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.”

Darwin: “Ummmmm…”

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.

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  1. Well done. My wife and I got married at 22 right out of college. Due to some medical issues, we didn’t know if we’d be able to conceive and just figured whatever happened, happened. Two weeks later, doctors told my wife she wouldn’t be able to get pregnant. Two weeks later we conceived.

    Our more cosmopolitan friends tripped over themselves asking if our son was planned. It only baffled them more when we said, “We didn’t really think about it.”

    Though it touches on a slightly different issue, I think the Epistle of James makes the same point you are making:

    “Come now, you who say ‘Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business and make a profiit.’ You have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow. You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears. Instead ou should say, ‘If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that.’

    I think this is the same approach to take to raising a family.

  2. Not long ago, American Spectator gave Strange New Respect Award to Conservative who curried Dem favor most in year- John McCain would win in heartbeat during ’08. Now a new kind of SNR Award to The American Orthodox Catholic Family. More than three kids, generally one income, no credit cards maxed out, making 10-year-old minivan last another year. Maybe you saw something on Drudge regarding Brit Catholic prelate going spastic on Disney Co. for reinforcing fantasized greed in children. Would ask the good father to chill and worry about more important stuff like terrorists killing children in hotels. But seems to make the point clear. But just when MSM will lionize these families, then scary facts come to forefront. Many homeschool the younguns. If it’s not EWTN, Veggie Tales, the occasional Disney DVD, the horrors of teevee do not imprint their young minds. Worst of all- horrors- Mom and Dad accept newborn sib as sign that God wants them to be fruitful and multiply. So maybe they’ll scrap that feature story in favor of something more gloom and doom.

  3. I have to admit that even I’m not completely immune from the larger cultural mentality. My best friend just got married, and he and his wife immediately conceived (and I don’t think it was quite “planned”), and I was a bit surprised at first – and my wife and I were ones who did want to have children right off the bat (we had to wait a little longer, but thankfully not too long).

    That said, and maybe it’s the company I keep, but it does seem that it’s not completely alien anymore to express a desire for many children.

    Homeschooling, on the other hand, is a different story.

  4. All of your children will be planned at least in this sense, that you waited until you were married to have them. By that standard the planning of even a couple who says “we will take however many God wants” exceeds the level of planning of a lot of folks.

  5. It’s interesting. I have had similarly awkward conversations with law students recently. We are expecting our third child in May, and so the topic seems to come up quite a bit. I haven’t really mastered a short, pithy way to handle it at this point. Explaining the mechanics of NFP is not really a thirty-second conversation, and a vague reference to it yields blank, skeptical looks. With Christians one can reference about 19 centuries of consensus on the immorality of artificial contraception, however most people are not practicing Christians, and so any explanation of contraception/NFP/the nature of marriage has a lot of ground to cover. As regards the title of the post, I do not think ‘planning’ is a dirty word, but it certainly means something very different to practicing Catholics.

  6. John Henry,

    Agreed. I was on the point of saying something along the lines of, “Well, Catholics don’t use birth control, but we do often use natural family planning to put off getting pregnant again for a while. So we plan, but it’s different.”

    But to my mental ear that sounded too much like “We don’t divorce, but we have annulments” or some other distinction which outsiders see as hyprocracy without a difference. I’m not sure what the good explanation is.

  7. “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?””

    Not to hijack the thread, but I am always amused at how ready people today are to discuss fairly intimate aspects of their life and expect other people to be equally willing to do so. Something big changed in our society circa 1965-70 and we are still working out the ramifications. In my profession I often have to be much more familiar with the personal aspects of my client’s lives than I would wish. When I first became an attorney I often had clients who would be hesitant to disclose personal details of their lives, even when such information was crucial in their case. Now I can be representing a client in some fairly innocuous matter, for example a minor traffic ticket, and it is surprising the number of them who feel compelled to tell me their life story, even when the information is not requested by me, and is not of utility in the case at hand.

  8. Your co-worker’s observation that it’s the fear of hell (and so fear in general) that motives Catholics to have big families might best be countered not with detailed explanations of Catholic teaching, but rather with expressions of the happiness that often comes with each addition to the family.

  9. Just chiming in from a stay-at-home mom’s point of view. Whenever I bring up NFP to friends, I get one of 2 responses: “what’s that?,” which is somewhat enjoyable to explain, and the…oh yeah that, well we use it and birth control so I know more about my body. It turns out that there are quite a few folks (other non-Catholic moms anyway) out there who know what NFP is, but they call it by a different name (e.g. ‘taking control of my fertility’).

    I don’t tend to run in predominately Catholic circles at the moment, so most of them don’t know anything about what Catholics believe. They are usually shocked that practicing Catholics don’t believe in birth control, and wonder what Catholic families do. I’ll admit I actually enjoy these conversations.

  10. This is a tangential quote, but too juicy to resist.
    [Ivan] Illich told the story of asking his friend, Jacques Maritain, why the concept of “planning” did not appear in his philosophy. Puzzled, Maritain asked if “planning” was the English word for accounting. Illich answered, “No.” “Engineering?” “No.” Finally, Maritain understood. “Planning,” he said, “is a new variety of the sin of pride.”

    -Daniel Grego, Illich’s Table
    This is in the context of government or economic planning, though it certainly reminds us about pride and the need for humility in whatever we plan.

  11. I was going to reply to this in a separate thread, but then I thought better of it and decided to just make my points here. When I talk to non-Catholics and/or Catholics who disagree with the Church on contraception, I usually frame the discussion in a certain way.

