Both in anecdotes and “exit polls,” former Catholics frequently cite the Church’s teachings on sexuality as a reason for leaving the Faith. But these same countercultural teachings have also been the door into the Catholic Church for believers seeking a consistent morality grounded in the Gospel. Converts have benefited from both the gift of the teaching as well as their entry into the Catholic Church.
Krista Millegan is one such convert. She read Blessed Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) with her then-fiancé, Brantly, while they were undergraduates at the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. “The encounter with Humanae Vitae was instrumental to my conversion because it was the first thing that convinced me to take Catholicism seriously,” Millegan said. “Suddenly, it seemed, Catholics could be right about something. Was it possible, then, that they could be right about anything else?”
|Reading Humanae Vitae
helped lead Krista Millegan and her husband, Brantly, to the Catholic Church. Courtesy photo
Krista, now a stay-at-home mom, and Brantly, a doctoral student at The Catholic University of America and founder of the website churchpop.com, read the encyclical while researching which kind of contraception to use. At the time, it was a forgone conclusion they would use contraception, but they read Humanae Vitae just to be thorough. Instead, the document convinced them that contraception was wrong.
“Being the intellectually curious and thorough man he is, Brantly suggested we read Humanae Vitae just to have approached the issue from all sides,” Krista said. “I, still harboring my anti-Catholic prejudices, doubted that it would have anything of value to say. I agreed to read it anyway, for Brantly’s sake. The last thing I expected was to be convinced.”
The document won her over. “By the end, I was stunned,” she explained. “After reading through, I had no choice but to believe that contraception circumvented God’s design for sex, and that each sex act should remain open to the possible conception of a child.”
Because of the practical consequences, Brantly took a little longer to be convinced. “I wanted us to use contraception, so then I ended up studying the history of Christians and contraception,” he said. “I was shocked to learn that all Christian traditions rejected it until the mid-20th century, but that convinced me. All Christians were right for 19 centuries until Protestants caved to social pressure.”
For Luma Simms, another Protestant convert, reading Humanae Vitae drew her to the Church because of its thorough understanding of both God and human beings. “Once I read it, I sat there crying. The strong anthropology and the prophetic understanding of human sexuality — everything was blowing my mind,” she said. “Not that in Protestant circles you don’t hear snippets of these doctrines, but they are not presented as a whole thought that stands on centuries of theological doctrine, standing on who God is, what he has done, and who man is.”
Question of authority
Simms read the document during a tumultuous time for her family — a family member had abruptly left his wife after 43 years, and their Presbyterian church was breaking into factions. The two events made Simms and her husband confront the issue of authority.
|Luma Simms, pictured with her family, said Humane Vitae helped lead her to the Catholic Church. “Once I read it, I sat there crying,” she said. Courtesy photo
“Is there ever going to be a church that’s not going to split, sooner or later?” she noted. “Since we can all read the Bible for ourselves, if we are all going to interpret, the logical conclusion of Protestantism is schism. Grieving our dying church and the deep sorrow of the end of the 43-year marriage shook us, and we had to ask, ‘Where can we find real ecclesial authority?’ Only within this authority could one begin to definitely understand marriage.”
Uncertainty over ecclesial authority also affected Krista Millegan’s discernment. “Here was an end to the unfortunate pluralism of sola scriptura I had bemoaned even before considering Catholicism,” she said. “After having felt rent by the confusion of the doctrinal diversity in Protestantism, the rock of the Spirit-led, one, true Church did feel like a gift of God’s love.”
The Church’s clarity in identifying sin was another significant factor for her husband, Brantly. “Almost everyone around is committing grave sexual immorality — or plans to,” he said. “They are good people but practicing grave sexual sin that can send people to hell. It made me very distrustful of Protestantism; if I didn’t become Catholic, where else would I be?”
Matthew Schmitz, deputy editor at the magazine First Things, noted that his conversion journey began when he “became impressed by the moral teachings of the Catholic Church.” This led to his “heart being opened to more obscure teachings.” For Schmitz, entering the Catholic Church was, “a fulfillment of the Christian faith [my parents] had given me, not a rejection of it,” and it has brought him closer to Christ.
|Five Reasons to Ditch the Pill
A look at the biological and spiritual dangers of hormonal contraception:
1. The World Health Organization classifies hormonal contraception as a carcinogen, in the same class as tobacco and asbestos; other studies have linked contraceptives to increased risk for other serious medical conditions.
2. Synthetic hormones from contraception have polluted our water supply so much that they have negatively affected the fish population.
3. Hormonal contraception regulates a woman’s cycle by pumping her full of synthetic hormones, masking health problems without fixing them.
