weighs the possibilities and circumstances, and especially gives priority to the welfare of the unborn child. Therefore, when there is a reason not to procreate, this choice is permissible and may even be necessary. However, there remains the duty of carrying it out with criteria and methods that respect the total truth of the marital act in its unitive and procreative dimension, as wisely regulated by nature itself in its biological rhythms. One can comply with them and use them to advantage, but they cannot be ‘violated’ by artificial interference.”[1]

Principle of “iusta causa”

John Paul II says the choice whether or not to have more children “must not be motivated by selfishness or carelessness;” and then states: “When there is a reason not to procreate, this choice is permissible and may even be necessary.” What kind of “reason” renders permissible the choice not to procreate and hence to use NFP to avoid pregnancy? Pope Paul VI helps us answer this question. In “Humanae Vitae” (No. 16) he teaches: “If therefore there are ‘iusta causae’ for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile.”

The Latin term “iustae causae” is sometimes translated “well grounded reasons,” sometimes “serious motives”, and sometimes “grave reasons.” But the term is simply the plural of “iusta causa,” which literally translates “just cause.” According to the encyclical, a couple may space births, and do so through a deliberate recourse to the woman’s natural fertility cycle [i.e., they may choose a form of NFP], if there are “just causes.” This implies that if there are not just causes, then spacing births, and spacing them in this way, is not legitimate; in other words, that a couple ought not to space births, even through recourse to natural fertility cycles.

The Catholic Church first taught on intentional recourse to a woman’s cycle in 1853. The Roman Sacred Penitentiary was replying to a request for an official clarification (a “dubium”) submitted by the Bishop of Amiens in France, which asked: “Should those spouses be reprehended who make use of marriage only on those days when (in the opinion of some doctors) conception is impossible?” Rome replied: “After mature examination, we have decided that such spouses should not be disturbed [or disquieted], provided they do nothing that impedes generation.” The quote implies that choosing intercourse to avoid procreation can be different morally from choices to “impede procreation”; the latter are never legitimate; the former are (at least sometimes) legitimate.  One hundred years later Pope Pius XII spoke at length on periodic abstinence for purposes of spacing births in his well-known “Address to Midwives” (1951). He uses several terms as synonyms for Paul VI’s “iustae causae”: “serious reasons,” “serious motives” and “grave reasons.” The Pope says that such reasons “can exempt for a long time, perhaps even the whole duration of the marriage, from the positive and obligatory carrying out” of the marital duty to procreate.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the teaching when it says: “For just reasons (de iustis causis), spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality” (No. 2368). That objective criterion excludes as legitimate the alternative to impede procreation through choosing to contracept.  What constitutes a just cause?

Neither the Sacred Penitentiary, Pius XII, Paul VI, nor John Paul II specify concretely what constitutes a “iusta causa.” “Humanae Vitae” gets nearest. It teaches that “with regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (No. 10; see also No. 16).

The text itemizes four areas of life from which such reasons might arise: physical and mental health, and economic and social conditions. This is still very general, but together with the prior statements, it provides us with enough information to formulate the following moral norm (note: this is my formulation): “If a couple has serious reasons, arising from the physical or mental condition of themselves, their children, or another for whom they have responsibility, or from the family’s economic or wider social situation, they may defer having children temporarily, or, if the situation is serious enough, indefinitely, providing they use morally legitimate means. Recourse to natural fertility cycles to space births (NFP) under such circumstances is an example of a morally legitimate means. Contraception is not.”

If there is any further interest, I would be happy in a future piece to discuss concrete situations that might rightly be judged to be “serious reasons.”

One final important point to note. If NFP is chosen wrongly, the wrongness lies in the fact that it is chosen without “good reason” and therefore usually selfishly. The sin here (presuming a person knows what he is doing and freely does it) is the sin of selfishness. (For a Catholic, it can also be the sin of disobedience to authoritative Church teaching.) But choosing NFP selfishly is not the same as contracepting. Strictly speaking, persons can only contracept if they also choose intercourse: a contraceptive act renders sterile an act of intercourse (recall the famous definition from “Humana Vitae,” No. 14: “Any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means.”); a contraceptive act always relates to some act of sexual intercourse; it is an act contrary to conception (literally contra-conception).

