Ashley McGuire fell in love with the Catholic Church five years ago, after reading its teaching against artificial birth control.
McGuire, then a skeptical Protestant college student, initially saw the ban as a mandatory march to “domestic slavery.” But the more she read, the more she was blown away by the idea that sex — and women’s bodies — must be about more than physical pleasure.
Yet the images the church uses to promote its own method of birth control freaked her out. Pamphlets for what the church calls natural family planning feature photos of babies galore. A church-sponsored class on the method uses a book with a woman on the cover, smiling as she balances a grocery bag on one hip, a baby on the other.
“My guess is 99 out of 100 21st-century women trying to navigate the decision about contraception would see that cover and run for the hills,” McGuire wrote in a post on her blog, Altcatholicah, which is aimed at Catholic women.
McGuire, 26, of Alexandria is part of a movement of younger, religiously conservative Catholic women who are trying to rebrand an often-ignored church teaching: its ban on birth control methods such as the Pill. Arguing that church theology has been poorly explained and encouraged, they want to shift the image of a traditional Catholic woman from one at home with children to one with a great, communicative sex life, a chemical-free body and babies only when the parents think the time is right.
The movement sees an opportunity: President Obama’s decision this year to require most religious employers, like employers in general, to provide contraception coverage. The move angered Catholics so much that it cracked open a discussion about contraception that has been largely taboo for decades because there’s so much disagreement about it.
“More priests have given sermons on this in the past few weeks than in the last 50 years,” said Janet Smith, a conservative theologian who teaches at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
The new movement’s goal is to make over the image of natural family planning, now used by a small minority of Catholic women. But natural family planning, which requires women to track their fertile periods through such natural signs such as temperature and cervical mucus, is seen by many fertility experts as unreliable and is viewed by most Catholics as out of step with contemporary women.
“It ends up being this lofty, ‘Isn’t every baby a precious blessing?’ ” said Jennifer Fulwiler, a Catholic writer with five children based in Austin who uses natural family planning. “Meanwhile, you have one kid with colic [and] some 2-year-old pulling on your pants. It just doesn’t resonate. There needs to be a modernizing.”
These women are hardly renegades. McGuire recently moderated a church-run panel about contraception in downtown Washington. And when the diocese of Arlington County, one of the country’s most traditional, hosted a lecture about natural family planninglast month, the featured speaker drove home a key point: The Catholic definition of when it’s okay to not get pregnant is more flexible than you think. The 130 tickets were gone within three days.
“When I talk about this, I always say the church has no opinion of how many children you’re supposed to have. That’s between you and your spouse and God,” said Mary Kate Sparrow, an Alexandria mother of four who spoke at the event.
But as unified as conservative Catholics are against the Obama mandate, there are tensions around what it means to follow the church.
When McGuire argued, in a post called “Making Catholic Sex Sexy,” that church publications should ditch pictures of women in baggy pastels holding babies and that natural family planning should also be used to avoid pregnancies, dozens of readers protested.
Some slammed natural family planning as selfish and un-Catholic, indistinguishable from contraceptive methods such as the Pill, because it can enable parents to put career goals ahead of babies. Others defended the method because it puts couples in tune with their unmedicated, God-given rhythms.
Women who practice natural family planning say the subject can be explosive even in traditional parishes. They describe feeling judged and judging one another about the number of children they have and why. Support groups, while widespread for breast-feeding, are almost nonexistent for natural family planning.
The debate is part theological and part cultural.
Pope Paul VI wrote the contemporary teaching on birth control in 1968, a few years after the Pill was approved. It says couples can delay or decide against having children “for serious reasons.” The term is left undefined, but the big picture is clear.
Couples “are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life,” it says. Instead, Catholics are to seek “the will of God and remember . . . that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”
Even though the pope never defined what constituted a justification to delay a pregnancy, large families became a hallmark of Catholics who wanted to show their fidelity.
Meanwhile, many Catholic leaders disagreed with Pope Paul VI on whether the Catholic Church should oppose birth control, including the majority of an advisory commission he had convened of theologians and bishops. (He wound up ignoring their recommendation.)
That lack of unanimity has played out in parishes for decades, partly because of priests who don’t support the ban on artificial contraception or others too hesitant to focus on it.
Although the conversation around natural family planning has begun to open up, some women who practice it are still hesitant to talk about it.
“Even with people I know really well, like women in Bible study, I’d never presume to bring it up,” said Carrie Severino, 35, an Alexandria lawyer with three children who practices natural family planning. “This is something of prudential choice the couple has to make with a lot of prayer. People are afraid of judging and being judged.”
Fulwiler said she thinks younger Catholics, raised in an era when natural, “green” living is hip, are becoming more open to natural family planning. But you have to know who you’re talking to.
“If you know the secret password, there can be very frank talk, but there is that tension,” she said. “Typically you don’t talk about contraception.”
Church-funded technological advances are changing the debate. Younger women are likely to use not only the classic fertility barometers, but also a new electronic monitor that checks hormones in urine.
To some, this reflects Catholicism’s ability to incorporate modern science. To others, it flirts with what conservatives call a “contraceptive mentality” — shorthand for a sex life that’s more about the parents than children.
But McGuire, who is pregnant, isn’t daunted.
“I envision marketing where there are simple phrases associated with” natural family planning, she said. “Like: ‘Know your body!’ or ‘Live freely!’ ”