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Featured: Sex and My Conversion to Catholicism

This week's blog feature's Chrissie Dunham, Bay Area native, software developer, and convert to Catholicism. You can follow Chrissie here.


I was twenty-two when I learned that Catholics didn’t believe in using contraception. A Catholic I knew had just gotten pregnant — unintentionally, I assumed. I was baffled — how could that be a better outcome than using birth control? I hadn’t heard of “natural family planning” as an alternative technique for spacing pregnancies, but if I had, it would have struck me as merely an error-prone loophole to the Catholic “no birth control” rule.

Fast forward to my present self: a Catholic convert, married, practicing natural family planning.

“How did this happen?” My 22-year-old self wants to know.

It’s a long story — I’ll stick to the important parts.

It began when I was 25. I had a good job, good friends, and no major obligations. Unfortunately, not having any real problems only made more room for me to generate my own. I’d always been indecisive, but indecision started to paralyze me. I remember once leaving my house, walking out of my entryway and then stopping — what if I needed an umbrella? I turned around, took two steps, then turned around again — no, I didn’t want to carry one. I went back and forth three more times — anyone watching through their window would have thought I was doing an absurd dance. I did similar dances with the fridge (should I eat the sausages that were about to go bad or the burger I was more in the mood for?), with my closet (would I be more comfortable wearing a light sweater or a warmer jacket?), with a scratch piece of paper (drawing and redrawing lines to map out the most efficient route for my plans).

I shared all this with a friend and got an unexpected piece of advice: “Try talking to God.”

I was shocked — I’d known her for years as a rational agnostic. I’d seen her get into verbal fights with Christians over their frustrating confidence in what we’d both considered unknowable. And I didn’t know how to “talk to God” — if there even was a God. Prayer was not only naive but presumptuous — what made my problems more worthy than others’?

No — taking Christianity seriously would be crazy. My brother had recently tried telling me about his developing belief in God — I’d worried about his mental health. And I’d felt uncomfortable — was he going to start talking about sin? Did he think I was going to Hell?

But I was looking for answers, and two intelligent, educated people I trusted were telling me they’d found them in Christianity. So I tried to approach it rationally — I read. In particular, books by former atheists and agnostics — those with backgrounds in science, history, philosophy, law — intellectual credentials I’d thought were incompatible with faith.

I learned I’d misunderstood a lot about Christianity. The words of the First Commandment, for instance, had sounded like those of an arrogant, petulant deity: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have any strange gods before Me.” But I discovered that the “idolatry” it warns against wasn’t just the literal worship of statues, but “immoderate attachment or devotion to things.” I started noticing that I was making idols out of everything — pleasure, comfort, productivity. Caring about these things wasn’t inherently bad, but my attachment to optimality in everything — was making me miserable.

This realization didn’t fix the problem with my attachments, but it was a turning point in how I looked at faith — what else had I gotten wrong? I decided to give Christianity the benefit of the doubt. I started to pray — hesitantly, self-consciously — and go to church. But I also still wrestled with some of the more counter-cultural teachings — including the teachings on sex.

On the one hand, I was becoming disillusioned with my secular worldview of sex. Logically, I didn’t see why sex should be different from any other activity two people could do together. But that wasn’t my experience: sex with someone in the early stages of a potential relationship had transformed my confidence and excitement into anxiety and insecurity. And when I tried having sex without seeking commitment, I felt hollow.

But I didn’t see any problem with sex within a loving, committed-but-not-married relationship. I started having sex in my first serious relationship in college —I still didn’t see any harm that had come of it.

I was grappling with this question when I started reading the blog of a Catholic convert. She had asked a lot of the questions I was still asking — how was I supposed to read and understand the Bible? What was God’s plan for people who had never even heard of Jesus? And she’d found answers in Catholicism.

I read more about Catholicism, and was struck by what it taught about sex.

Pope Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae that God designed sex with two “powerfully good” purposes: creating new life, and sustaining a lifelong bond between spouses.

I agreed that the ability to create a new person was powerful — but was it always good? I was far more moved by photos of a coworker’s new puppy than by the sticky-fingered child next to me on the bus. I often became unreasonably irritable on fewer than 8 hours of sleep, I valued my freedom with time and money, and had a full-time job that I loved.

