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A reader writes:

 I’ve got a Catholic friend who is sorely in need of some good reading materials on the main concepts in Theology of the Body. She buys into very secular views of contraception, abortion, marriage, and sex in general, and has admitted a total lack of education regarding the Catholic teaching on the subjects, as well as a (reluctant) interest in obtaining said education.

I’m looking for something that’s intelligent, readable, down to earth, doesn’t assume that you already agree with the Church teaching, and hits all the main points without an angry polemical vibe. I checked out some stuff by Christopher West, but didn’t like it too much.
Any suggestions, smarties?  If you have something to recommend, it would be very helpful if you could say a few things about why you liked it, or what kind of audience it would be appropriate for.
Thanks!

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All this talk about young married couples has sent me on a trip down memory lane, back to the old days when my husband was naught but a boyish husband-to-be, and I was a blushing maiden of 22.  And by “maiden,” I mean I was 22.  Ah, yoot!

We did go to marriage preparation classes.  They were held by another couple in their comfortable home.  It was a little too comfortable, as I recall:  they installed me next to the fire in a rocking chair, and I damn near fell asleep every night as they droned on and on and on.  Maybe I missed the good parts while I was dreaming, but I don’t think so.  My husband reports pretty much the same thing as I remember.

There are, we learned, two components to a stable, successful, loving, happy, and holy marriage.  Are you ready?  Here they are:

1.  Keep the lines of communication open.

2.  Invest in gold.

Well, there you have it.  Boy, were we prepared for marriage then, let me tell you!

So, that was, let’s see, 1997.  To be honest, I’m a little amazed at how many people mentioned that NFP even came up in their marriage prep — last I heard, most Catholics aren’t even aware there is such a thing.  I would be very interested to hear what your marriage preparation was (or is) like, and what year it was  — and also what your parents’ or older siblings’ was like, if you know.  Did you hear anything useful?  Anything nutty?  Does it seem like things getting better, overall?  Or worse?  Or what?

And why don’t we have more gold around here?  I guess it’s a good thing they didn’t say anything about NFP — I clearly wasn’t paying attention anyway.

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When Catholics talk about NFP, someone always asks rather plaintively why the Church doesn’t just clear up all the confusion about what does and does not constitute a legitimate reason to avoid a pregnancy.  Why not just make a list:  on the right, good reasons for postponing a pregnancy; on the left, bad reasons?

Obviously we should still pray and try to discern God’s will for us — but why does it have to be so vague?  Why doesn’t the Church just give us a break and spell it out already?

Most of those who want more clarity are genuine seekers after God’s will, looking for more guidance as they discern the best path for their marriage.  Others are looking for a definitive document to prove that their neighbors are abusing NFP, using it with a “contraceptive mentality.”

The Church does, of course, give us guidelines (I’m shamelessly cribbing these citations from an excellent article my sister, Abigail Tardiff, wrote several years ago, addressing this same question much more pithily):

If therefore there are reasonable grounds for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that then marries people may take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and use their marriage at precisely those times that are infertile, and in this way control birth… (Humanae Vitae, n. 16).

and:

For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2368).

My sister also reminds us:

Pope Pius XII says that serious motives, such as “medical, eugenic, economic, and social” reasons, can exempt a couple from the obligation of bearing children (“Address to the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives”).

But why doesn’t the Church give some specific examples of what qualifies as a just reason?  Well, one problem is that my just reason is not necessarily the same as your just reason.

For instance, we could say, “Severe economic instability is a good reason to postpone pregnancy.” But …

  • Woman A grew up deathly poor, and fully expected to die before she hit age 40.  Her husband is disabled and often out of work, and sometimes they have to scramble for the rent on their tiny house — but this is routine and tolerable for them, and causes no turmoil.  With help from friends and government programs, they are raising happy, healthy children on $25,000 a year.
  • Woman B grew up wealthy, has always generously endowed Crisis Pregnancy Centers in her town, and always hoped to have a large family of her own.  But a catastrophe struck, she went bankrupt, and has to sell everything and move into a tiny house and live on $25,000 a year.  They’re still reeling from the shock of what their life has become, and are trying to learn how to accept help, rather than giving it.
  • Woman C lives a tiny house and live on $25,000 a year, which her husband manages thriftily, so no one is deprived.  But she makes him sleep on the couch until he agrees to quit his job at the library  so he can make more money and they can catch up with their fancy friends next door, who go to Rio every March.
  • Woman D recently quit her high-paying job so she can stay home and have babies.  They now live on her husband’s salary of $25,ooo a year and can hardly wait to fill their tiny new house with children.

