Monday, December 6, 2010

Taking the Cure out of context

I really enjoyed Simcha Fisher's post on NFP and the often-misunderstood virtue of prudence last week; the comments have been interesting to read as well.

But sure enough, somebody had to come out and post that quote by the Cure of Ars, St. John Vianney. Of course, the commenter had the quote a little off; he/she wrote:
Yes, I made use of two quotations, one of which was in French, though I should have thought the technologically savvy apostles of NFP would have been aware of the technology known as Google Translate. The French means simply, “If you knew those who are in hell for not having given the world the children they had to give!” and was spoken by St. Jean-Marie Vianney.
If I had a nickel for every time somebody brought that up as a sort of anti-NFP trump card--well, I'd still be broke, 'cause nickels don't add up the way they used to--but you get the idea.

This blogger has the whole passage:

There has been much discussion, much of it heated, and misunderstanding regarding a quote by St. John Vianney to a married woman regarding child bearing. I have found the context and quote in its entirety from a reliable source.

This is from the book The Cure'D'Ars St. Jean-marie Vianney by Abbe Francis Trochu[...]

Page 311-312
Married people were shown the nobility of their calling and he exhorted them to fulfill holily its duties. A lady of the name of Ruet, of Ouroux, in the department of the Rhone, had already a large family and was about to become a mother once more. She came to Ars in order to seek courage at the feet of its holy Cure. She had not long to wait, for M. Vianney summoned her from amid the crowd. "You look very sad my child." he said, when she was on her knees in his confessional. "Oh! I am so advanced in years Father!" :He comforted , my child... if you only knew the women who will go to hell because they did not bring into the world the children they should have given to it."

"Come now my little one, he said with fatherly kindliness to the woman who confided to him her anxiety because of her large family. "do not be alarmed at your burden' our Lord carries it with you. The good God does well all that he does: when he gives many children to a young mother it is that he deems her worthy to rear them. It is a mark of confidence on his part."

[All emphases and links in original--E.M.]
There are a few things that strike me at once about this. In the first place, the pastoral context of the quote, and the Cure's assurance to the worried and troubled mother about to add to her already large family, places a different hue on this remark than I've seen given it before. Secondly, the Cure does not say "...those who are in hell..." but "...the women who will go to hell..." And finally, the Cure is telling the woman to see in the numerous children God has given her His confidence in her--a beautiful sentiment, indeed, regardless of one's family size!

The person who views NFP with deep suspicion, seeing it as something the Church grudgingly permits a selfish age but really would rather not have at all, has a tendency to think that this quote means the following things:

A. The Cure is addressing those women who selfishly and unjustly refuse to pay the marriage debt.

B. NFP is, in all but the most dire of situations (and possibly even then; why, don't we all want to die in childbirth for the greater glory of God?), a selfish and unjust refusal to pay the marriage debt.

C. Therefore, women who use NFP must do so with fear and trembling, knowing that their selfish refusal to bear as many children as they physically can is probably placing their immortal souls in great peril; why, the Cure of Ars said so.


In the first place, St. John Vianney would never have failed to note that men as well as women can selfishly or unjustly refuse the marriage debt--and moreover, both men and women can selfishly and unjustly demand the payment of that debt, when the payment of it by the spouse might be somehow injurious to him or her (e.g., as in the case when the husband or wife is seriously ill or otherwise reasonably incapable, temporarily, of payment). So the good saint would not have spoken only of women (as the book quote shows he did) if he were castigating men and women for refusal to engage in marital activity with each other.

In the second place, St. John Vianney speaks of women "...who will go to hell because they did not bring into the world the children they should have given to it." This makes it far more likely that the Cure is speaking, here, of abortion or at least of attempts at contraception (many of which were, in fact, abortifacient in the 1800s) than that he is speaking of any type of periodic abstinence. I have heard people (rather scornfully, some of them) insist that back in the Good Old Catholic Days between 1786-1859 (the Cure's lifespan) nobody, especially no Catholic, ever had an abortion; and contraception wasn't even invented, yet! Alas, a simple check of history shows otherwise. Contraceptive pills and devices were widespread by the 1750s; condoms were used during that time period as well, though mass-produced rubber ones weren't manufactured until about a hundred years later; and the number of patent pills and remedies advertised as "Female Pills--to cure obstruction!" grew tremendously over the course of St. John Vianney's life. Those last named were almost invariably abortifacients, as their advertisements proclaimed in large letters: Do not use during pregnancy. Miscarriage will result... which diabolical wording allowed the heinous manufacturers both to demonstrate the true nature of the product, and absolve themselves of any legal responsibility at the same time. Since the good saint is speaking of women who may go to hell for not bringing children into the world, and since such sickening things were far more available than any of us would like to believe they were, back in his day, isn't it far more likely that he is speaking of women who were truly placing their souls in jeopardy by engaging in acts that are intrinsically evil, than that he is making a blanket statement essentially requiring Catholic women, for fear of their souls, to give birth as many times as is physically possible--especially since the Church has never taught that they must do any such thing?

And in the third place, even in the extremely unlikely event that the good saint had any kind of periodic abstinence in mind, we must note that, again, he is speaking of a sin involving women--but NFP is (and, indeed, must be) a mutual decision of husband and wife. St. John Vianney does not tell the fearful mother of the large family that many parents will be going to hell for not having all the children they could have had; yet if the decision to employ periodic abstinence is a mutual decision of husband and wife, and not a unilateral, selfish, unjust decision by a wife alone, then how on earth can anybody think that the Cure's admonition regarding women who have not brought into the world the children they might have has anything whatsoever to do with NFP? The husband is, after all, the head of the family; one might even argue (with a lot of Church tradition behind it) that if such a mutual decision were in error, the fault would be more greatly imputed to the husband, who has both the duty and the obligation to be the spiritual head of the family, not to go along meekly with a method of natural family planning if he is absolutely convinced that there is no just reason for its use. So, when the decision to use NFP (or, indeed, any other natural means; I tend to use NFP as a shorthand to mean them all, but I'm aware that there are other methods) has been prayerfully and carefully made by a husband and wife with, if necessary, the advice of their pastor and/or spiritual director taken into serious consideration, we simply aren't talking about the sort of selfish, unilateral decision that could lead either party to Hell--not when the Church approves of this whole thing in the first place.

To sum it all up, as a saint of the Church St. John Vianney would not now, from his position in the Heavenly Kingdom, guide any person to despise or hold in contempt any teaching of the Church, including her generous and loving pastoral wisdom contained in those teachings which unequivocally condemn artificial contraception and present the option of natural means of birth spacing for those couples who are justly motivated to use them. Unlike contraception or the graver sin of abortion, the use of natural means of birth spacing leaves open the door to life; God will give to every woman who uses NFP exactly the number of children He plans for her to have, and she is not risking her immortal soul when she and her husband, for just reasons, gratefully and prudently accept the Church's blessings upon NFP and other means of natural birth spacing. Taking a quote from the Cure out of context and using it as a stick to beat upon the consciences of those who are not in any way sinning in their use of NFP must, then, be viewed an extremely uncharitable act.


MightyMighty said...

Wow, great post!

For a while I found myself unsure how to answer the Quiverful people, even though I thought it bizarre that they thought God's will for dead-broke families with serious housing problems was to have a new baby every 10 months.

A priest friend pointed out that there is a big difference between God's actual will for us, and what he allows us to do. "Do you really think it's God's will that a couple being evicted, with no money, no insurance, and serious health problems, should try to conceive?" God may will us to have many children, or just a few, or none at all, but that doesn't mean recklessly conceiving is a sign that God wanted us to conceive at that time, so much as he allowed it to happen. Similarly, forcing a conception through IVF doesn't mean it was no longer God's will for us to be barren, but that we ignored his laws. He can still bring tremendous good out of those situations, but that isn't proof that we were right in the first place.

Honestly, I think what scares people is the "prayer and prudence" part of NFP. It's easier to throw up one's hands and say, "Whatever God lets happen," as though that also means, "we can't possibly go wrong there." But if God has given you an extremely sick child who requires 24-hour care, and you let yourself conceive because you were afraid to use NFP, that doesn't mean that was God's first choice for you. He takes care of us, but he made us smart and gave us an understanding of our bodies because he wants us to cooperate with his will.

Do you think one could argue that the intentional cooperation with his will is what makes the marital act so powerful, even if one is cooperating by periodic abstinence?

melanie said...

The difficulty with discussions on nfp is that any kind of generalizations made whether on the side of "prudence" or on the side of "generosity" just of necessity make the other side feel bad, right? I know that was the whole point simcha was trying to make exactly, that the one does not in fact negate the other...but I don't think some of the commentirs got that. It's an issue best left to each particular couple to implement in their marriage given how they- and if needed their spiritual director- sees fit, within the context of grace, the sacraments, and prayer. I mean really every single circumstance at any given time is so different and ever changing in each marriage. The whole beauty of it's use is in it's openness to the ever evolving nature of the human heart and it's relationship to God. Sometimes trust is to be found most deeply in abstinence, and other times trust is found in abandonment to His divine will. Only God Himself will know which is which and when is when. And sometimes it results in a baby, but not always. And this too is for God to decide.

