What's a Catholic Voter to Do?

This is an edited version of a column I wrote in the fall of 2004.  At the time I was extremely disturbed by the vitriol surrounding the Presidential campaign, particularly that directed by Catholics toward other Catholics, presuming to assert that there was only one way for a good Catholic to vote.  I did not remember people being so hateful about politics in the past.  (Of course, things are much worse today, with Catholics routinely being assured by their brethren that they are headed straight to hell if they vote for a  pro-choice candidate.)  So I wrote this in the hopes of calming folks down a little bit, at least folks who read the East Tennessee Catholic.  

The first time I was eligible to vote for President, when I was 21, I was away at college and did not get my absentee ballot in time.  My parents and grandparents were all Democrats, and therefore so was I:  no decision-making would have been necessary.
I was similarly complacent the first time I was able to cast a vote, although in the opposite direction, for George H.W. Bush.  He was against abortion, the most horrible evil in the world.  How could other issues matter?
Four years later other issues seemed more important than I had thought.  In the most recent elections choosing a candidate has become agony.  I am unwilling to equate “pro-life” with anti-abortion, so I see no “pro-life” candidate.  Anyone who wages pre-emptive wars that kill up to 20,000 innocent civilians is not pro-life.  John Kerry’s assertion that life begins at conception while he blithely votes to give women unlimited power to end it doesn’t sit well with me either.  What’s a Catholic voter to do?
Thoughtful Catholics will come down on both sides, and if they have informed and followed their consciences, they are not sinning.  But no candidate is in line with all of the Church’s moral teachings.
Although the Church gives us guidance in this matter, it does not endorse candidates.  Many of you read Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s statement that when a Catholic does not share a candidate’s pro-choice stance but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered “remote material cooperation” [in evil] which is “permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”  The cardinal [later Pope Benedict] does not define the proportionate reasons, leaving us to define them ourselves.
The U.S  bishops published Faithful Citizenship:  A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, which states:  “The 2004 elections . . . pose significant challenges for our Church . . . the Church cannot be a chaplain for any one party or cheerleader for any candidate.  Our cause in the protection of the weak and vulnerable and defense of human life and dignity . . . As Catholics [we are called] to recommit ourselves to carry the values of the Gospel and Church teaching into the public square . . . Faithful citizenship calls us to seek ‘a place at the table’ of life for all God’s children in the elections of 2004 and beyond . . . A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good.
Finally, our Holy Father [Saint Pope John Paul the Great] quoted the following statement of the Second Vatican Council in The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), a must-read for anyone who dares consider himself an authority on life issues:  “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator.”
The Pope adds: “The underlying causes of attacks on life have to be eliminated, especially by ensuring proper support for families and motherhood. A family policy must be the basis and driving force of all social policies. For this reason there need to be set in place social and political initiatives capable of guaranteeing conditions of true freedom of choice in matters of parenthood. It is also necessary to rethink labour, urban, residential and social service policies so as to harmonize working schedules with time available for the family, so that it becomes effectively possible to take care of children and the elderly.”
With the help of these experts, I have the following reflections to offer.  One way to choose your candidate is to decide which issues are crucial to you and vote for the candidate who shares your perspective.  If you judge abortion the ultimate issue, you could vote for the candidate who opposes it. Or you might vote based upon the amount of change you expect the candidate to be able to effect in various areas of importance.  For example, if you voted for President Bush because he was pro-life the last time around, look at his record:  how many lives has he saved?  How much power does the President have to effect change in this area?  Some voted for Bush in 2000 so he could choose Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade.  But he has yet to appoint a single justice.  And who can guarantee his choices would vote against abortion?  Look at the records of Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter, both appointed by conservatives.
What can a President affect in the way of life issues?  He can start a war, a war our Holy Father opposed.  And what about other life issues the pope enumerates in The Gospel of Life?  Some “conservative” social policies may lead to more abortions, when women choose abortion because of a lack of money, homes, or childcare.  There are many voter guides available online to further help you in the discernment process.
Because the Church doesn’t tell us for whom to vote, we must inform our consciences before making this important choice.
Have you fully informed yourself on the Church’s position on all life issues by reading The Gospel of Life?  Have you prayerfully considered the the teachings of our bishops?  Have you acquainted yourselves with the positions and records of both candidates?  If so, your conscience has been properly formed, and you have nothing with which to reproach yourself.  And if in charity you assume that your fellow Catholics who may have chosen a different candidate have done the same, you have nothing with which to reproach them either.
My column did not have the effect I had hoped or expected.  More on that in my next post.
Part II
Part III

Embryo Adoption: What Does the Church Say?

