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Is it easier for rich people to have big families?

Heart of money

David Mills is doing a little self-examination at Aleteia with A Marxist Lesson for Breeding Catholics: What is romance to the comfortable can be a burden to the poor and sick. Mills is a good and honest man, and has a knack for prodding our weak spots without excusing himself. I think he’s only half right in this essay, though.

His main thesis: Most of the Catholics writing about Catholic sexuality are resting comfortably in a place of privilege — and they should knock it off. For a Catholic middle class couple, says Mills, having another child

 may mean giving up a vacation if the family’s wealthy, or the Thursday family dinner out if the family’s middle class. Her arrival won’t mean giving up food, or rent or the parochial school that can make all the difference to his older siblings’ future.

It’s easy, he says, for a financially secure couple to let their marriages be fruitful, and to see Catholic sexual teaching as a lovely and liberating thing. But, says Mills, the poor do not have this luxury, and may face genuine hardships that a middle class couple never even considers.

Mills says,

 The affluent for whom the Catholic teaching is not a great burden can fall to the temptations of their class, one of which is to think of their children as lifestyle accessories … You can feel that God rewarded your obedience and sacrifice by giving you more “toys” than your friends have.

He concludes:

We the comfortable, who speak so romantically of being open to life—because for us, with our privileges, it is a romance—could find ways to make it a romance, and not a terror, for others too.

Overall, he has a very good point — and truly, the main reason my book about the struggles of NFP sold so well was because there was such a glut of “perky” public discourse on the topic. About a decade ago, just about anybody who talked about the Church’s sexual teaching talked about how lovely, how fulfilling, how empowering, how enlightening, how life-changingly, marriage-buildingly, blindingly awesome it all is. So the world was pretty ready for a book that said, “Yes, but it’s also really hard, and sometimes it stinks on ice. Here’s why it’s still a good idea.” (And if you’re interested in making my life a little more romantic, then for goodness’ sake, buy my book!)

It’s a bad idea to present Church teaching as a golden ticket to happiness. But more specifically, I have a quibble with the idea that material wealth usually makes it easier to be “open to life” (a phrase which Mills uses to mean “ready to have another baby,” which is really only a part of what that phrase means — but that’s a post for another day!). Depending on what crowd you’re in, you can get very different ideas about who’s struggling with what. I mean no disrespect, but Mills, a white-bearded male scholar, most likely reads about Catholic sexual teaching in books and journals, where one is unlikely to hear anything candid, raw, unpolished or, frankly, honest. For some more useful research on the topic, try hanging around in the back of the church with other women who can’t sleep because they’re not sure if they’re pregnant or not, and they can’t make up their minds how guilty to feel about the way they feel about it.

He does acknowledge that the poor aren’t just helpless saps, too anemic to grapple with the headiness of solid doctrine:

The poor are not merely victims but moral agents who can teach the comfortable, not least about the good life and the place of children therein. As Pope Francis said, “For most poor people, a child is a treasure. … Let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.”

I wish he had said more about this. In truth, it’s often wealthy couples who struggle more with the notion of having another baby.  Poor couples can be so accustomed to uncertainty, and so used to making the best out of whatever happens, that the notion of having yet another child is less terrifying to them than it would be to a wealthy, secure couple who feel like their material lives, at least, are under control. A couple with an empty checking account and a fridge full of government cheese can laugh hilariously when they read that it takes $245,000 to raise a child; but a couple who actually has $245,000 in the bank might gulp and think twice before taking that kind of plunge.

Poverty is (or at least can be) a great teacher, because we are (as Mills points out) allpoor in one way or another — if not materially, than maybe physically, or emotionally, or in our relationships. Being poor in any of these ways makes it obvious that we are not in control, but that we still need to work very hard to get more in control — which is an excellent model for how to approach parenthood, and marriage, and life in general. Try really hard all the time; realize, all the time, that a lot of what happens is not up to you.

Is it easy to trust God, with your sexual life and otherwise, when you’re poor? I’m not going to say yes! Poverty is no joke, and being poor and pregnant can be twelve different kinds of miserable. But I’m not going to say that money makes it easier to trust God. There’s a reason Jesus warned about getting bogged down with riches.

As for why it’s mainly the secure and happy who write about sex, there are two reasons. The first is legitimate, and it’s that people who struggle don’t want to reveal private things about their marriage to the world.  It may be comforting for Jack and Joanne to read that Alyssa and Aaron had a big fight about sex; but Aaron probably won’t appreciate it if Alyssa spills all to the Huffington Post.

The second reason is less defensible. We faithful can be loathe to speak publicly about our struggles because we’re afraid that we’ll scare away the undecided — that our suffering will be the final nudge that tips an on-the-fence couple the wrong way.  So we Happy Face it up, thinking we’re helping the Holy Spirit out with one of His less-successful PR campaigns.

Poverty comes in many forms, as Mills acknowledges; and so does faith in God. I am working on learning how to put more trust in the truth when I write about my faith. It’s not up to me to paste a happy ending on the word of God, and that is true no matter how much money I have in the bank.

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