There’s been an uptick recently in the expression of a point of view that suggests that since we are citizens of Heaven, not earth, we should not pay attention to earthly suffering or strive to alleviate it. The Church says otherwise.
My husband and I have been natural family planning users since day one of our marriage. NFP saw us through infertility (the data from the charts facilitated treatment), four babies conceived without medical intervention, and another eight years of charting.
I bring this up because Church teaching on birth control probably represents the biggest sticking point for many people in the modern world–the biggest perceived encroachment on “personal rights.”
I used to be a lot judgier on this issue than I am now. NFP is hard for some people, and often the reasons are not as easily dismissed as many NFP devotees would like them to be. Sometimes it’s physical (tough charts, long abstinence), and sometimes it’s emotional–when practicing NFP causes people to excavate deep, long-standing wounds, wounds with ripple effects that make marital intimacy a point of contention rather than an opportunity for intimacy.
Also, none of us are perfect at the way we use our sexuality. None of us. So I’m less, well, judgy these days.
Nonetheless, I still believe passionately that NFP is a great thing. The self-knowledge that comes from charting has been liberating and empowering to me as a woman, and I see the practice of NFP as a source of healing for a world where relationships between men and women are suffering the wounds caused by dominance. Where sex is used as a bludgeon, mostly by men against women. To use NFP successfully requires two people to respect each other in all their God-given dignity, to hold in honor and awe the total gift of the way the other is made. Not to try to turn off an entire healthy, functioning system of the body.
It’s also a no-brainer for environmental stewardship. Pharmaceuticals go back into the water, and not all chemicals are filtered out. Lawn & agricultural chemicals in the water supply were half of our infertility issues.
And I see the fruits of NFP in my relationship with my husband. The openness, honesty, and mutuality of communication surrounding this most sensitive topic has helped me understand what total security in a relationship means. What true intimacy means.
Which is not to say we’re a happy-happy couple. Those who know us know we pick at each other all.the.time. And sometimes the conversations are hard–it’s not just “do we try for a child or do we try to avoid?” It’s “I don’t feel close to you” and “I don’t want to be close to you when you do X or Y.” It’s “I feel resentful because of Z.”
But we always grow in love because of them.
So this quote strikes great resonance for me. NFP is a big limit, but it’s also freeing–in many ways, but I’ll focus on one: it’s a limit forces the issue of dignity and mutual respect. It’s not that you can’t have mutual respect and treat each other with dignity if you don’t use NFP, because clearly you can. But being successful with NFP–by which I mean “We are equal members of the team,” not just “we didn’t get pregnant”–REQUIRES us to pay attention to issues of dignity and mutual respect.
Very few of us are good at extending respect and love to those who think differently than ourselves. It seems all issues today are all-or-nothing.
I’ve never been able to watch so-called reality TV, because so much of it consists of people shredding each other’s dignity. People come to fitness classes and laugh about the hateful things said by one contestant about another, and I just feel revulsion. I don’t understand how good people can fail to recognize how awful it is that we’re laughing at other people’s dignity being shredded.
And if that’s how we get our entertainment, then it’s no wonder we can’t even have civil discourse on the issues that matter most. The sentence following this quote in Gaudium et Spes talks about how, the more we respect and learn to understand the person who thinks or believes differently, the better we are able to enter into dialogue with them.
Doesn’t that sound like exactly what we need right now? This whole impeachment trial is a great example: the two sides aren’t even having the same conversation, let alone dialoguing. Those who support Trump won’t address the specifics of the case at hand, they just keep saying “Democrats have been looking for a reason to impeach since day one.” And those who loathe Trump won’t address that accusation. So it’s like we have two separate realities, because people will not treat each other with the respect and love called for in this excerpt from Vatican II. (And this is not just in Washington, but on our social media feeds.)