The following was one of my last columns for the East Tennessee Catholic.  I did a quick check before reprinting it here to make sure that it still accurately reflects the Church’s position on this issue.
Most of the mail attorneys receive is dry and uninteresting, as you might expect.  But the brochure I pulled out of my husband’s PO Box one morning last Spring was different—it was eye-catching, all pink and spring green and adorned with butterflies and an adorable baby peeking out from under a blanket.
It was an invitation to a conference in Washington, D.C.:  “Emerging Issues in Embryo Donation and Adoption.”  Sponsors included the National Embryo Donation Center, Bethany Christian Services, and UT’s Graduate School of Medicine.  The sessions looked fascinating, and I was particularly intrigued by one of the speakers, Father Peter F. Ryan, a Jesuit priest with an impressive array of academic credentials, who planned on “Making the Ethical Case for Embryo Donation and Adoption.”
To me it seemed like a perfect solution to the tragedy of the thousands of embryos abandoned to cryopreservation tanks after their parents “completed their families” through assisted reproductive technologies.  We Catholics believe embryos are morally equivalent to born children, right?  And it’s a moral good to adopt unwanted children, surely?   Says the 1987 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instruction   Donum Vitae:  “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.”

Our evangelical brethren have embraced embryo adoption.  One prominent Christian adoption site has a program trademarked “Snowflakes,” a clever moniker referencing both the current condition of the embryos and their uniqueness.  However, reading stories of some non-Catholic couples who have chosen embryo adoption highlights some of our theological differences since evangelicals do not object to IVF.
What is the Catholic Church’s official position?
Donum Vitae was silent on the issue.  A 2005 article in the Washington Post, written by Alan Cooperman, said:   “[T]he debate over embryo adoptions is just beginning to take shape.  ‘There are very few moral issues on which the Catholic Church has not yet taken a position. This is one,’ said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, chief spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.”  The article went on to say, “One of the leading voices in the church in favor of embryo adoptions is the Rev. Thomas D. Williams, Dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome.  ‘It’s reaching out to another human being, albeit in an embryonic state, in the only way that that little being can be helped.’”
Responding to the many new bioethical issues that have arisen since 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions in September 2008.  It addresses the problem of frozen embryos at length:  “With regard to the large number of frozen embryos already in existence the question becomes: what to do with them?  . . .  a grave injustice has been perpetrated  . . . The proposal that these embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples as a treatment for infertility is not ethically acceptable for the same reasons which make artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood;   this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature.  It has also been proposed, solely in order to allow human beings to be born who are otherwise condemned to destruction, that there could be a form of ‘prenatal adoption’. This proposal, praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above.”
The USCCB’s December press release does not characterize this statement as an absolute ban on embryo adoption by faithful Catholics:  “The document does not reject the practice outright but warns of medical, psychological and legal problems associated with it and underscores the moral wrong of producing and freezing embryos in the first place.”  The National Catholic Bioethics Center, in an article written  by Director of Education Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D, concurs: “There is ongoing debate among reputable Catholic theologians about this matter, and technically it remains an open question. . . . Dignitas Personae expressed serious moral reservations  . . . without, however, explicitly condemning it as immoral.”
This is yet another debate that no one saw coming back when the birth of the first test-tube baby was celebrated.  The problem of the orphaned embryos underscores the intrinsic immorality of IVF.  As Dignitas Personae concludes:  “All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.”
  
The column turned out to be eerily topical as only a few months later an unmarried teacher at the Catholic high school my children attend (as did I and my mother) decided to adopt an embryo.   She wrote the parents of her students a lengthy explanation of her research into the issue, which included consultation with the Bishop and the Principal of the school.  A minor firestorm erupted when one family expressed their disagreement by sending an email to every parent in the school and then withdrawing their children. 

 
 
Any thoughts?

