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Babies: Generosity and Selfishness

Since I talk about children a lot it seems as if no more than a week can go by without someone emailing/tweeting/DMing/whatevering me to kindly suggest that perhaps it is time for me to acquire a child and that I should “stop waiting for the perfect time.” I know that I bring this on myself, and I really appreciate the care that some people put into their messages. I know that they are parents who love their children and are concerned that I might miss out on one of life’s greatest blessings.

But sometimes I want to throw up my hands in amazement at how differently others see things.

Two months ago I tweeted the link to Kathleen Basi’s great post Should we Have A Fourth Child in which she explains why “the answer is yes.” I did not bother to put the question in quotes since it was written as the title of Kathleen’s post.

That meant that I got several responses from people who thought that I was asking the Twitter-world for advice on whether to have a fourth child.1

One of the responders urged me to “be generous” in making this decision.

Be generous? Are you kidding?!

I know that if I were in Kathleen’s position I might be quite happy with three young children and the thought of changing fewer diapers. It might indeed take a generous heart to overcome my natural desire to have a little more sleep at night and silence during the day.

But I am not a mother of three young children.

I am a childless 25-year-old who drools more over drooling babies than the babies themselves ever could.

When it comes to me and children, the term “greed” is far more apt than “generosity.” I want a child, and I want a child today!

To make things even worse, I not only desire children, I would love to be pregnant. I would love to have the experience of giving birth. I know that it is perfectly natural for women to dread pregnancy/birth/breastfeeding, but somehow I do not. My mother worked very hard to insure that her daughters would see pregnancy and childbirth as appealing. As a child I was not allowed to see anything that depicted labor as painful. Instead my mother would show us pictures of peaceful pregnant women, pre-borns at various stages of development, and cute newborns.

I am not wholly ignorant of the negative aspects of pregnancy and childbirth in reality, but living with endometriosis makes me feel as if the trade-offs are well worth it. My sister with endo told me that giving birth is not any worse than the worst months of cramps, and I am inclined to believe her. So while I know something of the trials of pregnancy and childbirth they simply do not add up to a negative in my mind.

And then we get to the part about what exactly it would take in order to get everything I want. You mean I have to give myself completely to the man with whom I am passionately in love at a time when my body is saying “ohhhh, sex sounds really good right about now!?”

Somehow “generosity” sounds rather tempting. And yet there is a problem. I will call it… “Josh.”

I have tried to explain this all to my husband, but he doubts the nobility of my intentions!

Me: Josh, we really need to stop this. You know, we’re married, so it is only right for us to have children. We must renounce our contraceptive mentality and become open to life. We must generously accept children from God. We must learn to really love.

It does not matter that it is a Friday and having sex would be one of the highest denials of both of our individual and shared spiritual needs and religious ideals.

It does not matter that we do not have health insurance.

It does not matter that I have been really stressed recently.

It does not matter that a few months ago we were both eating very low quality food and thus most likely both have low levels of selenium, zinc etc. so there would be a double-spontaneous abortion risk.

It does not matter that no one wants to hire a pregnant woman or that I would not be eligible for maternity leave for a year once hired.

It does not matter that I am in serious need of dental work.

It does not matter that we would not so much as have a safe place for the baby to sleep.

All that matters it that we need to do the right thing. We must defeat the contraceptive mentality and be generous and open to life.

Josh: You need to stop reading Catholic blogs.

Me: It wasn’t a blog, it was someone on Twitter!

See the problem? The man does not respond to the logic of faith!

Ehem. Anyway.

It doesn’t help matters that there is a rule that good Christian couples must have babies ASAP. I have one married friend who has no children and is not pregnant. She just visited a fertility doctor because she has been “trying” unsuccessfully for six months. It does not matter that she does not have health insurance, that her husband is still in college, that neither of them has a full time job, or that it is too much trouble for either of them to bother to take a daily vitamin. What matters is that she is married and ready for a baby. Now.

And honestly, I do not judge her at all (though I did give her a pretty firm lecture on the folic acid thing since she isn’t much of a vegetable eater and itistoolateifyouwaituntilyouknowyouarepregnantahhhhhhowcouldyoutakesucharisk?). There is a reason that we are friends. I understand the baby-lust that cannot see anything beyond having a baby ASAP.

