There’s been some discussion around Patheos about David Mill’s article over at Aleteia. The basic thrust of Mill’s reflection is that it’s easier for wealthy Catholics to practice the Church’s teaching on contraception than it is for poorer Catholics.
Now, Doctor Popcak has pointed out that “openness to life” doesn’t necessary mean a large family. You know, because NFP. I’ve written before about the problems with natural family planning as a reliable means of avoiding pregnancy – there do seem to be people for whom it works, but there are also, definitely, people for whom it does not.
A lot of these people are actually way better at practising it than I am. I know that when I fail it can be pretty easily chalked up to user error. Not lack of user effort, just complete incompetence at basic NFP skills like record-keeping, discernment of mucus, and not losing my chart. But I’ve encountered a lot of people on-line whose charts are these dizzying monuments of NFP achievement, with everything perfectly tabulated – and they still have stories about those times (plural) when they had to sit down with their instructor to try to work out what went wrong.
Bottom line, there are a lot of people for whom NFP is not a reliable way of avoiding pregnancy – and for those people, “openness to life” means “openness to 10 kids” or “openness to a sexless marriage.”
So let’s assume, for the moment, that Mill’s piece is dealing with the burden of Catholic teaching on families who are trying to practice “responsible parenthood” using NFP, and who are failing. Like, repeatedly.
Is it true that it’s easier for rich folks than for poor folks? Simcha Fischer’s response to this is worth a read. In particular, she makes the point that poverty brings with it a lot of the skills necessary to be able to handle not being in control. “A couple with an empty checking account and a fridge full of government cheese can laugh hilariously when they read that it takes $245,000 to raise a child; but a couple who actually has $245,000 in the bank might gulp and think twice before taking that kind of plunge.”
Or, as my husband put it, “Having more money would definitely make it easier for poor people to be open to life – but no amount of money seems to make it easy for the rich.”
The thing is that generally people who end up wealthy are rich because they’ve put a lot of time and effort into trying to be successful, building their careers, saving money, and so forth. Sure, there are occasionally those folks who just happen to be born into money, or who get a really lucky break early in life, but the majority of people who have money have it because they’ve put a premium on acquiring it.
If you decide early in your marriage that your top priority is being open to life, chances are you’ve already started to make decisions that place your family over your career long before you get to the point where you desperately need to avoid pregnancy. You build up a lifestyle that makes it easier to incorporate more children. If Mom is already working from home, for example, there are no increased childcare costs associated with having another baby. If you already know how to make 15 delicious variations on rice and peas, then you’re not going to panic when there’s no money for take out.
On the other hand, being financially successful usually involves cultivating a set of skills and attitudes that can be a significant stumbling block. Planning ahead, cultivating a professional image, performing cost-benefit analyses before making decisions, managing your assets, and of course caring about money are all pretty important traits if you want to become rich. Thing is, people who have these traits are much more likely to look at the possibility of another pregnancy and balk.
If you’re used to winging things, taking it day by day, trusting in divine providence, flying by the seat of your pants and finding ways to make things work (even when, really, they kind of don’t), then the idea of surprise pregnancy kind of fits into your worldview. How are you going to afford it? Who knows. Somehow. You weathered the last NFP failure. And the one before that. And you know that those super-stressful days when you’re waiting for your period, and those agonizing months where you’re scared because you don’t know how you’re going to make it, somehow they turn into a little beaming face covered mud and cupcake digging a hole in the front yard with a stick. Hey, sticks are endless fun. And free.
But if you’ve invested a lot of your self-esteem and self-image in being a responsible and organized professional, if it seems wildly irresponsible to have a child if you don’t have a plan for paying their college tuition fees, and the idea of wearing second-hand clothes makes your skin crawl – well, then the prospect of having your career disrupted every two years by an “unexpected blessing” could seem a pretty daunting. Women in this situation are much less likely to persevere with NFP after the first failure, because they want their birth control to be reliable and their family, like their retirement, to be planned.
So there’s a sense in which, actually, it’s easier for the poor to be open to life.
Up to a point.
The problem is that there comes a point of crisis. Up to this point, the decision to be open to life is basically a decision to allow your sense of the possible to expand. It’s psychologically and spiritually beneficial because it’s fundamentally concerned with an interior transformation, a process that teaches you to deal creatively with problems, to put people ahead of things, to cultivate detachment, to sacrifice your own expectations in order to be open to the other.
Crises occur, however, when there are objective obstacles or weaknesses that cannot be overcome merely by a shift of perception. This could include a literal lack of the physical resources necessary to provide for the basic needs of one’s family, it could include serious health problems, it could include an unwillingness – or psychological incapacity – on the part of one’s spouse, and so on.
In most of these cases, wealth can provide a cushion. The wealthy can afford babysitting. They can afford vacations. They can afford counselling to help with the burdens that NFP can place on a marriage. They can afford to hire a caregiver if the wife is bedridden for a long period due to pregnancy complications. They can get a maid in if the chores are piling up. And on. And on.
This is the sense in which practising the Church’s teaching is easier for the rich: wealth, quite simply, has the capacity to prevent a crisis from becoming a catastrophe. This is where the burden of Church teaching falls more sharply on the poor – and where the faithful who wish to build a culture a life would do better to provide material relief and concrete support instead of shaming those who find themselves in desperate situations.
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