"It sounds hard to be a Catholic."
"There are too many rules."
"I agree with some Church teachings, but the Church needs to change some other things."
I've heard all of these statements (or variations of) over the past week. I understand the sentiment behind them, I truly do. Probably better than some people realize or assume of me - I mean, I've personally uttered versions of these statements in my own past. They may not know that of me.
In years past, I was hell-bent on changing some of these rules myself. I would identify myself as Catholic - I even attended Mass weekly - but would openly dissent (loudly) from Church doctrine. I could reason (so I thought) through anything I chose to do or believe that wasn't in line with the Church. There was always some hypothetical gray area that I could use to justify my stance. Always some rationalizing that could be done to prove my point.
And I was a master rationalizer. I could make anything sound good. Lawyers and politicians everywhere would have been proud.
I could justify abortion like nobody's business.....
...... and then turn around and argue against the death penalty.
But I'd flounder when asked to explain why it wasn't okay to kill adult criminals but perfectly okay to end the life of the innocent unborn child. You see, I'd only accepted half of the puzzle. I'd decided to pick and choose what parts of the Truth were actually true.
And it was tiring living in such a disjointed belief system. Nothing lined up. Nothing fit.
It was tiring....and it was depressing. I was living in a constant state of uncertainty, where there was no objective truth, where nothing was set in stone, because everything was subjective. What I felt was true didn't have to be accepted truth because truth was literally undefinable. Nothing was absolute. Everything was open to interpretation.
It was limiting and confining. There was a pretense of freedom (No rules!! Woo-hoo!), but no accepted wisdom to learn from. No real direction to grow in or aspire towards. Nothing was real - everything was a mirage that could be changed on a whim. Nothing could be certain.
And then I had kids.
Nothing changed at first. I didn't magically revert back to the Church the instant Rascal #1 made his entrance. Not by any means. I held on to my undefinable freedom. No one was going to tell me what was and was not true.
Things really started to happen when Rascal #1 began to move around. He started getting into things. Hurting himself on things that his mind just couldn't understand quite yet (like the VCR, which he explored with his little hand, culminating in pinched fingers, blood, and lots of tears). And so, I did what any loving mom who adored her child and only wanted the best for him would do:
I babyproofed the house.
Sharp objects were covered. Dressers and bookcases anchored to the walls. Staircases were gated. It's not easy - or cheap - to do the whole babyproofing thing, but we did it. Much to Rascal #1's chagrin, the VCR became off limits. Did he understand why he suddenly couldn't do as his little heart so greatly desired? Not at all. The VCR made him happy, and Mom and Dad weren't letting him be happy.
He rebelled at first - trying anything he could to get to that off-limits VCR. It truly seemed that in his developing mind, that VCR was his only shot at happiness. We were horribly oppressive, not allowing him the greatest joy in his life.
And then something interesting happened. He accepted that the VCR was off-limits. Things around the house changed. Instead of focusing on everything he couldn't have.......he started exploring the things he could have. In his safe environment, he was able to be truly free. Free from hurting, free from pain, free from suffering. Free to learn and grow. Free to laugh and love. He was protected by all of the babyproofing measures, and that protection allowed him to thrive and become the little boy that he was meant to be.
I found it to be an interesting experience, but honestly, I'm kind of dense sometimes. It took one more experience to truly start to understand. You see, one of those issues of faith that I'd publicly dissented from the Church on was the issue of birth control. I used it, and saw nothing wrong with it. It was merely modern medicine, an improvement to daily life, and a way of empowering women. The Church was simply archaic, merely "behind the times." I was certain that I was right and the 2000-year-old tradition of the Church was just outdated, and, well.....wrong.
I'd been taught well. I'd had a great education and catechesis when it came to this particular Church teaching. I'd been taught a simple, easy-and-free-to-follow version of Natural Family Planning in high school. I had been taught truthfully......but I'd still chosen to dissent.
A friend called me out on it. Well, technically, she called me and my husband out on it. She challenged us to study, learn, and pray for understanding the Church's teaching on contraception and Natural Family Planning. More than anything else, she challenged us to be obedient while studying. Live as if we believed in the Church's teaching, while praying for enlightenment, she said. Learn NFP, and practice it obediently, and the faith will come later.
We were finally willing to hear this challenge. I'm not sure if we would have responded in the same way if it had been someone else, or if had been merely a year earlier in our lives. God knew that we were ready to be challenged, and He did so through this friend.
