Is "Planned" a Dirty Word for Catholics?
Taking a quiet Saturday morning to catch up on reading the newspaper, I was perusing a WSJ article on the lost virtue of prudence in our modern American society when I came across this jarring note:
The puzzling thing is that, under normal circumstances, our Americanus prudens should be flourishing. By looking ahead and exercising self-control, these unassuming homebodies tend to do well in school, form solid families and make lots of money — which they compulsively save, tucking it away in banks or mutual funds (once-sturdy institutions recently found by scientists to be hollow). The prudent have only the children they can afford — prudential parenthood is inevitably planned — but these offspring tend to thrive thanks to a stable home environment in which education is emphasized.
This threw me because the most financially prudent people I know at work are those with single incomes and large families
— while the most imprudent are generally DINKs who take several packaged vacations a year and insist that pet insurance is so expensive on their treasured dogs that they can’t imagine how they could possibly afford to have children on a combined income of a mere 200k+ a year.
And yet, as I think about it, it’s not that I think prudence plays no role in one’s decisions about having children, but rather that I have a strong immediate reaction against ever discussing having a child as being “planned” or otherwise with anyone other than other committed Catholics I already know to share my beliefs about the nature of sexuality and marriage.
By chance I’d had a conversation with a young co-worker a few days before that had thrown this into relief for me.
Coworker (who had just been talking about how her “clock was ticking” but her boyfriend seemed in no hurry to propose): “I can’t believe you’ve got four kids already. Are you guys done?”
Darwin: “Oh, I don’t know. Probably not.”
Coworker: “Oh my gosh! How many are you going to have?”
Darwin: “We’ll just have to see. My wife is the oldest of six, so she’s hoping to have a large family.”
Coworker: “Are you guys Catholic or something?”
Darwin: “Well, yes.”
Coworker: “Oh, okay. That makes sense. I mean, if you think God says you’ll go to hell if you use birth control, that would explain having a lot of kids.”
Coworker: “I mean, I want to have a large family. But for me, large is four kids. I guess for you guys it’s just however many children God sends?”
[pause followed by topic change]
I found myself unable to quickly come up with answers near the end of this conversation because of two conflicting things that I wanted to express yet couldn’t think how to reconcile without making the conversation much more long and personal than I would have liked. On the one hand, “just however many children God sends” is not, I think, a very accurate description of married Catholic life as we know it in our family. Certainly, there is an element of being open to whatever happens. The use of NFP is not always exact (or easy), and one can be surprised. And yet, I think there is a valid part for prudence to play for a Catholic married couple. There are serious considerations that a married couple takes into account in regards to finances, the wife’s health, and their ability to deal with the kids they already have well. None of this means that one imagines oneself to be in complete control of the situation, but one does try hard (and usually successfully) to do what is best for the family in “planning” when to get pregnant and when to wait.
Not only does “just however many children God sends” not accurately describe the experience of being a Catholic married couple (or our experience, at any rate) but an additional concern is that it doesn’t produce a very attractive view of what that Church has to say. (And while many people know that traditional Catholics don’t use birth control, few in the outside culture seem to know that modern NFP exists and works.) The teaching, it seems to me, is not at all that one must do no planning and simply wait to see how many children appear, but rather that sex and procreation and intimately connected and that in order to avoid having children one must forgo sex at certain times.
And yet explaining all this, and how it works, is not something that I find myself eager to do with a female co-worker in what started out is a casual cube-to-cube conversation.
“Planning” one’s children is something which I (and I think many orthodox Catholics) strongly associate with the contraceptive culture and with explamations of, “Oh my gosh, I couldn’t possibly have another. Two is so hard!” And so when asked these questions I generally only feel comfortable with saying something like, “You never know” or “It could happen”. Because the only other option involves explaining far more about married Catholic sexuality than I’d really like. And yet, I fear that this inability to discuss the Catholic approach to “planning” (out of hesitation to get into lots of messy details of how NFP works) makes it all the more difficult to spread our understanding of marriage and sexuality to the wider culture. An understanding which society could probably use to hear a bit about.