Not Everyone Has To Get Married (Or Go Into The Religious Life)

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Mary at the blog Young and Catholic has a good post up responding to a reader question about Church teaching on contraception versus NFP. Her handling of the NFP issue is great, but I was struck by the framing of her reader’s question, because it struck me as getting at a common impression one can get from being around conservative Catholic circles. Her reader writes:

I’m an 18 year old female college student, and I have just gotten back in touch with Catholicism…

…I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting back into my faith, but there is something that REALLY continues to rub me wrong. I’ve prayed and prayed about it, but I am not getting any answer. I’ve researched it, but just hear the same things over and over and it just doesn’t sit right with me, and that is the issue of contraception. I’ve read humanae vitae, I’ve researched “natural family planning”, and it all still leaves me completely unsatisfied still. I see where the Church is coming from on this issue, however, I feel that God has called me to do something else with my future besides staying at home with my “loving” husband and having a billion children…And then I went to the church and asked my female minister about it. The gist was this: If you have the financial capability, happiness, and wealth, your job is basically to be popping out children.

This just honestly does not sit right with me…Some women love being mothers, and being a mother is certainly an honorable duty, but I don’t think I’m cut out for it. I’m very ambitious and have goals of working for the Department of Defense, not sacrificing all my happiness because the Church says I should.

She goes on to ask about why the Church teaches against artificial birth control, and as I say, Mary’s answer is great. However, I think the other thing worth touching on is the impression people sometimes get that from a Catholic point of view you should either be in the religious life or else you should be married and having lots of kids.

But the Church does not teach this. People may well be called to an active single life in the laity. The Church has absolutely no problem with this. If Mary’s correspondent wants to pursue an ambitious career, in the Defense Department or elsewhere, without having to worry about getting home on time to spend a few hours with a spouse, that’s absolutely fine!

Where the Church does become more countercultural is in saying that sex has an inextricable connection with procreation, and that the only proper place for sex is within marriage. Thus, marriage is a state that should be open to children. During the marriage ceremony, the couple is asked if they will be open to the blessing of children. This isn’t just a matter of, “If you accidentally get pregnant, will you keep the baby,” (though that’s important.) Rather, if a couple seriously intends never to have children, the Church would see that as an obstacle to contracting a valid marriage. Marriage is for the purpose of starting a family. It’s not just a romantic relationship, but a familial one. (This does not mean that there’s something invalid about the marriage of a couple that is not physically able to have children. This may be a source of sadness to the couple, but it certainly doesn’t mean their marriage is defective or invalid. The problem is if a couple actively does not want children in the first place.)

Now, of course, this is not a lot of comfort if what someone wants is to get married and have the love and companionship of a spouse, but not have to worry about the responsibility of having children, which given our culture’s assumption that every healthy person must want to get married, and that sex has no natural relation to having children, is going to be a much more common desire than not getting married at all so you can focus totally on your career. (And given that the correspondent is very young, she may well chase her dreams for ten or fifteen years and then realize that she now feels very differently about having children. That’s fine too.) Because within the conservative Catholic subculture there are a fair number of people who get married comparatively young and have a lot of kids (and so spend a lot of time defending that lifestyle), I think people can get the impression sometimes that that is the only “really Catholic” way to live. And it’s not.

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  1. DC, I could be wrong on this, do think it’s a default assumption that the married life and the religious life are the two dominant vocations. They are the two which are reinforced through sacrament or consecration, and they both provide communal life which is a natural human desire.

    Some may be called to the single life, hermitage, or an early martyrdom. Some may be called to live as if single following a divorce, and some may have same-sex attraction to such an extent that it prevents them from living the married or religious life. Some – actually, everyone – will struggle to find the right fit for themselves. But the working assumption for the average person should be that their earthly mission is best pursued as a married person or religious.

    If I’m wrong on this, I welcome the correction.

  2. I realize this young lady won’t like hearing it- and that the gentle response was absolutely correct in not over stating this- but I noticed that her question was a lot about how *she* feels and what *she* wants and *her* happiness and not really about God. God wants us to be happy, but that doesn’t always work out the way we think it should. There are a lot of times where our happiness has to be in the Lord alone and we just have to persevere and endure the rest of life. I know that’s counter cultural, but even if we’re eventually called to do or be something that isn’t what we wanted for ourselves- like being a parent or a celibate single, etc- then we should still be joyful in that life because God loves us and we should be living our lives for Him and not ourselves.

    This is such a common problem and it’s something I wish it were addressed more often when this stuff comes up. There comes a time when we all must choose God and often times that means giving up some or all of our own desires.