So we did. We hit some rough moments at first - there's always a bit of a learning curve when it comes to NFP, I'm not going to lie. Going from a woman who had never taken a second glance at her cycle, one who had never looked for signs of fertility before, to one who was now daily making observations and working to interpret them (through guidance, don't worry!) was a challenge. There were times when I just wanted to throw it out of the window and go back to being "happy." Birth control would make me happy, why wouldn't God let me have it? (I will add here that I had convenient amnesia during this experience. Birth control was NOT an easy learning curve, either. I'd gone through many different versions of birth control, all with symptoms and side effects, and still had yet to find one that didn't cause me annoying and uncomfortable side effects when we switched to NFP. Birth control had not been "easy" by any means, but I'd conveniently left out that part of my memory when complaining about the "rules" of the Church and contraception).
And then something happened. Like I had noticed with Rascal #1 when he came to accept our babyproofing, something happened with Mike and me. It was a gradual change, but looking back now, I can see that the difference in us was profound. Once we accepted the Church teaching and started to abide by it......we were free.
I really struggle with putting this experience into words. It's hard to find words that truly relays the difference between then and now. The freedom we feel now is beyond our human language. The joy that we feel is inadequately described with the English language. The limits have been removed. For someone who hasn't experienced NFP this seems to be a contradiction. How can following rules bring about freedom? I've put off writing this post because I cannot find the right words to answer that question. I don't know how it happens.....I just know that following the rules allowed me to be more fully human, more fully female specifically. Accepting the natural rules written into my body - and learning how to work within them, how to trust my own body - led to freedom. I was safe within the confines of my own body - not at all unlike Rascal #1's freedom within all of the safety equipment that we'd installed. He was free to be who he truly was - a creative, curious toddler - without fear. His limits freed him. It was the same for Mike and I. The limits we'd come to accept with our NFP training freed us from the burden of worry, the burden of medical side effects, the burden of health risks. And if you remember, pregnancy was not without great medical risks for me. I'd just had a very traumatic birth experience with an emergency room trip, heavy drugs post-partum, and bed rest. But yet, the "oppression" of NFP freed me from all of that. Putting all of that experience into a little blog post is impossible.
But what did these two experiences mean, overall, for my faith and my relationship with the Catholic Church? How does this all tie in to those comments I've heard so many times over the past week?
Watching Rascal #1 thrive within the boundaries that we'd implemented for his own safety, for his own good, and then having such an amazingly freeing experience with a Church teaching that we'd been adamantly against was a bit earth-shaking for Mike and me. We'd just seen two very clear instances where accepting and following the rules had led to an incredible growth, and incredible freedom, and the rule-follower become who he or she truly was. Rules, in both instances, weren't limitations.....instead, they were opportunities for true freedom. Acceptance and obedience of the rules led directly to a more authentic person. Or as Blessed John Paul II put it:
"Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought."
What I'd thought was freeing me was actually confining me. It was earth-shattering. My whole world almost came crashing down around me: everything I had thought I knew about freedom was being turned upside down.
I did a lot of thinking. A whole lot of praying. Trusted friends probably were really tired of hearing me talk about it. But, dear reader, my entire moral framework was being challenged. It was scary.
If I could be so wrong about what I had been so convinced about (birth control and the "freedom" it provided), how could I trust anything I held to as truth? I've always been a linear person. I think in bulletpoints. I like logic. I love reason. I think this is why I've always been pulled toward things like math and science.....and inherently opposed to (and annoyed by) fields such as literary analysis. Logic was my friend, my security blanket. Now, I recognized the fact that my logic was flawed.
It was completely illogical to say that the Church spoke the Truth, as revealed by God.....only on subjects that I personally agreed with and understood. I'd just proven to myself that I was wrong on the issue of contraception. If I was wrong on that, how could I be right on everything else? I am merely a human, with limited training and theological knowledge. How could my expertise be greater than such respected thinkers like St Thomas Aquinas?
How could I be smarter than God?
The only way that could be logically true was if Catholic doctrine was not revealed by God. I could not possibly be smarter than God...so the only logical conclusion was that the Deposit of Faith found within the Catholic Church was not written by God.
And if that was not God's revealed Truth....how could I trust that any of it really was true?
How could I say that the Church was right about the True Presence.....but not about abortion?
How could I say that the Church was right about adultery.....but not the gravity of missing Mass?
It was illogical. And realizing it was scary. Terrifying, actually, to a person who loves logic and reason.
....and then I saw Rascal #1 playing happily in his cushioned little environment. He'd accepted the limitations, even if he didn't understand how they protected him. He'd accepted the gate at the bottom of the stairs, even if he didn't understand why he couldn't go up and down the stairs un-assisted.
