|Filipinos at Pope Francis’ Mass in Manila, Jan. 18.|
(Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe.)
You would think that a writer billed as a “spirituality columnist” for a website that professes to cover “all things Catholic” would have some familiarity with Catholic teaching, especially the most controversial doctrines. However, Margery Eagen, writing for Crux, talks about Pope Francis’ recent speech at the Mall of Asia as though her only knowledge of Catholicism came from Planned Parenthood.
Although he has not lived it himself, I had thought [Pope Francis] understood something about good people living real lives in real marriages. I had thought he even understood something about the beauty of sex in marriage, the need for sex in marriage.
I was wrong.
In the United States, his words will have little practical impact. Most Catholic women have used birth control for decades. There are no more families with 12 and 14 kids in the Sunday morning pews. But his words do reveal a heartbreakingly backward perspective: that the highest calling of married women is sacrificing all to rear children, as many as come along, no matter those women’s talents or skills or dreams.
These aren’t the words of a person who’s well-educated in Catholic doctrine, let alone someone who should be discussing Catholic spirituality. These are the words of a journalist content to work with the straw-man “Catholic beliefs” constructed for her by second-wave feminism, the kind of nonsense which led Elizabeth Dias at TIME to write that “the mainstream media has nearly no understanding of the Church.”
In fact, Francis’ words reveal no such chauvinist nonsense. To be sure, he offered a doughty defense of the goodness of family and childrearing against “ideological colonization”, a branch of “cultural imperialism”. Eagen’s criticism presents us with the kind of false dilemma demagogues love: you’re either for contraception or you’re against women working outside the home.
To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, fallacies don’t cease to be fallacies simply because they’re near-universally believed true; a Javanese proverb reminds us that if a million people say something foolish, it’s still foolish. There are so many things that are just flat-out wrong with Eagen’s philistine dismissal of Francis’ speech that it’s hard to force them into a single theme; it’s almost a précis of everything that’s fallacious about the contraceptive culture. So let’s begin at the beginning:
That there are often valid reasons — that is, reasons not stemming from lack of love or generosity — for a married couple to not desire more children than they have is something the Church has acknowledged for many decades. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2368-2370) At the same time, the Church has also acknowledged that conjugal love, while ordered to procreation, is also unitive; thus Ven. Pius XII:
The Creator himself ... established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator has intended for them. At the same time, spouses should know how to keep themselves within the limits of just moderation. (Discourse, Oct. 29, 1951; cit. in CCC 2362; bold font mine)
Eagen’s wail, “The pope doesn’t understand!”, is a teenager’s tactic, a play for sympathy when the arguments you thought would be sure clinchers fail to persuade Mom and Dad. (It often crops up in tandem with that other popular adolescent whine, “You don’t trust me!”) But, in truth, the Church does understand that marital sex is both good and necessary:
This love is an eminently human one since it is directed from one person to another through an affection of the will; it involves the good of the whole person, and therefore can enrich the expressions of body and mind with a unique dignity, ennobling these expressions as special ingredients and signs of the friendship distinctive of marriage. This love God has judged worthy of special gifts, healing, perfecting and exalting gifts of grace and of charity. Such love, merging the human with the divine, leads the spouses to a free and mutual gift of themselves, a gift providing itself by gentle affection and by deed, such love pervades the whole of their lives [cf. Pius XI, Casti Connubii]: indeed by its busy generosity it grows better and grows greater. Therefore it far excels mere erotic inclination, which, selfishly pursued, soon enough fades wretchedly away. (Gaudium et Spes 49)
That parenthood is an “exalted vocation” (Humanae Vitae 12) is true not just of women but of men as well; indeed, one of our greatest Kulturkrankheiten is the devaluation of fatherhood. However, nowhere is it written in Church doctrine that that exalted vocation should necessarily prevent women from pursuing careers or having interests outside the home. One of the great exponents of women in the workplace was St. John Paul II:
Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life — social, economic, cultural, artistic and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of “mystery”, to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity. (St. John Paul II, Letter to Women, 2; see also Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 295)
“I was hungry, and you gave me a condom; I was thirsty, and you gave me a pill; I was naked, and you gave me a Depo-Provera shot; I was homeless, and you made your financial assistance contingent on my country legalizing birth control.” The physical, social and ecological hazards presented by chemical contraceptives are subjects for other posts (see Chrissy Wing in Ethika Politika and Chelsen Vicari in Juicy Ecumenism); suffice it for now to say that the recent research simply backs up Bl. Paul VI’s original wisdom. What’s truly indefensible is that “ethicists” like Peter Singer would contemplate making such a society-wrecking chemical mandatory, rather than merely legal.
For a person writing as a Catholic “spirituality columnist”, Eagan’s critique of Francis is stripped of anything noticeably Catholic or spiritual. It could just as well have been written by any campus leftist who was raised in an irreligious, subconsciously anti-Catholic home and educated in public schools. Eagan doesn’t seek to understand what she criticizes; for her, it’s enough that the Church says “no” to The Pill.
In an essay last February in The American Conservative, “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching”, Patrick J. Deneen noted, “Liberal Catholicism has no future — like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation.” I have no such hope; rather, I fear that both the left and the right will continue to confuse and divide Catholic Americans for the next twenty-five to thirty-five years.
Which means another generation or two of people like Eagen — people who don’t really know what the Church teaches, yet have the gall to insist that “the Church doesn’t understand”.
UPDATE: Same day, 1:26pm CST
I take too long to write these posts. If I were a better blogger, I would have incorporated Pope Francis’ airplane interview remarks. Leila Miller of Little Catholic Bubble points out that, if you actually read the full transcript of the interview, you find the Pope specifically rejects the assertion that Catholicism requires married couples to “be like rabbits”.
Of course, the MSM, being who and what they are, stuck in the word “breed”; some even made Francis’ words into a negative command — “Don’t breed like rabbits!” What else is new?