4. No barriers (and greater union) between you and your spouse, and no need to change your biology.
5. Avoiding artificial contraceptions provides an openness to God’s generosity.
— See a natural family planning practitioner for any issues when transitioning off the pill or other hormonal contraceptives.
Tavi Brzozowski of Oklahoma City came to believe in the Church’s rich teaching on sexuality by practicing it. She married a Catholic medical student while still a Baptist. “At that point, Michael was in his second year of medical school, so we thought, ‘We can’t have a baby now.’”
Her experience with hormonal contraception included mood swings and negative side effects, and her husband felt guilty about it. After the birth of their first son, Tavi knew she did not want to go back on the birth control pill. She became pregnant again while looking into other options. Then she learned the Billings Method of natural family planning. “God finally drew me to his Church through NFP classes,” said Brzozowski, who now teaches the Billings Method.
|Natural family planning played a key role in the conversion of Cierra and Fitz Jennings. Courtesy photo
Like Brzozowski, Cierra Jennings was dissatisfied with using birth control. She tried various kinds of chemical options, each one of them yielding harmful side effects. Finally, her then-boyfriend, now husband, suggested they look into “that thing some Catholics do.” Though he wasn’t practicing the Faith, Jennings’ husband knew about natural family planning from growing up Catholic. Through taking NFP classes, the Jenningses got to know a “nice, Catholic couple.” This encounter opened the door to the Church.
During her first pregnancy, Jennings began to consider Catholicism more seriously. “When I was pregnant with Rose, I thought, ‘I’m going to have this child, and I want her to have these same traditions that I did growing up celebrating Christmas,’” she said. “It’s funny it started on that superficial kind of level and from there it grew into a deeper understanding of my faith and God.”
Jennings also credits the NFP classes with drawing her into the Church. “If we hadn’t started using NFP, I don’t know where we would have gone when I got pregnant with Rose — or maybe I never would have gotten pregnant,” she said.
Homemaker and popular blogger Blythe Fike first recognized the harm contraception could do to marriage within her evangelical community. “I saw a lot of Protestant marriages with sexual walls up, and I think that has to do with not being totally open to communication and selfless love. I think that can bring a lot of pain.”
Fike also saw a dissonance in the Protestant understanding of following God. “I always had a problem with the idea, prevalent in our evangelical community, of surrender to the will of God in every area of your life — except sexuality. God’s call to your life may mean a move to China or to sell all you have, but in terms of family, it was never considered.”
Not without sacrifice
The radical consequences of embracing this view of human love became immediately obvious for Brantly Millegan and his wife. “It rang true very strongly, but the practical consequences for us, still in school, weighed heavily on me,” he said.
Once they agreed contraception was wrong, “that began a long process of what to do, even to this day. The practical elements of being open to children: What does this mean for our marriage, for our roles as husband and wife? We pretty quickly realized that we would have to rethink the rest of our lives,” he explained.
“We’ve been poor. We’ve had ups and downs in terms of more and less money, but so far, God’s always provided what we needed,” Millegan continued. “We’ve made great sacrifice, personal and financial, but it’s been totally wonderful.”
|Blythe Fike, shown with her husband, Kirby, and children, was attracted to the Church’s teaching on sexuality. Courtesy photo
Fike described these sacrifices as a gift because they are the path to holiness. “In the consecrated life, you have to choose to get up at an ungodly hour or you choose to sleep on the floor,” she said. “In motherhood, [the challenges are] all there already, getting spit up on and getting woken up, so in terms of growth in holiness, we have it really easy to have our cross built into our lives.”
In the end, the decision to forego the use of artificial contraception has been a huge blessing in the Fikes’ marriage. “Not contracepting has been the biggest gift we’ve given each other. Every child breathes a gift of love in intimacy to each other. But it’s really a spiritual state to choose that openness to each other, and God rewards that in every couple.”
The switch away from contraception changed Tavi Brzozowski’s relationship with God. “If God loves me enough to set these boundaries for my sexuality, even in a marriage, he is a very loving God. It made me view him in a different light,” she said.
The positive view of human sexuality was refreshing for her. “Growing up in a Protestant church, you get the vibe that sex and sexuality is dirty, not supposed to be talked about,” she said. “In the Catholic Church, it was talked about quite a bit, but in the proper context. It was refreshing to see that there is a proper context, with boundaries and rules.”
|Methods of Natural Family Planning
Most natural family planning methods can be used to both delay and achieve conception through an increased awareness of the woman’s cycle. Statistics are for delaying conception. The success of all methods requires instruction from a certified teacher.
