Observations: Breeder Reactor

Before I had a chance to indulge in a short prayer of thanks for the miracle of our third child, the nurse blurted out, “Well, is that it?” Few questions have rendered me more dumbstruck than the nurse’s intrusion into our family’s future after five hours of labor. When my wife quietly responded that we hoped for more children, the nurse, without pause, asked whether we were Mormons. At that point I smiled and responded, “No, just Catholics.” The nurse seemed to want me to explain the significance of our Catholicism, but she decided to allow the awkward exchange to float from the room as the doctor pulled the afterbirth from my wife.

The nurse’s questions did not bother me: that exchange is now a wonderful story, which I delight in telling. In fact, such stories—along with always having a willing yet overmatched wrestling opponent—are some of the many benefits of having four children in six years. However, the nurse’s assumption that only Mormons have more than three children is an indication of how thoroughly Catholics and Catholicism have melted into modem American life.

Catholicism in America requires the young, married Catholic to be an oddity. While there are a substantial number of Catholic oddballs, many with potential remain unchallenged. Still, other young Catholics seem more likely than non-Catholics to point out the oddities of their backward peers. These Catholics readily disregard the Church’s teachings on marriage and contraception and eagerly affirm the stupidity of any couple that actually believes what the Church teaches. Such an attitude seems to result from a belief that the Church’s teachings on sexuality are simply the result of the sexual frustrations of old, celibate men.

The average Catholic baby-boomer’s lack of even a rudimentary understanding of the Church’s teachings on the duality of human sexuality in marriage is perhaps the most telling failure of Catholic education—at home and in our schools. As a result, many young Catholics use contraception because they are unable to justify not using it to themselves, their spouses, their families, and their friends. This ignorance results not only in the unnatural closing of many Catholic marriages to the potentiality of human life; it also results in a somewhat absurd and comical hostility against Catholic couples that believe a Catholic marriage requires an openness to new life.

I easily understood the nurse’s wanting an explanation of the relationship between large families and Catholicism. Yet when a Catholic friend greeted the announcement of my wife’s fourth pregnancy with a suggestion that it was time to see his urologist, I became uneasy (it was as if he had suggested we celebrate the event by hiring a pair of hookers). I jokingly told my friend that a vasectomy would require a letter from Pope John Paul II; then my uneasiness turned to astonishment when I realized he had no knowledge that sterilization is frowned upon in Rome. Here stood a man—a lawyer—who had never been aware of the teaching, let alone its basis, that sterilization of oneself is unnatural and, thus, immoral. Happily, ignorance of such magnitude is rare.

The more common and more vile ignorance among young Catholics is the ignorance of the basis for the Church’s teaching against the use of contraception and sterilization. This ignorance manifests itself in comments that cause pain because we assume that the speakers should have a full understanding of and sensitivity to our traditions and beliefs. For instance, my wife, Sharon, and I have many Catholic friends and relatives who are products of large families—all Catholic educated. Alas, this education has not prevented female friends and relatives from imploring her to stick something inside of her or onto me to prevent future pregnancies. Sharon is held in much pity among many of her peers for marrying a Neanderthal and for allowing a Neanderthal, her children, and her pregnancies, to prevent her from seeking and gaining “fulfillment” in the world outside the home.

One such peer, a wife and a mother herself, greeted news of Sharon’s fourth pregnancy with a firm phone conversation in which she told Sharon that contraceptives were a must after the birth. A younger sister, an earnest volunteer working in India, congratulated Sharon with a note that suggested we consider family planning (artificial, of course), as it was quite popular in India. I was simply thankful she did not suggest the abortion of our female children, as I have heard that that is also quite popular in India. Generally, comments from friends and acquaintances, as any prolific Catholic will attest, range from questioning mental stability to shock and horror.

I must admit that I take far too much comfort in the misery of others. Rather than permitting them to make foolish comments and allowing them to conspire methods of bringing condoms into my household, I ought to engage them in reasoned discourse on natural law and the writings of Aquinas. But I fear that the joy I receive in inflicting so much consternation will guarantee my wickedness for some time in the future—at least until I receive the ultimate joy of standing accused of depleting the world’s natural resources through my proliferation. Sharon, however, possesses a purer heart and is saddened that some family and friends do not understand her joy at having children and her desire to keep our sexuality free of unnatural intrusions. Thus, the lack of understanding of the Church’s teachings not only leads many Catholics away from God but isolates the oddballs to a greater extent than ever before.

A taste of Humanae Vitae and its theological underpinnings in high school would do much to alleviate the common assumption that sex without contraception is reckless unless the child’s college tuition is secure in a trust account. Even I, a product of the fine Philadelphia parochial school system, did not confront the duality of our sexuality until a Jesuit thrust the issue upon me in my third year of college. The teachers of our religion are many times reluctant to teach Catholic sexual morality as a standard of living. What those teachers fail to understand, but what our youth know, is that truth reveals itself when properly presented. No one needs truth plunged down his throat: truth need only be presented.

There is a human tragedy in those couples who do not understand or who do not follow the Church’s teachings. An older woman, who bore 13 children, felt Sharon’s pain and wrote her a short note. The woman assured Sharon that even when she was having her children (in the middle of the baby boom) there were those people who offered pejorative comments on the number and rapidity of her children. She added the simple observation that older couples consistently complimented her and lamented their own failure to have more children. The truth struck both Sharon and me: the grandmothers we meet in the supermarkets are effusive over our children while somewhat saddened that their opportunities for more children and grandchildren are lost. Many of my peers will find themselves admiring the grandchildren of others because they did not have the knowledge or courage to follow the teachings of our Church.

I have no grand plan on the teaching of our religion; my children occupy much of my mental energy. I do know that I am ever thankful to my Jesuit teacher for what he presented to me. I suppose the most I can do is quietly affirm the truth by living it. But if I take some smidgen of joy in the incredulousness of others, I pray God will not hold my perversion against me.

Sinful Indulgence

Mr. Kennedy’s experiences were recently corroborated by a letter-writer to the Wall Street Journal who criticized another family, the Wirthlins: “The U.S. has a national interest in a stable population level. If the Wirthlins want to ‘have joy’ from their children, fine. But let them, or the Mormon Church, pay for it. The tax law imposes limits on deductions for luxury cars to eliminate the taxpayers’ subsidy of personal indulgence. The same standard should be applied to luxury families.”


  • Joseph P. Kennedy

    At the time this article was published, Joseph P. Kennedy was a husband and father living in Albequerque, New Mexico.

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