You see?  Objectively, the circumstances are the same, and “severe economic instability” describes all four.  But their attitude toward having another baby right then would be entirely different.  It’s not enough to say, “Lilies of the field and so on.  We must trust God.”  That’s not asking much from women A, but it’s asking heroism from woman B.

Or you could say, “You shouldn’t postpone a pregnancy just so you can lose a little weight.”

  • Woman A is healthy and beautiful, but is married to a man who berates her nightly for not fitting into the jeans she wore in high school, even though that was twenty years and five babies ago.  He has taught her to hate herself, and will torture her emotionally if she makes a charting mistake and gets pregnant.
  • Woman B preaches radical openness to life, but in her most honest moments will admit to herself that having lots of babies happens to be a fabulous excuse for never having to deal with her lifelong gluttony.  After all, she can’t diet, because she’s pregnant (or postpartum, or nursing…)
  • Woman C used to be anorexic, and with years of therapy and hard work has achieved a healthy weight.  But being even five pounds over that healthy weight puts her in danger of a relapse, and the idea of another pregnancy gives her panic attacks.
  • Woman D  is just a petty twit who wants to make her fatter friends feel bad when they see her hot new body.  No baby this year, not after all the money she put into lipo!

All four women are faced with Losing Weight vs. Having Another Baby; but the details couldn’t be more different.

Or you could say, “Just trust God with your fertility!  We’re not in control of our lives; God is.”

  • Woman A is fearful, anxious, rigid and domineering.  Her husband is a little bit afraid of her, and her confessor always urges her to trust God more.
  • Woman B is childish and weak, and tends to leave all the heavy thinking to her husband — and then feels sorry for herself when they suffer the consequences of his choices.  Their marriage is miserable, and her confessor always tells her to be more of an adult.
  • Woman C is careless and selfish and lacks self-control, and her confessor always tells her to use more prudence, take more responsibility.
  • Woman D tries with all her might to be as holy as the other women around  her, and she keeps having more babies to prove her trust in God, even though her household is out of control and her children are neglected.  Her confessor always tells her that God asks different things of different people, and to keep her eyes on her own work.

“Trusting God” is wonderful, but means something entirely different in each of these cases.

Or you could say, “A large family is a sign of God’s blessing.  You’ll never regret having another baby!”

  • Woman A always wanted a big family, and happily gives birth three times in the first three years of her marriage.  She looks forward to many more years of fertility.
  • Woman B always wanted a big family, but now that she has six children, and a few of them turned out to have special needs, she figures it would be a good thing to take a break.   She also wants to work out a few problems in her marriage that have been brewing unresolved under the chaos for a few years.
  • Woman C  always wanted a big family, and now has nine children.  She probably has another decade of fertility to go, and while she loves her kids dearly, she is just plain tired.  She and her husband are actually much more financially and emotionally stable than they were when they started their family — and yet the idea of another pregnancy fills her with dread.
  • Woman D always wanted a big family and is on the verge of menopause — and suddenly feels a deep yearning for just one more baby, for reasons that have nothing to do with the reasons she had twenty-five years ago on her honeymoon.

These women are, of course, all the same woman, at different stages in her life.  She has always trusted God, and God has blessed her in different ways at different times.  You see, you can’t even apply a specific, inflexible, objective rule to one woman:  there are still just too many variables.  For any specific, objective rule you laid down, you could find exceptions which are within the realm of normal human circumstances.

Can we ever say that we have an indisputably good reason, or an indisputably bad reason, for postponing a pregnancy?  Of course.  It’s just that I can’t think of anything more personal and private than these reasons.  I believe that if the Church ever did give a specific, objective list of legitimate reasons for avoiding or achieving pregnancy, it would cause more confusion, not less.  People with good reasons to postpone a pregnancy would doubt themselves, and people with no good reason would find loopholes. People would judge each other even more than they already do (which is a shameful amount), and it would distract from the soul’s conversation with God.