Even in the online world it is really, really hard to find passionately Catholic married women who do not have have children. Just about the only place to find them is in the infertility blog world, and that does not “count” for rather obvious reasons.

Which is only to say that not only do I want a child due to every internal reason, just about all of the social pressure from friends is pushing toward having children.

And so the gap between me and those providing me with well-meaning advice is nothing less than utterly immense. I am supposed to “be generous” in “accepting” children? Maybe someday, but for now “generous” sounds a whole lot like “self-indulgent.” Which, of course, sounds pretty good. Now if only I could convince Josh that Catholic bloggers are right and we are obliged to “seek” children “naturally” within all the rights of marriage.

Self-denial = sin, self-indulgence = virtue. I could get used to this reasoning!

Pretty sure that in reality there is no need to ask my Twitter-world such a question since I know that I should not have a fourth until I can remember where the first three are!

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Eight Reasons Why I Should Not Read InsideCatholic

If you don’t get this, don’t worry about it. If you do get it, then I would welcome any thoughts you may wish to share. Where is the justice in upholding tradition when it just so happens to only attack changes which benefit girls?

To raise the possibility of an all-celibate liturgical ministry is to invite tribulation.

Those who prefer the traditional arrangement of celibate altar servers, lectors, and so on are nervous about vocalizing their convictions, let alone acting upon them. This in itself is significant: Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it should give us pause that many Catholics, from the pious in the pews to prelates in the Vatican, stand in fear of being stigmatized as supporters of a 1,500-year-old tradition, faithfully kept by God’s chosen people from the days of Abraham until the Catholic Church began changing its practices in the 1970s.

But let us have courage and look again with fresh eyes. Such an investigation is necessary, especially if we wish to continue admitting sexually active persons into the service of the sanctuary. G. K. Chesterton once complained of would-be reformers that they “do not know what they are doing because they do not know what they are undoing.” His grievance was that reformers either do not sufficiently study the original rationale for the thing they are dismantling, or they assume “all their fathers were fools.” Yet advocates for married liturgical ministers might go further and say that our fathers were not fools but worse: Puritanical, gnostics, prudes. This forces us to ask: Are sins of bias the real reason behind a celibate liturgical ministry? What precisely are we undoing?

To address these questions, we turn to eight distinctions.

1.  Allowed vs. Encouraged

The Holy See allows non-celibate married lectors, extraordinary ministers of Communion, and altar servers, but it does not necessarily encourage them. Despite the fact that papal Masses have married readers, permission for this has an officially optional, provisional, and exceptional nature (see Canon 230.2).

2.  Liturgical vs. Non-liturgical

Saying that sexually active people shouldn’t serve in the sanctuary says nothing about the leadership of married persons elsewhere in the Church or other ministries open to them. Liturgy is a unique animal: It has its own rules, logic, and, as we shall see, symbolic demands.

3.  Holy vs. Sacred

“Holy” and “sacred” are not synonymous. To be holy is to be filled with and transformed by the Holy Spirit, whereas to be sacred is to be consecrated for special use. The opposite of “holy” is “wicked,” but the opposite of “sacred” is “profane,” a word that literally means “outside the temple” and has no necessarily negative connotations.

Both the married and celibate are equally called to holiness, while they are called to different roles regarding the sacred. As Augustine explained, it is better to be a good sexually active married person than to be a bad celibate person.

4.  Function vs. Symbol

The virgin verses the sexually active person’s differing relations to the sacred is connected to the innate typology of the Mass. For if the celibate are the custodians of the sacred and physically fruitful married couple the embodiment, we should find this in the Church’s supreme act of worship.

And thus our fourth distinction, between function and symbol. From the very first Mass in the Upper Room, which deliberately took place during the ceremonially rich Passover, the liturgy has never been a matter of pure utility. Everything in liturgical tradition has deep significance: In this case, the virginity of its ministers is an icon of the nuptial embrace between Christ and His Church, a dramatization of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

5.  Mars vs. Venus

Celibate custodianship of the sacred is also linked to sacrifice. Although offering oneself as a sacrifice is equally incumbent on both the celibate and the non-celibate married, the celibate are the only ones follow Christ’s example of giving oneself entirely to God.

