Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs daily at Aleteia. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and ten children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.
A reader writes:
I have two little boys a year apart and my husband and I felt the movement of conscience each time to find out the gender and reveal our babies' names that we had discerned and decided on. We truly feel that since a child's name is linked to their dignity (CCC 203) and that upholding the dignity of a child (unborn or born) to the utmost is a moral issue, that this is no longer "just a matter of preference" or "just a parenting choice" but an interesting moral responsibility in this age of ultrasound technology. Of course, the Church has not spoken to this or declared it a moral obligation, but I cannot understand why some practicing Catholics that I know do not agree that referring to a child by his/her gender and name before birth (as soon as it can be known) is MORE life-affirming than not doing so, and is clearly a moral issue because of the inherent dignity of the unborn.
Many of my practicing Catholic friends are adamant about their decisions to not find out the gender or to find out gender (and possibly reveal it to their family/friends) but keep the name a secret. So far I have only heard them state their preferential reasons that very much border on I'm-ok-you're-ok (relativism, amIright?).
I am very curious about what you and your husband have chosen to do (or maybe you already wrote a piece about this that I haven't seen?). If you agree with my friends that it is a matter of preference and either option is equally life-affirming, I simply must ask why and if you could provide a rational, logical reason that I have not come across before! I just cannot process why every "secular" couple I know found out the gender and revealed the name, and the majority of Catholics I talk to have done the opposite. What am I missing here? Do you see my point?
For my first few pregnancies, I felt strongly that the womb was a sacred space that should be intruded upon as little as possible, and because of this, I had a strong aversion to the idea of finding out the baby's sex. I saw other women approaching their pregnancies with attitudes that struck me as controlling and utilitarian, and felt convicted that I ought to let my own baby float anonymously in the warm waters, unconditionally accepted by parents who didn't need to know any biological details, so strong was their love. I didn't think it was sinful to find out the sex, but it seemed sort of spiritually gauche.
So I experienced something similar to what my reader felt, only it led me to the opposite conclusion! I felt that, because of the inherent dignity of my unborn child, and because of my desire to affirm the baby's life as an unborn child, we should decline to find out and reveal the sex.
Notice I've used the phrase "I felt." Despite how strongly I held these feelings, that's all they were: feelings. They were not based on any true moral principles. And, as is happens, my circumstances changed, my priorities changed, and eventually we began finding out the sex of our babies before the birth — mainly for the life affirming reason that we wanted the day of the baby's birth to be a happy one, and if we were going to have another girl, we wanted the boys (who were desperately hoping for a little brother) to already be used to that idea before the actual birth. Also, the busier I got, the more I appreciated being able to sort baby clothes before the birth instead of after.
So, nope, not a moral question, not even a little bit. Whether to reveal the baby's sex and name before or after birth are merely preferences, and do not carry any moral weight, and should not lead us to make any assumptions about how welcome the child is or how pro-life the parents are.
Do more Catholics tend to keep the sex and name secret until birth, as the reader says? I'm sure it varies widely by community — but if they do, it probably has to do with a tendency to be more old fashioned and counter-cultural in general: whatever the rest of the world is doing, we're going to do the opposite. Or, perhaps practicing Catholics are more likely to feel that God is in control, and that all babies are good news by definition, so there is less urgency to find out if it's a girl or a boy. Or, since Catholics are more likely to expect to have larger families, and may continue to hope for children even after the ideal "one boy, one girl" set, maybe they are less likely to be anxious to know who they're carrying. It's a good thing to trust God and it's a good thing to welcome babies, but we may certainly do these things with or without revealing the sex and name of the baby.
Now let's talk about the larger issue here, beyond baby announcements. When we are enthusiastic about our faith, we naturally look for ways to express our faith and to seek God's will in everything that we do, and this is a very good thing. However, our enthusiasm can lead to make some mistakes about our own moral states and, more disastrously, about other people's moral states.
I'm a little uncomfortable with using the word "discernment" for things which are, in the long run, trivial and transient. I don't "discern," for instance, what to make for dinner every night, although there would be nothing wrong with praying about it. I know that, in general, I have the moral responsibility to feed my children in a way that is healthy and enjoyable for them, and which doesn't cost more in money and time than we can afford. But the everyday details of how to achieve those things, and where to put the emphasis on any current day, are entirely up to me, and there is no moral component inherent in pork chops or in mac and cheese.
One mother might feel called to support local farmers more; another mother might feel that the Holy Spirit is prompting her to cook simply in solidarity with the poor; yet another mother may feel that it's important to challenge her kids to eat more adventurous food, rather than the same old dull and safe favorites. Yet another mother might reluctantly (or happily) realize that food just isn't the most important thing right now, and that as long as everyone gets nourished, all is well.
In other words, there are many, many ways to do God's will, and really only a few ways to turn against it. We may absolutely feel what the reader calls "a movement of conscience" to do some particular thing. The Holy Spirit gives us all kinds of nudges toward greater holiness, for which we should be alert. But it's not, in general, a sin to ignore that nudge, and it's definitely not a sin for other people to decline to respond to my personal nudge. There are all kinds of holiness, and so there are many different paths toward that holiness. So, to return to the original point, no, it's not "relativism" to decide how to be "life affirming," as long as you are, in fact, life affirming. Giving birth and taking care of your baby? That's life affirming. The details are up to the individual parents.
In conclusion, I would like to publicly thank Joanne McPortland for telling me, a month before I was due with my last baby, that a kid who is named "Una Fisher" will always be known as "Tuna Fish." Whew, that was a close one!