....and I saw my NFP chart. I saw how the "rules" of Natural Family Planning had drastically improved my quality of life, not to mention my marriage. I saw how NFP had erased the constant hormone-induced cloud of depression. I saw how NFP had changed our marriage, allowing us to no longer be afraid of something breaking or a mass-produced chemical being ineffective. (Recalls happen, y'all. Quite often. Be warned).
I began to think that possibly, maybe, the Church had received the Deposit of Faith because it was truly the revealed Truth of God. And I began to understand that possibly, maybe, God had revealed it because He loved us. Just as I had loved Rascal #1 enough to put into place rules and protections to ensure his safety and happiness......maybe our Heavenly Father had revealed this Truth to us to protect us and ensure our eternal happiness. If He truly did love us (which was one of those teachings that I had never doubted, but wholeheartedly believed), why would He not provide us with a safety net? A babygate at the staircase, if you will.
Just as it was illogical to believe that I knew better than God, it was also illogical to believe that God, as our Father, would not provide me with the boundaries and "babyproofing" that would allow me to thrive as a human being. Why would He not provide me with the wisdom and guidance that would allow me to grow and thrive and be eternally happy? If He truly was my Father - like the Church said, and I had accepted - why would He not provide for me like a parent does for his/her child?
As a parent, I'd imposed rules and limitations for my child. Not because I wanted to thwart his growth, or because I wanted to oppress his spirit.....but because I wanted to nurture him. I wanted to protect his happiness. I wanted to keep him safe. I began to see God, our Father, in the same light.
Guys, this was scary. It was hard to humble myself and admit that I, a human with limited knowledge and wisdom, did not know better than God. It was hard to admit that my belief system did not pass the test of logical reasoning. It was not coherent. There was no universal logic.
My experience as a parent and with NFP led me to look at the Church teachings with new eyes. I began to see that, unlike my disjointed, illogical worldview (you know, the one where the same logic and reason that argued for one personal truth, when applied to another of my personal truths argued against it?) was very much like my toddler's. When it came to moral reasoning, I was no better than my toddler. I rebelled against that baby gate because I believed that it limited my happiness, instead of seeing the big picture and how that baby gate kept me safe, and therefore, able to even be happy. If Rascal #1 fell down that staircase, he definitely would not be happy. I could see that, simply because I had the understanding of what falling down the stairs meant. He could not.
As with NFP, the Church had a wisdom and knowledge that I did not possess at the time. I rebelled against that teaching because I believed that contraception would make me happy. I could not see the big picture. The Church could, and did, and so She put a limitation in place to protect us and ensure our overall happiness and freedom.
I'd like to wrap this up by saying that I now wholeheartedly believe and adhere to every single teaching of the Catholic Church. That I've learned my lesson and begun to see Her as truly the Mother Church, who has only put all of these "rules" in place to protect me. But I can't.
In some ways, that is true. I have begun to see the Beauty and Truth contained in the Deposit of Faith. Are there still some teachings that I don't understand? Sure. I may never - on this earth - understand them. Just like Rascal #1 may never understand why we anchored the dresser to the walls as soon as he started moving around......I may never understand the reasoning behind the doctrine of the Church.
And that's okay with me. What I do understand is that the doctrine of the Church is like a jigsaw puzzle. We're only given one piece of understanding at a time - seeing the entire puzzle at once is more than our human minds can fathom (again, St Thomas Aquinas' words come to mind). Rascal #1 now understands the anchor piece of the babyproofing puzzle...but he doesn't really understand the light socket covers. His understanding of electrical currents is too weak. But even without understanding the "why" behind the socket covers, he understands the importance of leaving them in place, especially for his little brothers. He believes and accepts because he trusts me, his mother, to only have his best interests at heart.
I may not understand the reasoning behind all of the doctrine of the Catholic Church just yet. But I believe and accept it because I trust that God, my Father, only has my best interests at heart. According to Church, God created me to "know, love, and serve Him and to spend eternal happiness in Heaven" together.
I trust this. He's shown it to me, one piece at a time, like with NFP. And it is incredibly freeing to believe.
Why? Because, just like Rascal #1 in his cushioned play space, I can safely and freely grow, learn, and develop, trusting that my Father is protecting me from harm, pain, and suffering.
Once I realized that, I was truly free and the "rules" became opportunities to know, love, and serve Him better.
I'm living for eternal happiness. I challenge you to do the same.