Back in May, my family went to Mass in another state because we were visiting my in-laws. The kids were in rare form. Our 4-year-old daughter repeatedly tried to go under the pew, and protested loudly whenever my wife or I pulled her back and picked her up. Repeated attempts to shush her, bribe her, and punish her were fruitless. Our 1-year-old had kept us up most of the night, and was fussy and cranky throughout the Mass. Whenever I held her, after about 5 minutes she’d want to be held by my wife, and would begin whining and lunging in her direction. 5 minutes after the handoff, she’d do it again, wanting me to hold her.
The older kids were exhausted and inattentive because they had been up late playing video games with their grandmother (don’t ask). They would zone out and not say the responses unless they were snapped out of it by a tap on the shoulder by a parent, but they’d just zone out again 30 seconds later. My 9-year-old also apparently decided that standing and sitting were too taxing for him, so he leaned on me for physical support the whole time. Anyway, this went on until the offertory or so, and I spent most of the rest of the Mass in the Narthex with a 4-year-old who wouldn’t stay quiet about her desire for ice cream.
At the end of the Mass, the sympathetic elderly woman who had been sitting in the pew behind us approached me and said, “I got tired just watching you this morning.”
Granted, that morning’s Mass was especially stressful and exhausting, but it was somewhat representative of the struggles that the parents of larger families face, especially as they get older and energy reserves are depleted as the number of children continues to increase.
Today is the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the document that re-asserted the Catholic Church’s prohibition on artificial contraception. This anniversary comes amid increased speculation and paranoia that Pope Francis will release a document that will either “relax” the force of the teaching or downplay its importance and gravity.
This week, Stephen Walford has an excellent article in anticipation of a potential document, with all the relevant episcopal and magisterial justifications for what may take place. Paul Fahey and Brian Killian have written on various aspects of Humanae Vitae for WPI in the past, and I recommend their articles wholeheartedly if you are looking for a better theological or doctrinal understanding of the teaching.
I hadn’t planned on writing about this topic at all, but here I am, prompted by a PM from a Twitter follower, asking for my thoughts.
For the sake of clarity and to head off any accusations to the contrary: I want to state clearly that I accept and assent to the Church’s teaching (even when difficult, even when it doesn’t make sense, and despite any trials I have faced). I have never used artificial contraception in my life, nor have I advised anyone else to. And even if I wanted to use it, my wife would be adamantly against it.
I’m not saying this to brag. For me, it’s just a part of living a Catholic life. I’m not judging anyone who disagrees or sees this differently, but the Church’s teaching is clear and I have always accepted that. It’s something we’ve adhered to, often with little discernible benefit to our marriage, spiritual life, or well-being. I’ve rarely experienced the great joy and freedom that promoters of Natural Family Planning espouse. The financial toll it’s taken on my family is undeniable: we’ve never been able to afford a vacation; we drive old, unreliable cars; we can’t even afford Catholic school for our children. The idea of saving for college or retirement is laughable, and we’re just praying that our roof holds up for another 10 years.
It’s very true that each of our children is a blessing. Fortunately they are all happy, healthy kids. We don’t know what the future holds for them, but I believe we are giving them the formation and foundation that they need to make their way in the world.
That said, there isn’t a single NFP family doesn’t understand the appeal of contraception. Every family that has had an unplanned child knows the stress of changing life’s trajectory and imagining “what could have been.” Every young couple that has a child in the first year or two of marriage understands the sacrifice and suffering – yes, suffering – that could have been avoided had they both worked and saved for a few more years. No large family is immune from the probing questions or judgemental assertions of acquaintances, colleagues, relatives, or complete strangers about the number of children they have.
I haven’t even gone into the hardest cases. There are cases where another pregnancy can put the life of the mother at risk, cases where a needed medicine might cause fetal deformity or death, cases where a child with special needs is causing a great deal of emotional and physical hardship on the parents, and the last thing the family needs is another difficult pregnancy.
It’s no secret that the overwhelming majority of Catholics ignore this teaching. Is there anything the Church can do to overcome the dissent over something so central to Catholic family life?
It’s clear from my perspective that arguments promoting the practical benefits of NFP are unconvincing. Actual material support from the institutional Church (activities for large families, providing babysitting at Church events, tuition breaks, support groups) would be a step in the right direction, but is that even realistic?
Amoris Laetitia is a step forward, especially in how it guides the Church to accompany families who are undergoing hardship and experiencing struggle.
New approaches are needed, both to encourage Catholics who embrace the teaching and to influence those who don’t. Stephen Walford, interestingly, suggests that the family must be viewed from an eschatological perspective. He writes:
A truly eschatological dimension must be instilled into marriage preparation, to encourage the couple to see past the ephemeral, and to look with wonder at the eternal and glorious future the Lord has planned for all his children. In this way, what may seem as a great and worrisome burden can take on new meaning and significance; that the sufferings and sacrifices involved in bringing up a large family will last only a short while (cf 2 Cor 4:17, Rom 8:18).
It seems no coincidence that the contraceptive mentality has grown in the same era that a loss of the sense of the supernatural has occurred. Eschatological hope is no longer the driving force for many Christians that it should be, and as such it sadly produces fruits of selfishness and aridity here and now. But eschatological hope is not restricted to a future beyond the end of time; in Jesus this hope is realized now as definitive victory, and he invites each couple to share in that triumph through a profound Christian witness and friendship with him.
He’s right. The weary view of practicing HV that I present in this piece is very much the fruit of “selfishness and aridity.” Sometimes we can become privately bitter about not using contraceptives. We can become jealous of others when we look at children as a burden and NFP as a cause of pain and suffering.
It’s as if we become like the elder brother in the parable. We’re angry at the father for running out and receiving the brother even before he’s completed his journey home. And we hate the brother because he’s enjoyed the fruits of the behavior that we secretly envy.
When we embrace the truly eschatological dimension, however, we accept each child with joy, as a gift, and do not allow hardships to lead us to despair. We run out, along with the father, to extend the joy of the Gospel and mercy. We love the brother and embrace him, even though he is still on the journey towards the fullness of Truth.
Living a life faithful to the teaching of Humanae Vitae is often quite difficult. For many of us, it’s a sacrifice and an act of faith with few discernible benefits. Let us pray that as a Church, that sacrifice bears great fruit and brings us closer to the Lord.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.