Contraception and Marriageability

CBurrowsphoto #2As a convert to the Catholic faith, one of the hurdles I’ve had to deal with, at least intellectually, is the Church’s position on contraception.  As one who was born in the 1950’s and came of age in the 60’s, I always thought the birth control pill was one of the great inventions of the 20th century.  From my point of view, it took away one of the two big perceived risks of sex outside marriage.  That the Catholic church was opposed to it was, I felt at the time, just another symptom of how out of touch Catholic leadership was with the realities of modern life.  As a quasi-radical free spirit in the 70’s, I was far more concerned with the economics of excessive population growth than I was with the dogmatic pronouncements of a bunch of celibate old men in Rome.

Over the years I’ve had to re-visit this opinion, having come to realize that there is so much I don’t understand about our faith that I should probably shut up about subjects on which I’m essentially ignorant.  I suffer from the sin of pride, but at least have come to understand that having an opinion on a subject is not nearly as important as being informed thereon. So I tend to keep more opinions to myself than I used to.  Still, at mass on Sunday mornings, I wonder how many women between the ages of 15 and 40 receiving the eucharist do so in a state of mortal sin.  And how many more might attend mass and receive communion were it not for the fact that they are on oral contraceptives and thus feel unwelcome, or unworthy of receiving the sacrament.

Theology of the Body & my thoughts on contraception.As it turns out, there is some biology at work in all of this.  An article in Scientific American from 2008 explains some of the perils that arise in the collision of oral contraceptives and marriage.  In basic terms, the hormones in birth control pills change a woman’s perception of the marriageability of a man based upon his MHC profile; if you want to understand what that means, you’re going to have to read the article.  The corollary for men has to do with perceptions of a woman’s overall attractiveness according to where she is in her menstrual cycle.  And while the latter is completely natural, the former is synthetic, and the risks it poses far greater.  After all, if a couple has been dating for six months, the man has likely been around the woman during every phase of her cycle.  The risks of the former, however, can go unrecognized for years, as the following true story illustrates.

One of my wife’s friends growing up was in a live-in relationship with her boyfriend for, literally, 15 years.  Then, in rapid succession, they got married, had a child, and got divorced.  This amazing sequence, I think, demonstrates the power of the MHC profile thing.  Before she was ready to commit to having children with him and on the pill, she found him attractive and desirable.  When they decided to have a child, she went off the pill, and soon he wasn’t nearly as attractive or desirable.  In fact, her perception of him changed so much that they ended the relationship, making an unintended victim of their daughter, who would grow up in a single parent home.Stained Glass

So, are we to think that the Church’s position on oral contraceptives is based upon some science that Catholic thinkers were aware of centuries before modern science proved them right?  No.  Are we to think that a number of the Church’s teachings with which we disagree or fail to understand could possibly have some merit?  Yes.  Is there a lesson in all of this for couples considering marriage?  I think so.  If the woman has been on birth control pills since before they met, it would probably be a good idea for her to go off the pill for several months before stepping up to the marriage altar.  Doing so might be inconvenient, or messy, or a drag, but it might also save both the woman and the man years of unhappiness and disappointment.

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A New Twist on Spring Cleaning

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By Joe McGonigal

I am definitely ready to walk outside without layers of coats and sweaters!  But with the change in season comes the dreaded…spring cleaning.

Instead of figuring out how to dodge my upcoming “chores” I thought I would give some thought to sprucing up my relationship with Denise!  Check out this article in All Pro Dad…maybe your success with this list could eliminate some entries on your “honey-do” list!


Being Known

cropped-sunset-lovers.jpgRecently, I tripped over two nice blogs focused on Christian marriage.  Written and collected by Lori and Paul Byerly, they are, respectively, The Generous Wife and The Generous Husband.  I have added them to my blog feed at and look forward to re-posting their stuff on a regular basis.

One of Paul’s recent posts is entitled 7 Awesome Things I Love About Being a Married Man.  In it, he discusses, among other things, growing, having a best friend, sex (!) and one gift to which I haven’t given nearly enough thought:  Being Known.

