Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Is "Planned" a Dirty Word for Catholics?

Taking a quiet Saturday morning to catch up on reading the newspaper, I was perusing a WSJ article on the lost virtue of prudence in our modern American society when I came across this jarring note:
The puzzling thing is that, under normal circumstances, our Americanus prudens should be flourishing. By looking ahead and exercising self-control, these unassuming homebodies tend to do well in school, form solid families and make lots of money -- which they compulsively save, tucking it away in banks or mutual funds (once-sturdy institutions recently found by scientists to be hollow). The prudent have only the children they can afford -- prudential parenthood is inevitably planned -- but these offspring tend to thrive thanks to a stable home environment in which education is emphasized.
This threw me because the most financially prudent people I know at work are those with single incomes and large families -- while the most imprudent are generally DINKs who take several packaged vacations a year and insist that pet insurance is so expensive on their treasured dogs that they can't imagine how they could possibly afford to have children on a combined income of a mere 200k+ a year.

And yet, as I think about it, it's not that I think prudence plays no role in one's decisions about having children, but rather that I have a strong immediate reaction against ever discussing having a child as being "planned" or otherwise with anyone other than other committed Catholics I already know to share my beliefs about the nature of sexuality and marriage.

By chance I'd had a conversation with a young co-worker a few days before that had thrown this into relief for me.

Coworker (who had just been talking about how her "clock was ticking" but her boyfriend seemed in no hurry to propose): "I can't believe you've got four kids already. Are you guys done?"

Darwin: "Oh, I don't know. Probably not."

Coworker: "Oh my gosh! How many are you going to have?"

Darwin: "We'll just have to see. My wife is the oldest of six, so she's hoping to have a large family."

Coworker: "Are you guys Catholic or something?"

Darwin: "Well, yes."

Coworker: "Oh, okay. That makes sense. I mean, if you think God says you'll go to hell if you use birth control, that would explain having a lot of kids."

Darwin: "Ummmmm..."

Coworker: "I mean, I want to have a large family. But for me, large is four kids. I guess for you guys it's just however many children God sends?"

[pause followed by topic change]

I found myself unable to quickly come up with answers near the end of this conversation because of two conflicting things that I wanted to express yet couldn't think how to reconcile without making the conversation much more long and personal than I would have liked. On the one hand, "just however many children God sends" is not, I think, a very accurate description of married Catholic life as we know it in our family. Certainly, there is an element of being open to whatever happens. The use of NFP is not always exact (or easy), and one can be surprised. And yet, I think there is a valid part for prudence to play for a Catholic married couple. There are serious considerations that a married couple takes into account in regards to finances, the wife's health, and their ability to deal with the kids they already have well. None of this means that one imagines oneself to be in complete control of the situation, but one does try hard (and usually successfully) to do what is best for the family in "planning" when to get pregnant and when to wait.

Not only does "just however many children God sends" not accurately describe the experience of being a Catholic married couple (or our experience, at any rate) but an additional concern is that it doesn't produce a very attractive view of what that Church has to say. (And while many people know that traditional Catholics don't use birth control, few in the outside culture seem to know that modern NFP exists and works.) The teaching, it seems to me, is not at all that one must do no planning and simply wait to see how many children appear, but rather that sex and procreation and intimately connected and that in order to avoid having children one must forgo sex at certain times.

And yet explaining all this, and how it works, is not something that I find myself eager to do with a female co-worker in what started out is a casual cube-to-cube conversation.

"Planning" one's children is something which I (and I think many orthodox Catholics) strongly associate with the contraceptive culture and with explamations of, "Oh my gosh, I couldn't possibly have another. Two is so hard!" And so when asked these questions I generally only feel comfortable with saying something like, "You never know" or "It could happen". Because the only other option involves explaining far more about married Catholic sexuality than I'd really like. And yet, I fear that this inability to discuss the Catholic approach to "planning" (out of hesitation to get into lots of messy details of how NFP works) makes it all the more difficult to spread our understanding of marriage and sexuality to the wider culture. An understanding which society could probably use to hear a bit about.


AnotherCoward said...


I think the culture dissonance comes in large part from fear and the literal self abandon introduced by the "sexual revolution". Modern birth culture and praxis is largely an instrument of fear - fear of our bodies, of children, and of the future.