If there is no act of intercourse between a potentially fertile heterosexual couple, there is no potential conception to act contrary toward. Those who choose not to have intercourse, that is, choose abstinence (as NFP practitioners do when they want to avoid pregnancy), cannot act contrary to any conceptive-type of act, since they are specifically avoiding such acts. Therefore, those who choose NFP wrongly, although they do wrong, they do not do the same thing as those who contracept. Strictly speaking, they do not, indeed cannot, have a “contraceptive intention,” although their frame of mind might be characterized by what John Paul II called a “contraceptive mentality” (by which I take him to mean, a mentality that sees the coming to be of new life as a threat, something rightly to take measures against). [Note: some moral theologians would disagree with me here; they believe that NFP can be chosen with a ‘contraceptive intention’ and therefore constitute for some couples a form of contraception.]

Note

[1] available at: http://ccli.org/oldnfp/b2010morality/churchteaching.php

* * *

E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation and is an associate professor moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado. He received his Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford in 2000.

And here’s the follow-up response here.

Did that help, or had you heard it before?

Not cursed!

Just in case you were wondering, I came across a nice little verse in the Bible the other day that helped confirm what I was wondering the other week, that no, us subfertile/infertile women are not cursed.  I know I’m not a Biblical scholar, but this verse was enough for me.  It was from the final reading in a two week-plan on healing.

John 9: 1-4

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

Jesus might as well have said “Nothing made him that way, its just the way is.”  I thought it random that I even chose the two-week plan on healing, but this verse gave me such hope.  I struggle with seeing my fertility issues as something that needs to be “healed” in the medical sense because that seems that takes God out of it all.  I don’t think it helps that all the testing we’ve done so far indicates mostly normal fertility.  Ultimately I started reading the plan because many other aspects of my life need healing, including my attitude, my heart, my patience, gossiping, etc.

I remember right after we got married my husband and I did a “busy person’s retreat”, which included meeting with a religious every day for one hour for a week.  I was really sick during that time (yay food poisoning on the honeymoon!) and the Sister asked me if I had prayed for healing.  Well, no.  Why do I need to be healed?  I just need to get over this virus caused by uncooked chicken from a certain street restaurant with no other people at that my husband really wanted to eat at (ahem)!  Regardless, I did pray for my health to return.  And eventually it did.  But was it because of my prayer necessarily?

Getting pregnant is different.  No science can explain infusing a soul and a life into my womb, that could only be the result of God’s work.  Science can explain viruses, yet miracle cures still happen. Whether we want it or not.

I don’t know what that has to do with anything, and this post wasn’t supposed to be about prayer but opportunity.  The opportunity to turn a seemingly bad situation into a good one.  To claim that us not having a child is an accident or that I or anyone else with fertility issues  earned this somehow is to deny the power and goodness of God.  He is all powerful and yet nothing is too small for Him.  I really wish that the above verse just ended after “so that God’s work might be revealed in Him” because the rest of it makes it sound like there is always a happy ending with the obvious choice (didn’t post it, you can look it up at home).  Blind man can see, so then….barren woman should have baby right?

But what if that’s not the ending?  Didn’t we still have a unideal situation with room for God’s work to be revealed?  What if God’s work is for her to find a cure for cancer?  Promote NFP?  Become a mentor to those in need?  Just get through the day with her marriage intact?  Those are great things too.

Anyway, sorry if that didn’t make sense.  Feeling a little under the weather here.

Maybe I’ll go pray for healing…

*Just a little note to clarify…I do pray for a baby if that’s God’s will and I pray to find God’s plan in my life. This post was more in reference to praying for healing my body so that I may have a baby.  I understand that most women with sub/infertility have medical issues to why they don’t have children and maybe we do too (that I don’t know about yet, which is why we’re doing Creighton), but I haven’t felt like our case is pure a medical issue, especially since having a baby involves a soul and everything.  I understand that I may feel like this because of a lack of anywhere to place blame right now, but its where I’m at.

Couldn’t have said it better

If you guys don’t read That Married Couple, you really should!  Elizabeth’s over there posting on a lot of interesting topics (from leaving the bathroom door open to apologetics!), but I was really impressed by her post today on Onan’s sin.

Its commonly known (at least in the Catholic world) that all Christians were formally, theologically against contraception until 1930, when at the 7th Lambeth Conference the Anglicans decided that it was justifiable to use contraception in limited circumstances.

Her post covers the biblical argument as well as quotes from the founding fathers of the Protestant Reformation (including Luther, Calvin, and Wesley) as to why contraception and coitus interupptus is a serious sin because being against contraception was never just a Catholic thing, it was a Christian thing.

Definitely worth checking out, as well as pondering what has changed since then.

What’s in a blessing?

