Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Would you give up your iPhone for a person?

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Several months ago I heard a soon-to-be 11-year-old share her biggest birthday wish.  “I want a little brother or sister.”

Gonzala Baeza, "iPhone" is licenced under CC by 2.0.
Her friend’s mother, in whom she was confiding her wish, laughed and gave her innumerable reasons why her desire would not come true.  “Your mom doesn’t want any more children.  She’s done.”

“But I want a baby sister or brother so much.  I’d give up my iPhone if my mom would have a baby.”

The friend’s mother laughed again.  “A baby is much more expensive than your iPhone.”

The little girl was not convinced, and I sat a few feet away, troubled by the conversation I had witnessed.

Could it be that this little girl – we’ll call her Lucy – would translate the expense of a brother or sister to her own life?  Might she now look at dollar signs when seeing tiny fingers and toes?  Would she think of her existence as a financial burden on her parents instead of as a surprising gift?  Will she marry someday and view fruitfulness as  calculation and debt, rather than ever-new generosity?

In 1968, Pope Paul VI completed the final encyclical letter of his papacy.  Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”) reaffirmed the Church’s constant teaching that contraception is not fitting for the dignity of the human person.  As Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical, he sought advice from bishops, theologians and laity.  Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who later became St. John Paul II, convened his own commission to examine the moral question of contraception.  Together, he and the theologians and couples wrote a document to share their thoughts on the matter with Pope Paul VI.

When I came across a translation of this document (“The Foundations of the Doctrine of the Church Concerning the Principles of Conjugal Life”), I was struck by one of the lines of logic St. John Paul II and his colleagues used.  There are three main points within this particular section:


1)    Jesus stressed love in the New Covenant (Love God and love your neighbor as yourself).  In fact, love is a participation in the love of the Trinity.  Because human persons are a union of body and soul, our love is incarnate and is expressed through our bodies. 


2)    In a unique way, married couples express this love through the marital act, which must seek always to affirm the dignity of the human person.  Contraception – though often unintentionally – fosters a kind of selfishness in marriage.  When removing the life-giving nature of sex, the act is transformed from being one of authentic love to being a matter of using another person as an object.  One’s spouse becomes a means to an end – in this case, primarily for the sake of pleasure.


3)    Children who are raised by parents who are using contraception cannot help but be affected by their parents’ choice, even if the children are unaware of what their mother and father are doing.  The document explains that a climate of selfishness is formed in the home – because contraception prioritizes self-pleasure over self-mastery.  Even the way in which parents love their children can be affected by contraception.  Children deserve to be raised in a climate of love.  Rather than grow in an environment where acts of love are distorted into acts of selfishness, St. John Paul II and his colleagues wrote: “The good of the family therefore demands true love, which means knowing how to master oneself for the good of the person loved. This is nothing other than loving God in the person of the spouse.”

Later in the document, the authors explain that the way in which husband and wife view one another impacts the way they view their children.  Since children come from the union of the spouses, this makes sense.  If husband and wife treat each other as objects, then viewing their children as an object, or as simply “mine” naturally ensues.

On the other hand, if husband and wife see each other as a gift – a unique, unrepeatable person who should always be loved and never used – and if their sexual life likewise affirms their love, allowing the marital act to serve their love instead of dominating them, then the children born through that union are more readily seen as the gifts that they are.  

The authors suggest that contraception is a kind of “anti-parental” behavior.  They write: “The contraceptive relationship cannot be the expression of a parental attitude, because it is not a gift of self without restriction, a total communion with the other, despite whatever opaque veils of possible illusions may be present.”

If it seems abstract or even far-fetched, think back to “Lucy” at the beginning of this article.  While not presuming to know the intentions or actions of her parents, we can only imagine that whatever their attitude toward children, it must affect their daughter.  If to her mom and dad, children are a surprising gift, a generous cooperation of God’s generosity with our own, then Lucy will know it.  But if children are a burden – financially, emotionally – or perhaps an object on which we place a limit, then Lucy will know that too.

The future Pope John Paul II’s recommendations to Bl. Paul VI in preparation for the encyclical Humanae Vitae challenge us.  It seems almost unfair to suggest that the private choices of a couple behind bedroom doors could directly impact the culture of the home, the place where their children learn the meaning of love.  We might be tempted to slam the door on the idea, insisting on a more immediately pleasant view of love and its role in our families.  But what might we be missing? 

St. John Paul II was quite clear that love is a constant challenge entrusted to us by God.  While demanding at times, this task is attainable.  We can love authentically because God Himself is Love and invites us to share in His love.  Nothing less than this ever-generous love will satisfy us. 

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