Of Courage, Humanae Vitae, and the Martyrdom of Speaking Up

Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness.
~ Pope St. Paul VI

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Of Gerrymanders, Brain Death, and Birth Control

Jahi has forced the world to rethink the issue of brain death.
~ Nailah Winkfield

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Divided by Birth Control? Naah.

Purity is the beginning of all passion.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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The Giddy Appeal of Humanae Vitae

You don’t need a pope or an ecumenical council to tell you
what the Bible clearly teaches.

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Note to Pollsters: What “Practicing Catholic” Really Means


First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony.
~ Pope Pius XI

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Humanae Vitae and the Sensus Fidelium


Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble.
~ Pope Francis, Laudato Si’

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Contraception Chit-Chat

ad,advertisement,baby,birthcontrol,lady,monster-9ebb12da9da64043a4f6da7a4384b50e_h“The very word Birth-Prevention would strike a chill into the public, the instant it was blazoned on headlines…. They dare not call it by its name, because its name is very bad advertising.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

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The Health Benefits of Not Getting Pregnant

babies I guess you can’t argue with science.

In case you haven’t heard, various studies claim that not having a baby is considerably safer than having a baby. Epidemiologically and statistically, they argue, the risks of pregnancy and childbirth are greater than the risks of contraception, or even abortion. But people keep having babies, so what’s the deal? Obviously, family planning advocates have done a lousy job getting the word out.

From a public health perspective, I suppose, it’s a simple “do the math” thing: Too many kids already strain the resources of our healthcare system, our government, and the environment, and now we have scientific proof that not having babies is actually healthier and safer than having them. So just stop already! It’s for your own good!

That got me thinking.

There must be plenty of other common human activities that are fraught with statistical risk which aren’t receiving the attention they deserve. I’m musing about all this while munching on a bagel, with a cup of coffee at the ready, and then it dawns on me: Eating! Now there’s a risky activity!

Think of all the choking hazards involved in swallowing, or the possibility of inhaling your latte as you laugh at a Vine on your tablet. What’s more, think of all those folks scalded by their hot beverages, probably daily. AND IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW BIG YOU MAKE THE WARNING ON THE CUP, ordinary folks, caught up in the rush of daily existence, will still disregard how hot their coffee is and spill it in their laps.hot

Plus, there’s our obesity epidemic – people just eat too damn much! We’re reminded of this by the First Lady and a host of celebrities all the time via PSAs on every conceivable platform. And we don’t even need their reminders – the magazine covers in the grocery store checkout lines do a pretty good job already, with their svelte models and headlines about the latest celebrity diets.

So, with apologies to Jonathan Swift, I’d like to modestly propose a new public health campaign. I’m calling it: EATNOT!

It’s simple, catchy, and very green –  think of all the plant life that will be spared if we simply halted harvesting. I’m counting on environmentalists – and PETA activists, of course – to be among the first to take up the EATNOT! cause.

And consider the public health advantages! No more aspiration pneumonia, no more choking – the Heimlich Maneuver will go the way of the rotary phone. And, like last summer’s tan, obesity will simply fade away, along with the associated higher risks of cardiac problems and diabetes. This a no-brainer – why haven’t we thought of it before?!

“Ah,” you say. “You’re forgetting that our bodies require nutrients and fluids to function. How will the EATNOT! campaign address that significant drawback?”cop_content_386883

I’ve got three words for you: Total Parenteral Nutritionor TPN as we call it in the healthcare biz. It’s a fairly common treatment in which all the nutrients and fluids you need are administered directly into your veins. Eating and digestion are bypassed completely, and the doc (with help from the pharmacist) steps in to totally take over your metabolic equilibrium needs.

Usually, TPN is reserved for the very sick – those enduring cancer or other ailments which prevent them from taking in oral nutrients at all, or simply not enough. The risks are low – mainly the possibility of infection to the catheter inserted in the blood vessels – and occasional lab work allows tweaking of the TPN formula to optimize nutrition and health.

So, obesity issues? No prob! Just reduce the calories in the next few bags, and watch the weight fall away. And how about other medical advantages – like diabetes management, for example. Blood sugars all over the map? Simply adjust the carb and insulin components in the formula, and you’ll have smooth sailing, endocrinologically speaking.

As you can imagine, TPN is pretty expensive, but once you factor in the cost savings – no more obesity alone means considerably less spent on heart disease, stroke, hip and knee surgery, etc. – then I think you’d agree that this is a campaign that deserves serious consideration.

Scrooges_third_visitor-John_Leech,1843On the other hand, getting a bag full of nutrients run into my vein isn’t quite the same as enjoying a bagel and a cup of joe – especially if I’m fortunate enough to be sharing them with a friend. True, it would be so much more efficient to have the intravenous treatment, but not nearly as pleasant, nor as conducive to conversation. Could it be that meals are more than the delivery of nutrients, and nutrients themselves are more than simply nourishment? Darwin would tell us that we have taste buds and appetite primarily for survival, yet can it be simultaneously acknowledged that those human features have a purely sensual value as well, not to mention a communal one?