I’ve been struggling trying to figure out the answer to this question for a while.  I think its probably a basic question that most non-religious people grapple with religion and maybe I’m just dense right now, but I can’t seem to find an answer that satisfies.  Particularly as it relates to having children.

What makes something a blessing?  What is the difference between a blessing and a non-blessing?  Are there such things as non-blessings?

Ok, so I guess that was three questions.

People acknowledge blessings all the time.  You’ll even catch people who aren’t spiritual or religious at all talking about blessings!  Maybe you’ve heard people say things like these:

Oh I met my husband by being in that place at that exact moment and it turns out he’s my soulmate, what a blessing!

The baby was born healthy despite showing abnormality in the ultrasound, what a blessing to us!

or

What a blessing we missed our flight connection because the plane crashed!

Are blessings circumstantial?  Do we only consider things blessings if they’re what we want at the time?  While a couple struggling to conceive would see the birth of their child or an adoption placement as a blessing, a single woman  or a woman struggling to take care of many children already may see that unexpected new life as a burden.

Before I became Catholic I wondered if being a Christian was just about being happy all the time, choosing to think positively instead of negatively.  Well, I can just be optimist without being Christian, thank you very much, I thought.  When I finally became Catholic I had the realization that in a way, being Christian is like choosing to be an optimist because with the good news brought to us through the reality of Jesus and the Gospel message, that’s the only proper response! If you believe God has a plan and you’re here for a purpose, the need to worry about the future subsides.  To not be optimistic and thankful for the little things in life is like choosing to reject a birthday present someone picked out just for you.

So here’s where it gets tricky. As a Christian, I am able to count my blessings in the little things everyday, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that there are some things that are intrinsic blessings.  I realize that Catholics and Christians are different from everyone else: we choose to acknowledge all human life as miraculous and a blessing, no matter what circumstance.  Since we are made in God’s image and likeness, life is an innate blessing.  So is health. (I don’t see wealth as an intrinsic blessing, I might add, I just think its something that we happen to like because it makes us more comfortable).

Children are intrinsic blessings.  The bible repeatedly tells us this.  God tells Abraham that his offspring will outnumber the stars (Genesis 12) and blessed is the man with a quiver full of children (Psalm127: 3-5).  There are countless more verses that I don’t have time to cite.

There is no denying that children are a blessing, so where does that leave people who don’t have children? Are they cursed?*  Or are they just not blessed, not favored?

Really interested to hear what people think about this.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I actually had never thought of this before. After another month of not conceiving and in a rare emotional moment my husband mentioned this once and I didn’t have an answer for him.

Resume of the first Pope

Our Church bulletin had this interesting piece in it this past week that described what Peter’s, the first Pope, resume would have looked like if he had tried to “apply” for the job.  Of course, there never was an application, as he was hand-picked by Christ to lead us, so this is pretty comical.  It hit me so hard, I wanted to share it here.  This was written by a priest in our Diocese, Fr. Dat (Father ALL Dat as we like to call him) who’s involved in vocations and other young adult ministry.  This is just an excerpt:

Name: Simon; nickname “Peter”

Education and Experience: Heavy labor fisherman (Mat 4:18)

Virtues: “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8)

Faith: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mat 13:31)

Spiritual Depth: “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings!” (Mat 16:23)

Prayer Life: “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?” (Mat 26:40)

Loyalty: “Amen, I say to you before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” (Mat 26:34); “I do not know the man [Jesus]” (Mat 26:74)

It was this man with such a humanly terrible resume that Jesus called, renamed him Peter and chose him as the Rock upon which Christ builds his Church.  It was to Peter that the Resurrected Christ said: “Feed my sheep!” and placed him as the first Pope of the Church.  Why?  Because, as Saint Paul said in 2 Cor 12:9, in human weakness, God’s grace shines ever more brightly.

Remember that at the end of his life, Peter heroically witnessed to Christ by dying upside down on the cross.  From the moment of denying Jesus 3 times to his courageous martyrdom years later was an amazing story of God’s grace, transforming and molding Peter from a coward to saint, ready to die for Christ…

So for those who are discerning God’s call to priestly and religious life or the call to serve in some capacity in your parishes, remember that “God does not call the qualified, he qualifies the called!” Despite our life resume, if we are ready to let go of our nets, our fears, our unworthiness, then we will see how the Masterful Creator, who formed the beautiful universe out of nothingness, begins to make wonders out of who we are as children of God.