But to Catholics, I learned having children isn’t something you choose based on weighing costs and benefits. Openness to creating new life is part of the wedding vows — for everyone — and children are viewed as a gift — always. And not just because they’ll someday make you hand-drawn cards with endearingly misspelled words — Catholicism teaches that children are good partly because they require care.

I was drawn to this perspective. I hadn’t thought I wanted to take care of others — or be taken care of. I liked that I took care of myself, and those around me did the same. But I thought back to college when I struggled with a bout of depression and anxiety from intrusive-thought OCD. For months I didn’t know how to escape the feeling that I was both trapped in — and losing — my mind. I turned to a lot of people for help. I’d talk, they would listen, share their own stories. I connected with people through that experience in a way that wasn’t possible when everything was okay.

I realized then that humans taking care of other humans was powerful. And parenthood makes taking care of others the default — I could now see value in that. But I still questioned whether I was cut out for it. My independence felt like a fundamental part of who I was, and incompatible with raising a family. I liked the idea of being a wife and mother, but it was like looking at an outfit that was great on someone else, but worrying that if I put it on, I’d be constantly tugging at the sleeves.

Then I heard a talk at a Christian conference — the thesis was that we don’t just make choices based on what we love, choices also shape our attachments. I looked back at my choices around sex through the lens of what Pope Paul VI had written — that sex was designed to create a powerful bond.

Sex had felt like a healthy part of my first long-term relationship. But it did create a bond, and that bond was powerful. Even after I knew that the relationship wasn’t right for either of us, I didn’t want it to end. After we broke up, my attachment lingered for years.

After that relationship ended, I still wanted to find connection and commitment, and felt that sex in a relationship was a given. But as I continued to date — occasionally making and breaking that bond — I slowly grew numb to wanting relationships at all. Instead I grew more attached to my independence.

But when I heard this talk, I realized independence wasn’t part of my identity — it was an attachment I’d cultivated. If I actually thought family would bring me more lasting happiness, I could choose that instead.

At this point I’d walked a long way on my faith journey — I trusted Catholicism. Experience had taught me there were reasons for what it taught; those teachings had helped me better understand my own experiences.

Still, I had difficulty explaining the rationale behind certain Catholic teachings—the ban on contraception was one of them. I saw value in families, but being “open to life” for two plus decades of childbearing years seemed like a lot ask. But I was single, and in my late 20s — unlikely to wind up with a stereotypically large family if I tried. Mentally, I tabled the issue.

When I got engaged at 30, however, our church’s marriage preparation process required us to take a course on modern fertility awareness techniques. I learned that there are highly accurate methods of spacing pregnancies without disrupting the natural fertility cycle. More importantly, I learned the myriad reasons why the church supports these methods. But it was by putting this into practice that truly addressed my 22-year-old self’s unvoiced question—what sets natural family planning apart from mainstream contraception?

It wasn’t always easy in the early months of our marriage — tracking my fertility cycle, and not having sex on potentially fertile days. But I realized that the difficulty was inherent in what set this method apart. For 7–10 days each month, my husband and I had to decide whether we had a strong enough reason to postpone pregnancy to abstain from sex. If so, that was a sacrifice we committed to together. I’m not always good at sacrifice — in any area of life. I can transition seamlessly from writing about its value, to whining as I struggle to put it into practice. But practicing sacrifice — more than anything — has helped me stop agonizing over whether or not I’ve made perfect choices.

I used to think freedom meant removing all the obstacles to getting exactly what I wanted — I just needed to try hard enough to get things right — all the time. But I’ve found more freedom in learning to be okay not always getting exactly what I want, than in trying to ensure that I do.

The story of how I went from agnostic to Catholic is a story of my experience within two world views. It’s about how I found truth in radically counter-cultural teachings, and how trying to live by those teachings changed my life. I don’t always feel qualified or ready to tell this story, because I’m still learning every day how to live out my faith. But I’m telling it now because I don’t think there are enough stories about the beauty in these teaching being told.

…and because even though my 22-year-old might not have listened, it’s a story I’d have liked her to hear.

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