  3. To me, the takeaway is this young woman’s impression that her greatest responsibility is reproduction. I think this is indicative of the fertility cult mentality that grabs many evangelical Catholics. Father Angelo Geiger has written about this in the context of the Christopher West phenomena.

    We’ve turned from teaching authentic Church teachings about the proper order of values, including placing sexual activity within marriage and the complete unity of procreativity and unity in sexual relations, to a mentality where sexual relations (and even reproduction) are the epicenter of one’s spiritual existence.

  4. Pinky,

    DC, I could be wrong on this, do think it’s a default assumption that the married life and the religious life are the two dominant vocations. They are the two which are reinforced through sacrament or consecration, and they both provide communal life which is a natural human desire.

    Certainly, if you either take religious vows or marriage vows, you’re in for the duration, whereas if you’ve decided to remain a single lay person for personal or career reasons, you could always change your mind later. So I suppose one could see those as the most settled vocations.

    And given the choice, most people who aren’t vowed to do otherwise would rather have the companionship of marriage than not — so I don’t think it’s a big surprise that as our society has grown more affluent few people who abide by the Church’s teaching that sexuality belongs only in marriage are going to choose to remain single laity permanently.

    But I don’t think that means that people must choose to follow one of the two.

  5. jvc,

    I do not think that there is a “fertility cult mentality” among “evangelical Catholics” — though for the reasons that I pointed out people do end up spending a lot of effort on defending the decisions to get married young and/or to have many children, so I can certainly see how one might get that impression.

  6. Pope Pius XI in Casti connubii (December 31, 1930) and Pope Paul VI in Humanae vitae (July 25, 1968) both address the sanctity of marriage and the family, with special emphasis on the principal threat against them in modern times: artificial birth control.

    “Be fruitful and multiply” appears six times in Genesis. In the first case, God blesses living creatures allowing and requiring them to procreate His creation.

    The second time (Genesis 1: 28), the Lord issues the order to mankind. After the flood, God repeats His blessing on animals (8: 17) and twice upon mankind (9: 1 and 9: 7).

    God chooses Jacob for His last such blessing: “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins” (Genesis 35: 11).

  7. @jvc,

    I think it’s more a clash of a traditional mentality and the more common cultural mindset where children and family are seen as a burden instead of a blessing. For someone steeped in the popular culture, I’m sure the idea that marriage isn’t just about love and sex is intended for both pleasure AND procreation is quite a bit of culture shock. I can’t honestly tell you the last time I saw a positive image of family life portrayed in the popular culture. Marriages are all about the elaborate weddings- what happens afterwards is almost universally portrayed in the most negative light possible- and children are treated as if they were accessories- like a meat handbag- or, if they’re inconvenient at the moment they’re portrayed as a punishment. When we do see people in a family seeing, the focus is almost always on how hard it is and how people are tied down (“the old ball and chain” mentality). There’s never any attention given to how, despite the hardships- which are a part of ANY lifestyle, not just the family kind- marriage and family can be extremely fulfilling and, if you’re doing it right, it should make you into a much better, less selfish, more self-giving person.

  8. I remember a line from my pre-cana that I think applies. “Your vocation should help you live for others and God and not only for yourself.” Having children and being married make living only for yourself very very difficult. The same is true of religious life. Living as a lay single person, there are many temptations to selfishness, especially if you are financially successful. However, it’s not impossible, and it may very well be the best life for many people. I know someone who isn’t even Christian who lives this life beautifully without even knowing it.

    I also seem to know many married couples now in their mid to late thirties who are deciding not to have children. I really find it very hard to be charitable to these people and their reasons. I think these couples assume they will be young and healthy forever. Even if they are financially stable into their elder years, it’s got to be a lonely life to be elderly and childless. Many of these people don’t have siblings with children. So no nieces and nephews no grandkids. I keep picturing my children as the only young adults living on a street with block after block of elderly people who can’t shovel their snowy drives. Or who need a ride to the grocery store. Or who are just plane lonely because they’ve lost a spouce. We need the next generation, and you can’t just opt out of contributing to it without expecting some consequences.

  9. I cannot understand people who profess to have found God or found a new religion or returned to Catholicism be stuck in the mire of ” I want sex-when i want it how I want it and that is it”. Going just to the basic commandments-the sixth commandment
    You shall not commit adultery-speaks to the fact that sex is a union between husband and wife.
    Truth be told the majority want to be ” Buffet line” Christians-only putting on their plates that which appeals to the pleasures of the body, yet disregarding that which strengthens the soul.
    If you call yourself Christian, ask yourself “where is Christ in your action”?????