So why did this hit me so hard this past week?  Fr. Dat directs this at those discerning, but if you consider discernment as a continual process of all decisions in our lives, I believe the lessons here can be applied to all those trying to follow Christ at any time.  I’ve been feeling so down on myself lately for how I’m handling my cross, my burdens, right now.  I can’t tell what’s having a worse effect, the sadness I feel about not getting what I want or how bad I feel about my reactions to the situation.  I’d like to think I’m handling it well, but the truth is, I’m not.  At all.  In my moments of weakness, I cry like a little kid, upset that I’m not getting my way.  I compare myself to others.  I’m mad at God.  I loose faith.  I feel hopeless.  It’s flat out ridiculous.  And then I feel even worse for behaving so inappropriately.  And then the cycle continues.  Of course everything is cyclical and eventually I calm down and pull myself out of it, but oh, how I’d love to be able to just pick up this cross and keep trucking with complete faith.  Like my husband, who is so often my faith role model.

I am a perfectionist.  I hate that word (because that implies fault – ha! imagine that!), but I know I am so hard on myself.  And I’m (very extremely) prideful.  That combination makes it hard to admit when I’m wrong.  I’ve written before about how my initial conversion to Catholicism was spurred by a full-out, God smack-down realization (for lack of better words) that I alone don’t know what’s best in this world, let alone what’s best for myself. It should be no surprise that it’s a lesson I’ll have to be reminded of over and over again in my life.  I’m pretty stubborn.

I’m just glad God has the patience and graces to work with me, as only He knows what I’m capable of.  Even when we doubt ourselves and our ability to walk our paths.  I’ve never felt so thankful in my life.

Defense against Islam – What I learned from my international office mates

Of all the things I talk about with my office mates, research, cultural traditions, English idioms, Communism, the one-child policy, and the proper pronunciation of the letter “v”, probably the most interesting topic of conversation is religion.

Besides the one other (American) Catholic office mate, the others are all undeclared, Buddhist variants, or atheists, but all sometimes go to the Christian events on campus for the free food.

We’ve had some pretty good discussions about God but by far the most intense conversations come from another Muslim student from Saudi Arabia who’s office is down the hallway from mine.  He’s very friendly and shares his Arabian “coffee” with all of us (it tastes more like tea).   He comes in periodically to say “hi”, comment on why I have no children, and usually starts a controversial discussion with a one liner, such as the following:

1.  “Seriously, why would God become man?  How can Jesus be God?”

or my new personal favorite:

2.  “Where in the Bible does it say you can’t have four wives?”

Usually when he poses these questions, I try to laugh it off and avoid confrontation.  At an academic institution I don’t really want to get into intense argument in the middle of the day.  And with my faith being so personal, it can be hard to just discuss it when you know that the other person has no interest in understanding your side (although this could be refuted since he is asking me the questions).  Mostly, I’m usually caught very off guard and have no idea how to respond most concisely.  And I honestly didn’t know much about Islam to understand how to talk to him in the first place.

In this last conversation that took place, I bucked up and held my own.  I explained why if the Islam, Christian, and Jewish faith were all exactly the same then why aren’t we all Jewish?.  I talked about the fullness of the faith After a couple of rebuttals he admitted he didn’t know anything about the Bible and actually ended the conversation himself!

So, most recent New Year’s goal?  Learn more about Islam apologetics.  When I became Catholic I heavily explored Jewish, protestant, baptist and even Mormon apologetics, but I only briefly looked into Islam.  Do you all know much about it?

I found a very interesting site that I’ve been pouring over and I found a couple of interesting books at the local Catholic bookstore that I’ll have to go back and buy next paycheck.  Given the current world tensions between these two religions, I’m guessing its a good thing for most people to be educated in.  Given my proximity to this certain zealous individual, I’d like to educate myself more appropriately for the sake of discussion :)

As a starting place, I learned that Islam started out as a heresy of Christian teaching and not an entire other religion.  This is particularly interesting when you consider the Crusades against Islam were to stop the spread of this heresy.  I know I need to learn a lot more about them, but I always find it interesting when the mistakes from the Crusades are thrown in the Churches face when people don’t know all the details (*not claiming the Church acting appropriately, I just think that with the explosion of such a dangerous heresy, maybe their reaction is more understandable.  Again, I need to learn more about this).

Most importantly, I think the quote from Galatians 1:6-9 sums it up quite well:

6I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!

Maybe I’ll post more once I have more sources to pull from!