NFP and Catholic sexuality demands that (1) fear not be present in your sexual relationship while at the same time (2) being aware of your situation and (3) in control of your self. At the same time, we have to grant that sometimes, even under the best of self control and given our best awareness ... Love begets Life. But that's okay, that's what you signed up for anyway.

While this is all very noble even amongst many of my Protestant friends, it is seen as inconvenient and less desirable in a world where ignorant security (or at least minimally interfering countermeasures) is a commodity generally thought available. We can give over to our passions and not be bothered with retaining some level of sobriety. And, as the argument goes, if God really wants that baby, He can still make it happen.

But, you're right - you can't really lay that on a person in a 5 minute casual conversation. I think, perhaps, there has to be something more along the lines of St. Francis's maxim of preaching without words. I've been thinking that means growing my family to include, in some ways, my co-workers - so they know the joy of my family. It really isn't obligation for my part. It is peace, joy, and boundless blessings (even with poopy diapers, broken trinkets, timeouts, and spankings in the mix).

bearing said...

It's not so much planning as discerning -- discerning one day at a time how our family is being called to enlarge God's family.

I know what you mean though... Catholic "planning" is so very different from the secular ideal of "planning." You just want to avoid the word entirely, because of all its connotations.

Anonymous said...

"We're into planning, but we're also into surprises."

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

All of your children will be planned at least in this sense, that you waited until you were married to have them. By that standard the planning of even a couple who says "we will take however many God wants" exceeds the level of planning of a lot of folks.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

I only wish secular and Catholic child-planning were different. When I mentioned my second pregnancy to a cradle Catholic relative, she said "Wow! I didn't even know you were trying!"

Six years later, I still don't have a response to that.

I do find many non-Catholics understand if you explain that you see babies as rather like vacations: you love them, you look forward to them, you do space them out so you won't die of exhaustion, and while you might have an opinion as to when you think you might be ready for another, it would seem very strange to announce how many total vacations you plan to have in your lifetime. The analogy is certainly imperfect, but it helps get across the idea.

mrsdarwin said...

I do find many non-Catholics understand if you explain that you see babies as rather like vacations...

That is possibly the best two-second summary of NFP I've ever seen.

Tina said...

When my very new suitor (now husband) asked how many children I would like to have, I responded by saying "However many I end up with."

Which turns out to have been a good attitude to start out married life with because *I* certainly didn't plan on this number of kids. We have two children.

I think that the whole idea of 'planning' is seriously flawed. How can one possibly 'plan' a family. Families are made up of people and you can't plan people. To plan a person is to try to control them, to take away their free will, and to try to mould them into your own image. Even people with no religion would agree that you can't do that to another person.

Even if you try to achieve a birth in a given month, you still can't plan that person. You have no idea of what person will be born, or what kind of struggles or trials that person will go through in their life.

No, we cannot plan families. Families are made up of people and when faced with a person we have one choice to make. We can choose to love or not to love.

We can make an educated decision or discernment that now is not a good time to conceive, but that is not planning. Because even if you want to conceive now you can't assume that you will achieve a pregnancy.

When we decide to engage in the marital embrace with our spouse we are making a choice to love that person in that way. When we decide to abstain from the marital embrace we are loving that person in that particular way. They are both loving and unitive actions, they simply have different potential outcomes.

John Farrell said...

This threw me because the most financially prudent people I know at work are those with single incomes and large families -- while the most imprudent are generally DINKs who take several packaged vacations a year and insist that pet insurance is so expensive on their treasured dogs that they can't imagine how they could possibly afford to have children on a combined income of a mere 200k+ a year.

LOL. This gets my vote for pithiest blog of the week.

Anonymous said...

Wow, so much could be said on this topic...

We have seven and thought nothing of it while I had a good paying, oh well...

What really grosses me out is how open women are about their personal lives. "Oh, how cute, your first?"
new mom - "Yeah, and let me tell ya, we're done. Had 'em tied off on me & him too!"

Now folks, thats really sick.

Anonymous said...

I did a double take at the "planned" part as well - in what was otherwise a pretty good editorial. I think Blackadder is right, though, in that a plan doesn't necessarily mean a narrow decision to go off birth control on X date and conceive a child on Y date.

I was an "accident" in the sense that my parents, after nine years of unsuccessfully "trying" to conceive with the help of various fertility treatments, and being told by the doctors that things were hopeless, just gave up. A few weeks after my mom returned to work, she got a big surprise.