Billings Ovulation Method:
> 97 percent effective — observes changes in a woman’s body to determine the time when she is most fertile (thebillingsovulationmethod.org
> 98 percent effective — a standardized version of Billings to aid in determining fertile signs; instructors receive extensive training about fertility, including infertility and subfertility (creightonmodel.com
> 97 percent effective — observation plus ClearBlue Fertility Monitor to check for fertile signs in urine (nfp.marquette.edu
Standard Days Method:
94 percent effective — updated calendar method that requires no observation for women with normal-length cycles (irh.org
99 percent effective — observation of the woman’s fertile signs, plus charting basal body temperature (ccli.org
Respect and trust
Cierra Jennings, who is now mother to four kids ages 5 and under, emphasized that the gift of children is integral to following God.
“I wanted to have kids, but I didn’t have a plan about how quickly or how many. Not using artificial birth control really made that decision for me in a lot of ways,” she said. “All of a sudden when I started having all these children, I realized my calling — I was meant to be a mother. I’ve never been as good at anything as at being a mother.”
For Krista Millegan, the respect that the Church placed on her body really impacted her understanding of herself as a woman. “What really appealed to me about the Church’s view on sex was how pro-woman it is. I liked that it treated my body and fertility with respect,” she explained. “That I was constructed differently than a man meant something. The fact that at my literal core, I held within me a life-giving womb was not accidental. Not only was fertility a beautiful gift and a woman’s privilege, it was an essential part of my womanhood, of me.”
Although rejecting contraception had radical implications for Millegan’s life — she gave birth to their first child a week after graduating college — she was able to accept the outcome. “In spite of my prior expectations for my life and marriage, I now found myself strangely at peace with this drastic change of view on sex and procreation,” she said. “I remember feeling that if it was God’s plan for sex to remain open to the generation of new life, then it was something I could embrace without fear or resentment.
“The Church rightfully views sex as having two inextricably linked purposes: procreation and unity of the spouses,” Millegan said. “Contrary to what our culture might tell us, there is much beauty and freedom in preserving this connection.”
Blythe Fike, who is currently pregnant with her sixth child, sees the hand of God at work. “It has certainly solidified the belief that God really knows what he is doing,” she said, explaining her fear over becoming pregnant with their second child when her oldest was just 6 months old. “I felt guilty because I had been looking forward to the first child but not the second. It was really hard to see how I was supposed to do it, to be a mother to the two of them, so close together. Yet the first clear thought I had when the second was born was that I wouldn’t have wanted to wait another second for her! And that’s happened five times. God keeps showing me, ‘I have something perfect for you.’”
Jennings agreed. Not using contraception “definitely changed my trust in God and my faith. He truly does know what is best, and that’s refreshing.”
This trust lessens her anxiety. “It’s much less scary. I’m not as scared of things as I used to be. The human condition is to be terrified of death, but that has really changed for me. I’m not scared to die anymore because I know he will be there waiting for me.”
“Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one’s partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife. If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source” (No. 13).
Closer to Christ
Simms and her family eventually encountered Protestants who, like them, saw contraception as sinful, but these groups had drifted away from the centrality of the Gospel. “There are very few Protestants who are allowing the Lord to have an open hand with children and give them children.”
Within these groups, however, having a lot of children supplants the Gospel. This stands in contrast to the Catholic view, explained Simms, where the understanding of sexuality emanates from who God is. “In the Catholic paradigm, things are rightly aligned because they are flowing from the Gospel,” she said.
“The Catholic Faith gave us the fullness of the Gospel that softened our hearts,” Simms said, noting that “this softening of our hearts has made us more joyful Christians and has brought kinder culture into our home and toward other people.”
It is Krista Millegan’s hope that there be unity among all Christians. “We love our Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ,” she said, “but we long for unity in the Body of Christ and for all of Christ’s followers to have access to his sacraments.”
Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick writes from Oklahoma.
The Church teaches that the natural connection between the sexual act and procreation is integral to unity and love between the spouses. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it beautifully: “Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful. A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment” (No. 2366).
Any act that thwarts this natural connection, including artificial contraception and infertility treatments that place conception outside of the loving embrace of the spouses, is at odds with spousal love. The catechism states, “Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality” (No. 2370).
For those who, for reasonable and just reasons, determine that it is best to avoid or delay conception, the Church allows couples to avoid conception by avoiding intercourse during the woman’s fertile periods. The encyclical Humanae Vitae states, “If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth ...” (No. 16). The catechism makes clear that it is the duty of the spouses to examine their motives for spacing birth to ensure that it “is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood” (No. 2368).
The catechism further emphasizes that this manner of controlling births is not “Catholic birth control.” It reads, “The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle, involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality” (No. 2370).