Community at its finest hour

My husband is someone who prides himself on knowing everything about the area he lives in.  His special talent is high school trivia and one of the first questions he’ll ask you is what high school you went to.  The man knows every high school in Los Angeles.  He’ll ask not in an elitist way (like people who ask which college you went to in order to compare to themselves), but to find out where you’re from, because ultimately he doesn’t just know the high school, he knows the area around the high school, the things to do in that area and the culture of the people there.  He believes that where you’re from will give him a better idea of what experiences you’ve had and what values are likely to matter more to you.  It’s not a fool-proof approach – especially when he met me and I had lived everywhere! – and he understands that outliers exist, but what he’s looking for is something that matters to almost everyone: a sense of community.

When I met him, he had just moved to Texas for graduate school so the “What high school did you go to?” trick only worked for people from his hometown, er, metropolis.  So it was a cool trick but let’s face it, he only knew those high schools because he lived there for his entire life! That’s a gimmie.  Before long though, I realized that when he met people raised in our new city, he was asking the same question!  He’s lived here for much less time than I have and already he knows the ins and the outs of the city, (almost) all the high schools, the developing neighborhoods (useful when it came time to buy our home!), which restaurants the locals like to eat at, where a certain type of music comes from, etc. It might be quick to write this off as a weird passion (which I guess it still is) but he intentionally does this in order to build a sense of community with those around him and to feel a part of the community himself.

Having a sense of community and feeling like you belong is something that matters to everyone and I really enjoy this part about my husband since he can be a little more outgoing than I am.  He’s gotten us in touch with the city and as a result I’ve learned more about where I live than most people probably do in cities where they just go to school.  We feel like we can call this city our home now.

Apart from where we live, people find communities through their interests, like sports or other hobbies (like blogging!), or where you work or go to school.  Our desire to have a sense of community and belong to a group is natural, but sometimes it can overshadow what is true and good for us.  How many school age kids get involved in communities of ill-influence, with drugs or other dangerous behaviors, because they are searching for a sense of belonging and to fit it?  For as much as our community can support us and have the power to shape our lives in a positive way, it can work in the opposite way too.  Everyone knows that peer pressure is an extremely effective measure to get people to conform.  People with addictions who have friends suffering from the same vices can have an even harder time overcoming them.

A sense of community and bonding with others, while very important, cannot be the end all be all to the purpose in our lives.  There has to exist some objective measure by which we can determine if something (like a community) is a good or bad influence in our lives.  How can we determine that?  I love my sports and school communities, but when I was discerning my religion and faith in God, I knew I needed to look for something deeper than just a feeling of closeness with people. I already had other communities that satisfied my social needs, so ultimately if I wasn’t looking for truth in God, why have religion at all?

[Just to clarify, I’m not saying my faith shouldn’t include that (if it’s a community reflective of God’s loving nature, I believe the community will be striving to reflect that.  This is more of a what comes first, community or God.)  This can be hard to distinguish because while our Church is made of people who continue the work that Christ left on Earth, we are still just all sinners and we’re all working towards that closeness with God, so we will by definition be imperfect.]

Figuring out what is a “good” community is the hard part.  I see many churches that advertise the demographics of their congregation like the fact that their service attracts diverse groups of people, it must be good.  Or others that seem to do the opposite and claim a “small, close-knit Christian community” in order to almost foster a sense of exclusive belonging like a replacement for the perfect family relationship that everyone desires.

Along those same lines, I used to be concerned about the fact that a Catholic Church would be SO BIG.  Shouldn’t it be smaller and more intimate? That would make people feel better, feel like they were important.  But if the face of the world should be renewed by Christians, then why should we be limited to a small-close knit community?  Ideally there would be no borders, no exclusivity within Church walls.  Truth is truth, and the more people who know it, the better!  I’m no anthropologist, but from what I know about human nature its natural to want to break off into tiny groups in order to have a sense of identity and importance.  You can see this today on a college campus or in the political sphere where “identity politics” reign.  I do understand that these small groups can have tremendous benefit for educational instruction and social purposes (for example, educators have shown that smaller class sizes and higher teacher to student ratios are beneficial for learning).  But in terms of truth, it should be universal and open to everyone otherwise it’s not really true, right?  Ultimately it is a blessing that the Catholic Church is so large, that so many people have joined the mystical body of Christ.  By its definition the Catholic Church means universal, salvation for everyone, not-limited to just those of the original Jewish tribes.  Go to Mass and you’ll see all types of people, but to advertise statistics of colors and races of people would be limiting the scope of the Church and why it’s here in the first place.  It’s Christ centered, not “us” centered.

