Mary at the blog Young and Catholic has a good post up responding to a reader question about Church teaching on contraception versus NFP. Her handling of the NFP issue is great, but I was struck by the framing of her reader’s question, because it struck me as getting at a common impression one can get from being around conservative Catholic circles. Her reader writes:
I’m an 18 year old female college student, and I have just gotten back in touch with Catholicism…
…I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting back into my faith, but there is something that REALLY continues to rub me wrong. I’ve prayed and prayed about it, but I am not getting any answer. I’ve researched it, but just hear the same things over and over and it just doesn’t sit right with me, and that is the issue of contraception. I’ve read humanae vitae, I’ve researched “natural family planning”, and it all still leaves me completely unsatisfied still. I see where the Church is coming from on this issue, however, I feel that God has called me to do something else with my future besides staying at home with my “loving” husband and having a billion children…And then I went to the church and asked my female minister about it. The gist was this: If you have the financial capability, happiness, and wealth, your job is basically to be popping out children.
This just honestly does not sit right with me…Some women love being mothers, and being a mother is certainly an honorable duty, but I don’t think I’m cut out for it. I’m very ambitious and have goals of working for the Department of Defense, not sacrificing all my happiness because the Church says I should.
She goes on to ask about why the Church teaches against artificial birth control, and as I say, Mary’s answer is great. However, I think the other thing worth touching on is the impression people sometimes get that from a Catholic point of view you should either be in the religious life or else you should be married and having lots of kids.
But the Church does not teach this. People may well be called to an active single life in the laity. The Church has absolutely no problem with this. If Mary’s correspondent wants to pursue an ambitious career, in the Defense Department or elsewhere, without having to worry about getting home on time to spend a few hours with a spouse, that’s absolutely fine!
Where the Church does become more countercultural is in saying that sex has an inextricable connection with procreation, and that the only proper place for sex is within marriage. Thus, marriage is a state that should be open to children. During the marriage ceremony, the couple is asked if they will be open to the blessing of children. This isn’t just a matter of, “If you accidentally get pregnant, will you keep the baby,” (though that’s important.) Rather, if a couple seriously intends never to have children, the Church would see that as an obstacle to contracting a valid marriage. Marriage is for the purpose of starting a family. It’s not just a romantic relationship, but a familial one. (This does not mean that there’s something invalid about the marriage of a couple that is not physically able to have children. This may be a source of sadness to the couple, but it certainly doesn’t mean their marriage is defective or invalid. The problem is if a couple actively does not want children in the first place.)
Now, of course, this is not a lot of comfort if what someone wants is to get married and have the love and companionship of a spouse, but not have to worry about the responsibility of having children, which given our culture’s assumption that every healthy person must want to get married, and that sex has no natural relation to having children, is going to be a much more common desire than not getting married at all so you can focus totally on your career. (And given that the correspondent is very young, she may well chase her dreams for ten or fifteen years and then realize that she now feels very differently about having children. That’s fine too.) Because within the conservative Catholic subculture there are a fair number of people who get married comparatively young and have a lot of kids (and so spend a lot of time defending that lifestyle), I think people can get the impression sometimes that that is the only “really Catholic” way to live. And it’s not.