Friday, August 8, 2008

Responsible and Generous


I really didn't think I'd have to be wading back into this discussion, and since I've got company coming over Sunday I'd sort of counted on being able to toss together a light post or two in between tossing pasta salad and tossing junk mail. But clearly, more is needed, and I'm not one to look the other way when the Catholic parenthood debate threatens to pull a World War III in my comboxes.

The thing to remember is this: married couples are called to be responsible and generous in their call to parenthood.

Responsible and generous.

It's not an either/or, people. It's not like you can say, "Oh, I'm being responsible, which means I can't be generous just now, and add lots more children to my family without regard to circumstances," or "Oh, I'm being generous, and the Church doesn't demand that I be responsible--that's just a fiction created by the selfish money-grubbing lot that sees dollar signs as more important than babies."

We are to be both. All the time. Whether we're led in a responsible and generous way to have another baby or in a responsible and generous way to postpone for a brief time, a long time, or even in the most serious of circumstances for a prolonged and possibly permanent time.

I've seen Danielle's latest and agree with about 3.75 of her four things. The .25 I disagree with has to do with the notion that that Church never requires us to use NFP. The reason it's only a fraction of a disagreement is this: the Church is never going to require us to use a specific type of abstinence to avoid adding to our families--but the Church can indeed let us know, through her priests, if we are in one of those "morally obligating" situations that demands some sort of abstinence.

In fact, one of those circumstances that gets talked about is that where one spouse, and only one, is discovered to be HIV positive. To protect the uninfected spouse and to negate the possibility of an innocent child being subjected to the disease the Church sometimes demands that husband and wife live as brother and sister--total abstinence, not NFP, not any other periodic abstinence method. So the Church does have the power to oblige us, even married couples, to abstain from marital relations.

I realize this is not what Danielle is saying and not what she's talking about, but the reason I bring it up is this: we can't say that the Church can't require us, us specifically, us personally, to abstain either partially or completely from the marital embrace, and with that, from adding to our families in the ordinary way for a time. The Church most certainly can, and while some think this is rare there are couples who have been told in confidence in the confessional or elsewhere by a priest/adviser that they are indeed morally obligated for the good of their families to avoid adding a child at a specific time for some specific and usually rather dire reason.

This is important, because we hear all the time that the "default" setting is not "use NFP unless you're sure you can have another." That is true. But it is also true that the "default" setting is not "have every child you can physically bear even if your fertility is the sort that lets you have three children under three, four under four, five under five and so on unless you have one of those dire morally obligating reasons as a factor," because that's an equally wrong, equally limited way of looking at the Church's call for us to be responsible and generous.

So what is the default setting?

Guess what? There is no default setting. There are only people, individuals, married Catholic couples, each striving toward Heaven, each answering the call to holiness every day, each seeking to follow God's will in this as they do in every other area of their lives, by listening with open ears and a joyful heart to the teachings of the Church and making prudential decisions based on these teachings.

And when we talk about responsibility for a bit, focusing on those things couples might take into consideration as they determine God's will for their families, that doesn't mean that we're ignoring the "generous" part, just as we can talk about generosity without ignoring the "responsible" part.

But what we cannot do, what we must not do, is say that the Church's teachings in the area of responsibility are in any way analogous to the evil family planning policies of Communist China or of Planned Parenthood or of any other such group. Because the Church knows that our duty to our children is a most serious and solemn obligation, and that our ability to meet our children's basic physical and spiritual needs as we aid them to grow in holiness and toward Heaven is not a callous concern for finances, but an extremely important part of the vocation of marriage.


Anonymous said...

I found this on this blog:

And I'm posting it here because this verifies what you are saying, but is not what Danielle is saying:

I'm curious as to how she, and others who might tend towards providentialism, explain John Paul II's thoughts on responsible parenthood:

There are, however, circumstances in which this disposition [to be a responsible parent] itself demands renunciation of procreation, and any further increase in the size of the family would be incompatible with parental duty. A man and a woman moved by true concern for the good of their family and a mutual sense of responsibility for the birth, maintenance, and upbringing of their children, will then limit intercourse and abstain from it in periods in which this might result in another pregnancy undesirable in the particular conditions of their married life and family. (JP2, Love and Responsibility at 243 (emphasis added).)