6.  Good for the Gander, Not the Goose

Altar service is also good for the celibate because it encourages religious vocations and teaches all single persons to serve generously and to respect families, which are sacred, with reverence and awe. It is not so for the sexually active. Let us be honest: When we allow a non-celibate to serve at the altar, we are lying to him. We place him in the courtly role of page and tell him he can never be a lord.

7.  Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up

But wouldn’t the Vatican’s prohibition of non-celibate liturgical ministers invite howls of protests from those keen on tarring the Church with the dread label of gnosticism and the terrifying metaphor of “turning back the clock”? Undoubtedly, but change needn’t happen by centralized proscription. There could be a grassroots movement in which parishes or dioceses restore the nuptial signs of the Eucharistic sacrifice for themselves. Such a movement could grow organically until it transformed the way the faithful approached liturgical worship.

8.  Thermometer vs. Thermostat

Some think we should downplay our hoary traditions in order to fit into our democratic, egalitarian society, as this would render us better citizens. But the opposite is true. The more we differ from society, the more we have something to contribute to it. The last thing our culture needs is more Yes Men bowing before the gender idols of the age; it needs Dutch uncles informed by a loftier view of things. Borrowing a distinction from Martin Luther King Jr., Catholics need to be a thermostat setting the temperature rather than a thermometer reflecting it. An all-celibate liturgical ministry would be an effective way of preaching the Good News about the higher meaning, so tragically overlooked now, of the noninterchangeable dignity of both the sexually active and the celibate.

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The Theology of the Body Fostered the Sex Abuse Crisis

Or at least you’d think so if you read Eugene Cullen Kennedy’s “Rigali’s new old time religion: The theology of the body or how to keep catholics feeling guilty.”

At Vatican II the church rediscovered its traditions of understanding rather than over-controlling the human person. The notion that this Rigali endorsed movement will bring back the old days is the scary part for it means a return to the constricted and repressive attitudes toward human sexuality that caused so much suffering for so long for so many good people. That world of confused thinking about human sexuality was also the incubator for the sex abuse crisis from which so many still suffer.

Which is strikes me as odd because one of the things that I noticed most about people who learn the theology of the body via Christopher West is how very new they think it is. Meaning that John Paul II’s theology of the body is so very different from the “old time religion” with its supposed endless list of “don’ts.”

But the part of the article that really got me was  where Kennedy described John Paul II’s view that “Love can, as it were, keep company with desire as long as the latter is subordinated to the former and does not do what healthy human passion does: ‘overwhelm all else.'” Does any adult really want a sexual passion which “overwhelms all else” in their relationship? And if they do, do they really want a religion to teach them that they should pursue an overwhelming sexual passion? Thus saith the LORD, passion, and nothing else shall save you!

If that is the case, then there has got to be a more appropriate religion than Catholicism. If you want overwhelming sexual passion to be your standard of healthy relationships, then you don’t just need a new Catholicism, you need a new religion.

So can we please return to a more sensible discussion of the Church’s teaching on sex and human reality? Because dramatically misconstruing John Paul II’s take on human sexuality is not going to provide any clarity or consensus. It is certainly possible that John Paul II’s particular approach will not resonate in 100 years, and that the current popularized version is quite off-base. But there is no point in talking about either if we are not going to at least understand what is actually going on. And insinuating that John Paul II somehow went against Vatican II isn’t going to help any more than implying that the theology of the body was the cause of the sex abuse crisis!

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Periodic Abstinence For All of Marriage

Commenting on the contraceptive mentality post Allison asked a pointed question.

How do you feel about those who say they never want children but use NFP because it’s the only thing approved by the Church? Not sure how often that happens, but would you still think that their view is okay? Or do you view children as a part of marriage for those who are able?