It’s worth reading all of Gaudium et Spes #28, because the context around this quote addresses the balance between respect and love and caring passionately about truth and goodness. It talks about the difference between error and the person in error. Lots of us say, “I love everyone, I just hate the sin,” but the actions and tone of voice and words used don’t show the love; they only show the hate. I’m well aware of my own struggles in this area, and I think the people who most vehemently insist on “love the sinner, hate the sin” are often those whose words and actions feel the most hate-filled.
How do we turn this around?
Today, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we Catholics focus in very narrowly on abortion. In our discussions and arguments about connecting public policy to our faith, this issue is always presented as the issue–the only one that matters, the one that overwhelms absolutely every other tenet of our faith. Nothing else matters, because without life, none of the rest of it could happen.
But as this excerpt shows, that is not how the bishops of the Second Vatican Council viewed the world. That is not how we are called to view the world.
Our commitment to sanctity of life doesn’t–can’t–stop with abortion. To do so is to betray who we are as Catholic Christians.
“Another self.” It’s hard enough to view others this way in family life. Half of Godly parenting–maybe three-quarters of it–is trying to get kids, who are supremely selfish beings, to recognize the other as not only equal to themselves, but “another self.”
But take this beyond the confines of those we already love, and it’s downright superhuman.
-the three people you most dislike in the world, you should view as “another self.”
–the people who are a continual thorn in our sides are “another self.”
–the people living in the woods and holding signs at intersections, whether they’re drug addicts or lazy or criminals or whatever assumptions we might be tempted to make about them, are “another self.”
–the refugee, asylum seeker, and yes, even the genuine “illegal alien” is “another self.”
And as a Christian it is my *job* to enable all these “other selves” to live with dignity. This is a conciliar document saying this, not one priest or one bishop. This is the Church speaking as clearly as the Church can speak.
Now, we can argue about what is the best way to enable human dignity. That’s a totally valid argument.
But those aren’t the discussions we’re having.
Instead, almost all our arguments are focused on whether we *should* help people–whether they *deserve* it and whether “there’s money” to do it. But let’s be honest: in America, there’s plenty of money to do what needs to be done. The argument is between those who think it can’t be done piecemeal, and should therefore be done at the level of society, i.e. through higher taxes and governmental administration, and those who think government is intrinsically evil and taxes are to be avoided at all costs–that charity should be entirely a private matter, even if that means many people will get missed.
This is the fundamental logjam in America today, and the trouble is that people on both sides view their own position on that question as universally-accepted truth–a settled reality. And so instead of figuring out how to strike a balance between personal rights and societal responsibility, we end up bickering about who does and who doesn’t deserve help. We start labeling asylum seekers as criminals, and conservatives as racists, and it all falls to pieces.
Our opponents, too, are “another self.”
The following quote is too long to put in a graphic, but it’s well worth putting at the center of our minds in an election year:
…there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.
This social order requires constant improvement. It must be founded on truth, built on justice and animated by love; in freedom it should grow every day toward a more humane balance. An improvement in attitudes and abundant changes in society will have to take place if these objectives are to be gained.Gaudium et Spes, #26
I doubt there’s a Christian out there who would argue with the sentiment expressed here, but in the context of globalization (a reality some embrace and others loathe, but inescapable reality either way), it does invite self-reflection.
Again and again in Scripture, from Cain saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to the scribe asking “Who is my neighbor?” to the quotes referenced in the ellipses of this quote–Romans 13:9-10 and 1 John 4:20–it is clear that God’s definition of “love of neighbor” is bigger and much, much less comfortable than we’d like it to be. It requires self-emptying that we naturally resist. The supremacy of ego (my opinions, my right to judge) is hard to overcome, but it’s critical to living a Christian witness in an authentic and inviting way.
Right here, this is it: “Intentional Catholic,” in 28 words. The last two posts I shared are attempts to put this into concrete terms, so maybe today is a good time to zoom out and look at the big picture.