I’m envisioning a big family dinner. As everyone enjoys the food, they talk. They laugh, they cry; they celebrate and mourn; they nourish themselves while they nourish relationships. Perhaps God gave us hunger and taste not just to get us to eat, but also to enable us to feast, and to feast is to join with others in eating extravagantly – something hard to accomplish via an IV drip.

G.K. Chesterton asserted something along these lines when he wrote about Omar Khayyam’s practical approach to drinking wine:

It is bad, and very bad, because it is medical wine-bibbing. It is the drinking of a man who drinks because he is not happy. His is the wine that shuts out the universe, not the wine that reveals it. It is not poetical drinking, which is joyous and instinctive; it is rational drinking, which is as prosaic as an investment, as unsavoury as a dose of camomile.

Are there risks involved with actual eating? Dangers and downsides? Temptations even? Yes, but I’m thinking that focusing on the risks misses the point – i.e., that feasts are more about the feasters than the food, and more about the stuff of living than the stuff of health. Maybe my EATNOT! campaign isn’t such a good idea after all.

The same goes for avoiding babies for health reasons. “All birth control methods are safer than childbirth,” Planned Parenthood informs us. I’m no statistician, so I won’t try to rebut that. Even so, like the image of someone choosing TPN over eating to avoid risk, there’s something downright silly – even ridiculous – about contrasting the risks of childbirth with the benefits of having another baby.

And for those not convinced, I offer this as supporting evidence in favor of risking childbirth: A Coke commercial from Argentina that went viral late last year. It’s hawking cola, I know, but it also tells a beautiful story of real family life in a mere 60 seconds.

Those of us with children know these emotions very well. Sure, having a baby can be a challenge. Sure, parenting is hard, and life with kids is bumpy. And, sure, there are plenty of risks involved with all of this, even dangers. But is it worth it? Should we take the risk?

I say: Feast!


A version of this story appeared on Crisis.

Of Philanthropy and Population Control: An Open Letter to Bill Gates

God bless you, Mr. Gates. You made a pile of dough, and now you’re trying to spread the love — like your foundation’s efforts to fight disease and poverty throughout the developing world. You’re making possible tremendous change for the good — keep it up! The world admires and applauds you.

newsgates_1635252cHere’s the problem, though: In addition to underwriting tons of initiatives that directly and indirectly address disease and poverty, the Gates Foundation seems inordinately interested in “family planning” — a euphemism, as I’m sure your know, for birth control.

That’s a problem because people might get the idea that the two things are connected — the fighting disease and poverty thing on the one hand, and the family planning agenda thing on the other.

Take your recent WSJ article about polio eradication in India. What you and your foundation have done and are doing there is magnificent, and your commitment to underwriting such important work is truly edifying. But you let the cat out of the bag with this opening statement:

Our foundation began working in India a decade ago, at a time when many feared that the country would become a flashpoint for HIV/AIDS. Since then, we have expanded into other areas, including vaccines, family planning and agricultural development (emphasis added).

Agricultural development? Excellent. And vaccines? Again, excellent, especially with reference to the successes you’ve seen in India.

But why family planning? What does that have to do with combating disease? Family planning only helps with that when you’re talking about condoms, and we both know your organization is into lots more birth control methods than that. The Gates Foundation advocates the use of contraceptives akin to Depo-Provera shots and Norplant implants. These are abortifacient drugs that are known to be dangerous to women. In fact, Norplant was taken off the U.S. market in 2002. Distributing a Norplant equivalent overseas sends a distressing message at best.

That’s bad enough, but there’s more. By linking development with family planning, you leave yourself open to the accusation that you’re going to battle sickness by shrinking the number of the sick — or that you want to reduce destitution by reducing the destitute population. Less people? Less poverty and disease — problems solved!

Perhaps such censure wouldn’t be relevant if the family planning services you underwrite were truly voluntary, no strings attached — you know, like if it were really clear that you just wanted to offer impoverished parents the help they need to avoid more mouths to feed.

But your foundation’s ulterior motives are hard to camouflage. The Family Planning Strategy Overview on the Gates Foundation website pays lip service to “voluntary family planning” as “one of the great public health advances of the past century.” However, there’s also disturbing language that hints at a vision for something a bit more compulsory:

In selected countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, our strategy aims to:

  • Increase the use of modern contraceptives.
  • Introduce innovative, low-cost solutions that can expand the supply of and demand for family planning products and services
    (emphases added)

Disturbing aims like these correspond with some disturbing associations your foundation maintains. For example, the Gates Foundation partners with the U.N. in working toward that body’s Millennium Development Goals — like this one, which includes a benchmark that shows there’s still plenty of “work” to be done:

Target 5.B:
Achieve universal access to reproductive health….