I remember the first few Masses I attended, the “sense of community” felt different from anything I’d experienced before.  Everyone seemed so quiet and focused on something.  I took that as acting cold and unfriendly towards me and other outsiders (self-centered much?).  I’ve realized that the feeling of community in a Catholic Church is different because it extends beyond ourselves. “Communion” in its truest sense isn’t limited to union with each other, but extends to Christ himselfEspecially during Mass.  Mass is a time to all come together to be “refueled” for our work in this world by contemplating and focusing on God and Christ in the Eucharist, not really to socialize with each other. There are other times for that.  This shift in focus to a communion with God rather than just each isn’t just a mental focus, it plays out in physical aspects of Mass as well.  I recently heard from a friend that during the Our Father prayer, the traditional way of standing is with your hands folded in prayer rather than the more modern trend of linking hands with your neighbor, which reflects more of a protestant influence (apparently my RCIA class wasn’t that thorough…). The explanation she gave was that while it’s great to love our neighbor and we should show outwardly signs of love for our neighbor daily as God commands us to, ultimately what connects us all is Christ in the Eucharist as children of God. This is what makes the Church what it is! We’re all connected regardless of our feelings and actions towards one another, despite the times that we don’t show love or don’t feel like showing love to our neighbor.*  Another example is during the wedding Mass, the couple stands facing Jesus during the ceremony (except for the part of exchanging the vows to each other)  to physically show who connects the couple and what the focus and purpose of the marriage is (to lead you closer to God).

It’s great that my husband can find common things to talk about with people because he’s interested in where they grew up. This makes for an interesting conversation starter and serves as a good way to build social communities.  I also love the fact that I have friends that play basketball together and a thriving young adult Church group who I can turn to in order to find strength in about our common struggles.  But I believe the only withstanding, truly renewable source of community with each other, with everyone, is to focus at the deepest level, beyond where you live,  what sports you like, or if you have a personality traits that fit well with mine, on what we have in common: our Creator, our innate dignity as human beings, and our salvation through Jesus Christ.

The love and spirit that we receive from our union with Christ is what overflows from us to allow us to start and have thriving relationships with others.

“You cannot give what you do not have” and as Catholics we believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  While that may not feel like what the rest of the world is telling us “community” should feel like, when we are all together during Mass in the presence of the Eucharist with all the angels and saints, it is truly community at its finest hour.


*[I’m still not entirely convinced of if that means it’s bad to link hands during the prayer. Since the Church is all about outwardly signs I don’t imagine that this tradition is set in stone and can’t evolve slightly, as long as we’re focused on Christ together and not distracting anyone.  Still working that one out.]

Thank you, Phoenix!

I saw this video this morning at one of my favorite blogs and I wanted to re-post it here since a line in it really connected with everything I have been writing about for the past couple of days!

In my last few posts, I was really just trying to focus on the concept of faith and on my journey to being able to have faith in God.  The story of “Specifically Why Catholic” would be a much longer, detailed post, probably more like a book.   But if it isn’t obvious already, learning about God’s plan for human sexuality and how NFP promotes that was a huge component.  I thought this video was a cute reflection on that!

A line from this video touched on the “faith” component, when one of the guys interviewed says,

“You’re either going to put your faith in something that a pharmaceutical company says is going to get you the result you want or you’re going to practice natural family planning and in that case, you’re basically putting your faith in your biology as God designed it and intended it”.

So powerful!  Using NFP helps us to truly extend the concept of faith to all aspects of our lives, not just where its comfortable.

A Journey of Faith: Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Flash forward several years and I’m not even considering myself a “religious” person anymore.  I was actually against “organized religion” (because everyone who knew anything knows how many wars have been fought and people have been killed over “pointless religious arguments”) and was one step away from considering myself atheist.  I never took that step because I felt like that was going to far… if I would have heard the term agnostic I probably would have considered myself one.

A Teenager’s Issue

The big issue for me, as I think it is for many young people is sex.  I had always been taught that sex was something precious.  I’d made a pledge when I was younger that I wouldn’t have sex until marriage and despite never exactly knowing why I was making that pledge I just decided I would keep it because I knew it was the “right” thing to do.  Unfortunately I think this lack of understanding in my what I will loosely call “faith” led me to weaken my ideals and eventually when faced with temptation, I just gave in.  I had gotten into a relationship with a guy and I started to feel pressure to have sex.  At the thought of loosing this person I thought I had grown so close to I started to buy into the fact that being physically close would only bring us closer and fix all those other problems and doubts I’d had with the relationship.  I felt that it was hard and therefore unfair to be a woman that had to deal with the consequences of having sex while men didn’t have to worry about anything.  I was angry at religion and culture that seemed to have double standards for purity for men and women, and I attributed it to oppression. I didn’t understand the differences between men and women and only saw them as barriers holding me back from doing what was fun, normal, and healthy.  These questions were met with answers that I didn’t like or felt further exacerbated the inequalities between men and women and so eventually for several reasons I deemed myself ready and mature enough to have sex.  So I locked up my fertility and femininity with a little pill and proceeded to look for what I’d been missing.

