Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Cornbread Dressing

Although the evening commitments have eased up now that our theater season is over (though please help me convince Darwin to audition for Twelve Angry Men because he'd be so great, can't you see it?), life with seven kids is busy enough that the writing gets pushed to the back burner. And so, speaking of the back burner, here, in lieu of a piece of real, elegant prose, is a re-run of my mother's cornbread dressing recipe. I know there's various kinds of stuffing-type foods, and each has their partisans, but for my money this is the best dish at the Thanksgiving table.
  • 2 boxes Jiffy cornbread mix, enough to make a 9x13 pan of cornbread (you can make your own, but the sweetness of the Jiffy works well with the stuffing; I prefer it.)
  • 2 c. celery, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 c. onions or scallions (I often use green onions)
  • giblets from turkey to make broth (or 1 can, about 2 c., chicken broth)
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 Tbs. parsley
  • 1/2 tsp. basil
  • 1/4 tsp. sage
  • 1/4 tsp. thyme
  • 1/4 tsp oregano
  1. Bake cornbread and put it into a large bowl. Don't crumble it too much yet.
  2. Boil giblets and neck to make turkey broth (my mom says just cover them with water, but it works out to be about 2 cups.) Alternatively, boil chicken broth.
  3. Add celery, bell pepper, onions, and butter to broth; boil until tender.
  4. If using giblets and if desired, chop up giblets and neck meat and add to corn bread.
  5. Add all seasonings to cornbread along with salt and pepper to taste, mix.
  6. Pour broth with vegetables over cornbread mixture and stir just until everything is moistened. This can be refrigerated for several days (makes great leftovers!) or you can put it in a pan, dot the top with butter, and heat through. Serves lots.
Happy Thanksgiving! We thank God for all of our readers and friends, and anyone who's dropped in here at the blog over the past dozen years. May your plates be heavy and your hearts be light.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2, Chapter 4-1

It's been a long, long time. The last couple installments went up right around the time baby was born. That threw the household into more of a time organization crunch than I expected. I'm trying to make a push until the end of the year to finish this 4th chapter and also the 5th.

Near Sandomierz, Galicia. June 8th, 1915. The 7th Uhlans were surrounded by dead. Not because there had been any pitched battle, but because the town of Sambor had, in its wisdom, built its cemetery on the only hill within miles.

Jozef sat in the shadow of a monument on which two angels held up a scroll proclaiming that Irena Wyrzykowski had been a beloved wife and mother from 1829 to 1873 and waited while Oberleutnant Niemczyk scanned the distance with his binoculars.

It was not a very high hill, and yet because the rest of the plain along the Vistula was so flat, it afforded a view which stretched more than a dozen miles.

“Any sign of the Russians?”

“Nothing beyond a few smoking cottages. They’re doing their best to leave nothing behind for us.”

The oberleutnant, serving as temporary squadron commander since the Rittmeister had been wounded in the second day of the offensive, turned his glasses to look down the river road towards the west instead. “The infantry is coming up. We should be relieved by noon.”

In the end, it was not until the cavalrymen were finishing their lunch among the graves that the long line of infantry in their dusty gray-blue uniforms came marching by the hill. Their officers, on horseback but wearing the shoes and leg-wraps of infantrymen rather than the boots of true cavalry, directed some companies forward and others up onto the hill. These were Landsturm sappers, older men, bearded, slouching, their marching order ragged. They carried rifles on their shoulders, but also oversized shovels lashed to their packs. Their mission was not to fight but to dig the fortifications from which others would.

“How goes it with the mole soldiers?” called one of the troopers. “Will you dig your way through and attack the Orient?”

“Go suck a horse, pretty boy,” one of the infantrymen called in reply, while the rest simply hunched their shoulders and kept moving.

Oberleutnant Niemczyk ordered the squadron to mount up, and as the Landsturm set to with their spades to begin turning the hill into a fortification, the Uhlans rode back down the highway to make camp. Once there, however, Jozef did not find his name on the roster of assignments with the other junior officers. Instead he found a summons to Oberst von Bruenner, commander of the regiment.