According to my wife Nancy, being known is a basic human need, derived from God’s selfsame desire to be known by us.  Certainly, we accept the notion that God knows us–including the shrinking number of hairs on our heads–and scripture teaches us about His desire to be known, intimately, by us.

As I look back over our 31 years of married bliss (punchline: the other seven years weren’t all that bad; thank you for the kind applause), I realize that Nancy knows me better than anyone on the face of the earth.  Better than our daughters do.  Better than my parents ever did.  Better than the best of my friends does or ever will.  Better, perhaps, than I know myself.  Why is this so important, at least to me?

  • It relieves me of having to explain any number of tiresome things–things I like and dislike (ranging from food to politics), stories from my past (she’s heard them all a thousand times), in short, the way I like the things in my life ordered.  She can pretty much tell just from my body language exactly what I’m thinking at any given moment.
  • She has seen me at my absolute best and my shameful worst, and has committed to stay with me until death do us part.  She requires no impressing, although I continue to try. (She’s from New Jersey, and so it’s hard…)
  • We have arrived at a set of shared values that are well understood, mutually, and upon which we can each rely 24/7/365.
  • I find comfort in the fact that, in the likely event I will one day predecease her, she will help keep my memory alive for our kids and theirs.  For, along with wanting to be known, I have a pronounced dread of being forgotten. (Other than their names, I know virtually nothing about my father’s parents; completely forgotten within two generations.)
  • Ironically, I find that I do not really want to be well-known outside of my immediate family.  I cultivate a persona at work, for example, that does not really reflect who I am.  There is a very small group of people with whom I work–maybe three or four–whom I allow to see what I think of as the REAL me.

Lustrous woodCouples who meet, start dating, become engaged, get married, and survive the first ten years of marriage do not typically enjoy the gift of being fully known.  The gift of being known is, for me, comparable to wood or metal which, over time, gets burnished by touch and use, becoming slightly worn but more lustrous.  The more visceral gifts of new relationships that succeed thus give way to the cerebral joy of knowing, and being known by, the person who will, ideally, become your favorite person in the world.

God willing.  And He is.

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Hurt people hurt people.

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Alcoholics Anonymous

Thanks to Fr. Emmerich Vogt and his 12 step ministries for the inspiration behind this post.

As humans, we are wounded by living in a broken, fallen world, surrounded by a culture that seems to celebrate failure, death, violence and decadence.  Similarly, as humans, we seek out other humans as our life partners, and they, too, are wounded by the same fallen world.   Despite our best efforts, we often hurt one another.  Fr. Vogt speaks about spiritual healing, sharing lessons learned through years of service to a variety of 12 step programs and hundreds of participants.  He has developed an entire ministry around the divine inspiration built into these 12 steps.  Listening to him this past weekend, it occurred to me that the 12 steps can be easily applied to our marriages.  With apologies to the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, I will paraphrase the steps themselves, in order to highlight their relevance to our marriages.

1.  I am powerless in the battle against sin; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. This does not refer to the petty squabbles that all of us experience with our spouses, but to the body blows, the haymakers, the capital sins of infidelity, masturbation, porn addiction, gambling and drug and alcohol addictions that have the potential to ruin relationships.  Not all of us suffer these afflictions, but those of us that do are largely helpless to fight them by ourselves.

2.  Belief that a greater power can restore us.  This is the first step addicts must take in order to begin the healing process, and is thus one of the most difficult.  It is a necessary, but not sufficient, belief.  If we are suffering in our marriages, we are called to find the strength to first believe that we can be saved, that our relationship is not doomed. In one of Jewel’s early songs, she spoke about all of us having “addictions to feed.”  As spouses, we are all addicted to something; we must embrace this belief in order to begin the healing process.

3.  Deciding to turn one’s life over to the will of God.  Probably very few of you reading this have not, in some way, already done this.  It is God’s will that we live together in harmony; if it weren’t, we wouldn’t stand a chance.  Surrendering to the will of God follows accepting the belief that He can restore us.

