Pastoral Solutions Institute and 2 Great Things That Go Great Together



I’m excited to announce that that Pastoral Solutions Institute will be working with as part of our shared mission to help Catholics celebrate the life and relationships that God wants them to have.



My wife, Lisa, and I will be hosting a soon-to-be-released video series for the CatholicMatch Institute on different aspects of what it takes to live life to the fullest and cultivate healthy, joyful, passionate, faith-filled marriages.  We’ll  providing other content as well over the next several months.  Additionally, the Pastoral Solutions Institute will be providing opportunities for CatholicMatch clients to access personal coaching and counseling services both to assist them individually and to help get their relationships off to a great start.  Check out this link that explains some of what we’ll be doing!

We’re excited about our new relationships with CatholicMatch and we look forward to helping CatholicMatch clients live God’s plan for life and relationships to the full!

Good Without God: Part 3 in My Head-To-Head Debate with John Mark Reynolds

This post is part of a feature from Patheos called Head to Head where our best minds debate the big questions of the day.

This week, I’m debating the Evangelical Channel’s John Mark N. Reynolds. The question: is a deity necessary for morality?

This week’s question was inspired by Patheos Atheist writer Peter Mosley’s story on Theism’s Morality Glitch.

This is part three in my Patheos Head-to-Head debate with Philosopher John Mark Reynolds of Eidos Blog.  I am responding to his post, Dear Doctor:  Is is not Ought.

In his latest response, John Mark Reynolds begins by saying that he isn’t a psychologist.  In turn, I must confess that I am not a philosopher.  That said, I have at least a passing familiarity with David Hume’s “Is-Ought Problem” that Reynolds refers to.  In short, where natural law reasoning says that most people ought to be able to determine what is moral by observing the way the world is–i.e., the way things work–Hume responds to this by observing, that, in fact, this is wishful thinking.  Left to their own devices, most people tend to find ways to justify as moral what they want to do rather than trying to conform themselves to the natural order of the world.  Current events clearly shows this to be the case.  (And this summary of the is-out fallacy probably demonstrates how little philosophy cred I actually have.)

At any rate,I actually agree, as I indicated in my last post.  The question we were asked to address was, “Is a deity necessary for morality?”  This sets the bar rather low and I still think the answer is “no.”  Even without God, people can create enough of a functional morality to get along with each other and create a basically functional society.  In fact, as research shows, most people–even believers–make moral decisions on simplistic grounds like, “will I get in trouble?” or “will my friends be mad?” if i do this.

That said a more interesting question, and the one John Mark Reynolds has focused on is, “Exactly HOW moral can we be without God?”  And I actually agree with him here.  I think most of the naturalistic attempts at morality are pretty pathetic.  They are functional, but they are certainly not transcendent in any way.  Staying out of trouble or trying not to annoy my social group doesn’t really challenge me to be a better person.  It just enables me to get along.

In the end, I think this is where the atheists and Christians struggle to understand each other, as I pointed out in my first post.  For the atheist, “being moral” is just about avoiding conflict with the people around them.  For the Christian “being moral” is about developing virtue and pursuing transcendence by conforming to something greater than oneself.

So, in the end, I would say that my position remains that people can be good without God.  They just can’t be very good.


Dr. Strangelove (OR) How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Natural Family Planning. (Part III in a Series)


This is the third post in my series titled, The Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Burden of Natural Family Planning which attempts to propose some practical and sensitive avenues for addressing the struggles many couples have with NFP.  Click the links for Part One and Part Two.

It isn’t unusual in NFP circles to run into faithful, devout, well-intentioned people who use NFP but live in a constant state of fear about it.  Sometimes they are concerned about the method for health reasons (e.g., hormonal issues, complicated cycles, PCOS), sometimes for mental health reasons (depression, anxiety or OCD), and sometimes it’s just because they don’t really trust the method or don’t trust their ability to read their fertility signs.

Fear and Loathing in NFP-Land

This anxiety can exact a huge cost both for the person’s sense of well-being and the marital relationship.  Because some couples are nervous about the method not working or “getting it wrong” (especially when they are dealing with serious health issues that make conception inadvisable) these couples often feel an incredible burden that causes them to not only use the most conservative rules for determining infertility, but add a few days on either side “just to be safe.”  This can lead to extra long periods of abstinence, increased marital tension, and a great deal of self-doubt and resentment toward the Church for burdening them with the cross of NFP.  In fact, it isn’t unusual to hear women who feel this way wishing for a medical issue that would require them to have a hysterectomy just so that they could stop having to worry about all of this all the time.

Fear:  Not Part of the Method.

NFP isn’t a cake-walk for anyone.  Sure, there are lots of blessings that can come from practicing it, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  Likewise, for couples who are new to the method, it is natural to feel a little nervous while you’re learning to trust yourself to really know and understand your signs.  That said,  long term anxiety and resentment over the method is always sign that something is not right and the good news is that it is usually the kind of issue that can be corrected with the right kind of information and help.

Let’s Not Blame the Victim

Now, before I go on, let me make one thing abundantly clear.  I’m not blaming the victim.  I’m not saying that if, in your practice of NFP, you don’t experience the kind of joy that makes you want to break out in song at the site of a thermometer and a ream of graph paper then there is something wrong with you.  What I am saying is that if fear and resentment were an unavoidable part of NFP, especially for couples with health or mental health issues, relationship struggles or other concerns, then all couples who wrestled with these issues would be equally miserable.  The good news is that they are not.  There are, in fact, couples who struggle with health problems, mental health concerns, relationship challenges, and other problems who find NFP to be, at worst, a little inconvenient, and at best, a genuine help to them.  “So what?”  You might say.  “That’s not me.”    I get that.  But again, here’s the good news.