The retreating Russians had left standing no buildings in the village worth using as a headquarters. The Oberst made himself at home in a tent instead, and did so with some style. When the guard outside pulled back the tent flap and bowed Jozef in, he stepped onto a rug which covered the ground. Oberst von Bruenner sat on a folding camp chair in front of a wooden writing desk. Jozef came to full attention and saluted.

“Provisional Leutnant von Revay, Sir.”

There were several other chairs and stools arranged in a horseshoe facing the desk, perhaps unmoved since the Oberst had last met with his squadron commanders, but he did not invite Jozef to be seated. For a moment the Oberst remained immersed in a paper on his desk, then he signed it with a flourish, got slowly to his feet, and returned Jozef’s salute.

“Yes, von Revay. I hear good things about you from Oberleutnant Niemczyk.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I have two things to tell you. First, you may drop the ‘provisional’. I have received approval for your promotion to a full leutnant.”

The Oberst picked up the paper he had just signed and held it out to Jozef. There it was in elaborate black printed letters: a commission to the officer corps of the Imperial-Royal Army.

“Secondly,” went on the Oberst, “I’m detaching you on a special mission.”

[Continue reading]

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Microfiction, or, You Should Write

Last month some friends of mine participated in Inktober, where you follow a one-word prompt to create a drawing for each day of October. It's like NaNoWriMo for artists. I was delighted each day to see the drawings they posted, no matter how dashed off or sketchy, all far above the level of anything I could do in the artistic line.

NaNoWriMo is about long-term sustained creativity in the writing department: 50,000 words in one month. It's all kinds of fun, but it's just too much work to do casually. But just as my Inktobering friends made small drawings each day, so other friends have turned their hands at casual microfiction, dashing off a story here and there. I like this -- the idea that drawing, or storywriting, is not some rarified skill left to the professionals, but something that a person ought to be able to do in their spare time, just for fun.

So today, some microfiction excerpts, published with permission.


My friend Janelle Ortega took on a fun task: describing how she would introduce people in a novel. Here's what she wrote for me, on St. Crispin's Day.

Even with so many people it was cold. It was late October. Some would have thought to bring sweaters but most wouldn't have. Burning dust floated out of the vents as it always does the first time at the beginning.

Usually the smell bothered her but not tonight. She was dealing with her stomach.

That stupid quote.... "I still get butterflies but now they fly in unison" came to her head. She could practice til her voice faded, perform nightly, get continuous standing ovations, but still she was nervous. There were those who called themselves "thespians" hundreds, thousands, and each one of them claimed "I'm never myself unless I'm on stage" Bah, Cat knew that lie, heard it since high school. No, for her, being someone else was why it was all so exhilarating. But still, those nerves. Even between acts, even playing multiple roles....

But now clothes so damp in the crisp air. Her socks thin, she can feel the seams in her boots. Smelling the early morning fires and rotting leaves, a different fear strangles her and she turns to the king....

"Oh that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work today"
That he might have something to ease the fear of death. Speak oh King!"


Inspired by a conversation about my oldest daughter, who unlike her parents yearns to be a gamer, a friend who runs a game night sat down and wrote up this tale.

An Exercise in Justifying My Hobby as a Dungeon Master, or
What To Do When Your Daughter Wants to Fight Dragons
by Jeff Kinney
The tiny bell jingled as he opened the door.

He really wasn't sure what he was doing there. He'd outgrown such things years ago, but he did have a vague recollection of where to go, what to search for. And the shop looked promising.

Bookshelves lined the store. Some were the standard metal ones, but further in were a hodge-podge of wooden ones, some even boardering on antique. They were laid out in parallel sets, exposing their wares in a mostly organized fashion. The spines of hardbound books, boxed sets of games, cards and dice, figurines and statues.

He walked in cautiously, not seeing anyone else in the shop. A voice rang out from the back, suggesting that the proprietor would be out shortly. He moved toward the shelves and ran his fingers lightly over the covers. The Player's Guidebook. Guide for Dungeon Crawlers. Monsters Compendium, Volumes I through V. Another set was fully devoted to that popular sci-fi show that came out a few years ago. He smiled ruefully. Not much seemed to have changed.

A man with a considerable gut, balding at the top but clearly compensating for it with a bushy beard, came out of what was likely the store room.

"Sorry. Would you believe how often I have to go back there and fight off the Rat King and his subjects?" the shopkeep said with a grin. "So, what can I help you find?"