    I usually make the distinction that the Catholic Church does not oppose birth control per se—if we’re clear on what “birth control” really means. Any sort of “planning” in regard to family life presupposes a control, even if limited, over such matters. The problem arises, as I see it, out of the fact that what is usually referred to as “birth control” actually is birth prevention. This is what the Church opposes. Artificial contraception, as we all know, disrupts the natural fertility cycle and/or acts as a mean to entirely block the possibility of life being conceived—period. It is objectively against the sexual order. (You’ll have to explain why, of course; no need to go into it here).

    NFP is essentially a couple’s choice to, or not to, engage in marital sexual activity during the natural infertile periods of a woman for subjectively pure intentions of spacing of the birth of children and without closing God out of the marital act. This method (NFP) is in accord with God’s design of sexuality, the moral order, and man’s capacity to understand own physiological and reproductive powers and to choose a moral course of action accordingly. From scientific study, we know that NFP is 99.9% effective (same as birth control pills) without the side effects of artificial methods of birth control, and it fosters more intimacy and communication in marital relationships, not to mention a starkly lower divorce rate (1%).

    Darwin as you pointed out, there is a discomfort to use certain terminology because of the obvious contradiction that it seems to entail, e.g. we don’t have divorces, we have annulments. It’s sometimes hard to make that distinction. I think this is more common than we like to think it and it’s embedded in our culture. No good Catholic can be a feminist, that is, pro-woman. Right? Given that mentality (which I think is predominant), feminists easily present anything opposed to them as “anti-woman” and that’s how they accomplish so much. We’ve really got to steal our terms back!

    Is the term “planning” bad? Not at all. Though, we have to talk about it in terms of morality—intention, action, and object of the act. Why isn’t NFP like any other “birth control” method? What we usually call “birth control” redesigns fertility and locks the door of fertility—it is really protection (as it is called) from God. Man and woman deny their responsibility as co-creators with God explicitly whereas in NFP man and woman acknowledge this reality and take it so seriously that they wish to plan to embrace it fully. The former leads to casual, recreational sex and the contraceptive mentality—a divorce of procreation from unity in the sexual act as if both are not built in to the act inseparably; the other leads to the incarnation of the rich symbolism in man and woman in the human drama of salvation that reflects in the inner life of God Himself. One is sinful, the other is holy. The fundamental question that needs answering before this can be understood is what is the nature and end of human sexuality, particularly marital intercourse.

    I think it’s all about how one frames their argument and even more so, word choice.

    One last thing and it’s not directly related to the topic, but I think it draws a clearer picture and it really is just good food for thought. If married couples are a sacrament of the ultimate Bridegroom and Bride—Christ and the Church—then the sacrament is visible in the self gift of one to the other, which, of course is not possible with contraception. The marital act is, in a sense, the “work” of marriage, in the same way that the Eucharist is the “work” of the Christian liturgy. Every sacrament of the Church has a moment, in which God acts. The moment of conception wherein God creates new life is analogous to the consecration during Mass. In their own respective way, the sacraments are like doors through which God enters the world. The use of contraception then during the marital act is like a priest saying the prayers of the consecration with no bread or wine on the altar; this obviously robs the very action—the end trying to be achieved—of its meaning and defiles it. Ultimately, it closes the door on God in His very sacrament, which is why Catholics deem contraception to be a moral evil.

    I’ve found that this argument even to some non-Catholics have given them great pause, particularly when you bring to their attention that there is tendency to divorce sexuality from spiritual life. Is that not modernity? I’ve heard it said that the Church should give “spiritual” teachings and be less concerned with morality and sexual behavior. Why do people have this striking tendency?

    It seems to me that sexuality is so personal, so intimate a reality that it is the perfect place for the devil to begin his attempt to divide man from God. It is clear from Genesis that this is the case—after all, sexuality is not solely about sex itself.

    I think especially when Catholics disagree with the Church on contraception, which doesn’t help our dialogue with people not in the Church one must ask them a serious question. The Catholic Church is the visible sign of the New Covenant established by Jesus with His promise to be with her until the end of the world. Given this as true, Christ cannot be separated from His Church. Therefore, when one denies the teaching of the Church on marital acts, one denies the will of God. If Christ is not in your bedroom…who is?

  12. I hope the inclusion of basic teaching on contraception to draw out my point doesn’t seem patronizing. I’m pretty sure we’re all clear on the teaching, I was just trying to draw connections.

  13. What is clear from this post is that we all are presented on a regular basis with the opportunity to evangelize the world on the Church’s basic theology of the body. We need to get the message out there more and be more forth coming in discussing these personal topics, because you had better believe that ‘catholics for choice’ et al are getting their message out front and center. Now is not the time to be timid or mince words. When co-workers or other aquaintances bring up these topics it is our invitation to jump into the thick of it and educate.

    One thing that is often lacking is discussion of the very real ill affects of artificial contraception and sterilization. We have lost the public narrative on issues of sexuality and it will take a lot of courage and water cooler conversations to get it back.

  14. You can’t evangelize those who have turned a deaf ear to the Truth. Even God Himself can’t work with someone who refuses to cooperate.

    In my experience, there are very few opportunities to evangelize about something as complex and, ultimately, transcendant as the Theology of the Body.

    Most people I know have experienced no ill side effects of contraception or sterilization. I’m not denying that the effects are objectively real and deleterious. What I am pointing out is that I don’t know anyone who is sterilized or contracepting who is unhappy about this, deems it a source of emptiness/misery/etc. in their life, and is in any way open to ToTB.

    I disagree that we need to discuss more, talk more, compete for attention in the marketplace of ideas.

    We need to preach the Gospel by our lives, using words only when necessary. And we need to accept that our “culture”, that of the post-Christian West, is lost and dying. It suffers the vices of ancient Rome, but does not hunger for the liberation of the Gospel. Our culture is, as C.S. Lewis noted, a divorcee, not a virgin.

    So count me in the camp opposed to the Water Cooler Evangelization, especially on topics such as sex.

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