John Paul is saying that there are circumstances where a couple is morally obligated to avoid a pregnancy.

Fascinating stuff; I will go read it.

MommaLlama said...

As the male half of an infertile couple, I feel doubly unqualified to speak on this topic. But I gotta say, you're handling it well, and I think you are right on the money with this one.

Daddio said...

Oops. That was me, not her.

matthew archbold said...

you're gutsy for bringing this subject up. I've thought about it many times but couldn't figure out where to start. And i was not really liking the thought of my blog becoming the epicenter of a super intense heated argument.
It's funny because I almost wrote you a jokey email last night about you jumping into that mire and halfway through writing it I saw that Patrick was in the middle of jumping into the middle of it.
But in all seriousness you really did further a great discussion that affects many people. Good job.

christine said...

That JP2 quotation from before he was JP2 is interesting. It doesn't, however, morally oblige us to use NFP which is exactly what DB said. The same end could be met by a married couple using only abstinence. In fact, these writings don't morally oblige us to do anything. They are private opinion and not the teachings of the Church.

Alexandra said...

I haven't been following the debate regarding this issue, but I've read similar ones in the past. I've been reading your posts on my bloglines, and I agree, especially here:.

"We are to be both. All the time. Whether we're led in a responsible and generous way to have another baby or in a responsible and generous way to postpone for a brief time, a long time, or even in the most serious of circumstances for a prolonged and possibly permanent time."

The way you understand the issue is the way I've been raised to understand it via the Church, both here and abroad. I think these matters are best left between husband and wife, and the parish priest. There is no one size fits all. If I have ever needed clarification, I always go to my priest. That way I'm not reinventing the wheel. I defer to their knowledge and station.

Anonymous said...

It's true that the writings of JPII before he was pope doesn't morally oblige us to do anything, but isn't that sort of a loophole mentality? Do you really think that he renounced all his writings when he became elected pope? Did he ask for his book to stop being published in case it caused scandal and led others astray? No, I think he still firmly believed it to be as true after he was pope as before. And I do, too.

Greg said...

There's a reason for only some documents being considered infallible -- the Church, in her wisdom, makes infallibility something that cannot be casually obtained.

There are plenty of things the pope could believe to be "true" even while he is pope -- that would not be infallibly taught.

It's great if you want to use the writings of saints and others to guide your personal decisions, but to lift them to the level of Church teaching for all is erroneous.

There are plenty of infallible Church teachings on the subject of family planning and they are quite clear. When we are attempting to make rules of guidance for all, we must consult only these. Anything else is just opinion.

Matilda said...

There are plenty of infallible Church teachings on the subject of family planning and they are quite clear.

Would you mind pointing these out specifically? I would like to know which ones are considered infallible and which ones aren't. It has been my experience that the Church's teachings on even little things like which circumstances specifically temporarily abrogate Sunday obligation to be less than "quite clear". This question is meant honestly and charitably. I really would like to know which teachings on this subject are infallible and which ones aren't. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Yesterday I tried to leave this comment but I must have clicked the wrong button. So others have already addressed this issue but initially I wrote:

"Wouldn't it be nice if everyone would read Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla; then emulate the love, understanding and compassion of that amazing bishop who became the great John Paul II before continuing further divisive internet discussions on how to define open to life, the valid reasons to limit family size, who's being faithful to Church teaching, who isn't and so on."

Then I read Christine's (and others) comments which seemed to dismiss JPII's work as parish priest then bishop of Krakow. I'm only guessing but I have a difficult time believing anyone who has read Love and Responsibility would simply dismiss it as private opinion without considering it's deeply valuable insight from a man who truly loved his flock as a father should.

I am saddened that any Catholic would look for a loophole to ignore John Paul II's words, infallibly declared or not.

mom to seven plus one in God's care

nutmeg said...

Did Danielle actually say that couples SHOULD TRY to have children no matter what? No matter what their circumstances?

