Contraception and Signs of Contradiction: Part II

The Yoke of Nature and Human Vocation.  When it comes to marriage and the having of children we experience these gifts, burdens, and yokes in ways few other aspects of human life impress with such obviousness.  Although the common sense of our day tells us to wait, first, for marriage, and, second, for the begetting of children, until just the right moment in our education and our careers, nature’s yoke sets us to craving these things independent of our particular present condition.  It encourages us to accept both as blessings, as gifts, that are given to us rather than as earned benefits to be used at our discretion or as contrivances mastered by and subject to our autonomous reason.  While nothing properly human does not involve the direction of the intellect, human reason merely cooperates in the good natural journey of a man and woman to their union, and in the gift of children given to that union.

Anything that conceals the essential feature of these things as gifts disfigures them.  Anything that turns them into events subject to our convenience or items subject to our use violates their goodness—it would be, in fact, a moral evil.  Anything that suggests the human reason generates its own laws, is an end in itself, or a possession or tool to be used or dispensed with constitutes a prideful failure in self-knowledge and a misanthropic renunciation of our humanity.

But many persons recognize the natural gift of marriage and children.  It may be precisely the unruly and unbearable grace of it all that awes them.  In these mysterious and central aspects of human life, we know we are not our own masters anymore—and for that very reason we elect to restrict the number of times we render ourselves so vulnerable.  We wish to serve others well, when we must, and not to, when we may.  It is easy to believe we can afford to provide for one or two children; we are busy and distracted by many things, but the early years of a child’s life, in which one must attend most intensely to him, are few in number.  With one or two children, those years will pass like a sweet, short stage, a tough but temporary job, in one’s life: a thing one does for a while, rather than a way one lives out one’s years.

Catholic tradition speaks of all persons as being ordained to a vocation.  So do our vocational schools, one might reply.  But by “vocation” that tradition does not refer to a career, a job, or the practice of a particular skill; it means rather one’s state in life.  To repeat the words uttered just above, a vocation is the way one lives out one’s life in the world.  Truth be told, there are only two vocations: that to married life, and that to religious life.  One either lives out one’s life contributing to the order of creation, to the continuance and growth of the city of man that is ultimately ordered to God, or one lives out one’s life in stuttering anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Within the former of these vocations, Catholics believe that the having of children is not so much a thing that one does once, twice, or a few times, as it is a way one lives, a state rather than a job.  Indeed, while we all have different gifts that suit us to this or that line of work, such incidental gifts are themselves of limited value in the scheme of our lives and are mere instruments of our calling to married or religious life.

Just as there are no solutions to the problem of life itself, as if one could stitch up this, that, and the other difficulty, and have thereby one’s life “solved,” primed to be lived out in empty felicity, so also there is no ready-to-hand closure to the life of the parent.  While the yoke of our natures and the genius of our reason helps us determine how many children for which we can properly provide, when we cease to think of parenting as a job or episode, we recognize that we do not have to be perfectly equipped with time, money, or emotional freedom in order to have multiple children.

The having of children entails not the bringing to perfection of a particular project, but the condition of not only accepting great gifts but dwelling with them as the condition or calling of our lives.  Thus, the Catholic vision of human life does not primarily differ from the common sense of our day regarding the number of children one should have, but the fundamental understanding of what marriage and children are—and what human life itself is.  We tend to deform this understanding when we misconceive marriage or parenting as a job and when we misconceive our jobs or careers as vocations.

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