It wasn’t long before I was hurt and empty. After all I had opened up with my heart and with my body, I didn’t get it.  I never found “it”.  I felt like I couldn’t have given anything else so what had gone wrong?  I had placed my faith in the wrong things; the wrong person.

After that “learning experience” I felt like I needed to gain control of my life.  What’s the old saying?  Burned once not your fault burned twice it is?  Well I was not going to get burned again.

During this time I met someone.  I was still trying to sort through my issues from my past relationships, and he wasn’t looking for anyone either, so dating was out of the question but we would talk for hours about anything and everything.  And strange enough just like every other guy I had ever dated he was Catholic.  [At this point although I should have started to wonder if the God I had been forever ignoring was trying to tell me something I just thought it was random funny coincidence.]  But this guy was different than the others. He seemed to have such a deep understanding and respect for his faith that I couldn’t have anything but admiration.  Of course when I was questioned about my faith I only had one response.  “Its just not in me”.  I had resigned to the fact that the peace I saw in other people would never come to me because I was just predisposed to not have it.

We would have many conversations about life and truth about things that we could and could not know and how that made us culpable to live our lives in moral ways.  We’d often argue and I would insist that I was right because I knew best.  I always knew best.  On one particular night we were having a conversation about whether or not objective truth existed outside of our own personal biases and experiences.  I was arguing that everything was relative and he took the stance that truth did exist beyond our own desires.  It was such a foreign concept to me and although I sensed some truth to it I just completely denied it.  An idea like that would ruin everything I’d thought, it would make life too difficult.  It would put too much blame on me and I could do no wrong.  I wanted nothing more than to be right to the point that I just started making ridiculous arguments.  At some point during the conversation I realized how absurd I sounded and for a brief moment I let my guard down.

What happened next, sometimes I can’t believe myself. If you would have asked me before if I believed in supernatural events I probably would have said no and to be honest its still hard for me to believe they can happen but I don’t know how else to describe that night.  When I let my guard down everything just came flooding out.  Not directed at this guy, but just in general.  It was as if I’d reached my limit of pride and self determination and I broke down to the nothing that I had finally realized I was.  It was as if I had flash of how insignificant I was in this world and I just fell to the floor.  This was important because it felt like the first time I admitted to myself that there was something out there bigger than me and as soon as I did I could feel its presence, His presence.  As I was crying, curled up in a tiny ball so humiliated by my arrogance I remember feeling like I was being held.  It felt as if giant hands were cupping me, as tiny and insignificant as I was, and protecting,comforting me.  It was the strangest combination of terrifying security I’d ever felt.  I felt as if I’d finally surrendered myself to something beyond my control.

serving-hands

I was so guarded and so hurt.  I had to just keep protecting myself because I knew that I couldn’t trust anything.  And the longer I held behind this wall that I built to protect myself the more I realized I was missing of the world beyond the wall.  The more I realized that it only thing stopping me from true happiness.  I had had so much pride that I knew the best thing for myself that I couldn’t see that God had been chasing me this whole time trying to tell me it was ok that I needed Him.  I used to think people who had religion were weak that they couldn’t make it on their own and had somehow invented this idea of a God who loves you to protect themselves, to feel better about themselves.

Now I see that it takes such an incredible amount of strength and courage to admit you were wrong, so much more than it takes to hide behind a protective wall.

The Start of a Journey

The next morning when I woke up I could tell something was different.  For that day and several days afterward I felt like I was floating.  We’re all a product of our own experiences and sometimes its hard to see beyond what we’ve known and felt since it shapes us as people.  But for those couple days it was as if Id been lifted up to see the world from a broader perspective outside my own previous limitations. It felt as if those giant hands had lifted me up beyond my own personal protective wall; outside of my own biases and limitations to give me the perspective of God himself.  Not one of blame or judging, but of loving acceptance of those struggling around me, all with similar problems.  Eventually the feeling started to wear off, as if I was being lowered back into my little protective cove.  It was as if God had let me experience him for a brief moment and then let me return to my normal state as if to say “I’m here now come find me.”