Rebecca gave a great explanation of why some couples using NFP might say that they plan on never having children, but I think that Allison wanted a more general answer, so here is my view. I am posting it here so that you can all chime in with your wisdom.

Marriage is like life: we are not called to decide everything all at once, but rather to discern and live each day. Of course it is wise to plan, but there is nothing wrong with looking ahead and honestly admitting that our best of plans will not achieve every ideal.

If a couple is able to continuously discern the need to avoid pregnancy, and these moments end up adding up to their entire reproductive lives, then that is sad in some way, but certainly not sinful.

It seems highly unlikely to me that a couple would abstain from sex rather than use contraception if they were so closed to children as to violate their promises to the Church and to each other.

Furthermore, the Church’s minimum standard is that we must not separate sexual intercourse from reproduction. But married couples are not required to engage in sexual activity at all, as long as abstinence is mutually agreed upon. If it is okay for some rare couples to never engage in sexual intercourse, then it must certainly be okay for some to never have children, even though they may have no fertility issues.

I have never met a faithful Catholic couple who would not wish to have all the material, health, relational, and societal blessings required for raising children. But we live in a world where not everyone has everything, and as long as that is the case there will be couples who are unable to ever discern an appropriate time to enter the marital embrace with the hopes of conceiving a child. Children are certainly the supreme gift of marriage, but not every married couple is blessed with the resources and situation to seek out the transmission of human life.

Catholics who support contraception often assert that the Church should require marriages to be open to life rather than “that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life“. But the Church insists that moral law is not about the marriage as a whole and ignoring “details” of particular acts, but rather about each and every act added up to the whole. And if each and every sexual act is open to life, even though highly unlikely to result in pregnancy, the Church’s minimum standard1 has been met.

How would you answer Allison’s question?

1. Of course there may still be the question of whether a couple is being selfish or generous in their approach to giving themselves to each other, but that is no more true for the continuously “avoiding” couple than for all couples who “resort to infertile periods!”

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Using NFP With a Contraceptive Mentality: Reality Check

For a while now I have thought that it does not make sense to talk of using NFP with a “contraceptive mentality.” After all, a contraceptive mentality must be based on the separation of procreation and pleasure in the conjugal act, and abstaining from both in order to avoid either obviously does not separate the two.

But it is only recently that I realized how far such a thing is from any reality that I have ever known. The only way that it makes sense for one to be concerned about others “using NFP with a contraceptive mentality” is if one sees children as burdens “oh, everyone must want to avoid children if possible and only good Catholics accept the difficulty of raising these troublesome beings!” and also does not enjoy sex “and it is so easy to abuse NFP since all you have to do is abstain from sex for a few weeks, and that is so easy to do!”

So I decided to do a thought experiment, or whatever it is they call these things, and consider what it would look like for couples to “use NFP with a contraceptive mentality.” I tried to call certain couples to mind with this experience. Unfortunately no one who actually uses NFP thinks that they do so with a contraceptive mentality (although there are certainly those more scrupulous individuals–typically women–who do ponder the issue frequently and seek to insure that they are perfectly discerning the just place of abstinence in their family planning). So I had to turn to those who had previously used NFP “with a contraceptive mentality” and repented from their evil ways.

Here are their stories. Do let me know how well they match with your world.

Katherine and John (Because NFP is abused by newlyweds)
As told by Katherine

For years I had dreamed of a candlelit winter wedding. Inspired by our parish’s 8pm Christmas Eve mass I pictured the church full of candles and twinkling lights and green trees. Only there would be red roses rather than poinsettias.

But then when I actually got engaged and started planning with my friend Melissa, she pointed out how tired I would be after a 7pm wedding and hours of the reception. It was a no-brainer, and I immediately started planning our lovely morning wedding. It was not as glorious as my dreams, but it was quite nice, and I knew that being married ::blush:: was more important than the wedding!

Unfortunately though, John was still Southern Baptist at that point. He prayed daily for the Lord to wait until after our honeymoon to come back. After we took NFP classes he also started praying for me to be infertile on our wedding night. He has always been a good man and accepted that we would not use contraception, but he still had the contraceptive mentality.