If so, please direct me to it. I'm serious. I have found her quite silent on that particular aspect of this subject.

I think she is *simply saying* that women who need help b/c of family size are not to be scorned or judged. Maybe they *were trying* hard not to conceive and it happened anyway... it's NONE of our business. GOD BLESS THEM for being "open to life" (meaning, not contracept) and accepting this precious gift from God (not abort!)

We need to help them, not lecture.

(I have GOT to shut down my computer for a few days!!!)


Red Cardigan said...

Nutmeg, I don't think Danielle is saying we should be providentialists. But I do think that what's being said, by her and others, is that we really shouldn't talk about "responsible parenthood," because somewhere some woman in a difficult situation is going to feel judged.

But to set "responsibility" in opposition to "generosity" is to take the position, in my view, that one may make one's parenthood decisions with regard to one while ignoring the other.

Now, we know people don't think this about responsibility; even referring to the Church's teachings on "responsible parenthood" is liable to get you slapped down for being a selfish contraceptive-minded person.

But the view is very different in regards to generosity; generosity seems to be defined as "having more children," and one is chided and told to see people as humble and heroic when they have large families--there is a notion that even to mention the "responsibility" side of the equation is by definition "ungenerous."

But we have to be both. All the time. With each decision we make in regard to our families.

We aren't supposed to see generosity as a higher calling than responsibility--to view it this way is a profound misunderstanding about what the Church has always taught about the duty of parents to provide for their children.

Now, all of that doesn't mean that when some Catholic mom of many who was trying to use NFP but finds herself staring at the positive pregnancy test that she should be the subject of scorn and derision. Honestly, though, I think that's a red herring. God speaks to us and works with us in pregnancies that occur even when we have accepted a serious reason to postpone and have been doing our best in that regard, and nobody I know ever thinks or says differently.

The problem arises in that people seem to think that just *talking* about responsible AND generous parenthood is uncharitable, at least on the "responsible" side. Asking the abstract question "What does it mean to be responsible in our parenthood decisions?" is somehow tantamount to verbally abusing mothers of many--despite the fact that the call to be responsible AND generous parents is the same for all Catholic families regardless of size.

nutmeg said...

OK, I grant you this. I agree with the responsible parenting aspect as well as the generosity...(I have from the start, btw...) However, I think the red herring you speak of, is actually a very real danger.
Let's say we do all agree that having more children in some particular circumstance is not prudent.(I refuse to name a particular circumstance) And then, when we see someone in that very circumstance, pregnant again, what is our first reaction?
THAT is the issue here.

I would hope NO-ONE would be judgemental and exasperated with having to "dole out" more money, help, or prayers.

Are we pro-life enough to simply help out, no questions asked, b/c we do not know the situation? Would we be holy enough to not be snarky or make any "hinting" comments? Would we not talk behind their backs to find out the "real" situation? Would we be able to rejoice with that family, since this new life is a very real GIFT FROM GOD?

Bro' said...


I think that your argument is a bit of a strawman. From what I understand, what is being discussed is the relationship between generosity and responsibility within a Catholic marriage, not what the community response should be to the announcement of a new life. I think that you would have to agree that both sides hold the gift of life in high esteem. There are no Ebeneezers here scrooging about the "excess population". This is a complex issue that we are trying to wrestle with, one that many feel have far reaching consequences beyond the feelings of the moment. I think that charity and understanding have been the hallmark of this discussion.

Lara said...

Let's say we do all agree that having more children in some particular circumstance is not prudent.(I refuse to name a particular circumstance)

I think that this is a big part of the problem. It is true that some people never think it is prudent to avoid pregnancy, but most people think that there are at least some circumstances when it is good to avoid procreating. HOWEVER, I think a big problem arises when people do start naming particular circumstances. I don't think it is judging to say that it is prudent to practice NFP because of health, finances, or other various situations. Those are vague for a reason. But to say that it is imprudent to not practice it in specific cases (going to school, public assistance, etc.) IS judging. If someone says that it is wrong to procreate while on WIC, that automatically judges the people procreating while on WIC. The church in her wisdom doesn't go into details like that because each couple is going to have different circumstances.