"Not for me. My daughter, actually. She wants a game to play, but I hate to see her staring at a screen all the time. Something cooperative, maybe, for her and her friends. I was hoping I could find her something here."

The shopkeep sized him up, then smiled again. "How long has it been?"

"Excuse me? How long since what?"

"Since you played! I can see it in you. You've been to far off worlds of your own making. You've conjured up fantasies through forbidden lands that only you and your friends knew of. Or was it an exploration of space, filled with aliens and robots and blasters? Aha. That was it, isn't it."

"Guilty" he said sheepishly. "And it was many years ago. My mid teens, I guess."

"Yeah, pretty much everyone feels awkward about then. Always easier to believe yourself to be a badass warrior or a hidden magical talent, or a superhero in disguised as a normal kid. So, what's the girl into, other than escaping reality."

He shrugged. "Theater. Reading. Talking with friends and hanging out."

The shopkeep grunts and takes you back into the shelves. You find more books like those in the front. On the shelves a marker had inscribed 'Role Playing Materials' over a swath of masking tape, but it was the mural above it that caught his eye. A child, reading a book under a blanket by flashlight, while above her, a charging warrior raced toward a bellowing monster. Below the image, a message was written in flowing script:

"Dragons are not real. But they can be defeated."

He looked up, bemused. "Chesterton?"

The shopkeep nodded. "Horrible bastardization of it, but I couldn't get the kid who painted it for me to write the whole thing up there. But it gets the point across."

He nodded. A moment later, a few well-worn books were being stacked up in his outstreched hands. "What are these?"

The shopkeep huffed, pulling himself from the floor with effort. "The basics. Enough to get her going. You'll know soon enough what kind of adventures she wants. Come back and we'll get her proper things if it sticks. Those are loaners, so try to not write in them too much."

He was taken aback. "Free?"

"Well, if you want I can get you the newest versions at $40-$50 a book. But unless you learn how to make the game an adventure, they'll likely sit next to the cleats she outgrew when she was eight and wanted to play softball."

"Dance shoes, actually" he murmured, still a little off balance by the man's instincts.

"Sure, sure." He pulled out a small bag from the counter, and put in a half dozen dice from a collection of hundreds. "I'll charge you for these though. Kids always lose the dice. $3.48 plus tax?"

"Um. Yeah." He was struggling to regain control of the situation. He felt like he had been swept up in something without even realizing what was going on. "Seriously, why are you doing this? This can't make you much money."

"Nope, it doesn't." The shopkeep pulls out a box of flashy foil covered playing cards. "These pieces of cardboard keep me afloat. I do the games because I love seeing kids tell stories about how awesome they are. If it works, yeah, she'll come back and buy dice, or books, or miniatures. Or she'll make up her own stuff. But there will be stories. Stories of her and her friends saving the town from ravaging monsters, exploring the haunted mines, or discovering some brand new magic. She'll tell those stories, legends of her own making. She'll stop pretending the be the warrior-princess and act like it. And if it worked for you, it'll probably work for her too. I assume it DID work, yes?"

He nodded and paid for the dice, though he did not following the shopkeepr's logic. As he walked to the door, the shopkeeper called out again.

"Let her know gaming nights are Thursdays! And you're welcome at the table too!"

He walked out, slightly unsure of what had just happened, ringing the bell on the way out. As he laid the books on the passenger seat of his car, a pamphlet fell out from between the books.

'What To Do When Your Daughter Wants to Fight Dragons'

He smiled. Yes, this might do just fine.


And a contribution from myself, an Orphan Opening from last January.

Of course everyone was more secretive because it was Christmas time, and everywhere the echo of muffled giggles and running feet hinted at mysterious doings afoot. Children disappeared into rooms and slammed doors as Marie hauled laundry or half-unpacked boxes up stairs and through corridors. Somehow nine children seemed like a lot more when they rambled around a huge old house than when they were all jammed in the small living room of the unlamented heap they used to call home. At least the kids had been easier to count then. Now it was impossible to tell who was who between all the mops of curly tangles disappearing with packages into empty rooms. Empty rooms! Such a novel concept before, but in this house, there were plenty of places for a child to hide away.