  10. “I feel that God has called me to do something else with my future besides staying at home with my “loving” husband and having a billion children…And then I went to the church and asked my female minister about it. The gist was this: If you have the financial capability, happiness, and wealth, your job is basically to be popping out children>” There are three clues to this dilemma: 1) The word “loving” husband. 2) having a billion children and 3)female minister. There are truly loving men who become husbands in the truest sense of the word. “Having a billion children” is the giveaway. God promised Abraham that for his faithfulness, his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, literally in the billions. God’s promise to Abraham is as true today as it was in the time of Abraham. Faithfulness to God will bring billions of children, spiritual children, for spiritual motherhood, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Spiritual fatherhood, as St. Jose Maria Escriva in Opus Dei, Pope Benedict XVI. There are so many saints who are spiritual fathers and mothers, Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus, the children’s saint. St.Joan of Arc, patroness of France, and Jesus Christ’s mother Mary, to whom Jesus gives all of us. It would be advisable to seek more, not less, spiritual guidance than that of the female minister, who thinks “popping out children” without appreciation for WHO they are and their dignity, leaves much to be desired. ASK and ask and ask. Someone once said to me that if I was old enough (to marry) I would not be asking. Ask anyway. Seek out the saints in heaven for their advice and do not forget your guardian angel. You’ll be just fine. You are one of God’s billions upon billions of children.

  11. Christ did not come among us from suffering or to give us Heaven on Earth.

    Jesus Christ came to save us from sin and by His Life, Death and Resurrection to purchase for us the rewards of eternal life.

  12. This 18 yr. old, who has just returned as a practicing Catholic and says she ‘enjoys’ it, seems to be putting life into separate areas that look mutually exclusive to her. Fortunately, she may get over her anxiety if she does follow her work plan, only thing she seems sure of, and leaves the rest of her life open to God’s plan.

    Kind of worrying that she seems to be demanding an answer to her praying. She’s not the Boss and needs to learn patience. Maybe ‘vocations’ are a subject of urgency around her. If she has no ‘possible’ husband yet, then proceed with career plan until …

    Husband and family is the ideal for a young woman and that doesn’t preclude education or career. We just don’t know the end of the story. I dreamed the ideal and God’s plan was different – but I still got to care and homemake(not nurse) for family elders and friends through the years as a kind of love fulfillment as i look back. And also do some interesting work. No ideal led on to other strengths (like overcoming weakness). Not my plan, got to be His. I would tell the girl to go work at the D of D, practice her faith and give God thanks for what she has and can do for others.

  13. Mandy P. and PM: Please remember that the young lady in question is 18. An 18 year old is a bit self-absorbed and lacks patience – stop the presses!! The very fact that she has returned to the Church and wants to be a good Catholic impresses me very much. At 18, I was running away from the Church as fast as I could.

    I would caution her that not feeling maternal at age 18 does not mean that will always be the case (sorry for the double negative there). I was not at all interested in motherhood at 18 or at 30, for that matter. Nor was I really that interested in marrying, although I thought I was. If I had been, I would have made an effort to date men who would have made good husbands and fathers. Instead, my common sense (what little I have) completely deserted me when it came to men. I blamed “bad luck” with men for many years, but I’ve stopped kidding myself. It was my own rotten taste for Mr. Hard to Get Alpha Male, soap opera, tears, dramatic breakups and makeups that did me in – yuck, I cringe to think of it. I laughed (ruefully) when I read “Bridget Jones’ Diary” because that silly character reminded me very much of myself, and I also had no trouble recognizing her caddish boyfriend.

    Now that I am middle-aged (and childless), well, I would like to time-travel back and kick my younger self in the rear, but I can’t undo a thing. Well, what should I do? Drown myself in Scotch and regrets? Slit my wrists? No, I can try to be a good aunt and friend and sister to the loved ones in my life and I am working on being a good Catholic, which is very difficult. I’m not sure if I would call that a “vocation” – it’s just doing the best you can with the deck of cards you have in front of you right now. Yes, sometimes, it’s lonely – but on the other hand, I am so set in my ways that I think that marrying and living with someone at this point would be very difficult to get used to. I like having people over for dinner and I like going to parties, but the second they leave or I come back to my empty place – I breathe a sigh of relief!

    That said, I think Mrs. Zummo makes a good point: I know a woman (an only child) who married her high school sweetheart (another only child) back in 1962. They did not have children. He died 2 years ago. She continues to work fulltime, despite being financially able to retire – because what else does she have to occupy her? At least I have siblings and an extended family. She does not. I felt awful for her when she said she ate a Lean Cuisine turkey dinner on Thanksgiving.