At one point, some commenter asked to start a thread on reasons to practice NFP. I think that is a very bad idea. If we want this conversation to remain abstract without anecdotal evidence, then we shouldn't have concrete examples either. As Nutmeg did, we should refrain from listing particular circumstances.

Red Cardigan said...

But Lara, there's a big difference between merely discussing in the abstract some particular circumstances that might impact one's decision to postpone, and pointing fingers of blame at people who do not choose to postpone in those circumstances.

In addition, we have no trouble at all saying some women are "heroic" when they refuse even to consider postponing (I'm not talking about attempting NFP or some other moral means and being "surprised" anyway, but the deliberate choice to continue unrestricted marital activity with the attitude that one is trusting God not to send a pregnancy while one's circumstances are difficult). We say that all the time: this mother was "heroic" to refuse to consider NFP even though her family was in dire poverty; that mother was "heroic" to refuse to use NFP though her health was precarious and the pregnancy sent her to the hospital from the second trimester through the baby's birth and prolonged ICU stay. We're making a judgment there, too--we're saying that those who choose to abstain during similar circumstances are less "heroic," less "trusting," and even--I've heard it--less "holy" than these women.

And that has an impact, on real women and their lives and choices. So why is it forbidden to discuss abstract situations that might have an impact on real ones, too? Is it because the choice to conceive is *always* seen as morally superior? Is that how the Church sees it? I'm not sure.

Maria said...

Sure, we can discuss both what "generous" and what "prudent" means in relation to repsonsible parenthood. Just like we can discuss what "grave" and "serious" and "just" means in relation to reasons to use NFP. Disscussion is great as long as we realize that in doing so we are only looking to better inform our own consciences and not pronounce Church teaching. The Church simply does not supply certain circumstances in which one cannot use NFP or in which one must use NFP. She leaves it to the individual couple's conscience to make these decisions. Those who would make such pronouncements for the Church are not necessarily judging others; they are simply wrong.

Maria said...

From the USCCB: "Neither The Code of Canon Law nor The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes specific reference to HIV or AIDS in their respective treatments of marriage."

The Church at this time does not have any teaching that would require a couple with one spouse who is HIV positive to practice total abstinence. It they choose to do so, I would consider it heroic love of other. But to say the Church currently imposes a morally obligation on them to do so is incorrect, as far as I know. I have heard rumors that the Church is working on a draft document regarding this issue (with lots of angst concerning a discussion of allowing the use of condoms within this type of martial situation), but nothing has been released to my knowledge.

Also, maternal to child transmission of HIV/AIDS is completely preventable with testing and new medicines.

If I've missed something, feel free to correct me!

nutmeg said...

I have not setup a "strawman" argument. I have simply pointed out the danger here of what we're "wrestling" with. I'd like to know what the point is to all of this hair-splitting. Is it really to "form our own consciences"? Seems like y'all already know the "right" way to approach this matter and are trying to "inform" everyone else.
And to what end?
Please be honest with yourselves on this one.
I'm done.

Anonymous said...

Yup, bro' said, I agree. This has to first be an understanding that this is a conversation between practicing Catholics, not the usual crowd of contracepting Catholics who don't "get it". Their (potential) responses should not drive the conversation.

And yes I do think that there should be informal, non-judgmental conversations about what is and isn't an NFPable situation in the here and now. That's the part that has changed so much, so soon...and we act like it hasn't! Our society is different, our environment is different; doesn't that get taken into account? Should it?

How many reverts stumbled upon a great, informative chat-room but found that it was far more conservative about this than we believed was OK? What if you are influenced by a certain type of thinking, and that type of thinking goes against the way God is calling you? This happens all the time. Do you know how many women are relieved when they hear that, yes, they really can decide that their stress level, emotional state & condition of their marriage can absolutely give them just reasons to space births? There are many who would argue this and it helps to hear others refute it.

Here's one rarely talked about example: Are we never to come to the realization that we do not want any additional children? Is that realistic? Even God designs us so that one day we will absolutely never have any more children. So, must it always be sinful for us to come to that conclusion sometime, too? Or must it always and only be the biology that drives the decision? I know plenty of large families who would disagree, but just like we hear that not everyone is called to have a large family, for those of us who know we are not called to that, can one come to the conclusion that, chances are, we're not having any more than 2, 3 or 4?