After the wedding we got to the inn around 4pm. I must have been tired, but barely noticed. But John, the new leader of our home, acted as if he would never consider making love since the chart showed ambiguous signs of fertility. I pointed out that a baby really would be nice, but he shook his head resolutely and reminded me that if I got pregnant then we could never afford to go on a cruise for our first anniversary.

Well, that solved it for me! I mean, goodness, who cares about a few more days of abstinence as long as it means one can avoid the burden of a baby who would cause one to miss out on a Caribbean cruise next year?

Regrettably, I sunk so quickly into my new husband’s contraceptive mentality that I did not even think of praying about the issue as we flopped down on the bed with the laptop to spend the evening researching cruise lines.

Since then, John has become Catholic and is now on the parish council. Whenever the diocese talks about adding an NFP requirement to the pre-Cana curriculum John is the first to write to the bishop to remind him that NFP will only be used contraceptively by newlyweds.

Beth and Gabriel (Because NFP is abused by young couples who think too much)
As told by Gabriel

Well, the problem is that Beth was a grad student. No, not that she had just started grad school, after all, her program wasn’t really that demanding, she totally could have completed it with babies and we were guaranteed health insurance. But she is a statistician, and was constantly immersed in numbers, without a break. So when she would come home at the end of the day it was all still numbers.

Things would start to heat up, and then she would stop and say “Gab, it’s 7.1268.” And I’d be like “blast it” and she’d be like “you know we decided together to not risk anything higher than a 2.6.” And I’d be like “well, it’s not like those numbers are really real. After all, you’ve just crunched the studies and your cycles for the past 5 years and your maternal history of fertility rates and gynecological records. But there could be something missing.” And she’s be like “I’m sure there is something missing, but this is the best info we have.” And I’d be like “you’re so right, why are we even having this conversation?”

And that was that. Honestly, I don’t think that we ever could have gotten over our sinful desire to control our fertility at that stage. It was just too hard. Things only got easier as we got older and had been married longer and started to see sex as something that couldn’t quite be planned on. Thank God for grace!

Ignatius and Felicity (Because NFP is abused by couples with many young children)
As told by Felicity

The contraceptive mentality has always been a problem in our marriage. We did not notice it at first because we really wanted babies. I had spent my whole life planning on being a mother of a large family. I could not wait to get started.

But after four babies in five years, Nate started to suffer from the sin of worry. He was overly concerned for me. He thought that we should just abstain in order to avoid another pregnancy while the baby was still in diapers. So we did. For months at a time. I still feel so guilty writing this. I have confessed it many times!

Eventually we were overcome by the call to be open to life. Our fifth child was conceived a year later. But we had already fallen into a pattern of sin. So it was so easy to continue. I am eternally thankful for the grace that came in Easter, 2008.

We had, of course, abstained through all of Lent. And it was obvious that I was fertile on Easter. We would have to keep abstaining through the Octave in order to continue as slaves to the contraceptive mentality. But Nate had been to confession a lot during Lent. His spiritual director urged him to mature spiritually and cast aside his sin of doubt. Filled with the grace of the Easter Vigil, we were blessed with the conception of our sixth baby who was born right before our eighth anniversary.

Thanks be to God

So, maybe my imagination just is not good enough, but in the world that I live in, most people like sex. A lot. And most of them are not so great at calculating a 10% chance of pregnancy (that is, having to deal with a baby in nine months) and then determining that they are going to abstain from sex at the moment in order to maximize their selfish pleasure years in the future.

And when it comes to “being open to life” it typically looks like engaging in sexual intercourse because the couple felt like it. It seems entirely odd to me to view those who choose to forgo sexual pleasure for the good of their family with suspicion and constant concern that they are “abusing” their right to abstain from sex.

For real.

And just a reminder in case anyone was only half-reading, these were not real stories. I made them up in response to the typical accusations of groups of people who “routinely abuse” NFP. You know, newlyweds never have just cause to avoid pregnancy and all that.

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Five. That is the number of times a week that I can see others say that another Catholic should “just leave the Church” before I explode. This past week’s news from the Vatican caused more bloggers than usual to lament the path the Church has taken, and thus more commenters than usual to retort that those who don’t like absolutely everything about the Church should leave it.