Research on the psychology of happiness shows us that the best way to find a way out of a problem is to look at people who are going through similar things as myself but who, somehow, are managing to be happy–or at least effective–despite their circumstances and ask, “What are they doing differently and how can I learn to do that too?”   One of Satan’s greatest lies is that our suffering is so unique that there is no one who can understand or help us through our own struggles.  Being humble enough to recognize that we can learn something useful from people who are going through similar things as us, but somehow bearing up better than we are can be a real source of hope, strength, growth.  The following represent some of the ways couples who struggle with NFP but do not become oppressed by it deal with their challenges.  Try to read the following with an open heart and ask yourself how you might begin to take advantage of some of the supports that follow.

1.  Get Ongoing NFP Training and Support.

Even if you think you know everything there is to know about NFP, having well-trained people you can turn to for ongoing support, additional training, or who could even just serve as a sounding board can be tremendously helpful even when you feel like there is nothing else that can be done.  The more you can say you feel oppressed by the practice of NFP, or nervous about it, or feel that your circumstances are uniquely difficult, the more you need to be getting regular consultation and support in practicing NFP effectively and gracefully in your life.  Likewise, don’t feel that you have to be wedded to one person or even one method for support.  One client I worked with became such good friends with her NFP coach that she didn’t want to “disappoint” her friend by seeking help elsewhere even though she didn’t feel that her present level of support was really helping.  The only thing that matters is getting the support, training, and counsel you need, wherever and however you need it.

The truth is, different methods evaluate slightly different signs and slightly different constellations of signs, and they evaluate them using different techniques and tools.  If one style of NFP doesn’t fit your lifestyle, investigate other options.  The more methods you know, the more ways of gathering information you have, the more competent you can be at interpreting your unique fertility signs.

2.  Seek Faithful Medical Support

If you have a health concern that is making the practice of NFP more difficult for you, it can be helpful to seek counsel from a Catholic physician whose practice is consistent with the teachings of the Church.  I am not suggesting that you need to make a radical change in your treatment or even change the primary physicians consulting on your case.  Rather, it might be good to get support from a Catholic physician who can offer you advice on medical approaches that are both consistent with your faith journey and how you might be able to manage your health problems in ways that make practicing NFP easier.  Two good sources for these referrals would be the Catholic Medical Association and the Pope Paul VI Institute.

3.  Seek Faithful Counseling Support

Perhaps you feel that your mental health and your marriage are just fine and you don’t have a particular problem that you need to address in counseling.  That may be true, but counseling isn’t just about solving problems.  It is also about developing strengths.  When a person, or couple, is going through a particularly trying time, it can be helpful to work with a professional therapist who can help you discover how to approach the challenges you are facing in a manner that brings out the best in you.  There is a wide body of research showing that even in the absence of mental health or relationship problems, when a person who is struggling with an unusual stressor seeks professional help, they function better through the difficulty and experience more rapid relief from the difficulty they are encountering.  Of course, if you are dealing with a mental health or relationship issue then all the more reason to seek competent, faithful help early and stick with it until you feel like you have gotten to a better place with both  your practice of NFP and the co-occurring issues.  You can find good resources for faithful counseling at  (a national referrals source) or through our Catholic Tele-Counseling Practice at the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

4.  Seek Prayer Support

Getting good spiritual direction, or at least ongoing prayer support, is essential for remaining faithful under pressure and beating back the dark thoughts that make our attempts to remain faithful more difficult than they ought to be.  Satan does not want God’s people to be faithful.  If we must be faithful, then Satan would prefer we become those “querulous sourpusses” that Pope Francis decried in the Joy of the Gospel.  Getting good spiritual support–whether from a spiritual director, a prayer group, or even your spouse, or a spiritually-mature friend or relation– is essential for preventing this bitter root from growing in you (Heb 12:15).

5.  Avoid All-or-Nothing Thinking

When you are in the grip of fear, resentment, or other strong, emotional reactions, it is easy to fall prey to all-or-nothing thinking that says, “Unless I can see how doing this (whatever ‘this’ may be) can resolve my problems, there is no point doing anything.”

When we are in the middle of a struggle it can be difficult to know what is going to work.  That’s why it’s important to take our cue, not from our feelings, but from what people who are handling things better than we happen to be are doing.  Again, we need to stop thinking our pain is so terrifically unique that the things that help others couldn’t possibly help us.  If you are going through difficulties with NFP and you are not seeking one or more of the forms of support I have outlined in this article, then you simply aren’t getting the help you need.

Again, the truth is, despite the many blessings it affords,  NFP can be a challenge under the best of circumstances. If you are feeling oppressed by the practice of NFP, then that is a sign you need more support, training and guidance, not because you are necessarily doing anything wrong, but so that you can learn to rise to the unique challenges in your life that are making NFP more difficult than it needs to be.  To get more support working through the ways Natural Family Planning might be negatively impacting YOUR marriage, check out my books, When Divorce is NOT An Option:  How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love  and Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute  to learn about our Catholic Tele-counseling practice.


The Mindless Catholic: Does “Mindfulness” Have a Place In Catholic Spirituality and Practice?

