Today, please welcome Leslie Sholly for the final and seventh part in Freedom’s Calling – my series commemorating Humanae Vitae’s 50th anniversary and sharing the journeys of Catholics who have come to understand and embrace the truth of its teaching. For more information on the series, you can read part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here, and part 6 here.
I’m a cradle Catholic, born in 1967. And I recall hearing a lot about the birth control pill growing up. I doubt I had any idea how it worked, but I had the general impression from the books I read, the media I consumed, and the people I knew that taking it was just what people did.
I knew that Catholics weren’t supposed to use contraception, and I personally knew many families who appeared to take that teaching to heart. In my Catholic school at that time there were still many big Catholic families with seven kids or more. However, in twelve years of Catholic education I don’t recall EVER hearing this teaching explained. The Church, as I experienced it, taught it was wrong but not WHY. I definitely had the impression that this was some old-fashioned idea that was safe to ignore.
As I became more educated about abortion in high school, I learned about the abortifacient potential of the birth control pill and IUD. It was easy for me to see that those forms of birth control were wrong since they could end the life of a newly conceived baby, but there were still plenty of other non-abortifacient methods of contraception. Maybe the filmstrip about Natural Family Planning we watched as high school seniors referenced the teachings of Humanae Vitae, but all any of us heard were the embarrassing references to cervical mucus.
I did not live against this teaching, but only because there was no opportunity for me to do so. I remember having conversations about birth control with my college roommate and even looking at what was available in the local drug store. I didn’t have a boyfriend and I planned to wait until I was married anyway, but I figured I’d need this information in the future.
When I was a junior at Georgetown University, I took a course called Christian Marriage as part of my minor in Theology. I had been dating my now-husband for over a year then, and it was already pretty well understood that we’d be getting married when I graduated. Taking that class felt like a good step in preparing for marriage, but I had no idea how life-changing it would be.
This class was taught by a Jesuit priest named Father Kaifer. The texts I recall were Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm, The Art of Natural Family Planning by John and Sheila Kippley, Certain Declarations Concerning Sexual Ethics by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI.
Somewhere earlier in my life I had picked up the understanding that I was free to follow my conscience if I did not agree with Church teaching. But no one had ever mentioned the necessity of properly forming my conscience first. And oh, did my conscience start pricking me more and more as I read through these books! How I wish I could go back and thank Father Kaifer. He must have been a very clever man to teach us why contraception was wrong and then, no doubt anticipating our arguments on the necessity of using it, to supply us with a solution in the form of Natural Family Planning!
Discovering the teachings in Humanae Vitae marked such a turning point in my life that I can remember exactly where I was when I was reading it. My husband, John, is from Baltimore, just an hour away from Georgetown. We had gone to his hometown for the weekend, and I was sitting inside studying while John was outside helping with an oil change. I remember being excited by what I read, thinking WOW! The Church doesn’t just make stuff up! It makes sense! There are reasons! But at the same time I was filled with discomfort and dismay, knowing that my conscience and my then non-Catholic boyfriend’s were not going to be in tune on this issue.
Here’s where The Art of Natural Family Planning saved the day. When the uncomfortable conversation that I was dreading took place, I was already armed with an alternative to artificial birth control that not only satisfied the demands of conscience, but was backed by science and was aesthetically superior to barrier methods as well. He reluctantly agreed that when the time came we would try things my way.
I charted my fertility signs for an entire year prior to our wedding. We were blessed with a phase III honeymoon. It would make a better story if it ended right here, but the fact is that our practice was less than perfect, AND I turned out to be super fertile, which meant that we welcomed three babies in four years. There was friction and disagreement and periods of dissent for a couple of years before I finally recommitted to what I knew was right.
My advice to anyone who struggles with this teaching: Start by reading Humanae Vitae, please. You cannot dissent from something you don’t fully understand. Then take an actual class in Natural Family Planning and get your spouse on board. We never did that—I was self-taught AND I took on all the responsibility for it. I can’t go back, but if I could that’s something I would change.
Online support groups or forums weren’t really a thing back then either, and I’m sure they can be very helpful to anyone who is struggling today. I know that there are sometimes life-and-death reasons for avoiding pregnancy, but if that’s not your situation I’d also like to add that you are far more likely to regret not having more kids than you are to regret having one you didn’t expect. We have a six year (planned!) gap between our third and fourth children, and I often wish there was another child in the middle of that gap. Leave room for God in your family planning, and He will give you the grace to live according to His design. He can never be outdone in generosity.
I describe myself on my blog as Catholic and Southern, Wife and Mother, which gives a quick but accurate snapshot of who I am and what is important to me. I was born and still live in Knoxville, Tennessee. I graduated from Georgetown University, majoring in Honors English and minoring in Theology, and meeting my husband in the process! We have been married for almost 29 years and have five children aged 13-27. In addition to blogging, I work at home as my husband’s legal assistant, and write grant proposals and do editing for a non-profit run by my mother. In the past I’ve worked as correspondent for our Diocesan paper and I wrote a column on life issues for several years. I was a charter member and long-term chair of our Diocesan Respect Life Committee, via which I helped to design a pro-life CCD curriculum, sponsored a conference on end-of-life issues, and gave many talks on abortion. My blog is now my primary ministry. My niche is hard to define because I write about what I care about, which covers a lot of territory: Faith, Politics, Education, Parenting, Graveyards, Gardening, Hiking, and the occasional recipe or product review!
Want more of this series?
Part 1: My Introduction
Part 2: Celebrating the responsibility of our creative power with Amy Thomas of Catholic Pilgrim
Part 3: Self Control and Our Ultimate Mission with Kristi Denoy of Hail Marry
Part 4: The Ripple Effect of Chastity in my Life with Katie Herzing of Becoming Perfectly Myself
Part 5: Moved by NFP with Heidi Indahl of Work and Play, Day by Day
Part 6: Freedom in Surrender with Laura Durant of Healing Heart of Jesus
This brings the series to a close. Thanks very much for your ongoing support of these important conversations!