Happy Birthday, Mima

Today would have been my maternal grandmother’s 99th birthday.  She died in January 2008.  The following was the column I wrote immediately following her death.
When I tell people about this column, I say I write about “life issues.” But that means that necessarily I write a lot about death. And that doesn’t sound as nice, somehow, does it? Which is funny, if you think about it, because if we really believe what we say we believe, shouldn’t we all be looking forward eagerly to the end of our lives, even wishing for the advent of the end times? Yet most of us aren’t–we fear death, our own, and that of those we love.
We had a death in our family in February. It was an event we had been dreading for a long time. I’ve written about my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Carroll a.k.a. Mima, in this column before. She would have been 90 in October; four years ago her doctor told us to expect her to die at any time; we knew she couldn’t live forever, yet somehow we were taken by surprise all the same.
Family was everything to Mima, and she was the glue that held our extended family together. “Blood is thicker than water,” was what she always said, and she meant it. Even though she had only two daughters, her progeny have been more prolific: she left seven grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren. It’s really amazing, when you think about it, the living legacy that just one couple can set in motion by falling in love, marrying, raising a family.
I spent Friday night with Mima every week from the time I was a toddler until I was a teenager. I wore her fancy nightgowns and slept in her bed with her. We played Sorry, Crazy Eights, and double solitaire. She made me pancakes to eat while I watched cartoons. We went to Kmart to buy Nancy Drew books, to Sue’s Fancy Fins to buy fish for my tank, and to Krystal to eat lunch. When I was a teenager, some Saturdays Mima would take me to restaurants she had enjoyed–the Orangery, Ruffles and Truffles–and she always let me drive. After I had a baby of my own, we would make trips to Wal-Mart where she let me throw anything in the cart I wanted for Emily, whom she also babysat regularly while I worked.
After her first stroke, Mima had aphasia–even though her mind was as sharp as ever, she could not find the right words to express her thoughts. Out shopping, she would try to explain something to the clerk, and then would say, “I’m sorry, I had a . . . what was that I had again?” she would ask me. This was hard on someone who had always had strong opinions and lots of advice that she was not shy about offering. Then four years ago her second stroke put her in a wheelchair. Even though she couldn’t go shopping for presents for her little great-grandchildren anymore, she would save bananas from her lunch, or candy people brought her, so that she always had something to offer them when they visited. Unable to travel, garden, crochet, read, play bridge–unable to do most of the things that she had always enjoyed–she still milked every ounce of pleasure out of her life. Her last night she played Bingo–we got a letter from the Bingo caller saying how Mima always made Bingo fun and how much she would miss her.
That was one of many, many letters and emails we have received–not to mention the loving words from the steady stream of over 100 people who came to the funeral home–letters saying, “She was a wonderful person. We loved her too.” Many of her grandchildren’s friends called her Mima. One of my friends realized, when he got to the funeral home, that he didn’t even know her real name to ask which room she was in!
Mima’s aphasia had grown worse over the past year. Sometimes she grew very frustrated–not by her inability to express herself, but by what she interpreted as our inability to understand! But I hope she knows that she doesn’t need to worry about our having received her most important messages. In the end I find in the example of Mima’s last years all of the wisdom that she could no longer pass along in words: Give. Love. Live.

Whose Judgment?

Here’s a column reprint from 2003, which I was inspired to run today by a Facebook post by my friend Amy Wilson (you can see her here) whom I have known since first grade.  She said:  “The difference between a flower and a weed is judgment.”
It was a rare sunny day, and 9-year-old Jake, 2-year-old William, and I were going for a walk.  As we passed our neighbor’s house, I warned Jake to stay out of her grass because shortly before I had seen it being sprayed with herbicide.
“Why did she do that?” Jake asked me.  “There aren’t any weeds in her grass.”
I pointed to the white clover flowers.  “Those are weeds, Jake.  So are dandelions and buttercups and violets.”
Jake was indignant.  “Those aren’t weeds, Mom!  Those are flowers.”
violets
 