Image Shutterstock.

Image Shutterstock.

My fellow Patheosi, Will Duquette, at Cry Woof was wondering about the psychological technique of mindfulness and how it fits into Catholic spirituality.  He writes…

From what I’ve gathered, mindfulness involves quieting your thoughts and being aware and alert to your body and your environment.  As such, it’s a way of being present, of living in the moment; and apparently the goal is to start small and increase this mindfulness in all parts of life.  A caveat: I gather that mindfulness is a part of Eastern spirituality, and I’m sure that there’s more to it in that context than I’ve given above.   

Because he has some concerns that mindfulness may not be completely consistent with Catholic spirituality he concludes, mindfulness seems like a nice place to visit on my way from being scattered to being collected, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Should Catholicism Be Mind-less?

I thought I’d throw in my .02 because Catholic spirituality does, in fact, encourage us to not just visit, but live in a mindful state of being as much as humanly possible.  Why?  Because it is in this mindful state–as opposed to a superficial, busy, mindless state– where we will most likely be able to encounter God and God’s grace from moment to moment in our lives.  Will is correct that, in most popular uses, mindfulness is often associated with Buddhism, but that’s only because–as a spiritual system that is not necessarily theistic, secular therapists are more comfortable working within a Buddhist framework than a more overtly theistic spirituality like Christianity.  That said, mindfulness, as spiritual discipline, is actually an integral part of any spiritual system that values contemplative prayer–especially Catholicism.  I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first let’s take a little closer look at what mindfulness is.

Mindfulness Defined

“Mindfulness” is a quality psychologists define as the ability to be (1) present in the moment and (2) consciously able to choose the best response out of a number of emotional possibilities.  Mindfulness is the opposite of being reactive.  For instance, if my kid was getting on my nerves and I was being reactive, I would feel angry and yell at him  But if my kid was getting on my nerves and I was being mindful, I would feel angry, be aware of that anger, and be able to decide whether this was a time that was better served by yelling (there are times…) or by doing something else (e.g., redirecting, gently correcting, etc.)  Where reactivity is emotion that is automatically and thoughtlessly translated into action, mindfulness is the active observation of my emotions that leads to a greater awareness of possible, conscious responses I can make to my emotions.

The opposite of mindfulness is a sort of superficial, reactive, busy approach to life that doesn’t consider the deeper, spiritual significance of this moment.

Mindfulness has been associated with better emotional, relational, and spiritual health and an important source of a healthy self-image (because it facilitates self-control and peacefulness).

But is it Kosher? I Mean, um,…Catholic?

As I note above, some Catholics who are aware of mindfulness as a psychological technique have concerns about it because most psychological writing on mindfulness draws from a more Buddhist tradition. This, however, is more by accident than by necessity.  Buddhism is attractive to secular psychologists because it is an a-theistic religion; that is to say, the belief in God is optional for Buddhists, who are chiefly concerned with personal enlightenment.  Be that as it may, while Christians are right to be cautious about any approaches drawn exclusively from Eastern mystical traditions,  Catholics have been practicing our own form of mindfulness for 2000 years, only we call it, “active contemplation.”

Mindfulness = Active Contemplation

In general “contemplation” is a kind of Christian prayer that helps us achieve greater intimacy with God, greater awareness of what God is saying to us, and greater clarity of how God wants us to respond.   More specifically, “active contemplation” is the ability to use the mundane tasks of everyday life to this end. To be actively contemplative allows me to see the guy cutting me off in traffic as a metaphor for God’s patience with me when I cross him and a call to greater develop greater patience with others in return.  To be actively contemplative allows me to hear God giving me advice about a situation I’ve been praying about–through the mouth of my 7 year old who is talking about some completely unrelated thing.  to be actively contemplative means having the self-possession to feel one way, but be able to choose the better way despite those feelings.  To be actively contemplative means to be able to feel depressed, or anxious, or angry and see that acting on those feelings is not in my best interest and be able to choose to do something else.  Or, to use Will’s example of mindfulness as it relates to weight loss, it means being able to objectively observe my hunger and see that it is not necessarily food I am hungry for in this moment, but greater balance in my life, healthier engagement with the people around me, or a deeper connection with God.

Cultivating mindfulness is, for the Catholic, an important skill for spiritual, emotional, and relational well-being.  To learn more about how healthy Christian approaches to mindfulness/active contemplation can help you create change in your life, check out my latest book, Broken Gods:  Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.

The Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Burden of Natural Family Planning (Part 2): Dealing with Frustration Continued

Image Shutterstock

Image Shutterstock

Before you read this, I hope you’ll take a moment to read Part 1 in this series. The challenge of sexual frustration in NFP is a serious problem that deserves serious answers. Take a moment to read my original post that lays the groundwork for what follows.  I’ll wait.

Read it?  Great.   Let’s continue.

Oh, in that last piece I said I’d deal with medical concerns and extended fertility etc in Part II.  I see now that’s going to have to be Part III.  That’s written already, but I’ll post it tomorrow.  Thanks.

OK.  Down to business.  Let me start by sharing something about myself.  (And I promise to get back to NFP in a minute. Hang in there with me please.)

I Hate Exercise.

I hate exercise.  I mean I really, irrationally, HATE exercise.  It makes me feel awful.  I don’t enjoy it AT ALL.