Up in the attic, Marie didn't dare search through the opened boxes for the Christmas decorations lest she disturb someone's cleverly hidden present cache. Still, there were plenty of sealed boxes up there to go through, stacked amid the detritus of previous homeowners: magazines, records, dress-up clothes, books, and even a photograph of the original family to live here. The stiff sepia-toned parents were slightly too blurry for Marie to feel that they looked on her in judgment, but the young girl stared clear-eyed at the mess, ringlets carefully arrayed over her dark dress.

"Never saw this much chaos in your life, huh, kid?" Marie muttered, and then felt bad at the thought of one child rattling around in this pile, between the great rooms downstairs and the small servants' bedrooms on the third floor. Well, the old place had life aplenty now. Three middle girls in three separate bedrooms, wrapping, though at a glance who could say which one was Rachel, Melanie, or Nell? A quick peek in the nursery revealed two little boys who were either Pete and Joe, or Joe and Pat, or Pat and Pete crouched over some legos. A teenager reading huddled under a blanket in the living room -- was it shaggy John or shingled Mary Alice? And then the kids had met the neighbors and were always vanishing next door and then popping in again with friends in tow, leaving Marie with the disconcerting feeling of there being at once too many and not enough children underfoot. At least the baby was always easy to track: small, attached to someone's hip, and definitely bald.

At last the tree was up, the house was decorated (thanks to the kids), and the presents were stacked, but Marie felt even less settled in the house than when they'd first moved. She never thought she'd miss having no personal space, but now the only time everyone was gathered in one place, all accounted for, was at dinner time. At least in the old house she'd had some kind of sense of where everyone was at any given moment. Now children could isolate themselves, someone always sneaking off alone to throw off her mental headcount. Even Dan confessed himself defeated, laughing on Saturday afternoon as he tried to tally his children in the confusion of rooms and neighbors.

"Be grateful," he told Marie as he kissed her in the kitchen. "This is a great neighborhood. I think I saw one of the neighbor kids behaving nicely in the library when our own were upstairs shrieking in the bedrooms."

Marie wondered how her house must sound to the other mothers on the street.

At least on Christmas Day, the noise and fighting were confined to the family. Presents had been opened and abandoned, dinner was made, the kids had set the table, and Marie even took a few moments upstairs to put on a fresh sweater and some lipstick before entering the fray. The dining room resounded as kids jockeyed for coveted positions. There must have been fighting, for in the twilit living room Nell, or Melanie, or Rachel sat with her back to the world, contemplating the glowing tree and refusing to budge. "Grant us peace," Marie sighed as she opened the dining room doors. A burst of Christmas cheer greeted her, and everyone sorted into their spots. At the head of the table opposite her, Dan; four tousled heads down each side; and in the high chair, sweet bald baby, leaving Marie standing by the one empty chair, her own, stifling the summons she'd been about to give to the small ringleted presence still behind her in the living room.


You don't have to be A Writer to write fiction. You don't have to want to be published. You don't need to write a novel. Fiction writing is a skill, sure, but it doesn't have to be rarified. Just sit down and write a thing. And share it with me -- I want to read it.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

NFP and Truth (and Suffering)

This is the second in a series of posts dealing with NFP and some recent controversies surrounding it. The first post dealt with how accusation that Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae because if he did otherwise the Church "should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951" is fundamentally a concern about the nature of the Church and the authority of the Church's teaching power, not an accusation about clerical misogyny or failing to listen to the experiences of married couples. In this second post, we're going to talk about NFP itself, some of the problems with it, and some of the problems with how people talk about it.

Back in July, Melinda Selmys (whose post series inspired this one) had post on NFP (Natural Family Planning, lest the insider acronym be unfamiliar to anyone) which was somewhat inspired by the "NFP awareness week" which many in the Catholic online world were conducting.
So it’s NFP awareness week, and nothing will do a woman more good in the midst of a faith-crisis than blogging about NFP…right?

Anyway, I did end up reading one of the many NFP articles that are circulating this week. The upshot of this one is that the woman who is writing it hates NFP. It doesn’t improve her marriage, or increase intimacy in her relationship, and it’s not really preventing her from getting pregnant. Her body doesn’t have time to recover between pregnancies, and she’s experiencing pregnancy loss – possibly as a result. So far, so familiar. However, she is continuing with it because she believes in the unchanging teaching of the Catholic Church and so she is being obedient even though it is causing her suffering and she doesn’t understand why it’s a good thing.

