Note to Pollsters: What “Practicing Catholic” Really Means

bored-child

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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3 Short Books for the College-bound Teen

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We were always encouraged to read,
and had all the masters that were necessary.
~ Elizabeth Bennet

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Humanae Vitae and the Sensus Fidelium

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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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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.

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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?

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A version of this story appeared on Crisis.

Of Nipples, Babies, and Not Being Done

“Papa, why do boys have nipples?”

It’s a logical question, and I was frankly impressed that my seven-year-old came up with it. Still, I wasn’t sure where it would lead, so I stalled. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, mamas have breasts and they make milk for their babies, so the babies need the nipples to drink the milk. But papas don’t make milk, so why did God give you nipples?”

breastfeedingMy mind raced, calculating the developmental appropriateness of introducing her to simplified concepts of evolution and the divine superintendence over creation, and squaring that with the associated possibility of expanding her rudimentary ideas about moms and dads and where babies come from. It was like some giant parental algorithm had dropped out of the sky, demanding my attention and upsetting my quiet coffee and Sunday comics reverie.

No worries. Kath answered her own question: “Probably it’s because it would just look funny if you didn’t have them.” That sounded good to me—yeah, I’d just look funny.

I went back to the comics, but Kath wasn’t finished. “I’ll be able to feed my babies someday,” she said. “Yes,” I assured her, “and you’ll be a wonderful mom .”

“And maybe Mama will have another baby, too,” she said. “I’m praying for a little sister.”

*Whump!* Another huge algorithm out of nowhere. How could I tell her that, due to our mature years and biology, we were highly unlikely to have any more children? How could I translate the complex relationship between fecundity and age into a language that she could understand?

Then it occurred to me: I didn’t need to! Technically, we certainly could have another baby, for we had not done anything—nor were planning to do anything—that would prevent it. That God’s design made such a prospect highly unlikely was God’s business, not ours. But it was also the case that God could overrule the natural order, and there’s plenty of precedence for unexpected bundles from heaven coming out of season—think Sarah and Isaac, for example, or even Elizabeth and John the Baptist.

That’s one of the huge advantages of not using birth control, at least for those who see every child as a gift and a blessing: Another baby is always a possibility. Always, that is, because we take seriously Pope Paul VI’s admonition in Humanae Vitae that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (#11).

So, there’s no such thing as “last child syndrome” because there’s no such thing as a last child. And when people—often total all-dogs-go-to-heaven-disney-animationstrangers—see your 15-passenger van and brood of urchins, and feel compelled to ask, “So, are you done?”, we have some ready come-backs: “Who knows?” we say with a hunch of the shoulders, or “I certainly hope not!”

Anyway, because we are really “not done,” I was able to sincerely and honestly affirm Kath’s aspiration. “Yes,” I said, “another little girl would be wonderful. You’d be a terrific big sister.”

Silence. Pause. Then, “Do dogs go to heaven?” And we were off and running again!

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Reckless Breeders

The correlation of reckless breeding with defective and delinquent strains, has not, strangely enough, been subjected to close scientific scrutiny. This is a crying necessity of our day (Margaret Sanger).

Mrs. Sanger would classify me and my wife as reckless breeders—seven kids, and not a whiff of birth control. “Bring ’em on!” we said when we got married, and so God did—alleluia! And nary a defective nor delinquent strain in the lot. Scientific scrutiny be damned.

Margaret-Sanger-1916-620x320The funny thing is that reckless breeders are in short supply these days, and not because of scientific scrutiny, nor its nefarious twin, draconian social policy (thankfully a thing of the past). As a nation, we’re sinking demographically, but instead of rearranging deck chairs, we’ve struck up the band and we’re throwing a party! Yeah! No babies! Whooo-hooo!

A stark example of this is a recent Time Magazine cover story, “The Childfree Life.” Here’s the tagline: “The American birthrate is at a record low.” Indeed, it’s startlingly low—2.0 babies per woman at last count. Keep in mind that the replacement rate is 2.1, and the rate’s trajectory is down, not up. Bottom line: We’re going the way of Europe and Japan, where grey is all the rage.

Shrinking fertility rates and aging populations are important for a number of reasons, as William McGurn points out in his review of Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. Among other things, fewer kids means fewer workers to make stuff and buy stuff, and fewer taxpayers as well. More and more retiring boomers are starting to collect government benefits, and there are fewer and fewer employed taxpayers to foot the bill. Our weak economy only exacerbates all this.

McGurn also mentions a weakening of our national defense and a curtailing of innovation as the balance of our population tilts in the direction of the aged. But these are mere temporal concerns. A bigger problem has to do with our vision of what marriage and sex is for in the first place.

But don’t I know? It’s for fun, of course!

Of course. But not just for fun.

Back in 1982, The Roches released their album Keep on Doing which included a song called “Sex is for Children.” The song is a collage of sounds and words that doesn’t reveal a whole lot about the title’s meaning. But, as song titles go, it’s definitely provocative and memorable. And simply true. Physiologically, anatomically, sex is indeed “for children.”

Regardless of how enjoyable it is (and enjoyment here is meant to include both tactile pleasures and the more abstract pleasures of mutual self-giving), sex is clearly oriented to the begetting of children. In fact, when Margaret Sanger and her allies coined the phrase “birth control,” they obviously took the biology for granted—i.e., they were selling more sex with less births.

This dual meaning of sex—pleasurable union and procreation—is something the Church has always taken into account and honored. It’s an idea at the very center of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae:

[The] fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.

Yet, the Church goes much further than that, teaching us that kids really are the main point. Pope Pius XI puts it this way:

Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place. As St. Augustine admirably deduces from the words of the holy Apostle Saint Paul to Timothy when he says: “The Apostle himself is therefore a witness that marriage is for the sake of generation: ‘I wish,’ he says, ‘young girls to marry.’ And, as if someone said to him, ‘Why?,’ he immediately adds: ‘To bear children, to be mothers of families’.”

Terribly backward by today’s standards, I know, but even Margaret Sanger seemed to admit that motherhood had its good points—even aside from merely perpetuating the species. She wrote that the “potential mother can then be shown that maternity…may be the most effective avenue to self-development and self-realization.”cheaper-by-the-dozen

But how? What is it about having kids that seems to be so vital to self-development and self-realization? I think Lauren Sandler’s Time article gives us some clues, like when she quotes New Yorker Jenna Johnson, who is partnered and happily childless: “My plans—professionally, daily, long-term, even just for vacation—are free from all the contingencies that come with children.”

Contingencies. That’s a nice way of putting it. For us parents in real-time, it’s more like “constant chaos,” where every day is a matter of survival, and coming home at night is similar to a controlled crash landing.

So why do we do it? Love. Love begets love. And, in this case, it’s not an abstract begetting, but rather a fully incarnate, enfleshed love—one that cries and laughs and poops. Being entrusted with that incarnate crying and laughing and pooping love changes us. It makes us better men and women, husbands and wives, friends, neighbors, workers, humans! Or at least it can. It should.

But it’s herculean, by all accounts—something that another childless woman featured in the Time article seems to grasp. Leah’s life with her husband is “insane already,” even without kids. She goes on: “I don’t feel we can do what we do and be great parents—and for me, the emphasis would be on being great parents.”

Exactly. Leah would be a great mom. I hope she gets the chance.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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