Don’t get wrong.  I like activities–dancing, chopping wood, hiking–but I don’t get too many opportunities to do those things.  What I have the opportunity to do is push-ups and crunches and weight lifting and treadmills and cardio and all the things I ABSOLUTELY HATE with the burning passion of a 1000 suns.

Worst of all, these  gym-type exercises tends to leave me haunted by the ghost of gym classes past, where I was repeatedly and mercilessly humiliated by my classmates and even teachers for not getting the rules for particular games, or not being able to keep up with the other kids in class, or being picked absolutely dead last for every game we ever played.

I recall the shame I would feel when my GPA would suffer, despite perfect grades in every other class, when I got a D in gym because I couldn’t climb as high on the rope or run or swim fast enough.  Even more than not getting the point or the rules of most sports and dealing with the academic consequences of my phys ed failures, I had to put up with being honestly hated, teased, and shunned by the kids in my class for not having one iota of athletic skill or interest.  Even now, when I exercise, I hear those kids voices making fun of me. It’s like reliving it over and over again.  I feel ashamed.  I feel defeated before I start.   I carry a lot of emotional baggage around this issue.

But Greg, I LOVE Exercise!

I often hear people talk about how WONDERFUL exercise is. How much ENERGY it gives them.  How GOOD it makes them feel.  I can honestly say that I have never once had this experience in my life.  Not once.  I can’t even understand it. In fact, I really really want to hate these people.  I know that’s wrong.  But that’s what my default reaction would be.  Fortunately, I can’t allow myself to go there.

You see,  my oldest daughter, who is a dancer and competitive figure skater gets it. She LOVES exercise.  Always has.  Everything exercise is supposed to do for people, it does for her.   She really is inspiring to me. I can admire her.  I can be mystified by the things she can do with her body and her stamina and physical discipline, but I can’t really personally get where that kind of talent comes from.  I don’t have it.

Getting Over Myself

Like I said, it would be easy for me to resent people who liked exercising.  To think of them as narcissistic, body-worshiping jerks, or dumb jocks, or emotionally-crippled lunkheads who think with their muscles instead of the hearts or head.  But that would be wrong because it is completely untrue.

People who like exercise–as my oldest daughter illustrates to me–are just wonderful people who have different talents than I have.  In fact, I can learn a lot from them if I let myself.  Because of my oldest daughter’s example and because of my own wish for continued good health as I get older, I have been working hard to overcome all the emotional and physical obstacles that stand between me and exercise.  I am better for the struggle.  I am learning to quiet–if not silence–those inner voices.  I am learning to–dare I say it–kind of, sort-of, enjoy some kinds of exercising.   I am finding that I  am more coordinated than I thought I was, and stronger, and more physical in some ways.  I am discovering things about myself I didn’t know were in me.  I couldn’t learn those things about myself when kids and teachers were shaming me.  Or when I was just keeping aloof and being resentful about what exercise did to me and how bad it made me feel. But in the loving environment of my family, where it is safe, I am learning to love this part of myself that I was taught to hate.  Even though I have a long way to go, I am glad that I am finally learning.

What I DO Love…

As much as I hate exercise, I really do like sex.  I love the intimacy of it.  I love how it makes me feel. I find that it is wonderful on every level.  I would love to make love all the time.  But see, here’s the thing.  That’s not real life. Sometimes you actually have to do other things. Even after you’re married.  The house needs to be cleaned and things need to be done, and kids need to be raised and money needs to be made and sick spouses  and children need to be cared for, and sometimes sleep actually does need to happen.

And herein lies the problem.  If I love sex more than I love taking care of my wife, or my kids, or the gifts God has given me to exercise good stewardship over, then I have a problem.  If my desire for sex makes me pouting, or angry, or irritable, then I have a problem.  Namely, if I love sex so much that it makes me resentful toward my spouse that I can’t get it as often as I want, the way I want exactly when I want, then I love sex more than I love my wife–and vice versa for her. That makes sex something less than love. It means I am tempted to see my wife, and for her to see me, as a means to an end.  It means that I am being tempted to see my marriage as the post upon which I can legitimately scratch my sexual itch and while that’s OK (even Augustine said so, claiming that marriage was a legitimate mechanism for dealing with sexual concupiscence) to SETTLE for that is to settle for less than God intended sex to be.

God Wants to Give You More.

God wants lovemaking to be more than scratching an itch.  He wants it to be something that serves as a physical reminder of his love for me and my wife.  It is meant to help us want to love each other better, not just in the bedroom, but across every dimension of our lives together.  It is meant to help us see all the parts of ourselves and our relationship as a whole and not just think that we can treat each other, ourselves, and our relationship either poorly or with benign neglect–as long as we get to have sex.

Real Love = Real Work

But learning to love each other this way takes work. It is hard.  Sometimes, we have to overcome those feelings of frustration.  We have to overcome the fear that putting off sex tonight means never being loved the way we want to.  We have to overcome the voices in our heads that say we aren’t lovable, or aren’t desirable, or a million other things that make us feel like not having sex right now is the absolute most horrible thing ever.  I’m not making fun.  I totally get this feeling.  I have been there, but NFP has helped me work through all that and more.

NFP isn’t easy just like exercise isn’t easy.  But even though NFP isn’t easy, just like exercise, it is good.  It is a tool that develops my capacity to be the selflessly loving man that I want to be.  That does not come easily to me.  In fact, I would be hard pressed to say there is another tool that has forced me to grow as much as NFP has over the years.  I am a better man–and my wife is a better woman–because of it.  We don’t “enjoy” NFP any more than I can say that I enjoy exercise.  But because we have been diligent about living it out, we see all the fruit that it has borne in our lives and relationship.