4.  Taking a fearless moral inventory.  If we are going to succeed as a couple, each of us must take responsibility for our own shortcomings.  Playing the blame game is a guaranteed path to failure.  We must focus on what we refer to as “I” problems, not “you” problems.  In the immortal words of Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”  As couples, I believe that, having taken this painful inventory, we must consider sharing it with our spouses.  Or at least as much of it as we can, without hurting our partner.  As Father observes, “Honesty without gentleness is brutality.”  See #5.

5.  Confessing our sins/faults/shortcomings to ourselves, to God, and to one other person–our spouse.  Confession is itself a sacrament, and acknowledging our sins one of the basic elements of the Mass.  By speaking these words out loud, we take away one of the hiding places most of us use to avoid dealing with our sins–not talking about them.  If we are to seek true health, we cannot ignore our illnesses, any of them.  We must bring them out into the light of day, before God and our spouses.  This one strikes me as another of the more difficult steps in the process.

6.  We resolve that we are ready to have God remove the madness from our wounded selves.  We must acknowledge that we cannot fix our addictions alone, and we cannot expect our spouses to fix us, either.  We need to pray to God, in his mercy, to send The Holy Spirit to give us the strength to choose the narrow gate, to take the first steps toward becoming whole, and healed, capable of loving ourselves and worthy of the love of our spouses.  In short, we must first pray, in order to prepare ourselves to be healed.

7.  Humbly ask God to remove my defects.  One of the characteristics I’ve noticed in the people I’ve come to know and love at OLMC is a deep-seated humility, the constant refusal to take credit for all of the good they do, and their habit of always giving credit to God.  My own personal motto, which I do not practice nearly enough, is “Be humble or get humbled.”  We must be willing to knock on the door, God’s door, but we must do it in a spirit of humility, seeking his mercy rather than justice.  This is true with our spouses as well, for as spouses we all need to give and seek forgiveness.

8.  List everyone we’ve harmed, and be willing to make amends with them all.  At the top of the list, right behind God, should be our spouses, for they live in our presence daily, and are most likely to have been hurt by our sinfulness.  There is undoubtedly a long list of people behind them.  It is an inescapable truth that our sinfulness hurts God, and that our spouses bear the brunt of our addictions and faults in the world.  For you, there may be a lengthy list of folks behind the first two, but it is important to start at the top.  For me, the next five names on the list are my children and my parents, for all of them have undoubtedly suffered at my hands, in my thoughts and in my words.

9.  Apologize to everyone you’ve harmed, except when to do so will injure them.  For the living people on your list, including your spouse, this is rather straightforward, but must be approached in an almost spiritual sincerity.  As for God and the deceased persons on your list, it is only through prayer that you will be able to communicate your regret and apology.  Doing so, whether speaking to the living or praying to those others, is a cleansing act, one which should not be dreaded, but rather embraced.  How can we not feel better after having sincerely apologized to those people we’ve hurt?  As a young man, I went to my parents house one day and apologized for every single word that had come out of my mouth for the previous four years.  The three of us shared a toast–several in fact–in celebration of how good we all felt afterwards.  That was over 40 years ago, and I remember it as if it was yesterday.

10.  Commit to a daily examination of conscience.  If we are committed to living in the moment–give us this day our daily bread–we should regularly ask ourselves, “How did I do today?”  Some days will be better than others.  The point is that healing is a process, not a silver bullet, and we must commit to examining our conscience every day.  As addicts, we are capable of falling off our own particular wagon on any given day, and it is alleged to take 21 days to form new habits.  If we are to be healed, there can be no place to run to, no place to hide.  Examine your actions, words and thoughts every day.  If possible, share this process with your spouse; you can help keep each other on track.  After all, in marriage we are not called to achieve Heaven for ourselves, but to help our spouses find their way to Heaven.