  14. This young woman, like many others assumes that without contraception, a normal marriage or ongoing sexual relationship will automatically equal having “a billion children.” What she does not realize is that not everyone is the Duggar family, not every woman gets pregnant at the drop of a hat, and oftentimes you do not know how fertile (or infertile) you are until you “get there.”

    The large families of the Baby Boom era were probably as much or more a result of couples marrying very young (in the 1950s, the median age of first-time brides was 20, and lots of women were getting married in their teens; I think the average first time bride is now about 27) as it was due to the unreliability of the “rhythm method” or any other birth control methods available at the time. Women have a limited number of fertile years and if you wait until age 30 or later to marry you are not likely to have “a billion children.” You may be lucky to have even one or two children if you wait that long.

  15. “What she does not realize is that not everyone is the Duggar family, not every woman gets pregnant at the drop of a hat, and oftentimes you do not know how fertile (or infertile) you are until you “get there.””

    Precisely! My wife and I were married for nine years before we were blessed with our twin boys. Three years later the miracle happened again and we had our baby girl. We never used contraceptives, so assumptions based on family size can be completely off base.

    Past generations understood that fertility is a gift from God, and not a punishment.

    “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.”

  16. “Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice, married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the DUTY to procreate. Among the couples who fulfil their God-given task in this way, those merit special mention who with a gallant heart and with wise and common deliberation, undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family.” GAUDIUM ET SPES, Vatican II. Note how the council said that married couples have a DUTY to procreate. A woman who wants to forego having children (but also be married) to pursue a career sounds about as selfish as a man wanting to forego additional children because he is tired of changing diapers and waking up in the middle of the night. Good comments here.

  17. Oh, and one last thing: this 18 year old undoubtably has glamourous notions of the workaday work, just as I did at that age. She is banking on the idea that her main satisfactions in life will come to her via your job. Well, I (unfortunately) bought into many of the bad ideas of 70’s feminism, including the media portrayals of career women. I thought I was going to be Mary Tyler Moore. I actually landed what I thought was a glamourous job as a paralegal in a DC law firm. Although it certainly had its’ interesting moments, I can promise you it was not “Ally McBeal” or “Boston Legal” or whatever the popular law firm show is at the moment. Those shows (inaccurately) portray the dramatics of the courtroom, but not the painstaking drudgery that goes into producing those motions and briefs. (For good reason: who would want to watch someone cite checking or coding documents?) An iron law of DC law firms: if you have any exciting plans for the weekend, there will certainly be a 5 p.m. Friday phone call which will ruin those plans.

    I have had jobs and bosses I liked very much and other ones I couldn’t stand. While it is a good thing to take pride in your work, I think most people get their main emotional satisfaction and meaning not out of what they do to put food on the table (unless they’re artists of some sort, or in a helping profession) but from the lasting attachments and relationships they form with other people outside of work, whether they are married or not.

    As a wise man I once knew said to me “Donna, I never heard of anybody on their deathbed saying ‘I’m really sorry I spent so much time with my family instead of at the office.”

  18. “Those shows (inaccurately) portray the dramatics of the courtroom, but not the painstaking drudgery that goes into producing those motions and briefs. (For good reason: who would want to watch someone cite checking or coding documents?)”

    Tell me about it Donna! For every hour of court time I have five hours chained to my desk fighting piles of paper work that never seem to diminish! Note that in the old Perry Mason show we see a stack of Corpus Juris Secundum in the closing credits, and that is as close as Mason ever comes to doing any legal research on the show!

  19. I apologize in advance. But, my wife laughed.

    First Guy (proudly): ‘My wife’s a saint!’

    Second Guy: ‘You’re lucky, mine’s still alive.’

  20. To elaborate some more on my previous remarks, the birth rate among women over 40 has indeed risen considerably in recent years, and much publicity has attended celebrities and others who have had children at advanced ages (45 or even past 50). This often leads young women to assume they can or will be fertile practically forever (25-30 years does seem like a long time when you’re 18).

    However, it is my understanding that the majority of successful pregnancies in women over 40 are the result of medical interventions such as IVF or other fertility treatments, and do NOT happen “naturally.” And success is by no means guaranteed even with these interventions (some of which, of course, are also contrary to Catholic teaching just as contraception is).

  21. Donald, heh, here I grew up with the impression that Perry strolled into the courtroom and just winged it, coming up with his always deadly cross-examination off the top of his head!

    Just like the ER doctors on “ER” were able to handle everything from delvering babies to calming down raving psychotics to doing brain surgery, why, it made me question why there was any need for the rest of the hospital or any other physicians;-)

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