NFP does not have magical powers to make couples lovey-dovey marriage masters automatically.  But it does force couples to do the work that they might otherwise never do if they didn’t make themselves learn to use the tool and use it well.

Understanding the Struggle 

I understand people who struggle with finding the good in NFP.  Honestly, on an emotional, superficial level, I find that there is little to like about NFP–just as I find that there is little to  like about exercise.  But in both cases, I understand that the fault in both cases really is me.  And that isn’t a condemnation.  That’s freedom.  I know that my problem with exercise or NFP is my problem.  The answer isn’t to try to convince the CDC and the AMA to condemn exercise because, dammit, it brings up so much baggage for me.  The answer is for me to cooperate with God’s grace so that I can be delivered from all the shame and the pain and so that I can learn to really love this body he gave me–finally.

NFP, You Make Me Want to Be a Better Man

Similarly, yelling at the Church for making me do NFP because of all my sexual frustration totally misses the point.  I mean, I GET it, but that still doesn’t mean it makes any sense.  I need NFP exactly because of my capacity for letting sexual frustration block out everything else that’s good in my life and relationship. I may not love NFP,  but I am grateful to it because it makes me work to be a better man–and my wife to be a better woman.  I am grateful that we have been going through it together for 26 years and that the struggle has helped us celebrate an uncommonly deep, intimate and joyful love.  Looking back, I am more and more convinced that our growth is not in spite of NFP but because of it.  In the early years of our life together,  I had to take the Church’s teaching on faith.  It wasn’t easy.  In fact,  it would have been easy at many, many times over our 26 years together so far to chuck NFP altogether because it is hard.  And it IS hard. But it also IS good.

All I can say is that no one in their right mind expects you to jump up and down with unabashed glee that you “get” to do NFP (Oh Goody!) any more than someone would look forward to exercising. Except that, weirdly enough, some people do naturally look forward to exercising.  And the more you do it the more you begin to find that you can enjoy it yourself.

NFP Doesn’t Want You To Love IT.

Maybe we can never learn to  love NFP.  But maybe that’s not the point.  Maybe, if we can embrace the cross that comes with it, we can learn the real point of NFP, which is that NFP doesn’t exist so we can love it for its own sake.  Rather it exists so that we can learn to love our spouse for his or her own sake, and not for what we can get out of them.

If we can do that, then we can finally start to receive the gift that the Church is trying to give couples through NFP.  A truly authentic, honest and real experience of love without use.  To learn more about creating a  genuine, joyful, passionate and sacred sexuality in your marriage, check out Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide To Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.


The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Burden of Natural Family Planning–PART 1.

Image shutterstock.

Image shutterstock.

Apparently all the 4th of July fireworks got a lot of couples thinking about the fireworks that weren’t happening in their bedrooms.  It’s usually difficult to ever find anyone writing anything about Natural Family Planning.  This week brings two different posts on the challenges of using NFP.  America Magazine has an article about the struggles various couples have with the method due to everything from medical complications to failure of the method to struggles with periodic abstinence and the sexual frustration that this abstinence often entails.

Likewise, Melinda Selmys,  has been musing on the challenges of NFP.  She–and the comments to her post–point to some real challenges that couples experience with the method.  In fact, she cheekily concludes that it is not a coincidence that about 1-2% of the population are asexual–that is, have no interest of sex with anyone of any kind–and only 1-2% of Catholics use NFP.  The implication being that the only people who are really happy about having to do NFP are the ones who really don’t give a fig about sex anyway and would like a pious reason for avoiding it. Relax.  She’s only kidding.  Sort of.

At any rate, the upshot of both pieces is that NFP is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad burden on couples and the best we can do is do it grudgingly, if at all.

Serious Questions Require a Serious Response

Because these are such huge issues, I’m going to do at least two posts on the concerns raised by the authors of the articles I mentioned above.  That said, blog posts  can’t possibly address these serious concerns as thoroughly as they need to be addressed.  I do, however, respond to all of these concerns listed above and more importantly, offer real-life, practical solutions in my book, Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind Blowing, Toe-Curling, Infallible Loving.  If you’re looking for practical answers to the challenges you facing with trying to integrate your faith with your sexual life, I really encourage you to take a look.  I think you’ll find real help there.

In this post, I’ll take a look at the issue of sexual frustration.  In my next post, I’ll respond to the other challenges identified by the above writers.

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy.

A lot of people have the idea that NFP is supposed to be the cause of the kind of joy usually reserved for deodorant commercials.  That is, because a couple is doing NFP, they are supposed to automatically be dancing in a sunny field while smiling manically at each other as an unseen symphony orchestra plays Copland’s Hoe-Down (the song from that American Beef Council commercial).

I would like to suggest that this understanding is, um, tragically mistaken.

