Sophia M. Feingold is a wife, mother, and freelance writer living in Florida. She is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College (B.A., 2009) and Catholic University (M.A., English, 2014). She blogs at The Girl Who Was Saturday.
The Tuesday, July 3 edition of NPR’s “All Things Considered” celebrated the anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae with the headline “50 Years Ago, The Pope Called Birth Control ‘Intrinsically Wrong.’” The story focuses on how the Church’s stance on contraception has led Catholics to contravene Church authority. Sources include a Jesuit at Boston College (whose Jesuitical charism enables him to twist the Thomistic insight that “‘bad law … breeds contempt for good law’”); a Georgetown researcher; a baby boomer puzzled by how contraception offends God; a millennial who equates NFP with “the ‘rhythm method’”; a divorced mother of seven; a divorced female lay minister; and a priest who finds the word “believe” problematic.
To believe NPR, pro-encyclical representatives have little to say for themselves: Mary Eberstadt is quoted in generalities, an archbishop talks about a desire to retain the Church’s “uniqueness,” and a lay Catholic is concerned about the dilution of an unspecified “‘message.’” But such “revisionist” views are, according to NPR, in evidence only among “some Catholic conservatives” reacting to “the move toward a more tolerant approach under Pope Francis.” The piece ends by noting that American Catholics mostly don’t accept the prohibition on contraception, and (according to the Georgetown researcher) “‘The American Catholic church is assimilating ever further into American culture.’”
It is hardly accidental that the piece ran a day before July 4: it reads like a veritable declaration of independence from Church teaching. Superficially, the main teaching in question is contraception. But disagreement about artificial birth control is not really the heart of the matter. What is at stake is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the family.
For the NPRs of the world, the family is defined by the individuals who make it up. Every family, they argue, is like every person unique: “Let a thousand flowers bloom.”
On the other side, followers of Pope Paul VI share Leo Tolstoy’s belief that happy families are all alike. This does not imply that happy families fit a certain rigid structure, that they all practice the same hobbies, or include a certain number of children. Tolstoy’s axiom suggests rather that there are certain important factors upon which the happiness of a family depends. According to this viewpoint, while families possess their own unique cultures, a “family” must meet certain baseline criteria in order to be happy—and, to extend the principle, a family must meet a certain baseline definition in order to be a family at all. This view defines a family in the strict sense as a man and a woman who live together in a way such as is liable to produce children.
That is where the orthodox Catholic’s quarrel with NPR truly lies. That definition of family is the root matter in dispute when arguments about contraception, IVF, donor babies, divorce, abortion, polygamy, transgenderism, or gay marriage surface. Sister Lucia of Fatima wrote that “the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family." If she was correct, then NPR’s latest sally is but one of many in this long-drawn-out war.
But why is there a war at all?
When Mao invited flowers to bloom, he was hoping to draw out right-wing intellectuals, in order to identify and destroy them. NPR and its ilk are not necessarily out to destroy individuals on the “traditional” side; but they are desirous of destroying the “traditional” ideal.
But again, why?
It seems that NPR et al. believe that the nuking of the image of the nuclear family is necessary to make room for other household arrangements. In this they are more innocent than Chairman Mao, as they would be sincerely shocked to hear that they are harming anyone.
Ignorance aside, however, if the family is something given—if the family is, as it were, a naturally occurring compound like H20—if it is not something human beings “made up” but something that makes up us—then the eradication of the norm of family would be highly problematic for society as a whole. Some people are attempting to make this case, citing the problems faced by children raised in various non-traditional arrangements.
But the words of Sister Lucia go further than that; they imply not a natural claim but a supernatural one: that Satan is in some sense attacking the family, and in that way attacking God.
But, for the third time, why?
There are, I think, three answers to that question. First, because children learn about God from their parents. Our first imaginings of the Divine are inescapably colored by our experience of those who raised us. To put it bluntly, good parents make it easier for us to imagine a good God; bad parents make it harder. (The religiosity of the parents is certainly important, but I think ultimately less significant. Indeed, bad parents who are religious are perhaps the worst at promoting relations between their children and the deity they worship.)
That is the first reason why an attack on God might take the form of an attack on the family.
The second reason concerns the flip-side of the relationship: parents looking at their children see themselves as God sees them. How many of us have looked at a toddler throwing his milk on the floor, or an infant howling as her diaper is changed, and said “Man oh man, kiddo, if you only knew what was good for you … !” It sheds a whole new light on those bits of the Bible where God calls people his children.
The third reason why the family is central to grasping our relationship to God has to do, of course, with the bond between a husband and his wife. The best expression I’ve encountered of this facet of the family comes from a recent piece by Abigail Favale. Favale suggests that women and men have a “symbolic meaning” which illuminates “the relationship between God and humankind.”
… The man has the capacity to transmit life outside of himself, while the woman has the potential to gestate new life within.
If we take these biological realities as a mirror for God and humankind, the male sex is analogous to God because God endows life from himself but stands apart from it; he transcends. And the female sex is representative of humankind because its power lies in receptivity; the human being is created to receive the love of God, be inwardly transformed, and let that love bear fruit.
Receptivity to God, embodied in the form of woman, is humanity’s ultimate purpose. This is the telos of our existence—saying yes to divine grace and welcoming the inner metamorphosis it brings. Woman, then, is the representative human being before God; she carries the image of this receptivity to which all are beckoned, whether male or female.
… Each sex is telling the same story of divine-human communion through the language of the body, albeit from two distinct angles.
There are caveats, of course: not all women are married, or mothers; not all mystics are female; some men have very receptive personalities; etc.—and by extension, not all families are made up of a father, a mother, and one plus children. But if one takes up Favale’s suggestion, the Catholic Church’s orthodox position, and the words of Sister Lucia, then it seems that the nuclear family is normative precisely because it gives human beings a trinity of ways (that number is itself surely no accident) to relate to God. And if the Church is right about God and the family, these are not merely cutesy analogies: rather, the relationships within a family are in some profound sense true ways of understanding God’s nature.
It is a figure of speech to use male pronouns for God the Father; it is a figure of speech to call God our Father at all. But it is more true to say that God is our Father or our Husband than that he is our Friend. Indeed, the Church has asserted that God is Father in a primary sense, while human fathers are only secondarily so. That is why Jesus told his disciples to “call none your father upon earth” (Matt. 23:9); and that is the truth behind St. Paul’s mysterious formulation of God the Father as he “[o]f whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:15).
It is a strange, even a shocking claim. That perhaps is why, before the Our Father is prayed in its liturgical setting, the Catholic priest introduces it as something that “we dare to say” (audemus dicere). Catholics dare to claim that God is Father—is our Father.
If this is true, then I suspect that the ultimate answer to today’s social issues is not to argue the pros and cons of (say) contraception or any of the other hot-button issues. The best defense is a good offense (as Mao also said, but George Washingon too); and for those who believe in the “traditional family,” the best way to defend it is to live it well and cheerfully. For who will accept a doctrine, however plausible or poetic, that binds them to follow the representatives of a God whom, if they believe in him at all, they imagine as either a Disney Dad or a Victorian autocrat? And, if the only human fathers they know fall into either of those two camps, how will they ever imagine God otherwise?
So, from a millennial with little experience in apologetics, to those angry at NPR, a word of advice: Go home and be good fathers—and, mutatis mutandis, husbands and wives and mothers and children.
Sanctity has a beauty that will save the world.
Now excuse me while I go take care of my babies.