I don’t know anything else about Paul VI, so I don’t know if this was on purpose, or whether it tried and failed to make a logical argument. But whether it was intended to be a logical treatise or not, it isn’t one; so let’s stop trying to present it as one, and let’s stop complaining when we discover that it isn’t one.
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Next order of business: I had a wonderful (well, that’s how I remember it) conversation about NFP, Humanae Vitae, chastity, and Jell-o with Joe Heschmeyer of The Catholic Podcast (unfortunately Chloe Langr, the regular co-host, couldn’t be there). You can hear the podcast here, and check out tons of other resources we mentioned in the conversation.
You may imagine it’s a stern and solemn doctrinal harangue, fusty with misogyny, larded with theological jargon, cluttered with impractical, abstract ideals. In short, something you’d write if you’ve never had sex and have no idea what marriage is really like.
But Humanae Vitae is not like that.
Humanae Vitae, which is Latin for “On Human Life,” doesn’t bring the authoritarian fist of the Church crashing down on individual, authentic human lives. Instead, it invites us to recall two things . . .
First, kudos for Erin of Bearing Blog for spurring me to reread the full transcript of the Pope’s recent in-flight remarks. He didn’t precisely say “Catholics shouldn’t be like rabbits” (and he never used the word “breed” at all). What happened was that the reporter asked him what he thought about the idea that so many in the Philippines are poor because of the Church’s ban on contraception. The Pope replied:
God gives you means to be responsible. Some think that — excuse the language — that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood. This is clear and that is why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors, one can search; and I know so many ways that are licit and that have helped this. You did well to ask me this.
Another curious thing in relation to this is that for the most poor people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here too, but for them a child is a treasure. Some would say ‘God knows how to help me’ and perhaps some of them are not prudent, this is true. Responsible paternity, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.
So, yes, if you read the entire context, he wasn’t saying, “The Church thinks you shouldn’t be like rabbits.” He was saying, “Some people think the Church teaches this, but it doesn’t.” A subtle distinction, a fairly important one . . . and an unfortunately quotable phase that just screams to be misunderstood.
Francis Phillips of the Catholic Herald UK says pretty much what I thought when I read the stories about the Pope’s interivew: This is really nothing new, but yikes. Phillips:
[W]hile I knew exactly what Pope Francis was actually saying, I still groaned. … Those people who read and listen to the secular press and who already have their own prejudices against Church teaching, will remember and repeat the word “rabbits” like a mantra, while we Catholics will sigh and point out as patiently as possible that that the Church has always taught “responsible parenthood” – and indeed, the Pope mentioned this too, during that hour-long meeting with reporters on his flight home.
What the Holy Father implied was that “responsible parenthood” is what matters, not specific family size. This will be different in each family and with each couple; while the use of artificial contraceptives is intrinsically life-denying it can also be irresponsible to have children thoughtlessly, without regard to issues of health and family circumstances.
But the problem with these remarks, unless they are carefully developed and explained within the context of Catholic teaching, is that they might cause confusion, not only outside the Church but also inside, among faithful families. Yes – people can have large families from selfish motives, just as they can limit their families from selfish motives. But what about large Catholic families, struggling to do what is right in their circumstances and under the normal pressures and demands of family life? They might, wrongly, take the Pope’s remarks personally and worry that they are being profligate and irresponsible. They have taken the biblical words “Go forth and multiply” seriously, at great personal sacrifice. They have already, in our secular society, been dismissed as “breeding like rabbits”; the Pope’s remarks will seem to undermine them, however much this was not intended.
Yup. He wasn’t advocating contraception, and he wasn’t saying small families are better than big families. He said things that are true, but he said them in a way that gives ammunition to people who are sloppy thinkers, or who are unmotivated to find out what the Church really teaches, or who are looking for justification to hate the Pope. Which is just about everybody.
Look, this is our Pope. He’s kind of a blabbermouth, and sooner or later, he’s going to irritate just about everybody. And no, this isn’t the first time he’s said something that makes me go, “Oy.” All the more reason to pick your head up out of the constant stream of gabble in the media from time to time, take a deep breath, and focus on your own family and your own spiritual life, rather than diving headfirst into the outrage du jour. (And yes, that means you might end up reading my blog less. Go ahead, I can take it!)
Anyway, Phillips was nice enough to recommend my book as an antidote to some of the confusion over what the Church actually teaches about family size, and how to balance the seemingly contradictory ideas of responsibility and generosity. I do hope that it helps!
I guess if Catholics want the beautiful teaching of the Church to be better understood by a skeptical world, then it would behoove us to spend our energy, you know, using these dust-ups as an opportunity for sharing and explaining that teaching, rather than constantly bitching about the Pope.
