We sang it even in our public school: “Count your blessings, name them one by one; count your many blessings; see what God has done.” When so many of us are capable of whining about first-world problems, taking a careful inventory of what God has given us is very good advice.
For one thing doing that would help us speak more kindly of those not so materially blessed as we, including those who struggle with living out the Catholic teachings on marriage, the people I described in A Marxist Lesson for Breeding Catholics and the follow-up, Judge Not the Frailty of Fear. The second piece promised to follow up on how we can help them, and here it is.
Having counted your blessings, remember that others aren’t so blessed. When you talk about NFP (natural family planning), be honest about the struggles and the failure rate. Don’t speak as if another child will always be for everyone an unmitigated blessing without acknowledging that they may not feel it’s a blessing at the moment.
Keep in mind that you are speaking from a certain place in life, and that others don’t have your advantages. Try to understand how life looks to the poor and the near-poor. Read weblogs like Calah Alexander’s Barefoot and Pregnant and when you speak about NFP, speak as if Calah and her peers were sitting in the front row, listening, and you really cared how they felt.
Remember that some people can’t afford NFP classes and that the do-it-yourself methods don’t work as well as the ones you have to pay for. Don’t say “Just learn Creighton!” as if this were as easy as walking across the street. Friends tell me that lessons for the Creighton method cost more than $500. The Marquette method is taught for free online, but the required monitor costs several hundred dollars, and the test strips add another regular expense. Safe faithfulness costs money some people simply don’t have.
Train yourself to speak happily about new children. I’ve known people who talk cheerfully about the Church’s teaching while reacting to news that a woman they know is pregnant with a negative, as in “How are they going to afford that one?” or “Why can’t they control themselves?” People catch that first reaction and know what you really think.
And don’t, whatever you do, try that “they just need to trust God” line, which comes across as “be as good as me.” Offer them the sympathy you want for your own struggles with Christian obedience. Remember Jesus’ words about motes and beams.
There are other things to do as well, and for these I credit Calah Alexander and her friends, who answered my request for ideas.
First, help your parish set up subsidized classes for one of the methods. Or help out yourself, especially if you’ve been in the same position.
Second, support the newly pregnant mothers as if their pregnancies were reasons to rejoice – because they are. One friend mentioned a parish whose women organize baby showers for every pregnancy, even if it’s the fifth or tenth. The costs don’t go down very much with each new baby. For one thing, necessary equipment like baby seats, which can be jolly expensive, wear out or are even outlawed as new safety features are required. A shower can be a huge material help, and a spiritual one as well. As Calah wrote to me:
On a deeper and in some ways more important level, giving baby gifts to expecting parents helps reaffirm the Church’s teaching on life, and can be a real comfort to parents who feel ashamed/alone when the unexpected pregnancies pile up.” She explained that her godparents gave her a beautiful gift for each new baby, the kind of thing parents usually get only for first babies. In three out of five pregnancies, it’s been the only gift we’ve gotten, and it means so much to both of us. It’s like someone else in the Church is saying, “Yes, we really do believe life is sacred, and we really are celebrating each and every one with you.” That message can be invaluable in difficult times.
Third, offer them the help they need, just to get along. If we help them when they’re pregnant and have the baby, we should also help them when they’re trying to live with the babies they’ve had. The blogger Bonnie Engstrom, who recently wrote a series called Financial Hardships and Surprise Pregnancies, suggests bringing meals not just after a baby is born but anytime; offering to babysit for parish events or date nights or doctor’s appointments, or just so the mother can get a nap; giving grocery store gift or cash cards; giving gift cards for something “impractical” like a night at the movies or dinner at a nice-ish restaurant; dropping by sometimes to help with the laundry or cleaning; giving zoo or museum memberships or passes for the local pool.
The gifts might be given anonymously, so the couple inclined to say “no” has to use them. This kind of help should continue as long as needed, which may be through several babies.
Older couples can “adopt” a family who are expecting or who have small children, and help them out over years. Just as importantly, they can befriend them. Friendship and encouragement go a long, long way. Friends, Engstrom said, should speak “about when things were tight for them, saying something as simple as, ‘I know what you are doing is tough, but we are praying for you and so glad that you are here.’ Talk about how wonderful the kids are, being positive about kids in church.”
Priests, Speak Up!
Fourth, and this is for priests, preach about the Church’s teaching, and not as a restriction but as something life-giving. Make sure parishioners know that a couples’ openness to life is a crucial part of the whole Church’s life. Hold up couples who are sacrificially obedient as examples of faithfulness. Of course doing this may anger some (one priest I know preached on the Church’s teaching and had enraged men in the sacristy after Mass, threatening to deck him) but man up.
Encourage young families to keep their children with them at Mass. Encourage parishioners to see the Mass as a family meal and accept the noise and disruption as a sign of life.
Finally, remember that a struggling couple who risk having children they can’t afford are making a profoundly countercultural statement about the power of the Gospel, and the life of the Church. It’s a great witness, but tends to be given out of sight, because people who are struggling are often made to feel shame. As the blogger Rachel Lapointe wrote, there is a contraceptive mentality, but
the real contraceptive mentality is that of those who sit in the pews each week, judging families like mine, who struggle financially with each child born yet continue to follow Church teaching. The contraceptive mentality is seen in those who tell mothers to take their children to “cry rooms” when all they are doing is talking about what they see in church and how they love Jesus. The contraceptive mentality is seen in those who shame the ones who ask for help, telling them that maybe they shouldn’t have had “so many children.”
I hadn’t thought of any of this till seeing the reaction to the first article. I’d thought about charity in speech, because that’s what I do, but not very clearly about the actual needs of the people about whom I wanted others to speak kindly. Addressing their needs can be as fast and easy as putting a gift certificate to the local grocery store in the mail with a note, or telling the parents with loud squirming kids at Mass that you’re happy they’re there. The best way for the church—which is to say, you and me—to witness to the joy of children and the Catholic teaching is to bless those who have children at risk to themselves.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMillsWrtng.