Saturday, June 7, 2014

On Taming Toddlers So That They Work For You

The right and lawful ordering of birth demands, first of all, that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order.

This is especially clear in the practice of periodic continence. Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character.

And if this self-discipline does demand that they persevere in their purpose and efforts, it has at the same time the salutary effect of enabling husband and wife to develop to their personalities and to be enriched with spiritual blessings. For it brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace.

It helps in solving difficulties of other kinds. It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity. It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities. And finally, it confers upon parents a deeper and more effective influence in the education of their children. As their children grow up, they develop a right sense of values and achieve a serene and harmonious use of their mental and physical powers.
Humanae Vitae 21

Reflection – OK, so I have to smile a bit at the first sentence here. To live the Church’s teachings in this matter, married couples have to not only recognize the true blessings of family life (I think many if not most couples can manage that), but also ‘acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions.’

Hey, no problem, eh? People with complete mastery over themselves and their emotions are just thick on the ground in our world today! Easiest thing in the world to do, right?

OK, perhaps at this point in our reading of the encyclical we should expect from an encyclical what an encyclical can deliver. A formal document, containing binding teaching on all the faithful, is not going to lay out an entire pastoral program of how to achieve this self-mastery or talk about the whole underlying picture of Christian moral life in which this statement makes perfect sense, is obvious really.

Because the need for self-mastery does not just pertain to moral conduct in areas of sexuality, you know. It is a fundamental requirement for any serious moral achievement. If I am never to tell lies, I must acquire mastery over myself and my emotions. If I am to never steal or be fraudulent in my financial dealings, I must have this mastery. If I am to use food and drink properly, treat my neighbor with kindness, generosity, and fairness, I must have self-control.

What we’re talking about here is the cardinal virtue of temperance. The four cardinal virtues[1] (can you name them without peeking?) are each called ‘cardinal’, from the Latin word for hinge, because the practice of all virtue, the ability of a person to live a morally good life, hinges upon our possession of these four virtues.

And we can see how this is the case with temperance. Because our emotions, our unruly desires and passions are always flying off in all directions, and essentially are like little toddlers who want what they want when they want it, we need the virtue that ‘tempers’ these passions, which is quite different from repressing or suppressing them. Rather, temperance ‘tames’ the emotions, bridles them, puts the force of emotional life to the service of the good. It is obvious, I hope, that no serious plan of moral action can succeed without this control over the emotions.

And so it is not so ridiculous that the Church presents the plan of moral action known as ‘right and lawful ordering of birth,’ according to the changeless and ancient doctrine of the evil of contraception, and then says that ‘well, it requires self-mastery’.

The rest of this paragraph has been criticized at times for providing an overly rosy picture of the 
personal and communal benefits of following the teaching. I think that the book I reviewed here a couple weeks ago by Simcha Fisher does the best job of responding to those criticisms from an actual NFP user, so I will leave it at that for now.

[1] Prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude.