Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It must be nice in the bubble

Well, I'm back! Did you have a nice weekend--even if it ended yesterday instead of today? I apologize for taking so long to get this post up; apparently my poor neglected computer decided to exact revenge on me for staying away by freezing up when I was in the middle of composing this post, so I'm only just now (10 p.m. Central) wrapping it up in preparation to post.

I used our long weekend to get started on a massive spring clean-out. It wouldn't be massive except that last year we had actual winter, followed by 100-degree temps for what felt like forever, and somehow we seemed to have skipped over spring altogether. So I had more to do this year.

But enough chitchat--let's get down to business.

During a break in my cleaning efforts, I happened to see a blog post that made me a tad bit frustrated (to be fair, both the post itself, and some of the comments). As you know, I've been writing about the HHS mandate and about Church teaching against contraception both here and in the comment boxes at other blogs for much of the past two weeks. In the course of those conversations I have found myself repeating, over and over, two important points:

1. The Church does not hate women.
2. The Church does not teach that Catholic mothers are required to have every child they can physically bear or drop dead trying; nor does the Church teach that families must be willing to be destitute to the point of starvation before they can grudgingly be permitted to use NFP.

Now, the Church's documents pertaining to NFP and natural means of child spacing or birth regulation do use words like "serious" or "just" reasons for parents to have recourse to these methods. But the Church's documents also use words about "responsible parenthood" and "prudence." Simcha Fisher's great post from last year went through how difficult, if not impossible, it is for anyone outside of a marriage to determine the proper balance between the call to be generous and loving in welcoming children to one's family and generous and loving in seeking, for a time, to avoid adding to one's family; in fact, there is no definitive "list" from the Church which couples must consult in order to determine if their particular reasons for using NFP somehow pass the "not-selfish/not-using-NFP-with-a-contraceptive-mentality" test that some Catholics seem to think must exist somewhere.

Which is why it was so annoying to read Dr. Marshall's blog post insisting that, in fact, there is a list, and that anybody not following it is probably sinning by using NFP selfishly and in a contraceptive attitude:
The Church allows married couples to practice periodic continence only for serious reasons. These reasons were explicitly listed by Pope Pius XII in his “Address to the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives" from 1951.

NFP or periodic continence can only lawfully be practiced without sin for serious reasons or "just causes," which he lists as “medical, eugenic, economic, and social” reasons. [Emphasis added--E.M.]
Um, no. The actual quote from Pope Pius XII is as follows:
Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called "indications," may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful, from the moral viewpoint: and it is lawful in the conditions mentioned. If, however, according to a reasonable and equitable judgment, there are no such grave reasons either personal or deriving from exterior circumstances, the will to avoid the fecundity of their union, while continuing to satisfy to tile full their sensuality, can only be the result of a false appreciation of life and of motives foreign to sound ethical principles.
Three things about this passage strike me at once: first, the Holy Father's words are translated--one presumes accurately--as "Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise..." The use of "such as" would seem to indicate that Pope Pius XII was not intending to write down a definitive list of every reason for NFP that would constitute a grave reason, but rather to give examples within the context of a broader address. The second thing is that the passage as quoted comes from a larger section of the address in which His Holiness was speaking to the question of whether or not it would be possible for a couple to be married while intending and acting upon a committment to avoiding, for a very long time or even for the whole marriage, the possibility of pregnancy, even by moral means; in other words, this specific passage does not speak just to the question of the morality of periodic abstinence as that is ordinarily understood. And the third thing that leaps to the eye is that the Holy Father said that these "serious motives" are not rare--that is, they are things "...which not rarely arise..." So it would seem to me to be opposed to charity to assume that most, or even many, NFP users are using NFP from motives of selfishness or with a contraceptive mentality.

But there is a fourth thing, which is important: these are words from a papal address, and while not unimportant, they do not automatically constitute some sort of for-the-ages infallible list of the only types of situations in which a couple might justly use NFP. To determine whether or not such a list exists, we would have to consult official Church teachings and documents--and any examination of those indicates that no such list exists on any official level. Couples are merely reminded that reasons to space or regulate births must be serious or just, as opposed, of course, to frivolous or unjust. That frivolous or unjust reasons to use NFP might be possible is by no means an indication that the vast majority of NFP users are guilty of these sorts of reasons--in fact, it is deeply unjust, and even possibly a case of rash judgment, to make such a claim. But in any case, the list of four rather large categories prefaced by the words "such as" in a papal address are not some sort of official catalog of the only possible circumstances in which the use of NFP might be just. To make such a mistake is akin to thinking that the same pope's remarks on the subject of modest dressing in 1940 to Italian schoolteachers constituted a "for the ages" rule that all Catholic women thenceforth had to follow under pain of sin--which, alas, is the sort of mistake some Catholics are all too prone to make.

As I said, the post annoyed me, as did some of the comments in it, because this is exactly the sort of thing those outside the Church will read and, without understanding the questions of authoritative teaching and so on, will declare, "See! I told you the Church is anti-woman. This Dr. Marshall fellow grudgingly admits that a woman on chemotherapy might be excused from 'paying the marriage debt,' but only because the child might be hurt by the drugs, not because the woman is--HELLO!--suffering from cancer and struggling with illness and pain and the possibility of death. And then in the comments--oh, boy, did you see that man who thinks that women who don't have every child they can physically bear are probably sinning? Forget what those people who talk about NFP say. Clearly the attitude on the ground is that women either have big families or they might as well go to Hell using the Pill as go to Hell using NFP..."

Which is not anywhere close to what the Church actually teaches.

As I wrote in a recent comment over at that blog, a recent Get Religion article pointed out that the same percent of Catholics in America accepts Church teaching against contraception as attends Mass every Sunday: about 22%. (And thanks to the reader who sent me that link!) Of that 22%, what percent is made up of married couples who not only agree with Church teaching but use NFP? Is it really the case that so large a percent of that percent of a percent are "abusing" NFP (in the words of a commenter at Dr. Marshall's blog) that this is a great tragedy and one of the most important moral issues the Church faces in America (or even the world) today?

Man, I wish I lived in the sort of bubble where I could believe that, even for a second--that one of the, if not the, biggest marriage-related crises in the Church here in America today involves validly married couples chastely practicing NFP but doing so for perhaps less than the most serious of reasons, such that it's crucial to write scolding blog posts all about how selfish it is to think that your family's need for a physically or mentally healthy mother and actual floors instead of dirt ones are good enough reasons to postpone the birth of your next child. Meanwhile, the Obama administration pushes forward with its attempt to force Catholics to pay for birth control, sterilization, and abortifacient coverage as "health care" and the 78% of Catholics who don't show up for Mass and/or dissent on contraception are convinced that the Church just hates women and/or thinks all married Catholic women have a moral duty to bear as many children as they physically can. Or, as I said above, drop dead trying.

It must be nice to live in the bubble.


ElizabethK said...

Thank you for posting this--I read that post also and, frankly, it made me feel rather bad. As did the comments. The battle to explain the reality of Catholicism to people would be a lot easier without posts like that. I do think that part of the problem is that we just don;t talk about it enough as Catholics, in real life. Perhaps my situation is anomalous, but I have never heard NFP addressed in a Catholic setting aside from my pre-Cana class. Ne. ver. Thank God for the internet.

Paul said...

Thank you,

I commented over there two and haven't had a chance to go back for a couple days. I'll go see if another comment from me is warranted, if anyone is still following the thread, but you never know when someone new will stumble along. I totally agree with you. The Church is wiser than we are. When she hasn't seen fit to "bind" something by nailing it down to the floor and instead just says "this belongs in that corner" most of the time it is because that is the wise way to leave things.

Anonymous said...

"I wished I lived in the sort of bubble where I could believe that, even for a second"

Reminds me of a quote from The Screwtape Letters in which Screwtape talks about getting people to overemphasize certain virtues to the neglect of others: "We want them (humans) all running about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is nearly gunwale under."


Larry Denninger said...

Good post, Erin, as usual.

So it would seem to me to be opposed to chastity to assume that most,

Did you mean to say "charity"?

jvc said...


Respectfully, I think you are misreading the post and the comments, especially from Wade, on that thread. I do not think that they are suggesting the caricature that you have taken away from the post and the comments: namely, that a couple or a woman must accept as many children as possible with no limits.

I do not know your age or who you socialize with, but as a Catholic in his 20's today I can state that there is a substantial (and I specifically use the word substantial) group of young Catholics who seem to have the perception that NFP is de facto a moral version of contraception. This is a real issue.

In using NFP to delay or prevent childbearing without serious reason, it seems to me that couples can succumb to the same errors of utilitarianism when it comes to sexuality.

bearing said...

22% of the 23.9% of Americans who are Catholics = 5.3%.

This is only a little bit larger than the number of Americans who belong to non-Christian religions.

We are a religious minority.

It is not what we would choose -- is it what any believer would choose for his congregation? -- but it is the reality we live in.

And minority status has never been a legitimate excuse for abrogating the free exercise of religion in this country.

Saphira said...

Amen. I always like to point out that the Church in Gaudium et Spes actually makes the point of saying that we must excercise thoughtful deliberation about the conceiving of children, which means that it would, frankly, be a sin to have as many children as physically possible just as a default, *without some kind of a deliberate decision*. If a man, for example, thinks he needs to give no thought or care for whether his wife is phsyically and mentally prepared for another child, that is a sin. I would love to see Catholics come together on this and stop the pendulum-swinging.

Red, this is a much lesser point, the one you used as an illustration about the modesty list from the 1940s...I've heard this brought up so much and I'm wondering if you have ever addressed this specifically in a post or have seen it addressed in a comprehensive way. Thanks for any pointers; we have four girls and with dh's oversimplifications I see this issue becoming a problem as they grow older.

Erin Manning said...

The following comment is from "Freddy," who is having a computer issue today:

Dr. Marshall's article is as uncharitable as it is lacking in imagination. What one couple finds easy another couple might find impossible! This is why the Church, in her wisdom, will NEVER hand Catholic couples a checklist regarding the use of NFP.

For reason and compassion, see:http://old.usccb.org/prolife/issues/nfp/seriousq.shtml


Erin Manning said...

LarryD--OOOPS! You are right; I meant "charity." Will go fix. :)

JVC, if young Catholics think that NFP = moral contraception, that's a problem. But on the thread the commenter you mention talked negatively about teaching couples NFP "up front" so to speak or giving people the idea that it's okay to postpone that first child. The thing is--it's a GOOD idea to learn NFP before you're in a dire situation and must use it! And it's also a GOOD thing for SOME young couples to postpone their first child, especially when college debt or the need to finish a college education or some similar thing is involved.

Remember, it's not a virtue to postpone marriage until one is thirty or thirty-five just to get all of one's financial ducks in a row; the Church sees that the quieting of concupiscence is an important aspect of marriage, and does not particularly approve of lengthy engagements which may themselves become occasions of sin.

Scott W. said...

Here is in my estimation the clincher from Pius XII for a very broad view of serious reasons for regulation of birth:

"Therefore, in our late allocution on conjugal morality, We affirmed the legitimacy, and at the same time, the limits -- in truth very wide -- of a regulation of offspring, which, unlike so-called 'birth control,' is compatible with the law of God." - Pius XII, Morality in Marriage (emphasis mine), from Papal Pronouncements on Marriage and the Family, Werth and Mihanovich, 1955

Siarlys Jenkins said...

One thing that keeps lawyers in business is that, if a client wants a certain outcome, there is some way to twist some available legal language to provide a fair shot of getting that outcome.

Similarly, it has been cynically remarked, and not without historical justification, that one who is determined to do so can find a verse in the Bible which will justify whatever the individual concerned wishes to justify. (This is one of the weaknesses in a rigid "sola scriptura" posture).

I've been in enough debates on the web pertaining the role of the Roman Catholic Church to have gathered the impression that

a) there is wider latitude in canon law than non-RC critics recognize,

b) there is wider diversity of understanding among born and self-described Roman Catholics than many Catholics will acknowledge,

c) the actual practice of the church as an institution has varied widely over the centuries, and from place to place, which suggests that
1. there is rather little that the church firmly asserted consistently throughout the last 2000 years,
2. no particular atrocity attributable to the church, or to those who believed they were acting in the name of the church, is necessarily attributable to the present princes and laity,
3. nothing that was stated as true at any given moment in time is necessarily binding now.

I take all that as much from studying the explanatory defenses of what the church really stands for, as I do from vicious criticisms alleged against it.

As to the specific discussion of contraception and NFP, what has been offered here leaves little room for anyone to "judge" any specific couple on their use of NFP. How could anyone not part of the couple concerned manage to sort out all the motives and rationales that may apply, and conclude, "Ah-hah! THIS couple is/isn't making accepted use of NFP?

The Ten Commandments are fairly simple. Anything more detailed or complex inevitably takes on something more in the character of a thoughtful suggestion.

Mercury said...

I used to, and sometimes still do, get afraid about "what if" NFP us not being used seriously enough.

My own wife left me over the issue of contraception. If, God willing, she would decide that she acted wrongly and try to live with the Church's teaching, I think it would be very hard to insist that she MUST be ready to get pregnant immediately. What I mean is, in a case where people have been accustomed to contraception it might be enough at the time to simply stop committing an intrinsic evil. "Baby, I'll take you back, but you better be ready to have a baby immediately", when it was hard enough to convince her of contraception's intrinsic evil, seems bullheaded.

Also, most people bitch and moan about NFP being very difficult, and I have read moral manuals from the 1950s and 1960s (including by one of the guys who may have actually written Humanae Vitae), and the BIGGEST concern they have by far is that NFP would be detrimental to marital harmony or even a danger to chastity, NOT that couples wouldn't have enough babies.

My point here is that NFP is such a pain in the rear that it is difficult to imagine that most who use it are doing so for selfish or frivolous reasons. As in, if you're willing to put up with the difficulty, there's probably a good reason.

If the commenter you refer to is the one I am thinking of, he points out somewhere else that the standard for Canadian frontier families in the early 1800s was 20 kids or so.

Ignoring the fact that living conditions were entirely different (children are almost all expected to live to adulthood, and on today's world they are never an economic plus, so no one has lots of kids for worldly reasons), it raises the point that just because "traditionally" things were a certain way does not mean they always need to be, because sometimes there were no other options.

How many women went crazy, how many had cold relationships with their husbands or children? Or how many marriages had to renounce sex completely (which CAN be good for spiritual reasons but is usually disastrous for normal people - AND the Bible assumes that frequent marital relations safeguards chastity), and how many resorted to onanism?

Mercury said...

Also, the thing about young couples not being allowed to practice NFP, or the "if you're not ready for children you should not marry": again, social conditions of the world today dictate that we are ready for children much later than our bodies start making us ready for sex. Some people use thus as an argument for premarital sex or for contraception, but the truth really is that biology kicks in long before we are ready to raise a family. I entered marriage with over $100,000 in student loan debt, and have to throw away almost $1000 per month on that debt. Perhaps I was stupid, but the fact is that many young people deal with situations unheard of even one or two generations ago.

If one has met the right person and one's desires are going crazy, why not marry? In fact, it would seem to be tempting one's own willpower to postpone marriage for years and years - you are right: one of the primary reasons for marriage (and solidly biblical) is to safeguard chastity. I'd say better to marry and use NFP (any child born would still be born into a welcoming family) than to either "burn with passion" or to use contraception. The reasons still seem serious (Frs. Ford and Kelly, the moralists who literally wrote the book on marital morality mention tge hypothetical case of a woman who is never psychologically capable of raising children and yet still has strong desires, who may perhaps even NEED marriage for her salvation in order to avoid sin - they say "rhythm" for the duration of the marriage would be licit, though abnormal in such a case).

This brings me to another issue - "spacing of births". Some traditionalists actually scoff at the notion of using NFP for a period of months or a year or so after a child has been born "merely" for the purpose of spacing births. But it seems that if NFP can be used like that, why not? Is it selfish to want to allow one's wife some time to rest and to focus her attention on her young baby? And some trads say "yes, it is okay to allow her such time, but the couple must then abstain for the duration of that time rather than 'take advantage of' sex without the consequences." to this end they may tout "temporary abstinence" as opposed to periodic abstinence.

I assume this is not what the Church teaches, right? Again, people in the past usually did this if they wanted to space births, but they also had no other choice except contraception or onanism. They also often had to contend with babies dying, and in many cases had extended family to assist them.

I guess my question is, would it be wrong for couple to
practice NFP as a matter of course for the purpose of spacing births to allow mom to rest an for the youngest baby to be taken care of? Even if they don't give it lots of agonized deliberation, but do so because it makes sense in many ways? I have hear it said that the longer one practices NFP, the more one must carefully consider the motives, but that for simple spacing, especially if it's being used for a few months to a year, it's okay to use NFP as a matter of course, since sin only comes in when one is talking about long stretches of time. What do you think?

Btw, I still see many, many people who say NFP is mortally sinful if used for "child avoidance", but it seems to me that most moralists assign venial sin against the virtues of charity and generosity to unjust use of NFP (perhaps mortal if it's a long term flat out refusal to have children based on entirely selfish motives) and NOT a mortal sin against chastity, as ABC or onanism would be. This cannot be stressed enough, because it us often confused by Catholics and non-Catholics alike who insist that NFP and contraception are the same thing. Using NFP, even with a "contraceptive mentality" is never a sin against chastity, but against justice or charity, and most moralists say it's only mortal in the most egregious cases.

Mercury said...

"See! I told you the Church is anti-woman. This Dr. Marshall fellow grudgingly admits that a woman on chemotherapy might be excused from 'paying the marriage debt,' but only because the child might be hurt by the drugs, not because the woman is--HELLO!--suffering from cancer and struggling with illness and pain and the possibility of death. And then in the comments--oh, boy, did you see that man who thinks that women who don't have every child they can physically bear are probably sinning? Forget what those people who talk about NFP say. Clearly the attitude on the ground is that women either have big families or they might as well go to Hell using the Pill as go to Hell using NFP..."