Since I have been known to mow around the buttercups and violets in my own yard and vividly remember crying inconsolably as a child when my uncle sprayed all the dandelions in his yard, I tend to agree with Jake.
I started thinking about what makes a weed a weed and a flower a flower.  Isn’t it all about choice?  I have put buttercups in vases and transplanted violets into my border.  I leave the dandelions in my yard alone, but I pull them up when they appear in the rose garden.  To others, like my neighbor, only cultivated flowers are pretty.
Aren’t unplanned babies a little like weeds, springing up unwished for, disturbing the symmetry of the garden we have planned in our minds?  Some people choose to let the “weed” grow, to see what it blooms into, to see how it alters the pattern of the garden with its unique beauty.  Others remove it quickly–before they have a chance to see how beautiful it can be.
With literal weeds, though, at least we have a consensus.  Even if I choose not to poison them, I know which flowers are supposed to be weeds and which are not.  Under our laws, any unborn baby is a weed unless his mother decides he is a flower.
I recently read about a couple’s experience of expecting a baby with Down Syndrome.  Everyone encouraged them to abort their baby because he wasn’t a perfect specimen,  I don’t use chemicals in my garden, so my roses always get blackspot and most of the leaves fall off.  But the flowers are still pretty, even if they won’t win any prizes.
Like most people, I have been shocked and saddened by the terrible tragedy of Laci and Conner Peterson.  Even though Baby Conner never drew a breath, he has been given the dignity of a name and is mourned throughout the country.  He was Laci’s baby, and we all know that she wanted him.  Conner’s murderer will be charged with homicide, yet women pay physicians to legally kill babies every day.
We must fight to change a culture that says the lives of babies are valuable only on the say-so of their mothers.  We must encourage women to take the chance of allowing “unwelcome weeds” to take root and grow.
dandelions
We have lived in our house only a year and a half, and I haven’t done much gardening yet.  I’ve been waiting to see what would develop.  Last spring a green vine started growing up the side of my porch.  I still don’t know what it’s called, but, like a baby, it grows fast.  I began winding it through and around and under the porch railings.  By midsummer it was like a hedge.  I kept wondering whether I was making a fool of myself, letting some weed grow all over my porch, but my faith was finally rewarded.  In July the vine blossomed with thousands of small, sweet-smelling white flowers.  I would have missed that if I had mercilessly cut it down to the ground.

not mine–uncredited internet photo

Jake’s last word to me on weeds was, “Those are flowers, and flowers can’t be ugly.  All flowers are beautiful.”
As are all babies.
I now know that the vine in question was Sweet Autumn Clematis, and it continued to delight us every summer.

Got baby?

Because I’m on vacation (where I envisioned I would have uninterrupted to hours to blog, but that isn’t happening) here is another column reprint for you:
Billboards. They are everywhere in our town and in our state. Their unsightliness mars the beauty of rural roadsides, and adds to the ugliness of already overdeveloped commercial strips.
The particular billboard I’m writing about is more attractive than most, though, because its subject is a baby, a winsome, chubby little thing with head slightly tilted and tiny hands clasped together, almost as if in prayer. Perhaps you might expect it to be an ad for baby products, or for an agency that helps children. I hope you’ll be as shocked as I was to see that the baby itself was the product this sign was selling.
emily-baby-1
“Want one?” the sign asks. Catchy, isn’t it? A bit like the “Got milk?” campaign. Maybe it’s cute and catchy so we won’t think about what is really going on here. The name and the web address of a fertility clinic complete the legend on the sign. Its message is clear: Babies are something we have a right to. Babies are something we can buy.
Many years ago another ad moved me to write a letter to The University of Tennessee’s student publication, The Daily Beacon. That time it was an ad for a local abortion clinic. Bracketed by Visa and MasterCard logos, its slogan read: “No one believes in abortion until they [sic] need one.” Once again, they treat human life like a matter of economics. In this case, babies are things we have a right to be free from. And we can be rid of them, for a price.
One ad promises us sex without babies, another promises us babies without sex. Neither is right, and both are related. Separate sex from procreation, and funny things start to happen. Pretty soon, and people start to forget why we have babies in the first place. Having five kids, my husband and I have gotten more than our share of teasing, for example: “Haven’t you figured out what causes that yet?” about 500 times. It’s good for a chuckle, but the fact is that many people haven’t figured it out, or else they’ve forgotten. Babies are caused–or they are supposed to be caused–by the physical expression of love between a man and a woman. An important corollary is that sex isn’t supposed to be a recreational sport.
I’m sure you are familiar with point/counterpoint columns, where self-proclaimed experts take on some controversial issue and argue opposing sides, usually divided straight down predictable liberal/conservative lines. I cut out one of these some months ago, planning to discuss it here later. This one discussed yet another side of assisted reproductive technology: is it a good idea for single women to become pregnant via sperm donors?
The “liberal” columnist predictably embraced the idea, with comments like, “Women who want children shouldn’t be barred from motherhood just because they never fell in love or don’t want to marry.” The only reason, she claims, that studies find two parents to be better than one is that two parents usually have more money than one.
The “conservative” columnist responded that it’s wrong to deprive children of fathers, and that there are plenty of parentless children in need of adoption already for someone with motherly love to spare; one parent is indubitably better than none! And I agree with her, as far as she goes. But it’s not far enough.
Both columnists spent a lot of time talking about the rights of women to become mothers, but neither mentioned in any way that children are supposed to be–that they have the right to be–generated by an act of love between their parents. Just like the concept of sex without consequences, the concept of babies without sex is already entrenched in our culture.