I see that moment as the official beginning of my Faith journey.   I knew that God was real and that there was a greater truth that existed beyond me or anyone else, but now I needed to find where or what it was.  It was like I had to start removing each one of those blocks from my protective wall that separated me from him.  And each block was very challenging.  I continued these challenging conversations about religion and started attending different churches.  In a spurt of curiosity and an attempt to learn more I even attended a retreat called Bayou Awakening.  Investing time in this quest was something I know I needed to do and a retreat was a great way to start.  If anything my weekend taught me to continue to search for truth and have patience with myself because even though I didn’t have all the answers right then I was on the right path.  I kept being led back to the Catholic faith. Although I initially put up a lot of resistance towards many of the Church’s teachings when I sat down and really meditated I could remove my own personal biases I could see the beauty and truth in its teachings.  Removing my personal pride from the equation allowed me to open, myself up to the truth and fall in love with it.  I bought tons of books and started reading on my own to learn more about the faith but I started to run into problems.  I was so scared of committing to a faith that I didn’t fully understand, especially one as criticized and misunderstood as Catholicism, that I wanted to know as much about it before I could officially decide I wanted to become Catholic.  I had begun to treat religion like I did a subject in school putting all the focus on knowledge and none of it in the spiritual realm.  After learning all about God, Jesus, Mary, and the Church I felt like I had gotten to a point where I didn’t need to study anymore.  I had reasoned everything out in my head as true and objectively right, but I still wasn’t at the point where I could say, “Yes this is MY faith.”   It was like my mind knew it made sense but my heart wasn’t ready to commit to its truth and I still worried about tiny little question that I didn’t have all the answers to, like what about aliens!

I think it was very important for me to understand the meaning and theology behind each facet and teaching of the faith, but ultimately it still comes down to that.  Faith. This thing that no one can tell you; you ultimately just have to believe.  It was like I found myself standing at the edge of a cliff.  I was on the knowledge side and I could look back and see how far I’d come, how much more I understood than before, but I could also look in front and see how my journey was yet incomplete.  In order to have a true conversion I had to jump across and place all of my needs and worries with God. Theology uses reason to bring you closer to making that leap to faith but ultimately you have to jump.  And I had to decide whether I would stay comfortable standing where I’d always been or if I would have faith in all that I’d learned and all that I’d experienced and finally jump off.

cliff-diving

Its not that I needed to let go of control.  Its that I go of my pride and of the delusion that I was ever in control.  Compounding the problem of the decision to convert or not was my fear of what my family and friends would say.  What they would think and how they would react?  When I was faced with the ultimate decision of converting I couldn’t help but think how much easier it would have been if I had just been born Catholic. For some reason, no one questions what you believe when you’re born into it but when you’re old enough to make a decision its as if they think you should know the difference.  “You’re joining a cult” (that’s what my grandma said) or a personal favorite “you’re doing this for your boyfriend” (that was my boss).

So why was it so hard for me to have faith in God?  When we’re children its easy because most of us don’t know any better. But when we’re older we’ve  been hurt and we’ve seen more.  We should know better than to just believe that everything will be OK, right? How can Jesus call us to have that same child-like faith when we’ve experienced this life?

Ultimately I think the reason we’re called to have child-like faith is because we are called to eliminate our pride.  We gather up more and more pride as a coping strategy the older we get but it only stands in the way between us and God.  The reason we should try to emulate the faith that children have is because it lacks the barrier between us and God as a result personal pride.

When it came down to it I realized that my Faith was the only appropriate response to what I’d seen and personally felt of God’s love and redemptive spirit.  After all that God had given me over the course of my entire life, the very least I could do was drop to my knees, forget about my pride and my worries about what my family and friends would think, and finally put all of my trust in Him.

Conversion is a public display of humility

During this journey of faith I know I’ve gained peace with my life, love for myself and others, resources to help me grow as a person, patience, and humility.   I feel like the only thing I’ve lost (and am still loosing) is my pride.   Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on that journey and I really don’t think its complete until we die but I’m trying to grow in faith everyday.

To me one of the most powerful lines in Mass, and one that always stuck out at me before I was Catholic in particular, is a line said right before Communion: “Look not upon our sins but on the Faith of your Church”

No one claims to be perfect but the first and most important step is being big enough to admit how small you are and to place praise where the truth lies.  Although people I’ve been close to have commented on how I seemed to have matured during this time, all I’m really trying to do is become more childlike.