11.  Pray and meditate to increase contact with God.  This, again, is a daily activity, as befits human nature.  Most of us don’t suddenly fall off a wagon we’ve been on for months or years; typically, we gradually backslide into our old ways.  This, I believe, is true for people such as myself with food issues.  I need to weigh myself every day in order to avoid waking up one day six months from now and being at the weight I was when I started taking better care of myself.  For others–especially those with alcohol and drug addictions–the world can tilt off its axis almost without warning.  In either case, by increasing our contact with God we are in a better position to enlist his help.  For those of us who find prayer difficult, saying the words of The Serenity Prayer is a fine place to start.

12.  Practice these principals in everything we do.  One of my best friends, who used to have issues around alcohol, once told me that the difference between drunks and alcoholics is that alcoholics go to meetings.  Practicing these techniques in our marriages does not require us to commit to any kind of formal 12 step program.  But it does require us to thoughtfully approach each other in humility, with forgiveness in our hearts, in as honest a manner as possible.   We must be convinced that we ourselves are, in most cases, the problem, and we must share this spirit.  With God’s grace, we will find happiness and peace in our marriages, create loving homes for our children, and model the behaviors that will, in turn, make them good parents to their own kids someday.

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Rock, Paper, Scissors

by Denise McGonigal

Last night our family was laughing over how our three married daughters and their CBurrowsphoto #1husbands decide who gets their way in household matters.  Like, where to store the ketchup –  refrigerator or spice cabinet?  (Editor’s note:  Refrigerate after opening.)  Jif or Skippy peanut butter?  Kitchen sponge or dishcloth?  Powder or liquid dishwasher detergent?  Every couple has their list.

Rock, Paper, Scissors surfaced as Joe and Caitlin’s go-to method of arbitration.  Meghan and Jeremy duke it out over their favorite video game – winner’s preference rules.  And, to no one’s surprise, Erin touted her way of settling domestic disputes with Keven: “I decide, because I’m the boss.”  Good grief, how did that oldest one turn out to be so much like me?  Forgive me, oh kind and tolerant son-in-law.  That apple just didn’t fall far enough from this tree.

all you need is loveLooking back over the past thirty-four years, I wonder just how many times I let insignificant household disagreements get in the way of family and marital harmony because, well, “I’m the boss.”  Why did it matter so much that dishes from a dinner party be cleaned and put away before bedtime?  And why couldn’t the pool towels hang over the fence to dry a little?  And, perhaps to even broaden the scope a little, what really was the big deal about a child wearing the same favorite outfit every week to Mass?

Thank you, dear younger generation, for offering me a much more sensible way of resolving issues that amount to, well, nothing.  I have no skill with video games, but I can definitely develop a facility for Rock, Paper, Scissors.  And seriously, as “the boss,”why didn’t I think of that?holding_hands


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Do You Need God to Raise Your Kids?

Here’s another thoughtful post from our favorite guest blogger, Anne Slamkowski. Please visit her Making Room for God blog.

HYesterday, I blogged on a difficult subject: God and Marriage.  One of the issues that has comes up time and time again in conversations is how do you balance kids and marriage.  Not an easy topic to tackle for sure!  Kids complicate and at the same time lift up your marriage.  Kids give us joy and bring us turmoil.  Kids (and finances) are the first time you learn to sacrifice your selfish desires for your spouse.  No kidding. 

 When you first got married can you remember trying to figure out who was going to pay the bills and how you were going to share the money that was coming in?  Can you remember the first time you had to make a decision together about your kids’ future?  I would venture to guess that it wasn’t an easy decision.  There may even have been some arguing.   So when we talk about divorce rates in families today, we cannot help but discuss both financial issues and trouble with kids. 