It's a baby, stupid: Why personhood is moot in the abortion debate

Time for another reprint from the ETC–yes, and I know, time for some NEW life issues writing; I have ideas, and I promise a new one is germinating.  This column appeared, I believe, in 2007.
Anyone who has been really involved in the abortion debate for a long time has got to have realized that the arguments have changed. Back in the day, pro-lifers said, “It’s a baby!” Pro-choicers responded, “It’s a clump of cells.” It was as simple as that.

Enter ultrasound, fetal surgery, survival of micro-premies. It’s hard to argue that those human-looking although tiny little creatures sucking their thumbs aren’t babies. Or what about the widely-disseminated photo of the tiny hand slipping out of the womb and touching the surgeon operating on him? And how about those miracle babies born just barely halfway through the length of a normal pregnancy who with the help of technology manage to make it?
It’s a baby, stupid!” At one time I, and I suspect most other pro-lifers, thought it was going to be just that easy: once the pro-abortion forces saw it really was a baby, of course they weren’t going to say it was okay to kill it anymore. Finally pro-choice women could relax, and admit the tension involved in saying “fetus” when you want to abort it, but “my baby,” when you’ve planned to keep it.
But it hasn’t been that easy. They call it spin: changing the rules of engagement when the facts go against your original position. Yes, there are still people out there on both sides waging the “is it life or isn’t it” argument” but anyone seriously involved in this debate knows that’s a moot point. We’ve moved into a new world, less brave than twisted.
In this new world we have abortion clinics (sponsored by a group called “The November Gang,”) with pink hearts all over the walls, where parents there to abort their babies write apologies and explanations, justifying their choice by saying it’s for the good of the child, promising that they’ll meet again in heaven one day.
In this new world we have an uproar at a hospital in England, where the fact that aborted babies are disposed of in the hospital incinerator with other “medical waste” recently came to light. Said one woman in an online article in the Daily Mail: “I am furious . . . imagine my horror when I discovered my baby was incinerated in the same furnace as the hospital rubbish.” To add to the insanity, the hospital that performs abortions (and ought to, therefore, believe there is nothing wrong in so doing) burns the fetal remains alone, with a white sheet in front of the incinerator, and two witnesses from bereavement care staff.
In this new world, a woman can publish an article in Salon proclaiming, “I had a second-trimester abortion . . . This was . . . not a “clump of cells” . . . He was my baby, and I chose to end his life.” She goes on to say, “Everyone knows now how early a fetus becomes a baby . . . there is a terrible truth to those horrific pictures the anti-choice fanatics hold up in front of abortion clinics . . . my doctor told me that he would make sure my baby felt no pain . . . contemporary women know the truth about abortion.”
They know the truth. They know the truth. And yet they choose to kill.
Once upon a time we thought that knowing the truth–that an unborn baby is a life–would be enough. It turns out it’s not. The problem, you see, is our new world, our fear-filled new world that values perfection (“I wanted a genetically perfect baby, and because that was something I could control, I chose to end his life,” says the author in Salon.), that champions the illusions of choice and control, that craves instant gratification and repudiates the possibility of transformation through suffering, that equates success in life with the acquisition of material things.
We thought there was an easy answer, but it turns out that to end abortion we have to transform the world. “Perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18). Only when the hearts of those who would seek abortions or coerce others into seeking them are changed by love will abortion end. How do we do this? You won’t get an easy answer from me. But we have to keep trying.

 