-Peter G

CMinor said...

"Wow! I didn't even know you were trying!"
How about,
"Why do you think we got the license?"

My personal favorite is "don't you all have a TV?"

I liked the vacation analogy!

Your reticence is understandable, but now your coworker will go off and tell everyone she knows,
"I work with this Catholic, and he believes that God will send him to Hell if he uses contraception, so he and his wife are just going to have as many children as God sends," (probably with her intonation going up at each comma.)

Unfortunately most folks will glaze over at the mere mention of the words "theology of the body." It's hard to get past "well, that's not it, exactly."

I suppose "we believe in mutual respect and self-control" would appear confrontational.

"We use natural methods of child spacing" is translated by most as "Rhythm method! Catholic roulette!! No wonder they have all those kids!!!"

Perhaps you can educate your coworker incrementally. Or MrsDarwin can corral her at the office Christmas party.

I feel your pain. Somebody needs to design a repeatedly-photocopied cubicle sign, perhaps featuring a cartoon character, with the slogan, "No, I do not want to hear about your vasectomy/tubal ligation/other embarassing surgical procedure!"

Mike said...

I can totally relate to that conversation! We recently had our second (another boy), and I have been barraged with the "are you done?" questions by everyone at work. When I say "probably not," I usually get "gonna try for a girl?"

I suppose once we're up to number five or six, my cover will be blown.

Sarah said...

Someone I've known socially for a while who knows I'm a committed Catholic asked me, "Has God told you to have a baby yet?"

I sort of muttered "No" since I'm not preggers yet, but I wish that I had had a better response.

Darwin said...


Well, I don't think she's necessarily pass it around with scorn as she's trying to figure things out and generally respects me otherwise. But I feel like I need to get a better explanation out there eventually as I know that her boyfriend was brought up Catholic.


This is probably more of a guy-type response, but you could always say: "For right now God's just told me that I need to try all the time. It gets a little tiring, but I try to do my part."


Anonymous said...

Well, we just welcomed our 4th monkey to the family (3rd girl). Anyways, I tend to get the "Don't you know what causes that?" line a lot. My canned response is: "Well, if you need any help, my wife and I can give you a few pointers." I did, however, convince a co-worker that baby-making is indeed more fun than TV.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I'd also argue that while alrge families don't necessarily plan every pregnancy, they do plan FOR each child.

My husband and I (not a large family yet, but we hope to be!) try to arrange our lives so that we can always be ready to welcome another baby in 9 months time....

And it works. It means living a life that leaves room for adding more kids, but that's something I think most people are called to do. If you awon't be able to afford another child if you take that vacation to Disney, maybe you should skip the vacation-- kids are much better!@ =)

Dymphna said...

You're nicer than I am. If my co-worker had asked me all that I would've told her where to go and what to do once she got there.

Anonymous said...

Great post Darwin. I am regularly trying reflecting on how to share the truth of our awesome faith in weird 5 minute conversations. I am expecting our 6th baby in a 3 weeks. I am ALWAYS asked if we'll have more, if we planned this one, how many girls vs how many boys (to see if just maybe we were going for the gender we don't have) etc. Then the stranger/aquaintance will usually tell me why they won't have any more children. Once, immediately after Mass a stranger asked me if all 5 kids were mine etc, and then went on to say "Well, we use NFP and it works for us. We have two children 3 years apart. And won't have any more." What do you say to that?

Lisa said...

We've come to the conclusion that there is no answer that a non-Catholic (or a non-practicing Catholic) will really understand. We just like to leave people with the understanding that our large family is truly a blessing to us ~ and no burden to them. Thus: "Aren't you done yet?" US: "Well, after this much practice, we think we're getting pretty good at it. Why quit now?" or "There can never be too many blessings. We're always happy to take more."

Catholic or non, this form of what I have been told in sneering tones is "Providentialism" (Oh, horrors!) is obviously not for everyone. And, certainly, we can't have any knowlege of God's plan for everyone else, but we've been happy to leave our family planning entirely to Him.

Does that make us irresponsible or Faithfilled? Can Catholics plan? We can plan to do His Will ~ or at least try, and that is the best anyone can do.

Thought provoking post. Thanks.

Nzie said...