Also, painfully familiar.
I remember when the awareness week was going around, and I recall studiously not taking part in it, despite the fact that NFP has been fairly intimately connected with our lives for the last sixteen years. There is too often, I fear, a boom and bust cycle to NFP boosterism. The bust is not always the kind of complete questioning of Church teaching authority which Selmys's struggle with it seems to have led to (following up on the above linked post in which she questions why the Church teaches someone in her situation must not use contraception, she went on to a four part series on papal infallibility, which she more or less rejects now, demonstrating I think that rejection of the Church's teaching on contraception ends up hinging on questions of doctrinal authority, not sexuality.) But even when the result is simply grim compliance rather than attempted rejection of the Church's teaching about contraception, I think that the tendency of NFP boosters to over-promise results in the ten-to-twelve-years-into-marriage disillusion with those promises which I've often heard from other Catholics.

MrsD: Perhaps it was around NFP Awareness Week when I heard someone who'd been married for a few years and had a few young kids, bemoaning the fact that no one had ever mentioned that NFP was so hard, and why did no one ever talk about this? And I said nothing, because we already wrote that same post back when we'd been married a few years and had a few young kids ourselves. It seemed like we were constantly fighting this monthly battle pitting desire against risk of pregnancy, and dear God, how long would it go on this way? Well, the answer is that nothing in life is static. NFP has been, intermittently, a trial, a slog, a blessing, a lifeline, and just a thing that we do or don't do, depending on necessity.

By now the term "NFP" is almost too fraught, carrying connotations of some big oppressive system. Say it with me, though: all it is is 1) observing the signs of female fertility -- a morally neutral act -- and 2) using those observations as part of a prudential judgment about whether to have sex based on the possibility of pregnancy as a result. That's a bit long to type out, so at least in this series of posts, all "NFP" refers to is this basic idea of observation and decision-making process, not the guidelines and rules of any particular system -- Marquette, Creighton, CCL, whatever. And these rules are not moral imperatives. The Ten Commandments are moral imperatives. The injunction against contraception is a moral imperative backed by the authority of the Catholic church, all dissent to the contrary. Not having sex on day seven when mucus is present is not a moral imperative, and pregnancy is not a punishment for breaking that rule. It's simply a guideline.

There are two different ways that NFP advocates often over promise. One has to do with ease and accuracy of method, an area of technical over-promising if you will. This often seems to have to do with wanting to make NFP seem like an easy and reliable way to space pregnancies, and so choosing (perhaps unconsciously) to make things sound more universal and consistent than the variations of actual women's biology are. The one of these which we ran into as a young married couple was the insistence (at the time at least) in Couple to Couple League materials that you didn't need to worry about fertility coming back quickly while you were breastfeeding, and that you'd probably have a couple infertile cycles coming off of that post-partum infertility in order to let you get used to it. Well, MrsDarwin was the one who gave the OB a double take on the first appointment for our second child by answering the question "when was your last period" with "eighteen months ago."

My impression is that this technical simplification/over-promising has gotten somewhat better over the last sixteen years that NFP has been on our radar (CCL has, for instance, apparently scaled back somewhat it's claims about ecological breastfeeding always resulting in long post-partum infertility) but it's still often the case that when someone talks about the difficulty of knowing when is and is not a fertile time, there are eager people who turn up to explain how the sufferer is doing it all wrong. This defensiveness (it would be easy if you would just do it right!) can be an additional frustration for people already having a hard time with NFP, but it is not the kind of problem that I'd like to talk about in this post. Rather, I'd like to discuss the more relationship-focused aspect of NFP discourse.

If you've moved in these circles, you've probably heard the claims: NFP will divorce proof your marriage! It improves communication between husband and wife! It encourages respect for the whole person! It increases intimacy, and each return to sex after a brief period of abstinence is like another honeymoon!