Harvesting the Fruit

NFP can produce a lot of good fruit–both personally and maritally–for the couples who use it but it isn’t automatic.  Couples need to be taught how to cultivate, nurture and harvest that fruit and most simply aren’t.  The problem is that because so many people in the Church would like to see NFP just go away and so few Catholics actually use it, most NFP program’s resources need to be invested in fighting off attacks and convincing people to give it a try.  They just don’t have the support they need to do the job they would really rather be doing; that is, supporting couples in learning how to use NFP well.  Even within the Church, NFP programs are like MASH units stuck on the front lines of the battle against the Culture of Death.  they can do as much as they can with what they have, but they can’t do the job they’d like to be doing–the job they should be doing–because they are constantly being shot at and bombed from every direction.   That is a tragedy but it is also the very real and human cost of dissent.  The harder people protest NFP, the more energy NFP programs have to spend fighting for and justifying their existence in the first place.  Likewise, the fewer resources they can afford to spend supporting couples and improving the method.  Even so, the good news is that there are real answers to these common concerns.

Dealing with Frustration

Let’s look at the objection that  NFP doesn’t work because some men—and women—find it “too frustrating.”   It would be easy to belittle such comments but it would be wrong to do so.  The struggle with our fallen selves is a serious matter, and there is real pain involved.  Sexual frustration can be the source of great tension in a marriage and unless a couple understands it and knows what to do with it, the person’s mental health and marriage will suffer.

As I indicated above, this is a big question with a lot of different dimension.  To make things more manageable, let’s focus our blog discussion on the relationship between sexual frustration and NFP.  In Love and Responsibility as well as the Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II teaches that sexual attraction serves both as a reminder that we were not created to be alone and as a call to remember that we are always to work for the good of the other.  In other words, as long as our sexual energy and urges inspire us to draw closer to our mate and keep our mate’s best interest in mind simultaneously, then those urges are good and godly.  By contrast, if our urges cause us to be primarily concerned with getting what I “need” from my spouse no matter what, then that urge is disordered, fallen, and ungodly.  Left unchecked, that urge can ultimately destroy my marriage and my soul.

NFP–What’s the Point?

As I am fond of reminding people, NFP is not, in my view, primarily a means of spacing children.  It is, in my view, primarily a spiritual exercise that allows couples to accomplish 3 ends; (a) to facilitate the communication and prayer life of the couple (b) to help the couple prayerfully discern their family size and, on an ongoing basis, continue to both balance and expand all the virtues associated with the unity and procreativity of marriage and (c) help the couple achieve holiness, freedom, and true love  through self-mastery and self-control.

It is point (C) that I am most concerned with here.   All of us are fallen.  All of us struggle with the desire to use another for our own selfish ends.  For some, that struggle against selfishness is stronger than for others—but it is in all of us, and overcoming it is hard and sometimes painful.  The spiritual beauty of NFP is that it highlights that struggle and challenges us to overcome our tendencies toward selfishness in ways we might not otherwise be challenged.  When someone says that NFP “doesn’t work” for them because they get too sexually frustrated, I have to respond that, in fact,  NFP was made for them.  Why?  Because any sexual urge that—if unsatisfied—threatens to blot out all the other good things about the marriage is a disordered urge that will either destroy the person, the couple, or both.  Such an urge must be tamed.

Sex on the Brain.

Is this unrealistic?  No.  The sexual drive is part of neuroendocrine system, the same primitive brain system responsible for urges like hunger and anger.  What person in his right mind would argue that intense urges to rage at people indiscriminately or eat uncontrollably should be encouraged?  No one.  In fact, we praise people who have mastered these urges (not repressed–mind you–but rather, can consciously choose when to use them and when not to) as being, in some ways more human than those who have not mastered them.    Likewise, people who have mastered these urges—who are capable of eating or stopping as they choose or being angry or not as they choose—can be said to be more free than people who must eat any time the urge strikes or must rage any time their anger is pricked.

And here is the irony.  Although society makes a distinction between the sex drive and the anger and hunger drives, the brain does not.  Society praises the unfettered sex drive, while practically criminalizing people who are overweight.  But  the same region of the brain is responsible for all three urges.  Gaining mastery over our sex drive; that is, being able to consciously choose to use it only when it is ordered toward the good of the other person, makes us more human and more free than the person who must give into every impulse for sex “or else.”  Having to wrestle with this fallen nature is hard.  The process is painful but it is sanctifying, and that struggle is a necessary part of the daily life of anyone who takes his or her mental and spiritual health seriously.

How Do I Know I’m Doing it Right?

We need to recognize that any frustration we feel in the process of doing NFP is a sign that NFP is working.  If my muscles are sort after an intense exercise session–that is a sign that my exercise regimen is building muscle.  If I am fasting or dieting, the hunger I feel is a sign that what I am doing is working physically and spiritually.  Are any of these things “fun” in the common sense of the word?  Of course not!  But we do them because they bear great fruit.  They help us look and feel and be our best.

THE SAME IS TRUE FOR THE PAINS OF NFP.   When we feel those pains, we must learn to recognize them as the growing pains that accompany both our advancing spiritual maturity and our increasing capacity for true love (i.e., the ability to work for the good of the other even when doing so makes us uncomfortable).  In those times when the growing pains—the disordered sexual frustration—hurt the most, we must recognize that we are not feeling a sexual urge that must be satisfied, but a selfish urge that must be contained and transformed.  In response, we must draw closer to our mate, in conversation, prayer, work, and non-sexual affection, as a way of reclaiming the freedom that our fallen-ness has taken from us.  Is it always easy?  Absolutely not, and anyone who says otherwise is telling you a tale.  But it is worth it, because with the struggle comes an increased capacity to become the lover, the person, and the child of God each of us is being called to be.