I love the responses, and the post is great. As number 2 of 8, I've heard a lot of very rude, invasive questions of this sort. I even was asked in jr. high on the school bus if my parents were going to have any more kids. I told them my parents' bedroom wasn't my business, and later on I told them atleast I had proof my parents loved each other... perhaps a bit juvenile, but atleast it stopped.

You know, the US and most "developed" countries are currently below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family (which keeps the population numbers about stable, although that replacement rate might rise as lifespan increases). Maybe we should simply explain that clearly our way works out for the benefit of all, and since so many people are unable to have more or choosing to have less than two children, the rest of us have to pick up the slack if we're going to keep social security solvent. Children: where Christian living meets patriotic duty. :D

Jeremy and Jessie said...

It may be an uncomfortable topic, but as pointed out, the secular side doesn't hesitate to talk about contraception, planning, etc, so we need to be ready (unapologetic and unembarrased) to always give a brief primer on correctly ordered sexuality.

Seriously, we have lost the public narrative on sexuality and family and we, every one of us, need to do our part to spread the good news and not wilt in the face of our sleazy culture of death.

Time to stand in the breach.

Anonymous said...

I say AMEN Jessie!

With ontraceptive adds running all the time on the TV, we need to be open about talking about the planning we do. I don't have a problem calling it planning, because that is what it is. God set forth the laws of nature and the way our bodies work. There is nothing wrong with working within the rules God has established to achieve or avoid a result that we as a couple want. God does help those who help themselves.

As to comments from others - we have 4 children, ages 13 to 8, three girls and then a boy. We thought that a family of 4 children would be a nice size. Each of our children were timed within a month of when we wanted to achieve. But people always assume and commented that we stopped "now that you have your boy." Not true - and I take the opportunity every time I have a chance to set the record straight. I give as many details as the situation requires, but try and let them know - without being to blunt - that NFP has helped us avoid probably more effetively than the 5 year IUC currently on the market. And the only side effect that we have is a stronger respect for each other and the plan God has for his creation.


Chastity Matters said...

It helps me to explain to the "outside" that I am not motivated by the fear of hell, (although that does motivate me in other instances,) with regard to my sexuality, but that I am motivated by the reality and truth of love. I don't not use contraception because the "Church says no-no," although that is certainly cause enough, but because of what the Church says yes-yes to. This has proven to show to some that our beliefs are actually logically consistent, thought-out systems that are ameliorating to the human condition, not a mere blind, and resentful, submission to an oppressive authority.

Maggie said...

Jessie is absolutely right. We've been silent for a very long time on this, and it's time to stand up for ourselves!

The quote about financial prudence reminds me of a commercial I saw once, for Mastercard (I think). It lists all the expenses involved in raising a child to college age, claims the number is upwards of $250,000, and then adds, "and that's assuming she's going to like her nose." Seriously? Seriously?

I've never known a large, faithful NFP-using Cathoic family who wasn't about ten times happier than a "typical American family" with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence.

Maybe it's because NFP using couples like sex better... because they're actually have normal, natural, God-intended sex...without hormones or barriers or fear. Jeez.

Also, the vacation analogy is fantastic. Thanks for that!

Myron said...

Well, not being a Catholic, I'm not sure if I can comment, but if you're talking to someone who is open enough to talk about their sex life and contraceptive strategies, you may need to adjust your strategy to be more open yourself. This sort of openness is encouraged and seen as healthy in the "modern" secular community - treating sex/contraception as a "taboo" or "impolite" thing to talk about is actively discouraged, and seen as backward. They're not going to be embarrassed if you respond in kind, although they may be surprised and think "hey, maybe this relgiion thing doesn't mean you have to live in the stone age, after all!"

So, explain how removing fear of preganacy from sex is healthy, improves your sex life and the closeness you feel with each other (remember - secular moderns are reading all kinds of things about how to improve their sex lives by trying differnt positions, locations, partner combinations, role plays, whatever - sex-life-improvement-advice will be accepted).

Something short like "Well, even with modern contraception, there are unplanned pregnancies, right? We do plan, but we decided our planning would focus on making sure an unplanned pregnancy wouldn't be a problem, so we could relax and really enjoy ourselves. We don't plan on getting pregnant right now, but we don't have to worry about what happens if that plan fails, because we've got a plan for what we'd do in that case too."