By the way, Ms. Manning, you kinda nailed it here. It is so hard for me NOT to think like this.

And the reason is simple: if those who are more "lenient" are correct, then some people ho disagree ill just live more miserable live here on earth.

But, if the trads are right, then I go to hell. This is true on lots of issues, whether it be modesty and ho I "allow" the women in my life to dress, the Latin Mass, etc.

So someone for someone who is already very scrupulous there is a tremendous temptation to err on the side of the most hardcore caution possible, if only to avoid hell. Problem is, one tends to view God in a very miserable way.

GeekLady said...

If there is little room to judge any specific couple, this is a feature, not a bug. We are none of us the judge. We are the accused.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

"If one has met the right person and one's desires are going crazy, why not marry?"

I've thought in the past about what sort of political economy would support such an approach. It would have to be less single-mindedly career-oriented. Flexible employment hours would be essential. Extended family networks would help too.

The young couple marries, develops a schedule of one third time school, one third time work,one third time developing their home life, both parents spend time at home with spouse and kids, relatives take kids up to one third of the day, employers and educational requirements accept all of this as "the way things are done," rather than a wierd imposition. Careers commonly and typically begin to take off around the time the youngest child is ten or twelve years old, and nobody expects otherwise...

...There would still be the fundamental question, is this a passing hormonal infatuation that will fade rapidly, or are these two mature enough to enter into a life long commitment that they intend to sustain?

Sounds a bit utopian, but it would be a good way to go.

Mercury said...

No, you are right. Believe me, another problem is that no matter how well-heeled, people in their early 20s are usually still children today. There are many reasons for this, too.

But I still think a lot of it is the massive, massive debt that everyone incurs to do anything - go to school, buy a house, buy a car.

I'm almost 30, have no credit cards, and yet my debt takes up almost 50% of my income. It's my fault, but something is weird.

Mercury said...

Actually, that reminds me,

What do you think bout this trend among certain Catholics to push their children into marriage around age 19 or 20? I'm not saying it CAN'T work, but like I said above, I think even the most well-rounded and well-grounded kid would be able to make a good, lifelong decision at that age. And it is true that neurologically speaking, our brains do age at a later date now, for a variety of reasons.

To add to that, when I see this "early marriage" crowd advocating it, they are also usually the type who believe that a woman should as a matter of course have 8-9 children at least, and that NFP is sinful.

But I don't think that a woman who gets burned out at age 28 after having 6 kids in 8 years should be considered "weak" or "lacking in faith". In fact, I do not think all women (or men) are suited to have so many children - for some it may even be a spiritual danger (I know my mom would have cracked with more than the 5 of us, and one died very young).

But there is this notion that because in the past, people married young and either had very large families or practiced continence over long periods of time, that is how things MUST be now. If you're going to have sex, you'd better "pay the price". I really think lots of Catholics see it that way, which doesn't seem to match up with what the teaching actually is (especially in Corinthians).

I say God bless those families that, out of sheer generosity and charity welcome many, many children into the world. I think any family can always be more generous, more charitable. But at the same time, not everyone is capable financially, physically, mentally, or spiritually of having 8-9 kids or more.

I know for a fact lots of marriages in the "olden days" were imperiled because the wife could no longer handle it, so she was frigid toward sher husband, sometimes even angry at him.

I guess that just because things were a certain way in the past, doesn't mean that's "Tradition."

Any thoughts?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I'm not looking to satisfy any crowd that wants to dictate that all people should marry young, women should have as many babies as possible, etc. After all, I'm pro-choice, appreciate the availability of a wide variety of contraception, and abhor any religious hierarchy issuing commands, or taking it upon themselves to expound and interpret in a more than advisory manner the commands of God.

What I am looking at is that our physical bodies experience intense sexual desires at an age when our economic prospects and resources strongly suggest that we put off child bearing for ten or fifteen years, along with the maturity factors you mention.

Since I fully agree that children are best born within marriage, that marriage should be stable, preferably life-long, certainly firm enough to sustain the children, and sex is likely to result in children, while no children will result without it, I'm wondering how we reconcile these pulls in markedly different directions.

I also agree that objectifying human beings is evil -- even if I don't agree that contraception inevitably and inherently objectifies human being. SOME of the anti-contraception arguments ALSO objectify human beings. Viewing human beings as ciphers who shall prosper by disciplining themselves to meet the Needs Of The Market also objectifies human beings.

Finally, as my cousin, the Episcopalian offspring of an Irish Catholic's marriage to an Anglo-Scottish Presbyterian, often and accurately observes, our culture does not value children. It should, although not exclusively by the quantity produced.