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A New Parent’s Reflections on Humanae Vitae

A New Parent’s Reflections on Humanae Vitae January 26, 2015

A reader writes:

As my wife and I contemplate adding a second child to the family, I have been reconsidering Humanae vitae, an encyclical I grappled with unsuccessfully for years.  Until recently, my reflections centered on what still seems the thorny question as to whether or not contraception frustrates nature’s purposes and is therefore morally illicit.  But to frame the issue in these terms is to treat morality as a list of prohibitions devoid of any larger purpose or significance.  Suppose we turn the question on its head and ask, “what vital and valuable thing does Humanae vitae preserve, defend and protect?”  The answer, it seems to me now, is a culture in which families can flourish.

I once overlooked the value and importance of this; now I can’t ignore it.  Upon becoming a father two years ago, I was reminded in a powerful way that American culture revolves around the individual, not the family.  From an early age, one is encouraged to pursue career satisfaction and success, a goal for which a college degree is often the prerequisite.  Many of those in my generation who took this advice (including me) graduated with a mountain of student loan debt and few job prospects.  Nevertheless, with hard-work, persistence, and dual incomes, young couples can keep the American dream alive, if only temporarily.  Then, inevitably, at some point in their thirties, people like me and my wife decide they want children and the rug is pulled out due to the enormity of child care costs, medical bills, and other new expenses.  Other young parents I know seem to just muddle through; however, upon becoming a father, it seemed apparent that I was at a crossroads and needed to decide whether to 1) find a way to increase our household income before having more children; 2) not to have more children; or 3) opt out of the American dream and reorient my life toward the well-being of my family.

In reviewing these options, it is clear that American culture creates strong incentives to choose options 1 or 2.  Why?  Because the family is no longer understood as a public good.  What one does outside of the corporate office–whether it be raising three children or traveling the world or patronizing night clubs or fixing up old cars–is irrelevant to contemporary American culture.  For who is anyone to tell anyone else what to do or value?  Having a large family is from this standpoint “irresponsible” for families without significant means–just as it would be irresponsible to buy expensive art on a gas station attendant’s wages.

While Catholic social and sexual ethics is one alternative, one could argue that a European style social democracy would also allow for family flourishing, without the drawback of limiting women’s career prospects.  In a sense, I agree: a social democracy would be much better than what we’ve got now, and insofar as it encourages couples to have children and take care in raising them, it is commendable.  Still, from a Chestertonian standpoint, what one gains in stability from this arrangement, one loses in independence, for it requires the government’s involvement in the intimate details of one’s family life.  Moreover, it is not clear to me why it considered more progressive to have badly paid women (i.e. 99% of child care workers) raise one’s children than for a woman to stay home with her own children.  (Note: I am not suggesting that the solution is for women to stay home per se, just pointing out an inconsistency).  One could also make the mistake, as do some conservatives, of ignoring economics and instead focusing exclusively on abortion and gay marriage, as though those issues can mean something in isolation from the overall tapestry of Catholic social thought.  Perhaps the biggest mistake of all is the one made by seemingly all parties in these types of discussions: which is to begin not with personal repentance and conversion, but blueprints for societal change.

So I have reached a point at which, even though the logic underpinning Humanae vitae remains fuzzy, I can’t see a way around it.  Somehow, the moment sex and procreation are decoupled, cultures begin to devalue either the stability or the independence of the family (or both).  Capitalist economies directly undermine family flourishing, while social democracies place misguided faith in an unlimited supply of enlightened bureaucrats (to paraphrase Chesterton, though I can’t find the quote).  The Church counters these ideologies by insisting that children are an essential feature of marriage and that economics must be subservient to the goods of the family.  Chesterton captured this point best at the end of What’s Wrong With The World when he explained why “with the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter” he would “set fire to all modern civilization.”

A few questions for you: what guidance does the Church have for those who seek to embrace the third option described above?  If the culture pressures a person to think first in terms of fiscal “responsibility” and only afterward in terms of the goods of the family, how does the Church think about family formation?

I would talk to a priest, spiritual director, or somebody like Greg Popcak for that. But I definitely think you are on the right track.  It can be done and is being done.

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