NFP Is Not Magic
One of the problems with claims such as "NFP improves your communication!" or "NFP will divorce proof your marriage" is that they seem to suggest a rather confused idea of what NFP is and why a couple would practice it. When a couple uses NFP to avoid pregnancy, what are they trying to achieve? Their immediate goal in using NFP is not to reduce their chances of divorce or to achieve better communication (though both of those are good things!) but rather to avoid getting pregnant.

Now, as we think about avoiding pregnancy, there are two obvious ways to succeed. The absolutely sure fire method is not to have sex. Your humble correspondents here spent four years dating and engaged as hotblooded and very fertile young people, and yet by this very simple expedient of not having sex, we never got pregnant through that entire four years. By comparison, after getting married and starting to have sex, we got pregnant within two months.

Yet, though not having sex is an age-old, cheap, and incredibly reliable means of not having children, it's not one that most married couples want to sign up for. Why? Because in addition to making babies (the procreative aspect) sex provides couples with a powerful means of expressing love and unity (the unitary aspect.)

Thus, couples have, throughout history, sometimes wished that they could have sex and enjoy those feelings of unity without risking getting pregnant, and attempted this by means of various barrier or chemical means. (Yes, both barrier and chemical birth control was known in the ancient world -- it was just somewhat less reliable than the modern medical versions of these methods.) And yet the Catholic Church, in keeping with the teaching of Christians dating back to the earliest days of the Church, teaches that rending sex intentionally sterile by using artificial contraception is wrong, because it intentionally removes the procreative aspect from sexual intercourse.

So how does NFP fit into this situation? Natural Family Planning consists of observing the wife's natural cycle of fertility and abstaining from intercourse during the periods when she is fertile. In other words, it's the age-old means of avoiding pregnancy by not having sex, but made somewhat less draconian by allowing couples to target their abstinence just towards the times when they might conceive. During standard cycles, this would mean abstaining for a week or two at a time out of each month, rather than abstaining totally. (Some health issues can, however, make the signs of fertility much harder to read and thus require a couple who very urgently need to avoid pregnancy have to abstain from sex for much longer.)

NFP to avoid pregnancy is nothing more or less than targeted abstinence, allowing the couple to avoid pregnancy by giving up sex some of the time rather than all of the time. This is why claims that NFP itself is "contraceptive" in its mentality so clearly fall flat. Avoiding sex is always a moral means of avoiding pregnancy, and NFP is nothing more than avoiding sex.

Why, then, do we see all these expansive claims about the benefits of NFP which have seemingly little to do with avoiding sex or avoiding pregnancy?

MrsD: At the moment Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the temple sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. Now the presence of God was immediate; his holiness was not hidden, and the veil ceased to provide a lulling sense of being hidden or protected from the gaze of God. 

NFP is not magic. It doesn't divorce-proof your marriage, because married couples who use NFP can still sin in other ways. It only improves communication if a couple chooses to communicate. But it does rend the veil. It strips away the false sense of security and certainty that contraception provides. It shines a sometimes harsh white light on the characters of a husband and wife and how they respond to the necessity for chastity and prudence. Light can help a person see, or it can dazzle and blind. That's not magic. That's exposure to truth. 

Nor is contraception magic. Using the veil of contraception to hide from the demands of chastity might allow you to have sex when otherwise you'd have to abstain, but it doesn't make chastity moot. Hiding behind the veil of contraception may give a false sense of control, but doesn't mean that having sex in a fertile period will actually never result in pregnancy. Why is it that Mary is praised for asking how it's possible that she can become pregnant while Zechariah is punished for doubting for asking the same thing? Because Mary's question is predicated on not having sex at all, sex being the natural process through which babies are conceived. Her situation actually requires a miracle. The situation of Zechariah, a married man, does not. Since humans do not actually create life, we do not control whether any particular act of intercourse will or will not result in pregnancy. We can only cooperate with the biological systems God has given us, and if we want to avoid pregnancy, that means avoiding intercourse when scientific observation indicates that the female, whose fertility waxes and wanes, is fertile. Methods of contraception do not provide perfect security if a couple chooses to have sex while the female is fertile. God does not, with the exception of the Incarnation, will that conception take place outside of intercourse (which is why IVF and other assisted-reproduction methods are such grave evils), but pregnancy resulting from intercourse is not a miracle, contraception or no. 