Or just "Well, sometimes, whatever you do, if you're regularly having awesome sex, unplanned pregnancies happen. So we thought we'd best plan for that, just in case. So we're not too worried about it, if we have another kid, we'll be happy about it, because we're prepared." Turns their "we're being realistic and responsible, planning our lives, while you and your outdated religion are walking over a cliff on faith, just leaving it all up to God" idea kind of on its head. :)

The "awesome sex" part is important, although it might seem a little crass to be so open. Awesome sex is what some of these people are after, and if you show them how they can get it, they'll listen more carefully and attentively to what you're saying.

Myron said...

The bottom line here is that if you start talking about every child being a blessing, living in a loving relationship in accordance with God's plan, people's eyes are going to glaze over and you'll lose an opportunity to remove some of their misconceptions about your approach to sex. But if you start talking about having great relationships, spending less time worrying, and having overall probably much more satisfying sex, people will sit up and pay attention.

Make the message fit the audience. Sexual responsibility makes sense for everyone, but different reasons make sense for different people. Know the person you're talking to, and mention the reasons they will listen to.

Darwin said...


I think you're right that that would be the right way to explain things. Which is why I came away feeling that I really hadn't got my worldview across well at all.

It's just that I'm uncomfortable explaining Catholic "awesome sex" practices in what started as a casual conversation at work -- especially with a young female coworker that I find kind of attractive.

But you're right that that's the way it would need to be explained. I guess I just need to work on the self confidence to "go there" in explaining Catholic lifestyles.

John Farrell said...

I'm uncomfortable explaining Catholic "awesome sex" practices...

Indeed. Now, Catholic "awesome drinking practices"--that's a whole different ballgame!


Myron said...

It's just that I'm uncomfortable explaining Catholic "awesome sex" practices in what started as a casual conversation at work -- especially with a young female coworker that I find kind of attractive

Understandable. Maybe next time, the response could be: "Well, there is a such thing as Catholic family planning, it just works a little different than you might expect, because we know we can't plan everything in life. I could go on for quite a while about it if you want, but... ?"

That way she can go "um... how 'bout that local sports team" or "Sure, why not? How does it work?" At which point you have the go-ahead to smoothly transition into a less casual conversation.

Also, with many (not all) girls (unlike guys, at least in public), it's going to be more about very good sex as a part of a very good relationship than awesome sex for its own sake. So if you have a brief opportunity during a casual conversation, try to plant at least one of these counter-misconceptions in there somewhere:

1. Catholics do plan/plan for their families.
2. Sex is an important part of a proper Catholic (married) relationship - and for more reasons than "making babies for God".

Another possible approach. Maybe instead of "Ummmm..." just laugh a little and go "Well, we have a little more common-sense than that." (Or "Well, we don't leave it all up to God!") :) Then let her say something in response which may indicate an interest in hearing more, like "Oh, really?" Then "The real Catholic approach to sex is a bit complicated to explain, but I can tell you from experience it leads to great relationships and some... well (awkward micro-pause), some pretty good sex, too ;).

The fact that you're willing to say that last bit, and aren't sexually repressed because of your religion, will make an impression and counteract stereotypes quite effectively, just by itself. Plus, if your female co-worker sees you as someone with a good sex life who it's safe to talk to ('cause you're a guy who's not looking to hook up with her, plus you've broken the ice on this topic), it might lead to a less casual conversation down the road, where you can explain things in more detail.

It's OK (natural) to be a little awkward on this topic, but there's a difference between awkward and silent :)

Also (I know I'm not going to meet with a lot of agreement on this one, given the crowd here, but...) I think it's kinda good that there is social pressure to have smaller families. I don't support the contraceptive culture of sexual irresponsibility, but I do think there are just too many people on the planet as it is, and I hope to adopt rather than procreate. Population growth can't continue indefinitely, either a reduction in standard of living or a stabilization (and possibly reduction) in population has to occur eventually, and if the reduction in population occurs because we over-exploit and destroy the natural systems that support us, that would be a sad indictment of us as a species, as well as causing a lot of pain and suffering which could have been averted by us being responsible. Keeping the pyramid scheme that is social security going is not a great reason to increase the pressure on an already overstretched environment. Perhaps the solution is for people to stop taking as many packaged vacations (and noses) and start supporting the older generation who can no longer support themselves.