The Circle of Life

Here’s a column I wrote in August 2007, that seems especially appropriate today.
The circle of life” isn’t just an idea dreamed up by Disney. Every day we are confronted with its reality–births, deaths, and every stage and milestone in between. Rarely, though, has it hit me so hard as this past weekend.
On Friday morning, I remembered that a dear friend, with whom I have kept in touch since high school, would be in the hospital having her first baby that day. Kris and her husband, Colin, live in Florida, so I knew I’d have to wait for the happy news, but I thought about her and the baby throughout the event-crammed weekend.
Saturday was a particularly busy day, with celebrations of two of life’s milestones. That morning, I attended a Memorial Mass for Dr. Tom Ryan. I knew Dr. Ryan in recent years as a fellow parishioner at Immaculate Conception and organizer along with his wife of the monthly Book Swap which serves to feed my family’s book-collecting addiction. But I’ve known the Ryans since I was a little girl because their children were at St. Joseph when I was and Mrs. Ryan was my high school speech teacher, guidance counselor, and drama club sponsor.
Dr. Ryan planned his own Memorial Mass, and the celebration in the Parish Hall afterwards was lively, with Irish music, mimosas, and laughter as well as tears. His five grandchildren and the stories shared by his family were vibrant reminders that we live on in our descendants and in the memories of those we leave behind.
Only a few hours later I found myself at a wedding. My husband and I were married just out of college and before most of our peers, and for many years after our marriage we were attending weddings of friends and family frequently. Then we moved on to baby showers. In recent years we’ve attended lots of funerals. Now, apparently, we are entering a new stage–the weddings of our friends’ children. For those of you who have not yet experienced it, nothing will make you feel older than watching your date to the Junior Prom walking his 20-year-old daughter down the aisle on her wedding day!
The bride’s mother and I spent many hours together at Knoxville Catholic High School, between Drama Club, Mock Trial, and the Green and Gold newspaper. We’re the kind of friends who go years without a word and then run into each other in Kohl’s and talk for an hour (to the disgust of any children accompanying us). Seeing her as mother of the bride was surreal. But it was a lovely wedding, and Emily was the happiest bride I think I’ve ever seen–she never stopped smiling. We enjoyed sitting across from her new mother-in-law, who was holding the beautiful newborn daughter of a relative and talking about her own soon-to-arrive grandchild, the son of the groom’s older brother. “I’m not going to let anyone spoil my grandbaby,” she announced. “I’m going to hold him 24 hours a day to make sure.”
I remember two-year-old Emily charming us all at one of my own wedding showers–a time very much on my mind because this Sunday was our 18th anniversary. We had planned to celebrate as we usually do, but in the end we had to postpone our plans because we were too busy with arrangements for another big day–the first day of school for my own Emily and her brothers Jake and Teddy (William already started last week). We spent all afternoon and most of the evening buying school supplies and helping Emily with the finishing touches on her summer assignment for AP English.
The children all finally in bed (way past the appropriate time, naturally), I finally had a few minutes to sit down and check my email, and was thrilled to find one from my friend Kris’s mother, announcing that baby Andrew had arrived Friday afternoon. A birth, a funeral, a wedding, and an anniversary–it sounds like a movie but it’s really just Life, isn’t it?
EDIT: Kris has two boys now, and the “newlyweds” are the proud parents of two boys and a girl.

