Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I've been seeing some discussion of Natural Family Planning in the Catholic blog-o-sphere for a while. I get the Church's teaching that big families are good, and marriage is for pro-creation- I get that. What I don't understand is the contemptuous attitude some Catholics have towards parents who do use NFP, but apparently not in the way these Holiest of Holies would like. Scorn is heaped on those who don't have more than 5 kids, and unfavorable comparisons are made to the huge families Catholics use to have in the past circa the 19th century, as well as insinuations of a "contraceptive mentality" on the part of modern families.
It gets downright sinister when couples are encouraged (more like ordered) to just have as many kids as they can, and not worry about the practical issues- just pray and believe in Divine Providence. Anything less than this- worries about money, education, health- is considered to be a sort of surrender on the parents part to the secular culture. It's often the case that those who argue this view are part of the armchair-theologian brigade.
It makes me quite angry to read stuff like this- in this view marriage is nothing more than a baby-factory, sex becomes an unfortunate necessity for the propagation of the human race and huge families will never encounter any massive problems because God will just bail you out. It strikes me as incredibly arrogant and irresponsible. And I know that pro-creation is the aim of marriage, contraception is wrong- I just worry that this view gains credence because of some quotes from a few saints and examples drawn from earlier days. I mean, am I just overreacting? There's only one thing worse than liberalism in religion, and that's a conservatism that has a basis in truth but twists it so it becomes an ugly burden. That's what we need to be aware of- not just the loopiness of a Hans Kung.
I dunno- I can't stand the people who simply ignore Humane Vitae and live in a dream world where it'll be repealed any day. Nor I am comfortable with those who heap burdens on the backs of faithful Catholics and essentially guilt-trip them into having families like those in the Golden Age of Catholicism which never existed. Where am I supposed to stand?
In a day and age when it is second nature to secular culture to assume that the function of the Magisterium is to order people around and command them to do the impossible without lifting a finger to help them, it is good to remember that, far more often, the job of the Magisterium is to protect us from armchair bishops who think God died and appointed them the judge of men's souls. This is sometimes a surprise to hear, but the fact is that it is just as often (perhaps more often) necessary to pay attention to what the Church does not demand as to pay attention to what she does demand. So, for instance, one of the early heresies in the Church was Donatism, which decided that the Church was too merciful to sinners. Likewise, Jansenism was a rigorist heresy that wanted to keep the Impure (basically, everybody) away from the sacraments. The Church countered that this was like saying people were too sick to deserve medicine and urged the faithful to remember that "give us this day our daily bread" was a charter for freedom and encouragement to approach the sacrament frequently. And, of course, in the early Church, we saw the Judaizers likewise insisting that the grace and mercy of Christ were not good enough. You had to jump their particular set of shibboleth hoops to be really and truly Up to Snuff. With them as well, Holy Church had to paradoxically lay down the law of freedom and inform the self-appointed judges of souls that they were out of line.
The same principle applies here. The simple fact is that the Church asks of the faithful that they be open to life by not practicing artificial contraception. Period. If you are looking for a place to stand, stand on that. All the guilt-mongering spiritual comparisons inflicted on those with small families by the Elite is just the sin of judgmentalism. Those people are not your judge, God is. If you are doing the Church asks, you are doing what God asks.
A good habit for the faithful Catholic to cultivate when he is besieged by this sort of judgmental comparison-making is to learn the distinction between real scandal (i.e. tempting somebody to violate their conscience) and mere offended censoriousness. When somebody decides to be more holy than the Church, they are welcome to impose such things on themselves. But they have no right to impose them on you and you have no obligation to feel like a bad Catholic if you are doing what Holy Church asks.
The temptation to substitute rigorism for charity is a perennial one in the life of the Church. If a fan of NFP wants to have 25 kids and their spouse agrees, that's between them. If they want to tell you that you are a bad Catholic for not doing what holy Church does not demand, you can simply hand that entirely human demand back over to God and let it go. In matters ranging from this, to the insistence that you have to practice some particular form of piety lest God be angry at you, to the claim that you are damned if you don't buy some dodgy claim of private revelation, to the various pressure squads who sit in judgment of all manner of things unessential to the Faith, It's just a human being trying to play Pope (or God or, in the case of certain dodgy "apparations", the Blessed Virgin) and failing. They aren't the boss of you. God is. Don't let anybody demand of you what neither Holy Church nor your conscience does not demand.