Yes, worldly, modernized couples need to hear someone say, “Marriage is for making children, and children are a privilege, not a burden.  Don’t squander the gift of your fertility, but seek the gifts that God is offering.” But I grow more and more skeptical of the charge that, among the tiny fraction of Catholics who use NFP, most use it with a “contraceptive mentality.”  How about this:  men who have seven or more children are probably raping their wives every  night.  What’s that you say?  It’s not like that at all?  Well, that’s how it looked from the outside.  It cuts both ways:  if you can read the hearts of couples with only a few children, then I can read the hearts of couples with many.  See how ugly that gets?  Only one Person knows what’s in another man’s heart, and that person ain’t you or me.

And for people who aren’t out to judge anyone else, but just want more clarity and guidance in their own lives, here’s a cheering quote from my sister’s article:

The Church’s moral teachings are a great gift, because they save us from the bad effects of innocent wrong-doings; they can stop us from unknowingly messing up our lives, if we’re humble enough to listen. But they don’t replace a tryst with the Creator — and who would want them to?

So if the Church seems distressingly vague, it’s because she doesn’t want to get in the way of the conversation you could be having with God.  He doesn’t want to talk to The Church as a whole:  He wants to talk to you.

And that’s why the Church doesn’t just make a list.

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Him:  I love you.

Me:  I love you, too.  But if you get me pregnant, I’ll stab you in the eye.

Him:  I have two.

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I don’t know Jason Negri personally, and until his post on Friday I’ve had no reason to think that he isn’t a faithful Catholic.  Maybe he was just playing devil’s advocate or being provocative; but for someone who, according to his Inside Catholic profile, is “Assistant Director for the International Task Force on Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide,” he shows a scandalous indifference to the dignity of human life.  Here’s what he said when commenting on a story about the marriage of a high-functioning Down syndrome couple:

My conservative view of child rearing is usually “if you’re not going to take care of your kids, don’t have them”, and for a Catholic, this means don’t have sexual intercourse to begin with.  But it’s hard in cases like these, where a couple is developmentally challenged and might not be able to care for children of their own, but have the need and ability for sexual intimacy.  Forced sterilization?  No.  But voluntary?  Why not?

Voluntary sterilization. . . “Why not?”

Let’s set aside the question of whether or not mentally disabled people ought to be marrying, and let’s focus like a laser on what Negri is implying about the people themselves.  He is implying that, because of their disability, they are not bound and protected by the same principles as the rest of us.

If you can sterilize them, what other assaults on his human dignity might be permissible?  If their bodies aren’t inviolable like the bodies of us Normals, why not keep them as house slaves?  Kind of a win-win situation, by Negri’s logic:  everyone gets taken care of, everyone’s happy according to his capacity, and no one has to shoulder an unfair burden.  Sure, slavery is clearly against Church teaching, but come on — they’re just retards, they don’t really count.

If you are going to start making exceptions to Church teaching based on purely practical terms, then why not voluntary sterilization of the poor, since they need  food stamps or childcare, and “might not be able to care for children on their own”?  Or of people with heart disease, since they might not be around to see their child’s 18th birthday?  Or people with histories of depression?  Or people whose husbands are in the military?  They might need help!  Sterilize ‘em now, before things get messy.

I do not envy the parents of the Down syndrome couple in the original story.  I can imagine how much they want their children to be happy, and how much they fear having to care not only for their disabled children, but an innocent grandchild, too.  But for Negri to suggest an exception to the Church’s law — saying, “Well, maybe in a situation like this, how bad could it be to just bypass the whole fertility problem?” — that’s not compassion.  That’s condescension to a hellish degree.  That’s reducing the human person to biology vs. desire:  Self-sufficiency as the highest good on one hand, personal satisfaction as the highest good on the other hand.

What’s so terrible about that construct?  It leaves out God entirely.  It leaves out the Incarnate God, who has something to tell us about suffering and sacrifice in the service of love.

The Church’s teaching on sterilization is not a prohibition — it’s a protection.  It’s a humble acknowledgment that man is made in the image of God, and you don’t mess with that.

The Church’s law is there to uphold the dignity of human life.  Not attractive human life, not convenient human life, not self-sufficient human life:  every human life.  When we begin to think of mankind as a two-tiered system, in which only the top tier is fully human in God’s sight — then we are on the road to Hell.

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The smartest thing I’ve ever heard about men and women and sex is something Matthew Lickona said.   I couldn’t find the exact quote, but it was like this:

Men need to have sex in order to feel taken care of.  But women need to feel taken care of in order to want to have sex.

You could see this situation as an insurmountable dilemma and a cruel trick of nature.  Or you can see it as God’s way of making sure that men and women are good to each other.

Isn’t that right?  It only works if we have to work for it.

And now, just because I recently rediscovered Patty Loveless (I couldn’t get the Lettermman intro off, but the song starts at 17 seconds):

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You all surprise me.  You really do.  As I write, there are seven comments on The Jerk’s first movie review, and not a single one expressing moderate to quivering righteous indignation at the implicit endorsement of a trashy piece of work like Roadhouse.   I was expecting a nice loud chorus of, “AND YOU CALL THIS A CATHOLIC BLOG?”   Boy, if this were Inside Catholic, I’d have been excommunicated at least twice by now (although the second time wouldn’t count, because Pope Michael of Kansas has had his excommunication privileges temporarily taken away by his parents, who do, after all, own the garage apartment he lives in).

My flexible friend.

I guess I’ll just chalk your laxity up to the heat, and go ahead and write what I was planning to write anyway, because I think it’s an interesting topic.

I mean, we have to have some standards, yes?  You really can’t call yourself a good Catholic and then just go ahead and do whatever you want.   Seriously, no matter how many college courses we took, there must be some movies that Catholics shouldn’t watch, some music we shouldn’t listen to, some clothes we shouldn’t wear, words we shouldn’t use, quantities we shouldn’t drink, and so on.  That’s the whole catch in that “Love God, and do what you will” thing:  if you actually do love God, then you’re not going to want to move away from Him; and certain activities certainly do make that gap wider.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I am fairly susceptible to the “It’s okay because I’m edgy” trap.  It’s not conscious, but I tend to feel that I’m sooo smart and ironic and a anyway a good mother and all, so it’s probably really okay for me to do . . . well, just about anything, as long as I have lots of babies and pray most days.

In fact, it’s more than okay:  why, I’m rendering a valuable service to the reputation of the modern Church. By indulging in various seemingly unholy activities (and I’m talking about medium-bad stuff like drinking too much, showing a little too much skin, swearing, speeding, telling dirty jokes, etc.), I’m  not only not a bad Catholic, but it makes me an extra-good Catholic, because I’m not one of those fearful, novena-haunted zealots who can’t see past their own mantillas to the rich and burgeoning sensual world of culture and art.  No water in the wine!  We’re Catholics, not Puritans — we can handle it!  After all, how are we going to share the Good News if we’re too timid to step out of our crisis bunkers?  How will secular folks take us seriously if we look like weirdos?

Tell me they don't look like weirdos.

Actually, despite the above picture which I couldn’t resist posting, the matter of how we dress is a whole other kettle of fish, which I definitely want to talk about later.  But for right now, in light of yesterday’s post, let’s just consider the movies we watch. We watch a lot of movies at our house.   Fairly often, my husband and I discuss whether or not it would be a good idea for us (just us, not the kids) to watch something–usually because it has too much graphic sexual stuff in it, but sometimes because it just has too much of a nasty feel.  We talk it over, based on what we know of the reputation of the director, the trailers we’ve seen, etc., and then decide together whether or not to see it (and if only one of us says, “Let’s not,” then we both don’t).

Sometimes it’s pretty obvious that a movie is not for us (or for anyone).  We discussed  Sin City (this link is to the parents’ guide, which, in describing why the movie is inappropriate, is itself fairly inappropriate!) for about two seconds before we nixed it.   It looked like it might have some artistic merit, and yet it didn’t seem worth going to Hell for.  On the other hand, we did watch Eastern Promises, which was sexually explicit and violent and grim as all get out.  But it was a good movie, maybe great.  I cautiously recommend it.