When to Get Help

All that said, there are times when because of medical concerns, or ridiculously long periods of abstinence, or pregnancy despite cautious usage of the method, or other issues, that NFP really isn’t working for a couple. In those times, special assistance is going to be required. My next post will be on how to deal more effectively with those situations.  In the meantime, if you are struggling–or if you want to learn how to avoid many of the struggles common to most couples–check out Holy Sex!  A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.  It can start you down the path of experiencing the joyful, loving, passionate, soulful and faithful sexual relationship you were meant to have.

How the Forgiveness We’ve Seen in Charleston Can Change the Culture (My interview with Aleteia)


From my interview with Aleteia Zoe Romanowsky

Everyone has heard the stories by now: How relatives of the nine victims gunned down by 21 year-old Dylann Roof at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, NC, appeared at Roof’s bond hearing and spoke words of forgiveness and mercy to him.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of response by devastated family members in the face of unimaginable loss.

When Charles Roberts, a 32 year-old milk truck driver, walked into an Amish school house in October 2006 and shot 10 Amish girls, killing five before killing himself, the Amish community responded similarly. Rather than cast blame or point fingers, they reached out to the killer’s family. The very afternoon of the shooting, one of victim’s grandfathers publicly expressed forgiveness and others went to comfort the Roberts family.

The forgiveness extended by the Amish community, particularly the family members, not only surprised journalists who showed up to cover the story, but changed the life of Robert’s mother, Terri Roberts. Because of the mercy extended to her, CBS news reportedin 2013 that she made it her mission to share the same message with other trauma victims, and that once a week she was caring for the most seriously wounded survivor of the shooting, now a teenager.

Though it can be hard to grasp after such atrocities, forgiveness is central to Christianity—recall Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:22 when he tells Peter that he must forgive “seventy times seven times”—in other words, there should be no end to who and how often we forgive.

Forgiveness frees and changes people. It can profoundly affect both the victim and the perpetrator, and paves the way for healing, reconciliation, and even cultural change over time.

Dr. Greg Popcak, a Catholic psychologist, says forgiveness is always the first step in healing for a person who’s been wronged.

“St. Augustine  said that forgiveness simply requires us to surrender our desire for revenge—at the point that we stop wanting to hurt someone for having hurt us, we have, in fact forgiven them.” says Popcak. “Reconciliation is the next step in the process, where the injuries to the relationship are healed and the relationship is restored, but that’s secondary to simple forgiveness.” says Popcak.

As Popcak points out, research shows that people who cultivate forgiving hearts are both emotionally and physically healthier than those who are prone to carry grudges.

“The stress that accompanies nursing an emotional wound sets us up for a host of emotional problems, and even physical ailments. Forgiveness is a gift that we can give ourselves even when the other person hasn’t asked for it.”

In the aftermath of the Charleston tragedy, social media was buzzing with people disapproving of granting forgiveness too soon to Dylan Roof. For some, it detracted from the seriousness of the crime, the need for justice, and the underlying problems that need to be discussed and addressed. Perhaps what bothered them, however, was the perception of what may be called “cheap forgiveness.”

“Cheap forgiveness,” says Popcak….CONTINUE READING

New Study Quantifies Spiritual Health Crisis in Catholic Families

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

My latest article for OSV’s Daily Take

If your child came home from school with a test grade of 22 percent would you be concerned? How about 17 percent or 13 percent?

Sadly, new research by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown found that similar numbers reflect the spiritual health “grades” of Catholic families. The first-of-its-kind study was sponsored by Holy Cross Family Ministries, an organization promoting family prayer and family well-being around the world and continuing the legacy of its founder, Father Patrick Peyton, CSC (of “the family that prays together … stays together” fame). The project examined the degree to which Catholic families are living out their faith in three areas: Mass and sacramental participation, prayer life at home and approach to media consumption. The new data describe a challenge that is greater than many could have imagined.

Poor rates of Mass attendance, prayer

The study’s finding that only 22 percent of Catholic parents attend Mass weekly is not inconsistent with other research showing about a quarter of Catholics attend Mass faithfully. But what is more concerning is how few weekly Mass-attending families either pray together or engage in any kind of religious formation in the parish or the home.

According to the HCFM/CARA data, 36 percent of Catholic parents pray daily, but only 17 percent ever pray as a family. Perhaps most disheartening on the family prayer front is that while 50 percent of Catholic families do eat dinner together daily, only 13 percent of Catholic families regularly say grace before meals.

Teach the children? Well…?

Equally troubling are the low rates of family involvement in religious education. Considering the low Mass attendance rates among the general population of Catholic parents, it may be unsurprising that 68 percent of all Catholic parents do not have their children enrolled in any type of formal religious education. More shockingly, however, only 42 percent of weekly Mass attending families have their children enrolled in religious education. For 58 percent of families who attend weekly Mass, the roughly one hour a week they spend in church is the extent of their ongoing faith formation.

Myths exposed

Some have wondered if the low rate of enrollment in religious education was misleading because of the number of Catholic homeschoolers….CONTINUE READING

Can We Be Moral Without God P.2.

This post is part two in my Head to Head debate with John Mark Reynolds on whether one can be moral without God.  My position is that one can be moral without believing in God.  John is arguing the opposite.

