We would like you to know that the Catholic Church exclusively teaches the use of Natural Family Planning when making decisions and taking action about responsible parenthood. We recommend you find an instructor and learn the methods. There are brochures at the front of the church with more information.”
This was pretty much the sum total of the guidance my fiancé and I received from the parish priest two weeks before our wedding day in 2011. He was sorry that our church did not have any classes, but he was sure we could figure something out. To be honest, I couldn’t tell whether “something” meant that he assumed we’d resort to artificial birth control or to getting pregnant on our honeymoon.
Actually, I already knew about responsible parenthood, thanks to NFP instruction I’d received from a couple whose children I’d babysat throughout college. They were the official instructors for the diocese in which I attended school, and when they found out I was engaged, they simply insisted on teaching me.
Though I was initially skeptical (there was the over-the-top enthusiasm common to NFP devotees, the language that had the feel of a hard sell: it was always described as “beautiful” or “holy” or “the best thing that ever happened to our marriage”), I ended up finding the information valuable. I was struck by what they were able to say about the body’s ancient, internal wisdom and their knowledge of the nature of fertility. I wondered why this kind of information about my body’s own readily observable patterns hadn’t been presented to me earlier—or at any point—in the first two decades of my education.
On the other hand, I didn’t wonder much at all about the absence of the words “Humanae vitae” in those same decades of schooling. The fact is, few people of my generation think much about this fifty-year-old encyclical—even on the fiftieth anniversary of its promulgation. There’s a vague notion about its reinforcing Catholicism’s injunction against artificial contraception, but it doesn’t generate the guilt, turmoil, thoughtful argument, or impassioned debates it did for the generation that came of age during the Second Vatican Council.
But don’t accuse the millennial generation of apathy. It’s just that very few of us were formed by our parents’ generation in such a way as to participate in, or even care about, this debate. We weren’t presented with “two sides” of a controversial issue, but with the values our parents adopted after their own long-fought debate. They made up their minds, and then they raised their children accordingly.
For example, I have peers who were on birth control by middle or high school. Their parents advised not abstinence, but safe sex. This wasn’t a concession to or acknowledgment of the sexual activeness of their kids; this was a handing down of a new doctrine, one rooted in assent to scientific authority, belief in medical solutions, and rejection of what they perceived to be antiquated sexual mores. Other friends, recipients of a different doctrine, began charting and tracking their cycles upon engagement, waited to have sex until marriage, and—understanding child rearing as an integral aspect of their vocation to marriage—typically didn’t try too hard to avoid pregnancy within the first year or two.