We don’t want to miss out on good movies.  But I guess the best possible thing to do would be to err on the side of caution, and always always skip movies that we’re afraid might have a bad influence on us.

Or is that the best possible thing?  We love movies so much, and have such good conversations about them, that I have a very hard time believing that Catholics should confine themselves to G movies (do they even make those anymore?), although I do have some respect for people who have that much will power.  After all, approximately 94%* of western culture was made possible by the Church in one way or another, and not all of it is paintings of fat cherubim.

Here is what we have figured out:  it’s kind of like chastity**.  Say you’re abstaining.  So you’re not going to have sex today.  But, dammit, you are a married couple, and the chaste behavior of a married couple is different from the chaste behavior of a pair of dating teens.  So, yes, you’re allowed to do more, without doing everything.  But you have to be smart about it.  And you have to understand that your standards and limitations might change from month to month, or even day to day, depending on your mood, your attitude, your spiritual state, your current relationship with your spouse, what you did yesterday and the day before, etc.  What could be some good clean married fun one day can be a disaster the next, even if it’s objectively the exact same behavior — it all depends on the context, your motivations, and on what you know will happen to you if you do it, if you can be honest with yourself about your own weaknesses.  (And of course, there are some things which are always off-limits, no matter who you are or how you feel today.)

So, in the same way, a movie that is fine to watch one evening, and gives us food for thought, and provokes rich, marriage-building conversation and camaraderie–this same movie might be an occasion of sin, or even a sin, the next week.  It all depends.

So, what’s a movie viewer to do?  I think this is the point at which many good Catholics throw up their hands and decide to play it safe, and just stick with super-safe fare.  Which means you are going to end up seeing a lot of Doris Day

and then you will have to claw your own eyeballs out, which would be a shame.  There are other approaches, however.  Here is what we do:

  • As I mentioned, we discuss movies ahead of time, and we try and be honest about our mental, spiritual, emotional, and, ahem, physical state.
  • Then we watch the movie.  If someone starts, say, taking their clothes off, we cover our eyes.  To cut the tension, we make spitting noises at each other, or occasionally punch each other.
  • If it gets too bad, we turn it off.

Well, that’s it.  There’s my brilliant three-point strategy for avoiding hellfire without having to watch Calamity Jane.

I once posted a silly review of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (in which I compared it to the Odyssey; yes, I did), and warned the readers that the movie contained “some tough scenes, including partial nudity and various creepy and depressing conversations.”  Well, someone who signed himself “Scandalized” responded:

I watched this movie based on the author’s recommendation. I’m sorry I did as I believe it’s offensive to God to sit through a movie like this. The nudity, the gay kissing scene, the trashy dressed room mate? What the author describes as ‘tough’ scenes to watch would be more accurately defined as occasions of sin.

[snip]

There was a time when this kind of entertainment would have been blacklisted by the Catholic Church (under pain of mortal sin we would have watched it)….but now (for the mature viewer, anyway) it’s become entertainment good enough to be praised on a Catholic blog.

So I says to him:

I’m truly sorry you were disappointed. If you never watch movies that have nudity or immorality in them, however, I’m not sure why you decided to watch this one, when I warned you that those scenes were in it! I thought the photo of the shark graffiti would serve as warning, also.

Maybe it will make you feel better if you know that my husband and I cover our eyes and make stupid noises during certain types of scenes in movies. Then we quickly peek at the screen – uh oh, they’re still naked – look away again, bah bah bah bah – and then look again to see if it’s safe yet.

You see, I agree with you that movies can be an occasion of sin. We make an effort not to watch those scenes which are bad for our souls, and we do make the decision to skip certain movies altogether, even if they seem like they would be entertaining.

The Church no longer lists forbidden movies, but she still holds us to the same standards — it’s just that we’re supposed to impose those standards on ourselves.

So, one question: did you watch the whole movie, or did you turn it off when it started offending you?

Durned if he never got back to me on that last question.  But that’s what it boils down to, it seems to me.  If the movie offend thee, then turn it off.

_______________________________________________

*Shut up, I said “approximately”

**By this hugely misunderstood word, I do not mean “celibacy.”  I mean living in such a way that your sexual behavior is appropriate to your station in life.

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