One of the issues with kids is when things go badly.  Maybe (like me) you have a child that has medical issues or behavioral problems.  Maybe you have a child who suffers from mental illness.  Maybe you have a child who is constantly making bad choices.  Maybe you have a child that suffers from alcohol or drug addiction.  There are so many problems that parents are faced with today. Yet did any of you have training for this during your marriage prep classes?  Pete and I sure didn’t.   Nobody pulled us aside and said, “Heh, not all kids are perfect.”  No one told us the adventures we would be faced with when we started to grow our family.  No one told us that our kids could make bad choices no matter how good of parents we are.  The problem is we don’t have anything to model our lives after because all kids are different.  We cannot look at our own parents and make good parenting decisions because they lived in different circumstances.  All we have to rely on is each other and instinct.  When things go badly with our kids we tend to point fingers.  Have these words ever been spoken (or thought) about in your household:

“If you would have done or said this to him/her, we wouldn’t be in this place!” 

“If you would be home more often, then he/she would show more respect for us as parents.”

“If you would have disciplined better when he/she was young, then we wouldn’t be faced with these issues.”

“If you would do your job as a housewife, then our kids wouldn’t make these choices.”

“If only I would have treated my body better during pregnancy, then these medical issues wouldn’t have happened to my child.”

“Maybe I have done something to him/her to make him/her this way.”

“Maybe God is punishing me for something in my past.”

All of these comments go on in our brains.  They are doubts that arise during parenting.  I know because Pete and I have beaten ourselves up over why Katie has behavioral issues and seizures. We have blamed each other and ourselves.  Our doubts could have ruined our marriage, but we chose God over doubt.  Thank goodness! 

One of the best lessons that I have ever been taught is that my own kids are not my possessions. My kids belong to God.  They are children of God.  God has entrusted their care to me.  I love this because it reminds me that my kids are entrusted to me not because I deserved them, not because I purchased them, not because I own them, but because God gave me the opportunity to raise them for Him.  Whether you have adopted your children or given birth to your children, they are not your possessions.  Nope.  They are God’s children.  He gave you this opportunity.  What you do with this opportunity is now up to you.  You can choose to raise them without asking God for help, or you can raise them with God’s strength.  I choose the latter. 

If Pete and I were to dwell on all the mistakes we make as parents, I can tell you right now we would be miserable.  I make parental mistakes every day.  I try to learn from these mistakes.  I do my best to ask God daily for strength.  I constantly pray to God to show me what He needs me to do. 

Kids can be part of the problem in a marriage for sure, but they also can lift up your marriage.  If you realize now that kids are not your possessions.  Kids are not a way for you to re-live your childhood.  Kids are not an opportunity for you to show your own parents what they did wrong. Kids are a way for you to connect closer to God.  They are a way for you to see God’s beauty.  They are your pathway to a greater faith life.   f you are having issues with your own marriage that revolves around your children, ask God for help today.  Reconnect individually with your faith.  Find a way to keep God first in your life.  No one can parent effectively without God.  Exhaustion, depression and constant worry are all signs that you have pushed God away and are trying to tackle parenting on your own.  Don’t do this! Remind yourself that we all have the ability to be good parents, if we just ask God for help.

10 years and three kids later.

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Archbishop Joseph Kurtz on Love

man and woman“Couples, like individuals, acquire virtues through the repetition of particular practices and behaviors. They make the virtue their own by freely choosing to act in certain ways, every day.”  

Introduction to the “Marital Virtue of the Month” Series By Archbishop Joseph Kurtz   (An initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

Archbishop Kurtz continues, “Love, of course, is the more excellent way that includes all the virtues. As a couple grows in virtue they also grow in love. Hand in hand they walk the journey to holiness. I pray that you may persevere in this journey, knowing the love of God, the encouragement of the Church, and the support of the many couples who are walking this journey with you.”H

This up-to-date piece continues the conversation we’ve been having on this site, i.e., the responsibility of spouses not to simply strive for perfection on their own, but to bring their spouse closer to God as well.  We do that not by encouragement/arguing, active evangelization or subtle pressure, but by prayer, by living a committed Christian life, and by creating a wake with the power of our spirit that eventually overtakes our less-committed spouse and becomes irresistible, a wave that can help him along the road to faith.  As usual, we must allow The Holy Spirit to work in our lives and those we love.  And acknowledge that these things take place in God’s time.  Amen.LSE Papyrus logo