I enjoy Paul Prather's columns very much; he writes with humor and humility about two of my favorite topics — faith and family — and the blessings and challenges that accompany them. I particularly liked his recent reflection on his latest grandbaby, a fifth child for his son John and daughter-in-law Cassie (whose other four children are all five and under).
The column brought back memories of the season when my wife and I had six children ages eight and under (we now have seven). When you have that many young children, you give up the illusion of having your life under control; there's something freeing about that.
My quibble with Prather's column is in his clarification about John and Cassie's motivation for their large family. He points out that for John and Cassie, "it's not a religious thing," unlike "traditionalist Roman Catholics who don't believe in using birth control," or "ultra-conservative" evangelicals to think they have a "duty to populate the Earth."
One challenge in describing a different religious perspective than your own is the tendency to fall into caricatures. We all do it to a certain degree. Part of my journey toward the Catholic Church, from being a Methodist pastor, was discovering that my perceptions of Catholicism were not always representative of what the Catholic Church actually teaches.
The term "traditionalist Roman Catholic" is a little misleading, as if Catholicism has multiple moral views. In truth, the only official Catholic teaching on contraception and sterilization is that such acts distort the meaning of the sexual union, in which a man and woman are united in "one flesh" in the consummate marital gift of themselves to each other.
In other words, the sexual union is by its very nature a marital act that embodies the wedding vows exchanged at the altar. In those vows, we pledge our whole selves to each other in an unconditional and enduring promise, with nothing held back — a true step in faith that has no safety net. And intrinsic to our masculinity and femininity is the potential for fertility, contained within the whole person.
Many people, including misinformed Catholics, reduce the Catholic vision of sexuality to a list of rules and, thus, for example, believe the church forbids sex before marriage because sex is dirty and nasty. In contrast, the Catholic moral vision sees sex as sacred, a marital expression of total and permanent self-giving meant to mirror God's love.
Thus, when two unmarried persons have sex, underneath the intimacy and affection they may share in that moment, there is an objective dishonesty to the embrace, in which the reality of their transient commitment does not correspond to the marital language of their bodies.
Similarly, when couples sterilize their sexual union, either temporarily through contraception or permanently through a vasectomy or tubal ligation, they change the language of the act, reducing what is meant to be a total self-gift of love (fertility and all) to a partial and conditional gift that withholds something intrinsic to masculinity and femininity.
Catholic couples who are always open to potential life are not just "traditionalist" automatons mindlessly following church rules who think sex is only for baby-making. Neither are these couples usually providentialists who will have "as many children as God will send" (not that there's anything wrong with that).
In fact, the Catholic vision emphasizes every couple's responsibility to be stewards of their fertility such that, if a pregnancy needs to be avoided for legitimate reasons, abstinence can be practiced during the fertile window in each monthly(ish) cycle while couples enjoy intercourse during the longer window of natural infertility. Such an approach allows the couple to manage their fertility in a way that respects the nature of the sexual union as a total and mutual gift.
Catholics who have big families typically do so not because periodic abstinence is ineffective, but because they too, like Prather's son and daughter-in-law, love and value children. And despite the author's protests, I'd contend that this is indeed a "religious thing," rooted implicitly in the generous nature of the love in whose image we were created and which married love by its very nature reflects.
John and Cassie have tasted just enough of the mysterious joy of parenthood to naturally want more. Blessings to them and their growing family.
Mike Allen is director of family life ministries at the Catholic Diocese of Lexington.