Last week, the bishops of Kenya accused the WHO and UNICEF of secretly lacing a tetanus vaccine with a hormone intended to induce miscarriage and sterility in Kenyan women of childbearing age, in an effort to reduce the population. The bishops issued a press release, saying:
[W]e shall not waver in calling upon all Kenyans to avoid the tetanus vaccination campaign laced with Beta-HCG, because we are convinced that it is indeed a disguised population control programme.
We do know that the WHO and UNICEF do not take seriously the bodily integrity of poor families, especially women. The West has a shameful history of exploiting third world populations in the name of humanitarian efforts. So the bishops’ allegations are understandable, and if they are true, this is a dreadful crime against humanity. But if the allegations are false, then spreading the story could have disastrous results. Neonatal tetanus brings a prolonged and agonizing death to tens of thousands of children every year. If Kenyans are afraid to vaccinate against tetanus, people will die needlessly. That’s why I didn’t write about this story, even as it cropped up everywhere. All I could find was the same facts and sources in every story, no new information. Now we have some new information, and there is more on the horizon. The story is far from settled, but there are strong reasons to suspect that the bishops’ allegations arise from a misunderstanding and there has been no sterilization campaign. Catholic News Agency did an excellent job of reporting the story in a balanced way:
“There are aspects of this that need to be raising red flags because of history and because of the way it was all being done. But raising red flags doesn’t mean that there’s something that actually has occurred,” said Dr. Kevin Donovan, director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University.
The red flags are primarily: (a) that the vaccination campaign targeted women of childbearing age, raising suspicions that the effort was tied to population control, and (b) that, when the vaccine was tested at the request of the Kenyan bishops, hCG was found. HCG, in high enough quantities, can induce miscarriage and sterilization. But these red flags can both be explained.
The WHO said that they decided to focus the vaccination campaign on women of reproductive age “because of the focus on eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus.” They also said that the methods needed to provide adequate protection against tetanus for unborn and newborn children require a different testing schedule than the one usually used for other forms of tetanus.
But what about the hCG detected in the vaccine? Why would it be in a tetanus vaccine at all, even in low levels “millions of times less than the amount needed to trigger this contraceptive response“? The WHO and Donovan both noted that the techniques used by the labs who tested the vaccines, and the reports they produced, are irregular and problematic. One likely explanation for the small levels of hCG detected? A false positive. Donovan explains:
“If these were labs that were using tips to test for pregnancy and such, they may not be the appropriate measuring techniques for picking up small amounts of hCG, leading to false positives.”
“I suspect that the tests that the hospital labs tried to do for the Catholic bishops weren’t really designed to test the way that they did, maybe giving them erroneous results,” he added.
For a detailed and rigorous explanation of why it is by no means certain that the tetanus vaccine is anything but a tetanus vaccine, Rational Catholic has once again done the legwork , sifting carefully through the possibilities of what may or may not have happened here, and explaining in detail how a false positive could have been found. Rational Catholic also notes:
I have seen the lab results from the tests performed at the request of the bishops in Kenya, and my understanding is that they will be published shortly in an online news source. I will update and link to them when that happens.
The main obstacle to finding the truth seems to be that the local government in Kenya did not initially take the bishops’ concerns seriously, but that may be changing.According to a Kenyan newspaper, (link courtesy of the Rational Catholic post)
[T]he Parliamentary Committee on Health ruled that a joint team of experts from the Ministry of Health, Catholic Church and other stakeholders would conduct a fresh round of independent medical tests to end the controversy on the safety of the vaccines.
There is mistrust and bad feeling on both sides, but it is clear that both the Kenyan bishops and the Kenyan government are eager to make sure that Kenyans are not dissuaded from protecting themselves from a vaccine that saves lives, so we can only pray that the new round of testing will be definitive and that the results will be shared in a clear and transparent way. In the mean time, I urge concerned readers with good intentions to stop spreading the story that the vaccine was deliberately and secretly contaminated. This has not been proven, and can only add to the general confusion about vaccine safety.
Here is an excerpt from the chapter I’m contributing to a book about marriage:
Children give our bodies purpose. I always have to laugh when people complain, “The Church treats women like baby-making machines!” The truth is, the secular world is the one that treats women that way—and expends tremendous amounts of money and effort in trying to find the “off” button, often putting women through years of physical and psychological contortions with one kind of contraception after another.
