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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Life only begins in the womb.

My daughter just finished watching "Yours Mine and Ours" in the next room, just as I was giving thought to the culture that contraception has spawned, and the damage it has done to the Catholic Church. It seems an irony that this was the movie she happened to plug in today, because it is about two widowed Catholics, Frank Beardsley and Helen North (Played by Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball), who fall in love. The challenge begins when they reveal to each other how many children they have. He has 10, and she has 8. Yes, you guessed it, they marry.

One of the highlights of the movie is a touching speech Henry Fonda gives one of the teenagers as his character is heading toward the car to drive his wife to the hospital to deliver yet another child. The daughter has been struggling with having a boyfriend who is upset that she won't "put out," and who claims that if she loved him she would.

Frank begins, "I've got a message for Larry. You tell him that this is what it's all about. This is the real happening. If you wanna know what love really is, take a look around you. Take a good look at your mother."

The mother, who has just entered the scene, says "Not now!"

"Yes, now," he continues. "It's giving life that counts. Until you're ready for it, all the rest is just a big fraud. All the crazy haircuts in the world won't keep it turning. Life isn't a love-in, it's the dishes, and the orthodontist, and the shoe repairman, and ground round instead of roast beef.

"And I'll tell you something else. It isn't going to bed with a man that proves you're in love with him, it's waking up in the morning and facing the drab, miserable, wonderful, everyday world with him that counts."

After an interruption or two, he gets Helen into the car, and before sliding in himself, concludes his speech. "I suppose having nineteen kids is carrying it a bit too far, but if we had it to do over, who would we skip... you?"


The exciting thing, upon reflection, is that the North-Beardsley family is real. I've heard from people who have met members of the family that several of the children, after they grew to adulthood, became nuns. I don't know if any priests came out of the brood, but I do know that the Helen and Frank ended up with at least 60 grandchildren. It certainly wouldn't surprise me if more nuns or priests came out of the next generation. At the very least, we can say that this couple contributed considerably to the Catholic population.

The point that got me started on all of this was a conversation my husband and I had this morning, before we even realized what our youngster was watching. Our 1 1/2 year old sat on my lap and clasped his hands together, his signal to request us to pray the Our Father with him. He attempts to make a sign of the cross, alternately hitting one side of his chest and then the other several times, and finally clapping his hands. Joel asked (probably only half in jest) if we were priming him to be a priest, and I said he should at least grow up knowing it's an option, but it's God who calls men to the priesthood. However, I noted, it isn't surprising that we have a priest shortage in the United States, when so many families are limiting their size. When a couple has only one or two children, they are not likely to encourage them to become priests, because they want grandchildren.

I think most Catholics hunger for the fellowship that smaller parishes can bring. I believe most Catholics realize that we have a real need for more priests in the United States. And I suspect, alas, that most Catholics feel that "someone" should fill that need. Someone being someone else. Not our children. Studies have shown that most Catholics contracept.

Isn't the connection clear? It is up to "someone" to provide us with priests, and it is up to "someone" to keep the Church going. "But as for me and my household," seems to be the modern creed, "we will serve the Lord in comfort." Comfort meaning fewer sacrifices, more material goods. Comfort meaning having only as many children as we feel like having. Comfort meaning roast beef, not ground round.

This is the legacy of contraception. Catholics continue to be, for the most part, pro-life in the sense of being anti-abortion. But how can we be pro-life and not be pro-family, pro-child?

I know very devout Catholics who cannot, for various reasons, have big families. I know families who hurt over that fact. But meanwhile, a vast number of families who can simply refuse because it will jeopardize their level of material comfort. They would never consider abortion, but they would also never consider letting God play any part in deciding what their blessings might be.

I know parishes that welcome families and children of every age; but meanwhile, I also know parishes that are very anti-abortion yet never welcome children into their worship circles until they are old enough not to be an inconvenience. The quality of the sound system is more important than giving welcome to infants and their mothers. I have heard pastors and congregation members suggest that mothers with small children have no business attending Mass. I have witnessed parishes shuffle all pre-communion children off to childcare, under the impression that they don't need any exposure to their faith until then, and that the adults are really better off without children around to cause distraction and inconvenience.

If we claim to welcome children in the womb but then reject them from our faith community once born, can we really claim to be pro-life? If we refuse to consider abortion, but we contracept to avoid having children, can we really claim that our pro-life beliefs make any difference in our lives?

And if our beliefs make no difference in our lives, what is their worth?