Some people find Catholic teaching to be very hard, and we should be kinder to them about it
Jesus loved the rich young ruler, yet the man didn’t join up because he liked his money too much—or, to put it another way, he feared poverty too much. After he walks away, Jesus tells the disciples that a camel could get through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich man could get into the kingdom of God. The story has haunted me since before I became a serious Christian because I can easily imagine myself in his place.
Wednesday’s article, Marxist Lessons for Breeding Catholics, received an unexpectedly critical response from some readers. I had written that people like me tend to speak about the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage as if it were easy but that some people find it very hard, and we should be kinder to them. A simple point, and kind of obvious, but the critics missed it.
Typical was one response on a friend’s Facebook page. The writer, who was very, very cross with me, referred to the story of the rich young ruler and said, “Jesus didn’t make an accommodation just because the teaching was extra hard for him.” This she offered as rebuttal.
I agree 100 percent. I didn’t suggest the Church change her teaching for those who find it hard. That wouldn’t be charitable to them either.
I think the discussion faithful Catholics ought to have begins with the recognition that living the Catholic life can be hard—for some so hard that they’re tempted bail out on it—and that this is true for almost all of us in different ways. Yes, some people have trouble trusting God with their fertility, especially when the wolf is at the door.
But rich young ruler ‘R’ us. How many people know they ought to give more to others but can’t control their spending? How many know they ought to do more for others but don’t want to give up an evening at home? I struggle with both of these, and many people I know do as well. Some of us do better with sex than money, and others do better with money than sex.
Those of us who have an easier time being open to life should accept that as a blessing and not treat it as a sign of virtue. For my wife and me, as I wrote a few weeks ago in A “Bonus Baby” Brought Us into the Catholic Church, the teaching has been a blessing. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t (after the pregnancies, which were very hard on my heroic wife) all that hard, either. The sacrifices were sacrifices we could make without endangering ourselves. We don’t have the luxuries almost everyone else our age has, but we have our children. We think we came out well ahead on the deal.
Other Catholics are not so blessed to be able to handle unexpected pregnancies. As Calah Alexander wrote in a response to my article she titled Suffering Shame, “There is a great deal of shame bound up in the triple whammy of sucking at NFP, being poor, and being very fertile.” The possibility of new baby-induced bankruptcy is not an abstraction for her family.
Financial struggles are stressful in and of themselves, but when the world is almost gleeful in their condemnation of the irresponsibility of your choice to forego birth control, it becomes a struggle you want to keep secret—one you are ashamed of, because somewhere in your heart you almost agree. This shame is not always lifted by other Catholics, even those who understand Church teaching.
Jesus orders us to love one another, and love does the work of discerning what expressions of love each other needs. We need to look at struggling couples with some imagination and the conviction that “there but for the grace of God go I.” We can’t make up our own idea of what they must be like, especially if we make it up to knock them down. We have to listen to them carefully and with empathy.
We can listen to someone like Calah.
We might find what seems to us the easy answer is to other Catholics not so easy, and possibly something to be feared. Several people wrote about NFP as if it were the simple solution to people’s fears of pregnancy, and blaming those who cannot trust it.
How does the matter appear to a struggling couple from the inside, though? They know that NFP fails sometimes. I can send as proof pictures of our youngest two children. Even if it really were 98 percent effective, that one-in-fifty chance of conception—which means the likelihood of getting pregnant once every four years—might paralyze a couple who can’t afford another child. The comfortable person might say, “It’s a long shot; don’t worry,” but the couple for whom the long shot coming in would be a disaster is going to worry, and almost all of us would.
Some readers responded to my piece with, “If they truly trusted God, they wouldn’t worry.” That demands a saintliness of the couple few of us could match. After Jesus said “judge not,” he said, “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” “If they only trusted God” suggests a measure of judgment none of us would want meted out for our own failings.
Mark’s Gospel tells us that the disciples were astonished at Jesus’ remark about rich people and asked him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus explained, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”
God’s people are one of the ways our Father makes all things possible. Jesus told us to bear each other’s burdens, even when that burden is the challenge of Catholic teaching. One way we bear each other’s burdens is to recognize what those burdens are and not judge the people who carry them. And we can do more to help practically, but that’s another article.