Big Catholic Families

I’m posting this column reprint as a followup to my “Why Stop at Two” post of a few weeks ago.  In that post, I talked about why we’ve chosen to have a big family; this post focuses on the Catholic Church’s teachings on family size.  This was too long for the East Tennessee Catholic in this form; it was condensed and split into two columns which appeared, I believe, in early 2009.
“God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth’”(Genesis 1:28).
You know He said it, but what did He mean?
A few months ago I told you why we have chosen to have a “big Catholic family.” Today I am making good on my promise to write on what the Church says about family size.
To be honest, though, I am humbled by the task I’ve set myself. It’s already been done, you see, much better than I could ever do it and by scholars with much more authority than I. But you’ve probably never read Gaudium et Spes, have you? Or Familaris Consortio? How about Humanae Vitae or Evangelium Vitae? If you’re in a Renew group, you’ve at least read some of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but we haven’t gotten to this part yet.
I’m not criticizing you, although I think it’s a shame, and I hope that Catholic educators today are doing a better job of getting some of this material into the hands of high school students. Even though I minored in Theology at a Catholic university it was only by accident that I ended up in a Christian Marriage class where some of this material was required. I’ve been fortunate since that my work with the Diocesan Respect Life Committee and with this column have led me to delve deeper into the writings that explain the doctrines Catholics profess to believe. I hope after reading just the small sampling I provide here that you might be tempted to go further, to be inspired as I have been by the Church’s vision of marriage and family–it’s so much more than the secular version.
Here’s the crucial point for most of you: The Catholic Church does not require or even suggest that you forgo all forms of birth spacing or regulation in order to bear as many children as physically possible throughout your reproductive years. Surprisingly, that’s actually an Evangelical Protestant idea–a minority idea–called the “Quiverfull Movement.”
This movement springs from Psalm 127:3-5: “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; They will not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.” Its adherents, mostly U.S. conservatives, believe in receiving as many children as possible as blessings from God, rejecting even Natural Family Planning.
Now the Catechism of the Catholic Church does say that “Sacred Scripture and the Church’s traditional practice see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity” (2373). But it also says, “For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children” (2368). In Gaudium et Spes we read that “certain modern conditions often keep couples from arranging their married lives harmoniously, and . . . they find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased”(51). This is further clarified in Humanae Vitae: “Responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth”(10).
The problem is that many people hop on the “It’s okay to limit births,” part of the message without paying attention to the “grave motives” and “moral law” part. This is NOT okay: “In the task of transmitting life . . . they are not free to proceed completely at will, as if they could determine in a wholly autonomous way the honest path to follow; but they must conform their activity to the creative intention of God, expressed in the very nature of marriage and of its acts, and manifested by the constant teaching of the Church . . . If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier” (HV 15-16). “It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood” (CCC 2368).
So, to simplify: Catholic couples are called to cooperate with God in the transmission of life, being as generous as their particular circumstances allow, limiting births only by the use of natural methods and for suitably serious reasons.
This casts it all in such a negative light, though! Listen to what some of these documents have to say about the meaning and the function of marriage and family in God’s plan: “Called to give life, spouses share in the creative power and fatherhood of God” (CCC 2367). “Spouses, as parents, cooperate with God the Creator in conceiving and giving birth to a new human being . . . God himself is present in human fatherhood and motherhood . . . In procreation, therefore, through the communication of life from parents to child, God’s own image and likeness is transmitted, thanks to the creation of the immortal soul. . . . in their role as co-workers with God . . . we see the greatness of couples who are ready ‘to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Saviour, who through them will enlarge and enrich his own family day by day’ . . . Thus, a man and woman joined in matrimony become partners in a divine undertaking: through the act of procreation, God’s gift is accepted and a new life opens to the future” (Evangelium Vitae 43).
“Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents . . . All should be persuaded that human life and the task of transmitting it are not realities bound up with this world alone. Hence they cannot be measured or perceived only in terms of it, but always have a bearing on the eternal destiny of men”(GS 50-51). “Conjugal love . . . does not end with the couple, because it makes them capable of the greatest possible gift, the gift by which they become cooperators with God for giving life to a new human person. . . .Their parental love is called to become for the children the visible sign of the very love of God . . .Christian marriage and the Christian family build up the Church: for in the family the human person is not only brought into being and progressively introduced by means of education into the human community, but by means of the rebirth of baptism and education in the faith the child is also introduced into God’s family, which is the Church. . . . The commandment to grow and multiply, given to man and woman in the beginning, in this way reaches its whole truth and full realization” (Familiaris Consortio 14-15).
If you were married in a Catholic ceremony you answered “yes” to the following question: “Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” Chances are when you promised that you did not really understand any more than I did what it really meant. Now that you have read just a little of the teachings that inspired the question, I hope you might prayerfully consider whether that longing you’ve sometimes felt for “just one more” might be the voice of God.
 

Grace through Suffering

This originally appeared  in the East Tennessee Catholic in 2006. 
It was late at night–later than a twelve-year-old should have been awake–when Jake discovered me crying in front of the computer. Like all children, he doesn’t like to see his mother cry, and he asked me what was wrong. I told him about the website I was looking at, and he went up to bed.
He caught me reading and crying again the next night, and the next night too. “Why do you keep reading something that makes you so sad?” he wanted to know. He’s still too young to understand how joy and sorrow can be wrapped up in one package. He’s not alone–the idea of grace and joy flowing from suffering isn’t a popular one even with adults these days.
These personal stories are the most heart wrenching things I have ever come across in print. And yet there is a beauty in them. Last month I wrote about people who would abort a baby for having an extra finger. The families in these stories welcome babies developing without much of their brains. The news is full of articles about women “terminating” for “defective fetuses.” These stories are full of mothers who pray for their doomed babies to survive long enough to be born alive, who welcome surgical birth to give their sick babies a better chance at a few more minutes of life, who treasure every second of their pregnancies because that is the only time they will have to love and care for their babies.
You’d expect the stories to be sad, of course, and they are. For every story of a diagnosis that turned out to be a mistake, there are 20 about babies who proved to have terrible abnormalities, from anencephaly to missing kidneys to rare chromosomal additions that are incompatible with life. For every story of a baby who miraculously survived after medical intervention, there are ten about babies who breathe for just a few precious days.
But they are also joyful, peppered with such adjectives as “amazing,” “happy,” “beautiful,” and “thankful.” Nobody says, “I wish I’d had that abortion my doctor suggested.” Nobody says, “They were right. It would have been better for my baby to die sooner.” They don’t talk about defective babies, but about much-loved family members. And while many of them begin with anger at God, they end with acceptance, peace, and a respect for His dominion over life and death.
As I write this, my beautiful two-year-old, my fifth healthy child, is falling asleep in my arms. I am grateful for her perfection, but it bears remembering that God’s concept of perfection is not ours. I hope never to receive a poor prenatal diagnosis; I hope the same for you. Nevertheless, I’m glad these stories are there to remind us all that suffering is not meaningless and that its eradication by immoral means is never justifiable.