  • The large increase in contraceptive use in the 1990s was not matched in the 2000s.

One more concern along these lines: Abortion. Your foundation’s Family Planning Strategy mentions “fewer” abortions as something laudable and achievable. Yet, at the same time, the Foundation seems to be involved in promoting more abortion, not less — like at that conference in Ethiopia earlier this month, where there was a workshop entitled “Efforts to Implement Policies that Expand Access to Safe Abortion.” You can’t have it both ways.

The real threat here was identified by Pope Paul VI way back in 1968:

Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this [contraceptive] power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law…. Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.

G.K.-Chesterton-and-ChildAt the time, I imagine many wrote off the Pope as a crank, but his warning isn’t so far-fetched these days — case in point: the Chinese experience of enforced one-child policies, with associated skewed demographics, forced abortions, and suppression of reproductive dissent. You don’t want to be party to creating that kind of repressive situation in India, do you? Especially when even China is backing off totalitarian family planning these days.

Anyway, I’ve made my point, but I want to leave you with an image to ponder. G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay about social reform and contraception in which he drew an absurd comparison between birth control and decapitation. Chesterton then made this assertion:

But anybody ought to be able to see that if we once simplify things by head cutting we can do without hair-cutting; that it will be needless to practise dentistry on the dead or philanthropy on the unborn — or the unbegotten. So it is not a provision for our descendants to say that the destruction of our descendants will render it unnecessary to provide them with anything.

What we need is not fewer people, but fewer selfish people — not smaller populations, but bigger hearts. And bigger hearts are cultivated primarily by exhortation and example — by reminding folks of goodness and generosity and sacrifice through persuasive discourse and lived witness. Your own example is a fabulous model for these things. Please don’t tarnish it with outdated notions connecting social progress with family planning. They didn’t work in the 1960s. Or the 1970s. They won’t work now either.

Instead, take heed your own words in that WSJ article you wrote: “What some call a weakness can be a source of great strength.” Babies are not the enemy. Indeed, contrary to neo-Malthusian naysayers everywhere, the next generation is this generation’s hope — far from being a burden to avoid, kids carry the future before them. You touched on this idea when describing India’s vaccination initiative, and your words would make a great motto for your foundation: “The heart of the plan was a simple and inspiring mission: to find the children.” To find the children, not to get rid of them. Craft a strategy for your foundation around that idea, and you’ll accomplish even more remarkable things.

Again, thanks for all the real good you’re making possible in the world, and for your example of selfless giving. I hope many imitate your abundant generosity.


A version of this story appeared on Crisis.

Of Dave Ramsey, Babies, and Birth Control

“Well, it’s no trick to make a lot  of money…
if what you want to do is make a lot of money.”
~ Mr. Bernstein, Citizen Kane (1941)

Dave Ramsey is all the rage, especially among Christians. His Financial Peace University seminars are regularly advertised at churches, and his books are bestsellers at Christian bookstores. I’ve no doubt Dave has helped lots and lots of folks, and his no-nonsense approach to money is both refreshing and reasonable.

But I’ll be blunt: Dave Ramsey’s system is not for Catholics—or, rather, it’s not for childbearing Catholic couples who take the teaching of the Church seriously. At least that’s what we found out.

Several years back, we read through the Total Money Makeover and made a valiant attempt to implement its recommendations — baby steps, emergency fund, tight budgets, debt snowball, the whole shebang. We even had a family celebration when we let the kids cut up all our credit cards. Somewhere in the recesses of one of our discarded hard drives there’s a snapshot of the kids surrounding a cake decorated with Visa and MasterCard and other plastic fragments. (We meant to send the picture to Dave, but never quite got around to it.)

Anyway, for a brief time — an extremely brief time — we were debt-free, except for the mortgage. We had become “gazelle intense,” in Ramsey parlance, and we were on the road to becoming totally debt-free! But then God blessed us with another baby. And then another. Suddenly, our “financial peace” went out the window, and we were scrambling to replace those shredded credit cards. dave

I can surmise what Dave would’ve told us if we’d contacted him during that period because of the advice he gave “Karen” on his show a while back. A mother of seven, Karen called in to ask if Ramsey’s approach could work for her big family. Dave’s reply is revealing:

The program doesn’t change one ounce. What does change is — and you already knew this long before you met Dave Ramsey — when you choose to have seven children, that is called a lot of financial burden. It’s not a criticism; it’s just a mathematical fact.

You’re not going to be fleet of foot and run from the cheetah because you’re carrying too much.