I always come down hard on memes and other click bait shares, but I hesitate to get down in the weeds. I worry that readers will get distracted by the specifics of a particular issue and miss the bigger picture. But the other day when I was praying about whether to respond to something I saw online, it came into my mind that I should blog about it instead. It’s easy to miss the ways in which the things we share conflict with Gospel values. Maybe a concrete example is in order.
Those of us brought up on the idea of raising ourselves up by our bootstraps are conditioned to leap to our feet and applaud sentiments like this, but it’s not a Christlike reaction.
Problem One: The Question of Living Wage Has Big Implications
The assumption here is that minimum wage is actually just fine where it is, that the problem is with the person’s motivation. But it’s been well documented that minimum wage is below a living wage in many parts of the country. (That link comes from investopedia, which is rated “least biased.”)
Why on earth would a follower of Jesus Christ champion a belief that there are, in fact, workers who do not deserve to earn a living wage? That would be like suggesting that there are, in fact, people who do not deserve to be born. I know a lot of people will protest the analogy, but human dignity is human dignity. Either we’re all made in God’s image, with the same basic dignity and the same basic needs, or we’re not. People who believe in the dignity of the unborn should be more, not less, protective of the dignity of human beings who are between womb and tomb.
There’s another abortion connection here. According to the above article, fast food workers tend to be low-income women, and this Market Watch article shows 75% of abortions are obtained by low-income women. (Market Watch is labeled “slight right bias,” so this is no liberal conspiracy.) If we want to help mothers choose life, the Christlike thing to do is advocate for higher wages, not belittle workers in low-paid industries, as this meme does.
Problem Two: Who Deserves a Living Wage?
The underlying assumption of this entire post is: the work done by people in fast food industry is, of and by its very nature, not deserving of earning a living wage. What makes a roofer or a surveyor so much more valuable than a person who prepares and serves your food?
Those who commented on that post kept saying fast food jobs are for high schoolers. But high schoolers are in, y’know, high school. Who’s supposed to work the breakfast and lunch shifts?
The reality is, as long as we, the American public, insist upon the convenience of fast food, fast food will always need adult workers. We want fast food to be cheap, and one of the easiest ways companies achieve that is by paying low wages. As long as we support that system by visiting the golden arches or the bell, we’re a big part of the reason it exists.
Side note: I’m really struggling with Amazon for the same reason. But that’s a whole different post. The point is that blaming the workers for being victims of a system we willingly and eagerly participate in is not Christlike behavior.
Problem Three: The Big Picture
Christians should have another problem with this post: the assumption that people are only in these jobs because they’re lazy. “Get a better job, if you don’t like your wage!”
This is an example of middle class (and probably white) privilege. I worked fast food, and this is precisely what I did. But I worked fast food while I was getting a good education to prepare me to trade up jobs, and while I was safely housed at home by people paying for my food, lodging, clothes, utilities, and everything else.
In other words, I had a lot of help pulling myself up by my bootstraps. For people like me, the “get a better job” argument works just fine.
But it should be eminently clear that in America, opportunity is NOT equal. For example, in education. How often do people pack up their entire lives and move because the school boundaries change and they think they’re about to get sent to the “bad school”? If that isn’t a tacit acknowledgment that educational opportunity is vastly uneven, I don’t know what is.
There are rich schools and poor schools because there are richer and poorer enclaves. Higher socioeconomic classes work very hard to avoid ending up on the wrong side of that equation. We work hard to avoid “bad” neighborhoods and suburbs and the people within them. We won’t live near “them” and we definitely won’t let our kids go to school with “them.” So our schools get the boost in funding that comes with high property values, and “their” schools don’t. Uneven, unequal. Done.
And for a lot of kids growing up in homes where life itself is a struggle, it’s a generational problem. It’s not that a kid can’t break out of that cycle–but they have to work a whole lot harder than you or I do to get half as far. Judging them for their failure is completely contrary to the Christian call.