fearnot
photo credit: Jubilee Lewis used by permission: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

If you are on Facebook (and who isn’t?) you can “Like” BeNotAfraid’s page and see additional inspirational and informative posts by and about mothers and fathers dealing with prenatally diagnosed fetal abnormalities.

Why stop at two? Reflections on Having a Big Family

In honor of Mother’s Day I am reprinting this column, which appeared in the ETC about two years ago.

When Emily started kindergarten at St. Joseph School in 1996, the largest family at the school had four children. What happened to all the big Catholic families, I wondered. It was a far cry from my days there, where in my class alone there were representatives of families of seven, eight, nine, even ten.
Big families have been making a comeback, although five seems to be the new ten these days. Still, our family of five is not the biggest at St. Joseph, where offhand I can think of families with six, seven and nine kids.
When I tell strangers I have five children they say, “I couldn’t do it. Two [occasionally three] is as much as I can handle.” I am not here to make judgments on anyone else’s decisions concerning family size–only you can know what is best for your own family–but I wonder if people give themselves enough credit. There’s nothing special about me or my husband that makes us able to handle more kids than most people. Any additional noise or chaos tolerance we have has been acquired “on the job.” I tell people, “If you have three, you’re already outnumbered. After that, it just gets louder.” Going from one to two is the hardest adjustment. Once you’ve figured out how to divide your attention between two kids, adding a few more is not that hard.
Why do it, though? Why have a large family? I’ll answer that question from our family’s perspective this time, and from the Church’s perspective another time, but I have to say that I wonder the opposite–why would anyone NOT want to have lots of children? Having a baby is the most amazing, creative thing we can do in this life. When you add to your family you are a co-creator with God of an immortal soul. Nothing else you accomplish in this life will last forever but your child’s soul will exist to give glory to God for all eternity!
Even in THIS life, think of what a gift a child is to the world. The zero population growth folks like to frame human beings as nothing more than consumers of the earth’s precious, non-renewable resources. They forget that a child IS a resource, a more precious one. It’s trite but still true that the child you choose not to conceive might be the one who would have come up with solutions to global warming or the lack of a cheap alternative to oil. Family size is only one aspect of environmentalism and not the most important part.
I know some people who think that it’s not fair to the other kids in the family to keep having more. How can baby number five possibly get enough love and attention? It’s true that Lorelei does not get the focused attention from me that Emily received. She’s got something better, though–four older siblings to give her attention and love. When we are looking at books about babies, she always asks where their brothers are. When I told her that I did not have any brothers and that her father had no siblings at all, she looked at me uncomprehendingly. When you ask her to name the people she loves, she has a long list to fire off. “Aren’t you a lucky girl,” I say, “To have so many people who love you?”
And there is nothing like seeing a teenage boy who spends a lot of the time driving you crazy comforting a crying toddler or watching movies with her. I don’t think Lorelei is the only one deriving benefits from being one of five.
In a big family, kids have fewer material things and more responsibilities, yes. But is that a bad thing? We make sure our kids have everything they need. In our family, needs are pretty basic. Clothes are a need, but designer clothes are a want. Ipods and cell phones are not needs. Emily has an ipod but she earned the money to buy it herself. Her cell phone was her 16th birthday present. Our big kids have chores they have to do every day. John and I both have evening commitments outside the home and we expect them to take care of the little ones–feed them, bathe them, help William with his homework, and put them to bed–if we aren’t there. So they are learning to clean house, do laundry, cook, take care of small children. Even William and Lorelei–aged 7 and 3–can set the table if need be.
So, are we done yet? The answer is that I don’t know. We still feel like someone might be missing from our family. Each child is unique, and it’s fascinating to watch their personalities develop, and to know that you are partly responsible for the existence of this human being who will grow up and accomplish things and live after you. Honestly, it’s a wonder to me that anyone wants to stop at two.
Update:  I miscarried our sixth child in May 2008.  Our “baby” is 12 now.  I still wish we’d had just one more.
 
Why Stop at Two_Reflections on Having a Big Family