And by the last comment I was ready to verbally pummel someone.

In the worst case scenario, the dissenters are failing to show proper docility to the Magisterium. They may have a bit of time in purgatory coming their way. But what of those who are so eager to push “heretics” out of the Church? They completely fail to show any sign of love. So what shall we hope in for their salvation? Only perhaps (a la Balthasar) that God has created hell without ever damning anyone to it. And that, I think, is not the sort of hope which many self-proclaimed utterly-faithful-to-the-Magiserium Catholics would wish to rely on!

On good days I simply ignore such comments as petty ignorance gone on the offense. But on other days I actually pay attention, and I find the whole situation mind boggling. How on earth is telling others to go away supposed to fix the problem?! I must take more care with which blogs/comment sections I read. Otherwise the explosion may destroy all present.

Yet I must read. Perhaps it is because I am conscious of being alone but there are few things that I can think of more important to growth in holiness than maintaining communion with those with whom I would naturally find myself at odds. I simply must listen to examine, and then re-examine the reasons why I think differently.

Even when I have thought and rethought and am confident that I am truly on the side of the Church in the disagreement, still I hesitate. After all, it is a convention of hagiography that those “on the Church’s side” condemn those who turn out to be Saints. I do not want to be the one to jeer at Francis, beat John of the Cross, silence Hildegard’s music, or attempt to stifle Teresa’s speaking. And I certainly do not want to be the one to tell their modern day counterparts to “just leave the Church” since they are “not really Catholic.”

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This past week has provided me with a new awareness of how very alone I am with my views when it comes to all things Catholicism.

I am quite confident in the “orthodoxy” of the things that I say (and post) because I know precisely when to stop talking. This means, however, that I am constantly at odds with the sort of person who delights in using terms such as “orthodox,” “heretical,” “completely faithful to the Magisterium” etc. And when it comes to the nice conservatives (who, as far as I can tell are the majority of my readers) I am sometimes filled with hope at the start of their words, only to be quickly reminded that they are quite far from offering satisfactory explanations or justifications for certain things.

And yet what of the other side? If women such as Mrs. Hahn, and Mrs. Von Hildebrand make me want to toss their books out the window, should I not feel at home with those who would join me in doing so?

In reality though, I find the other side to be some combination of shallowness, or else in such wreathing agony that I could wish that they were able to abandon Catholicism for no reason other than their own psychological health. I read the words of women my age who have to think for a long time before finding something vaguely good about the Church’s teaching on sex, and I wonder why we have so very little in common. Have we all really read the same sources? Have we all really grown up in the United States as girls?

There are a few notable women with whom I find myself at ease as I read their words. But I often suspect that it is because they know both when to stop talking, and when to stop thinking. Since there is no way that I can reach them to find out if this is really true, I remain alone.

I do not mind being alone except that it makes me question myself. When I am the only one who thinks something, then there is almost no chance that I am correct. Yet I take hope in the fact that there is nothing that I believe that I believe alone. I simply switch back and forth between competing groups!

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On the Joys of Being Married to a Catholic Geek

I was trying to remember the name of a certain feminist theologian. I could only think of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, but was quite certain that I had the wrong name in mind. So I tried to get Josh’s help by telling him that:

  • She is at Harvard
  • Her husband is as well… more like MacIntyre and Joy than an inverse of the Hildebrands
  • She is one of those whom the Pope cites to show that feminist theology is so “out there” that it isn’t worth dialoguing with

I told Josh that he really should know her name. He said that he did not really know the names of any great feminist theologians. I then asked whether he knew the names of any current great theologians. He said that theologians really have to be dead to count as great. Knowing his love of Ratzinger, I asked what he thought of Pope Benedict. He said that the pope is an exception.

And so I did the only natural thing and accused him of sexism.

He said that wasn’t fair since he was only giving males a +1 with one chance to be a great theologian while alive. I said that all that mattered was that he was at least giving guys a chance at being a great live theologian!

I still maintain that Josh is at least confused about the difference between a theologian and a Saint.

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