I’ve recently been discouraged by a number of responses to Catholics asking advice on the internet. Usually, a sincere Catholic posts a question on a group page, or on a column, asking for some support or guidance on a matter related to faith. These people are hoping for encouragement, support, and guidance on something they are struggling with.
I admire those people who put their hearts out on the line, who care enough to seek counsel. But I have not admired the response to those people from other Catholics.
Each and every time, I have found a mix of supportive answers, intermixed with several answers that are discouraging to read. These are the ‘by the book’ answers, the ‘no excuse’ answers, the ‘you don’t have room to struggle here because the Church is clear’ answers.
Now, before anyone goes labeling me a heretic, let me explain.
Our goal in life is to pursue holiness. Our endgame is sainthood and Heaven. Following Church teaching in our lives is a vitally important part of this process. The Church has thousands of years and thousands of holy, brilliant people who have explored what is best for humanity based on the way God designed us. We can’t lose sight of holiness at the expense of rolling with the times on issues dogmatic to our faith.
However, I think it’s also important to remember that holiness is a process. There are people throughout history who have a dramatic and immediate Saul/Paul conversion moment, where they are irrevocably changed. But for many of us, conversion is a lifelong process. It is something we progress through, and something, at times, that we struggle with.
Case in point: After my conversion to Catholicism, I was eager to make any changes in my life that would put me more in line with the Church. But there was one particular issue which was very difficult for me, for quite some time. I develop a crippling complication each time I get pregnant. I also develop severe postpartum depression and anxiety after giving birth. Due to my experiences in these areas, I was scared to implement Natural Family Planning (NFP). It makes me nervous to think about what would have happened had I posed that question on a message board at the height of my struggle, because I recently saw a woman who did and was so discouraged by the response she received.
For me, the struggle to embrace NFP stemmed from my own personal fear and lack of trust. It also stemmed from my lack of understanding about how NFP works. But I also knew I wanted to get to a place where I could live that part of my life in line with the beliefs of the Catholic Church.
So, here is what did help. I talked to my priest in confession about my struggles. Multiple times. And there I received encouragement, and grace, and kindness that validated my struggle, reassured me of God’s love for me and spurred me towards holiness through the love that was shown.
My husband has a spiritual advisor, and through their work together JP was also reassured of God’s love for us, and we felt that our struggle in this area was, again, understood as a process.
And this made good sense. Because who should understand the process of conversion more than the Catholic Church, which believes in purgatory? Doing anything that is good for us, in many cases, involves some amount of pain. Exercising involves pain. Eating less chocolate, also, involves pain. The path to holiness and obedience can also be painful. Purgatory is our opportunity to complete the sanctification process, because many of us die still not having attained sainthood while on earth.
Recognizing the Struggle
We know that a pattern of disobedience and turning away from God can result in a loss of salvation. But an honest struggle through or lack of understanding about something and a willful disregard for Church teaching are two different things.
I think we do a disservice to our brothers and sisters in Christ when we ignore the struggle of a person wrestling with an issue of faith. Especially, when we don’t have a personal relationship with that person to fall back on. When we state what the Church teaches without any context for the burden that person faces. In the Bible, Peter messed up so many times. Jesus still loved him and chose him. Holiness is a process, and one we need to respect.
I think I grew closer to God through my 1.5 year struggle to embrace NFP. I could have just done things ‘by the book’ the second I knew I was going to be Catholic, and still had my heart filled with fear and resentment about what the Church asked me to do. Thankfully, I saw things in a different light. I knew if I kept going to God, kept working through this fear of mine, kept examining the reason why the Church promotes NFP, that eventually God would help relieve that fear and would walk me into a place of trust.
And you know what … He did. We have been faithfully practicing NFP for over six months now. And I am so thankful for the reasons why we do this, and I am no longer afraid. I also don’t have any resentment against the Church, because she was so merciful to me and patient with me during my struggle. I did not give up on obedience. No one should give up on obedience. But I also had to work through a difficult process to get there.
A Framework of Mercy
In light of all this, I hope to encourage my fellow Catholics to take a framework of mercy when interacting with people who are wrestling with an issue of faith, whether in person or online. Whether it be contraception, abortion, Tradition, interpretation of Scripture, the Sacraments, attending Mass faithfully, anything. We don’t want to give the impression that we aren’t allowed to question, or aren’t allowed to wrestle with something. God is big enough for our questions and big enough for our struggles. And God doesn’t leave our side as we walk the road of drawing closer to Him.
We want to encourage holiness, always. But there are certain points in life where a person may not be ready to jump off the cliff of trust just yet. We might need to find them a ladder so they can ease their way down. In either case, the destination is the same.