When we were first assigned the question, “Is a deity necessary for morality” I thought about asking the powers-that-be to revise it because my first reaction was, “Well, of course, God is necessary for morality!  God is necessary for everything!”  But I didn’t get the sense that’s really what they were asking (and that wasn’t the position I was supposed to be debating), so I went with the spirit of the question and wrote to whether belief in God was necessary for morality.    I see that I probably should have asked for that revised question, after all.

John’s opening argument responds to the literal question we were asked.  And, in that sense, of course he’s right.  We can’t breathe, much less be moral without God at all.  We agree on that.

Likewise, in his opening paragraph, he agrees that we could be moral without belief in God.  So, there again, we agree.

When John and I first were kicking this topic around, the bloggers on the Atheist Channel were all excited to think that two theists were going to mix it up. I told them not to get too excited because I didn’t think it was going to be the bloody discussion they were hoping for but even I wasn’t expecting this level of harmony.

So, sorry to disappoint.  It appears that this might end up being more dud than debate.

The bottom line?  While God is absolutely necessary for morality to exist because nothing exists without God, that’s really an ontological question, not a moral one.  If, on the other hand, the question is, “Can one be moral without a belief in God” then it is my contention that it is possible for people to be good without God.  They can do so, not because people are all that good but because God, in his mercy, recognizes that, in our sinful world, not everyone will be able to find him right away and God still wants us to be able to get along with each other even if we aren’t ready to get along with him.  I would argue that the more authentically godly we are, the more authentically and completely moral we will be as well, but people who do not believe in God are, certainly, capable of being moral.

Stay tuned for the conclusion.

BE NOT AFRAID! Raising Faithful, Moral Kids in a World Gone Mad.

Image Shutterstock.

Image Shutterstock.

I’ve been hearing from a lot of parents who, especially in the wake of SCOTUS decision on gay marriage have serious concerns about raising faithful, moral kids in the present culture.  It’s never been easy, but recent events take the challenge to parents to a whole new level.  How do we convey the Catholic vision of love and marriage to our kids in a world that defines these terms in completely different ways than we do?  How can we hope to compete?  In our weaker moments, I think it is possible for parents to fall prey to nightmare fantasies in which we are trying to raise our kids in some kind of post-apocalyptic, morally bereft,  Hunger Games world.

I have three words for you.  BE NOT AFRAID!!!

Be Not Afraid!!!

I don’t think it does any good at all to approach the culture with a spirit of fear. I regularly counsel parents–and we adopt this approach with our own kids–that “freaking out” about media, peer-pressure, social media, or the latest cultural trend is actually the best way to set our kids up to fall prey to the glamour of evil.  The more panicked we get, the more we send the message that our faith is weak, and unable to engage the world, much less stand up to it.  The more we live in fear, the more we set our kids up to become fascinated by the power of the thing we fear the most.

Reality Check

At worst, recent events compel Catholic parents to be willing to have more conversations we might rather not have with our kids–and to have those conversations earlier than we might otherwise prefer to. But with good information and a spirit of prayer neither we, nor our children, have anything to fear no matter what our background is or what challenges we face.   “Jenn-Henn” is a perfect example of what I am writing about.  At Only a Mere Woman Blog  Jenn writes bravely about her difficult upbringing and her struggles to make peace with her body, her femininity, and her sexuality.  Recently, she posted a review of Beyond the Birds and the Bees in which she spoke of how it not only helped her learn how to teach her kids to have a healthy sexuality, but it also is helping her heal her own woundedness.   She wrote…

For our second Book Club review, I have Beyond The Birds And The Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids by Greg and Lisa Popcak. I found it to be eye opening and a bit healing for me, due to my issues in regards to my own femininity, which will be the subject of my next post, if not more. The most striking thing for me is the idea that sexuality is more than one’s sexual orientation, who one is sexually attracted to; that it involves the whole being of a person as a representation of who they are at the core and informs their interactions with the world around them. The idea that sexuality has more to do with femininity and masculinity than what one does with one’s genitals is revolutionary to me. The idea that a person who follows all of the prescribed rules regarding chastity and modesty yet is ashamed of, say, their femininity actually has an unhealthy sexuality is mind boggling to me. Turns out I’ve been doing it very wrong. 

Anyway, for someone who doesn’t remember any sort of sex talk, and has been ashamed of herself and her body for so long, the advice was much welcome and needed. Giving examples of how parents can speak of the body and sex in respectful, matter of fact ways is extremely helpful. Showing how chastity and modesty are positives and not negative mandates is brilliant. But it really all boils down to teaching parents how to help their children grow up as well integrated people, people who know their worth and the worth of others, and are willing and able to do what it takes to preserve their dignity and that of other.  READ THE REST 


The Healing Truth

I’m grateful to Jenn for her willingness to share her own journey.  Her comments highlight the fact that wherever we come from, whatever our own struggles, and whatever obstacles the prevailing culture might want to through at us, we can heal and we can find the ways to give our children the things we wish we had been given.  We don’ t have to be afraid of anything the world can throw at us because we have the answers the world is seeking.  It simply up to us to discover and use the tools that will help us live what we teach and be a witness to the world of the positive, powerful Catholic difference at work! Now is not the time to hide from the culture. Now is the time to engage it with charity, courage and with our facts in order and to teach our children to do the same.

For more information on how you can raise faithful, moral kids in a world gone mad, check out Beyond the Birds and the Bees: The Catholic Guide to Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids.  And don’t forget to pre-order your copy of our upcoming book, Discovering God Together:  The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids which looks at the latest research of what it takes to raise children who can live and celebrate their faith!