I've never heard anything except one must "prayerfully discern" with their spouse, every single month. Again, I can see that for families who believe they are called to be large. But we all are not. So, what's the deal?

There are so many shades of gray in talks like this and I really believe they should happen. Sharing thoughts and experiences are sometimes the only salve to an anxious mind a person has.

Bro' said...


And it seems to me that your entreaty to honesty means that you already know the right way to approach this matter and you are trying to "inform" me of the error of my ways. By asking me to be honest with myself, are you implying that you know my true motivations and that I am either unaware of them or, even worse, being dishonest about them? I hope not, since I have never impugned motives to anyone in either side of this discussion and value true honesty and examination of conscience very highly.

There is no Us vs. Them in this discussion as you have indicated by using the phrases “ya’ll” and “yourselves”. I also think that the emotional level to which some people have become involved indicates that they need to check their sensitivities and possibly their motivations at the door. No one ever said that the poor shouldn't be allowed to have children or that "NFP failures", a phrase that I don’t care for but have seen other people use to talk about unexpected pregnancies, are proof that parents were acting irresponsibly.

As I understand it, the original question was asked in the comments at Danielle's blog "where does personal responsibility come in?" in regards to intentionally seeking to increase family size when already on government assistance. These discussions are for the purpose of exploring the Church's teachings on that subject with the hope of spreading those messages to those who might need them. I have seen many discussions on the internet regarding NFP vs. providentialism, homeschooling vs. catholic schooling vs. public schooling, babies at Mass vs. separate shifts, etc…but the Church’s teaching on social justice is a topic of discussion that often gets passed over.

Red Cardigan said...

Maria, I found this article on HIV positive/marriage situations interesting:

It seems that the whole reason the "condoms for HIV prevention" debate is so heated is that the other alternative is seen as total abstinence. But as you said, the Church is still working out her teachings in this area.

One question I'd ask is this: is it morally acceptable to expose one's spouse to HIV if the spouse doesn't have it? I firmly believe that condoms would still be immoral even in these circumstances, but where does that leave us?

Maria said...

It is a sticky issue. I agree with you that I believe the use of condoms would still be immoral in this case and don't really foresee the Church coming out with any teaching to the contrary. Who knows if anything will come out...there are always lots of rumors floating around. The double-effect argument is interesting, though. The "self-defense" argument, used to allow the use of spermicides in the case of rape, is much less related to the morality of this situation, IMHO.

Since the Church has no specific teaching on the issue, I guess I currently think a couple could choose to engage in total abstinence or to engage in relations, doing everything currently medically possible to prevent transmission that is licit , i.e., testing, medicines, etc.

I personally would probably choose total abstinence if I became infected somehow, through a blood transfusion or some other freak situation. However, I could see a case being made otherwise. For example, say we saw some type of reincarnation of the Plague or a pandemic flu. This is obviously a communicable disease through close contact with no known cure. However, if my husband caught it, I believe it would be moral for me to stay and nurse him through the illness though my chances of becoming infected and dying from it were very high. I think the same could be argued for the HIV situation. A person could choose to lovingly live a full marriage, caring for the person through their illness and giving themselves to the other totally, though they could contact the disease.

Also, if the Church would come down with a teaching of required total abstinence in marriage in the case of HIV, it would follow that single persons already infected with HIV could not enter into marriage since they would be unable to consummate the marriage. It would make their situation much like those of impotent men. This could possibly happen, but I currently don't believe the Church would come down with such a teaching.

Of course, whatever the Church chooses to say I will certainly fully accept.

kateg said...

I agree, I think a well formed conscience requires the use of NFP in some situations. I think it is common sense that tells us this.

The quote from JP2 was insightful and validates this.
Thanks for sharing it.

On one side I hear that NFP is 99.5% effective and on the other side I hear it is really not effective at all for some couples. Well that is new to me and certainly adds a challenging twist to the subject.