The Church, on the other hand, teaches that the bodies of men and women are designed the way they are, reproductive systems and all, because they have a specific purpose in life. What is that purpose? Something huge: to make love, literally — to create something, to bring new love into the world. Sometimes this looks like physically bearing children (whether many or few); sometimes it looks like adopting; sometimes it looks like simply becoming aware that we are all here to love and to be loved.
When we can witness our own, familiar bodies actually doing this right before our very eyes – making something where there used to be nothing, bringing something new into the world – we are compelled to think about why we are here, and why God made us, and what it means to make love.
The book is by Our Sunday Visitor Press. Will share more details when I get the green light! It looks like it’s going to be a great project.
Interesting little tidbit on CatholicCulture.org:
Sociologists from Ohio State University have found that children from large families have markedly lower divorce rates.
The equation that emerged after a 40-year study, involving a sample of 57,000 American adults, was simple: The more siblings you had as a child, the less likely you were to be divorced as an adult. The researchers don’t offer an explanation for this phenomenon—in fact they seem to be stumped—but they know it’s not because the children from large families don’t marry. On the contrary, they’re more likely to marry, and more likely to stay married, than their small-family counterparts.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from listening to smart people argue, it’s that no study ever actually tells you anything definitively — or at least, by the time the headlines trickle down to laymen, there’s no way of telling what actually happened or what it means.
But as someone with seven siblings, married to a man with seven siblings, whose children each have eight siblings, this study caught my eye.makes a blithe conclusion about the causation:
We already know that among married couples who don’t use contraceptives, the rate of divorce approaches zero. Obviously these couples are more likely to have multiple children. So by eschewing contraceptives, a married couple is taking a huge step to guard against divorce—not only for themselves, but for their children as well.
I think it’s got to be more complicated than that. It’s not as someone’s Essure doohickey backfires on day and then BAM, their worldview is transformed. There has to be some steps in between (a) not using contraception and (b) having a good marriage.
I have long held that the non-contraceptive marriage is long-lasting because the non-contraceptive marriage is likely to be founded on religious faith, and that that is what holds the family together.
And it’s not pretty to think, but there must also be some couples who don’t contracept, who are religious, and who stay together despite abuse and serious disfunction, just because their community of religious friends and family would shun them if they divorced (yes, even with a legitimate annulment. I’ve seen it happen).
On a more positive note, here are a few other things which must contribute to the longevity (and, it is to be hoped, the strength and happiness) of marriages between people with lots of siblings, religious or not:
There’s the example of other married couples. If no one you know is married, what are you gonna do when you’re not getting along with your spouse? Freak out, assume the marriage was a horrible mistake, and split up. But if you’ve seen other people — people who are sort of like you, because they’re family — get past bad stuff, and if you can get their advice, then that’s invaluable.
There’s babysitters and other kinds of help. Of course this assumes that your siblings are willing and able to help; but if there are lots of them, chances are someone will pitch in if you need something — a babysitter, a short loan, some baby clothes, an extra set of hands painting the house, or whatever. Marriages always do better when there is help available.
And there’s the example of the long view of what marriage is for. Very often, I hear married people with a very young family talking as if raising a family is some kind of 18-year project, where you spend X amount of dollars to achieve a satisfactory outcome. That they’re doing something important but temporary when they have a child, and that they will be able to get back to their real lives once the kid leaves home.
It’s a lot harder to fall for this crap if you go to a huge family reunion where there is a big, unwieldy mess of cousins, aunts, and uncles; maybe your mother is pregnant at the same time as one of your sisters; maybe your niece is pregnant at the same time as her mother. Maybe one family is staying with another family. Some people are doing well, some not so great; some are following their plans, and others have blown so far off course, they can’t even recognize their former lives. But they’re okay. You see the family spread out in what my father used to refer to, in tones of mock horror, as “the rich tapestry of life.”
Once you see that, it’s a lot easier to remember that you’re in this for the long haul. Not for your personal satisiaction, not to produce a successful offspring like a science project that you can fold up and put away at the end of the day . . . but because having a family is what people do, overall.
Well, what do you think? What have I missed? I know I have an especially close and supportive family. If you’re from a large family, what effect do you think it’s had on your marriage, for good or bad?
A reader writes:
I’ve got a Catholic friend who is sorely in need of some good reading materials on the main concepts in Theology of the Body. She buys into very secular views of contraception, abortion, marriage, and sex in general, and has admitted a total lack of education regarding the Catholic teaching on the subjects, as well as a (reluctant) interest in obtaining said education.I’m looking for something that’s intelligent, readable, down to earth, doesn’t assume that you already agree with the Church teaching, and hits all the main points without an angry polemical vibe. I checked out some stuff by Christopher West, but didn’t like it too much.