Problem Four: The Big Picture, Part B
Finally, let’s talk about that theoretical guy who was theoretically challenged to get a theoretical job and theoretically said he wasn’t interested. Maybe this really happened, maybe it didn’t. But even if it did happen, leaping to the conclusion that this guy is just lazy is still unworthy of a follower of Christ.
Let’s say this man is 25 and has a wife and kid. He’s working 30 hours a week at McDonald’s (because jobs like that are rarely offered full-time, because full-time means offering benefits, which would raise costs). According to what I found when I searched “how to become a land surveyor,” the author was wrong; this job does require training–and a license. And is vastly helped by a solid educational foundation. When is this theoretical training? Is he going to have to ask off work for it? What if he has a second job, working 25 hours one place and 25 hours in another, and the training overlaps both? Is the training paid? If not, can he afford to ask off work to take it?
Where is the training? Is it far enough away that he’d have to work out transportation he doesn’t have? What if his wife has a job, too, and they work opposite shifts to avoid the cost of child care? What if both of them have to skip shifts in order to make this work? And if they’re living close to the bone, are they going to be able to survive until the training is done?
Then there’s the roofing example. What if he has foot problems? Equilibrium problems? A debilitating fear of heights? What if he’s not in good enough physical shape? Sure, he should get in shape, but that too requires time and very likely money (gym membership, anyone?). The author is presupposing that this man is exactly like him, and the only thing separating them is the motivation.
The point of this extremely long post is that these glib, judgy things we like to put hearts and thumbs-up on and share are way more complex in reality than they look on social media. As Christians, we should be looking for the total picture of justice, not pointing at the easy target while we are active participants in the systems that make upward mobility so hard on anyone who isn’t already above a certain threshold.
“Judge not, lest you be judged.” (Mt. 7:1)
I don’t think the word “globalization” was in use yet in 1965 (though I don’t know that for sure), but that’s exactly what this is talking about. Nationalism has surged as a backlash against the reality that we’re all connected, but it doesn’t negate the reality. We are all connected. Nowhere on earth is more than a commercial plane ride away. The bombs can drop anywhere. We can Skype with someone in Thailand or Malaysia or Ukraine or Antarctica instantaneously. Parts for our technology may be made in one country and the whole assembled in another, and get shipped to a third.
We are inextricably tied together. We can’t deny that reality, no matter how threatening it feels. In fact, the overwhelming majority of us buy into it implicitly by the way we depend on smart devices and online purchasing.
We are tied together now, and if injustices and suffering in one part of the world cause conflict, the ripples will spread outward and hit us, too. That’s what we see in the refugee crises of the last few years–Syrians fleeing to Europe and Central Americans to the U.S. border, to name the most obvious. We have to recognize that the history of U.S. involvement in Central America over the past decades contributed to the suffering there (a topic I only know a little about, but enough to be aware that cold-war-era anti-Communist efforts are a factor***, and the fact that MS-13 originated in L.A. and its members were deported; now they’re a big part of the mayhem now happening). Ergo, we can’t just close up our border and say “Nope, your problem.” First, because we helped create it, and second, because this is the reality of an interconnected world. Your problems are my problems, whether I like it or not.
And the thing is, this is what Jesus called us to do voluntarily, as part of the Christian call. Jesus’ response Cain’s flippant protest, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was this:
“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt. 25:41)
Well worn, but hard to embrace.
And isn’t it amazing that Pope Paul VI and the bishops of the second Vatican Council could see all this in the mid-1960s, before any of this had taken place?
***I tried to do some good research on these contextual factors this morning so I could share reliable sources about them. What I discovered is that a) Fox news doesn’t talk about it at all, only left- and left-center-leaning sources; and b) it’s too complex for me to dive down the rabbit hole to understand fully in one morning when I have deadlines pressing. What it tells me, most of all, is that we as Americans (myself included) are sinfully negligent in understanding the conflicts and sufferings outside our own borders. So for today I am relying on the understanding of faithful Catholic friends who actually know about these situations.