Ah, there’s the rub — and in two parts. First, the Church teaches us that whenever a husband and wife engage in marital intimacy — every time— they must remain open to having another baby. Pope Paul VI famously clarified this for the “free love” generation in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae:

The Church…in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.

In other words, contra Ramsey, Catholic couples with lots of kids don’t always choose it that way — we can’t! Dave’s whole approach is based on planning, and you simply can’t plan when you don’t use birth control, because God always gets a say.

Contrary to popular belief, Humanae Vitae wasn’t new stuff, and Paul VI wasn’t just seeking to put the brakes on twentieth-century Catholic libido. Instead, the Pope had merely updated the Church’s articulation of ancient Christian proscriptions regarding birth control, much as Pius XI had done for a previous generation in Casti Connubii (1930). The reiterations of this most counter-cultural of doctrines go back a long way, and emanate from all branches of the Christian family tree.

And it is still the teaching of the Church today, no matter how many Catholic couples choose to ignore it. The Church isn’t naïve — everybody knows that Catholics contracept at the same rate as non-Catholics — but the truth is the truth, even when it’s inconvenient. In fact, Humanae Vitae itself was addressed to “all men of good will,” not just Catholics. It enshrines a glorious reality that’s lost in our sex-obsessed world: namely, sex is about babies. It was designed that way.

That leads to the second part of the tension between the Church and Ramsey — illustrated by his reference to larger families being slowed down because they’re “carrying too much.” Carrying too much? What, like too much consumption? Too much drain on cash flow? Too much, maybe, humanness? From the Church’s point of view, slowing down in this sense is the whole point.

Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, reflected on this in a recent essay about the pastoral care of families:

Today’s mentality is largely opposed to the Christian understanding of marriage, with regard to…its openness to children. Because many Christians are influenced by this…there is a lack of desire for marriage in accordance with Catholic teaching, and there is too little socialization within an environment of faith.

Note that Müller simultaneously diagnoses the problem among Catholics (ignoring Church teaching) and its etiology (inordinate influence from an anti-life culture). Like the broader culture, Ramsey promotes building wealth and seeking the “good life,” although, admittedly, he’s encouraging a more prudent, rational approach than most. Still, once wealth and the good life are the goals, then children become columns on a ledger sheet instead of irreplaceable, infinitely valuable images of the Divine. Nothing adds more “wealth” to a family than another child, no matter what the amortization tables say.

A similar idea cropped up in a WSJ interview with Alan Greenspan of all people, the former Fed chairman. Originally a dedicated numbers guy, Greenspan changed his tune after being challenged by none other than objectivist Ayn Rand:

Mr. Greenspan then believed in analysis based mainly on hard science and empirical facts. Rand told him that unless he considered human nature and its irrational side, he would “miss a very large part of how human beings behaved.”

That seems to be a pretty accurate picture of the tension between Ramsey’s approach to family finances and the Church’s approach to family: Ramsey posits planning and control that revolves around money, whereas the Church advocates abandonment and surrender revolving around generous openness to new life — something that doesn’t always make sense on the spreadsheet. And, like it or not, that abandonment, surrender, and generosity can’t be budgeted for nor planned. It’s not math; it’s more like falling in love.

Even the Pew Research Center kdisgets this, as demonstrated in their study on parents and kids. “When it comes to feeling happy,” the study concludes, “time with children…beats time at work.” Does this create a paradox for those trying to follow the Ramsey way? You bet! Dave would have those parents out working a second job in order to pare down their debt and work toward a life of leisure in the future. But what does our gut tell us? Second  or third job? Naah. Instead, follow Pope Francis’ advice: “Waste time with your children.” And, indeed, welcome another child while you’re at it — the more the merrier!

Irresponsible, you say? Imprudent? Perhaps. But you can’t plan for every contingency, and since Catholics — i.e., Catholics who choose to follow the teaching of the Church forbidding contraception — can’t exactly plan ahead anyway, why not throw caution to the wind, and lean heavily on the Providence of God. If He decides to bless you with another child, then it’s His problem to help you make ends meet.

Besides, there’s no capital like human capital. “Openness to life is at the center of true development,” says the Pope, because, among other things, life-oriented families are where the vulnerable, the weak, and the fragile are protected and supported.

And money? Will I sound terribly juvenile and foolish to assert my confidence that God will provide? He will, although it’s certainly not likely to materialize in a form akin to ones neighbors. Relative poverty, in material terms, is bearable when one is surrounded by a riotous brood.

Besides, even the high priests of the Dave Ramsey realm side with the Church when it comes to the relative value of having more kids — like when an article on Humanae Vitae in the Business Insider last year stated: “Human progress is people.” The authors even went on to assert that it is “a good idea for people to be fruitful and multiply.”

Hmmm. Sounds like God in Genesis. Did He mention anything about a budget?


A version of this story appeared on Crisis.

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