Over at Inside Catholic, Danielle Bean has a great column about large families in mass culture. In it, she describes how, despite their not being married, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, are promoting a family culture. A LARGE family culture. This broke down in the comboxes as "yes, by and large in the secular world, large families are an oddity and a curiousity at most, but they are the norm in the Catholic faith." But this was followed up by a great conversation about how many in the church show prejudice and judgment of those families in the pews whose ranks are not sporting a baseball team.
I try to live my life by, judge not, lest thou be judged. I find it's a pretty good policy because we never know another's circumstances just from appearances. But some of the harshest judgments I have ever heard were by Catholic women, in church, about other families. A woman in my church has only two children. Her two girls are her source of joy. She would have loved to have a platoon of kids, but that wasn't to be. I was sitting by myself one Sunday and saw her come in with her girls and husband, genuflect and sit down. She smiled and waved to me (we are acquainted) and I returned the gesture. Behind me, I heard a growl. I didn't turn around as I knew the couple sitting behind me. Not well, and I don't plan on getting to know them that well, but, I have met them. I heard the woman behind me's voice to her husband, "I can't believe they can go up and receive communion when they are so blatantly using birth control!" I prayed for God to give me strength. I prayed for God to give me self-control. I prayed this woman would stop the sin of gossip. I prayed she would realize she was wrong about this. The woman with the two children does not use birth control. She doesn't need to. Like a member of my family, she nearly died during a vbac birth when her uterus ruptured and she almost bled out. A hysterectomy was performed to save her life. I was part of a prayer chain the prayed for her when it was uncertain if she would survive. And in talking to her after her second daugther was born, I found out she didn't want the vbac. She wanted a repeat c-section, but her SAHM Catholic mothers playgroup convinced her she had not experienced birth because of her c-section with her first daughter, a transverse postioned baby. I was aghast that these women in her group had treated her that way. Even moreso because, okay, now she had a "natural birth" and almost a "natural death."
"Had I listened to my own heart and not worried about the judgment of others, I could have had more children," she said woefully to me at the time. I wished this woman sitting behind me could have heard that.
One commenter to the article about the Jolie-Pitts stated that Catholics are now becoming "contraception-minded" and part of the culture of death. Her reasoning made perfect sense to me. Because of their "openness to life" many in our pews feel it is their duty to be the inquisition where the reproductive lives of others are concerned. Now, I am not talking about abortion here. That is wrong, we all know it. But as this commenter stated a common and prevailing them from many moms (and sometimes dads) of large families: "If you WEREN'T contracepting, then clearly God would give you as many kids as he gave us!" Sadly, I've seen and heard it all.
And it is precisely this attitude that brings me to the second item I discovered recently. Over at Crunchy Con, Rod Dreher is taking a break and Erin Manning is filling in for him. She posted recently about an NYT review of a new book chronicling an infertile couple's quest to have a child by surrogacy. She went on to mention how many poor women are deciding to become surrogates to help supplement their income and the moral and ethical implications of surrogacy.
(A warning, I LOVE this blog, but some of the commenters are a bit "colorful" so, know the sensitivity of your constitution before wandering the comboxes.) The commenters blew up, Rod, taking a break from his break, turns this into a "liberals v conservatives" debate again and there is a lot of space, waste--er devoted--to this by some of the commenters, but there are also some who just question the overall morality and the ethical question. One male commenter points out that having biological children is not a right. Several commenters point out that they know people who were unable to conceive naturally and went to adoption only to have the door slammed in their faces. But, very quietly, a few posters remind that having one's own biological children is a standard among which many are judged in our culture.
And so it is. While the culture at large does put a price on carrying on your family name, as Catholics we often wrongly put real pressure on people to conceive and carry their own children.
We are, after all, the denomination that adores Mary (we do not worship her) for being the woman that carried Christ. Just yesterday, we celebrated the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Monday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We revere the family unit. We ask pregnant women to come forward for a "special" blessing on Mother's Day. We pray that "blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus."
I don't disagree with any of this. But all of this allows some members of our church to justify judging others. When a woman is unable to conceive, there is a deep and profound sense of loss that cannot fully be understood by someone who has not gone through it. Before having my own children, my husband and I went through a period of infertility due to an anatomical abnormality of mine that had to be surgically corrected. As I watched friends become pregnant while we were trying and month after month went by, I kept thinking, something is wrong with me. What are they doing that I'm not? What have I done to anger God so much that this we can't have a baby? I would pray at my church's chapel to Our Lady of Guadalupe for forgiveness, I would ask God what I should do to repent. No one I knew personally was going through this, and my husband and I felt very alone. I would see large families at mass. I would watch baptisms. I would think, will this ever be me? I knew the church was against IVF and IUI. I knew surrogacy was out of the question even if the church allowed it because of money. I was from a large family, no one else in recent history had fertility problems as a young person in their 20's, I just didn't get it.
I look back on that now and see that although no one said anything to my face, seeing so many with their own babies and large families, did play into my psyche that something was wrong with me. It makes me wish the Catholic church would promote blessings on Mother's and Father's days of people unable to become parents (not one where you get called out to the altar, but a general one). After all, I had looked into adoption too, and that was very prohibitive and almost more difficult than fertility treaments. The general lack of support I have written about before from many Catholics for adoption (by adopting themselves) also discouraged me.
I can very easily see where many couples would be tempted by judgment of others as well as a lack of support for adoption and a feeling of inadequacy due to culture within the church to seek out fertility treatments. While biological children are certainly not a right, there are many out there who see them as a responsibility and if you can't do it on your own, well, then are you really a responsible Catholic in good standing? And the Bible is a bit murky on this for us. After all, Sarah, desparate for a child, gives Hagar to Abraham and we have our earliest known surrogate. And Hannah prays for a son while we are told her husband's other wife is fruitful and multiplying.
We must stop judging one another. We must realize that there are pains for families both large and small. As much as it galled me when a friend said she didn't think she would have more than two children because she and her husband would be outnumbered (forgetting she was a third child evidentally), I find it every bit as wrong for someone with eight to say that the mom of one must be contracepting.
Instead, we should all be praying for one another. We should be loving each other. We should stop thinking of "our family" v "their family" and think of ourselves as the ONE body of Christ. We should realize that all families have their unique struggles and respect those. We must promote adoption as a way to increase the body of Christ. Adoption of the disabled as well as the healthy, the babies that look like us vs those who do not. If we take on these challenges, we will be true promoters of life.
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