Red Cardigan said...

Well, Melanie, I agree--but only to a certain extent. The Church strikes just the right balance, to me: reminding parents of the duty to be responsible, warning all that artificial means are gravely sinful, and then commending those who generously welcome large families.

The thing is, "responsible parenthood" isn't some bad phrase. All parents, of all families, large and small and in between, are *obligated* to be responsible parents. For some, this responsibility will mean giving their children the gift of a sibling even at a less than opportune (from the world's perspective) time. For others, this responsibility will mean having a rather small family though some Catholics might judge them as selfish or materialistic. Because we aren't in each marriage, we can't say for certain.

The reason I write about this subject at all is because I've seen real women get hurt because of people like the poster at Simcha's. Some women have very serious reasons to use NFP, and may not ever be able to have another child (examples range from potentially life-threatening maternal health problems to psychotic-level post-partum depression to a host of other things). Yet people like Simcha's poster blithely throw out the Cure of Ars misquote and insinuate that if these women were *really* Catholic, they'd accept death or being locked away in an institution as the natural cost of doing what the Church demands in regards to motherhood--at least, what they think she demands.

I know that moms of big families get beat up on by the secular culture (I'm the second oldest of nine children). I know that sometimes they bristle at the phrase "responsible parenthood" under the misunderstanding that "responsible" means "small family" (when in the mind of the Church it means no such thing). The extreme example MightyMighty used, though, deserves serious consideration--such a hypothetical family is running the risk of having the State confiscate their children, and no family wants that!

In Mighty's example, the family is *trying to conceive* under the eviction and health problems and job/insurance loss (which goes above and beyond the "providentialist" ideal). I think it's safe to say that at least theoretically such a family might possibly misunderstand the Church's teachings in the area of responsible parenthood, and should perhaps consider consulting a wise and trusted pastor about it all.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that having a large family was a vocation within the marriage vocation. Not all of us are called to that life. That's not to say that we shouldn't be open to life, but the Church in her wisdom, gives a couple the freedom to make those choices unique to them.

Alice said...

The first time I saw that quote it was used in a similar context and I was left scratching my head about something that was so obviously (to me, at least) about abortion could be twisted to be about NFP. If abortion and forms of birth control were not around, how could the early feminists have been opposed to abortion and of varying opinions on birth control? And, if you really believe that France between 1786 and 1859 was an awesomely Catholic country where everyone, nourished by the graces of the Mass of All Time (which the Cure didn't even say) would never have even been tempted to commit such heinous post-Vatican II sins, well, I've got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.

melanie said...

Oh yes, P.S. Can we all just agree to agree that it's a horrible quote? I don't care who he was talking too and what context...who says something like that? (that's MY feminist catholic side coming out! ;-)

melanie said...

PS S S not to devalue your explanation of the context at all just sayin it's hard for me to see that as ever being appropriate to say to a women...sorry just wanted to be clear....

Anonymous said...

I thought it funny (in the 'ha, ha' sense) that sex in marriage was called the 'marriage debt'.

Rebecca in CA said...

Amen! I think it is sad and a scandal how misinformed orthodox Catholics can be on this matter. I think it is a sort of pendulum swing response to contraception, but interestingly, I think people make the mistake of condemning the use of periodic abstinence because they have the same misunderstanding at root as the contracepting people--they do not really understand *why* contraception is wrong. I held the same sort of position when I first became Catholic, but realized how ignorant I was when I tried to defend the Church's position to a Protestant--and was amazed when I discovered the true teaching of the Church. I wish more people would speak up about this.

kate said...

Wow. As a mother of 5 now past this issue (menopause) I had forgotten how inflammatory this topic could be. And my first thought is "PEACE!". St. Augustine's dictum "Love God and do what you will" seems the proper thought regarding using NFP - since it's appropriate use is so connected with the disposition with which it's used. we must cultivate the proper disposition with prayer and persistence - calling on God to guide us in our discernment. And trusting that He will do it.
The Church in her infinite wisdom has never said "more is better" but only calls us to generosity. We must each seek out what that means for us as individuals, as couples, as families. And it is not really MY business how that works in YOUR life, only my own. The principle of generosity is what the church holds up - it is what we should emulate - if the church is not more specific, then perhaps we should be very slow to get specific ourselves. Sometimes we know what is right/generous for our own situation - but it is doubtful that we can know what is for someone else.