NFP Requires Virtue
Read some news or opinion piece online, and you've almost certain to see advertisements for quick fix remedies: This simple exercise will get you totally ripped in five minutes a day! This little pill burns fat like nothing else! Local mom discovered this one simple trick!

The attraction of such claims is that they promise some desirable result that normally takes a lot of work (building muscle, losing weight, etc.) with very little work or time investment. The alternative is building the habit of actually eating well, exercising, etc. If you do that work, which is hard and requires forming good habits and having the discipline to keep them, you will not only achieve the goals of less fat or more muscle, but also side benefits such as sticking to a schedule, continuing to do things even if they are hard, etc.

The side benefits which are often cited in regard to NFP are sort of like these side benefits of eating right and exercising: if you go about NFP in the spirit of building good habits (a virtue, after all, is also described as a habit to the good) then practicing NFP will help you grow in virtue in other ways. Because NFP means, at times, saying as a couple: "It would be unhealthy for us (physically, emotionally, or financially) to get pregnant right now. I don't want to put my spouse through that. So I will not press my spouse for sex at this time. I will find ways to express my affection for my spouse that don't make my spouse crazy."

If you build these habits, you will find they apply in other areas as well. If I can not pester my wife for sex when I know she is probably fertile and is not ready to get pregnant, then I can also not pester her about the state of the house of the schedule of her activities. If I can not demand sex when it would cause a pregnancy we are not ready for, I can not demand sex when she is sick or is so pregnant that it is uncomfortable or is not in the mood. (I've read in the past that pregnancy and immediately after a baby are born are periods when husbands sometimes initiate affairs. This sounds incredibly heartless, but for couples who don't normally have to deal with periods of abstinence for any other reason, these might be the first times that a husband would encounter the necessity of not having sex for an extended period because of his wife's health.) If we can sit down and have a rational conversation about whether we are ready to get pregnant at the moment, and if not agree to abstain during potentially fertile periods, then we can sit down and have a rational conversation about what family time commitments to take on, where to spend our money, and whether we can afford that home renovation project.

But practicing NFP will only help in this development of virtue if one actually practices it in a virtuous way. If the desire to avoid pregnancy means that a couple utilizes self mastery and communication and consideration for each other, then they will strengthen these virtues in themselves and experience the benefits of these virtues in other areas of their lives. But we're fallen human creatures with fallen human desires. When we're faced with doing something hard, we often lash out at others to express our frustration. This isn't something unique to sex. Last weekend I was tilling over a section of the yard and digging out the area where I'll be building a retaining wall. It was hard work, harder that expected because the area was criss-crossed with roots. After a couple hours of hard labor with the sun overheard, if the kids came up with some question I was growling and snapping at them. My frustration with the roots and sun were turned, unvirtuously, into frustration with my children, and I treated them ungraciously as a result. Mastering our desires can also be hard work. If our response to that difficulty is to lash out at our spouse, to pester and accuse, to seek other forms of release, then facing this hard work becomes not a school of virtue but a school of vice.

Is NFP at fault here? No, not in and of itself. Ask about the reason that couples fight and you'll hear a couple standard ones: money, sex, relatives, work. All of these are things where we might have to make difficult decisions, have to allocate scarce resources, have to choose between competing desires. Put people under stress and force them to make choices, and at times they will respond by behaving badly. The rigors of practicing NFP are no different.

But is it an extra burden which no couple, or not all couples, should have to bear?

MrsD: Feelings are feelings and desire is desire. It arises unbidden at inconvenient times, or refuses to make an appearance at the right time. And it's unequal -- one spouse's desire may inspire the other, but it may also frustrate. So desire itself is not a good regulator of sexual life within marriage. But virtue is. The virtue of justice calls spouses out of themselves to render the particularly marital form of love that is intercourse even in spite of daily frustrations or the thousand stresses of life -- and to never withhold intercourse as a punishment. The virtue of temperance reins hotblooded spouses in from pushing the erotic  limits with degrading or sinful acts, or keeps one hotblooded spouse from pressuring the other to do something unwanted. The virtue of fortitude allows a married couple to be open and emotionally honest with each other even at the most vulnerable times, and sustains them through bouts of abstinence or the natural sexual imbalances that are a normal part of married life. 

And prudence, the queen of virtues, is the practical application of these virtues to every aspect of a couple's sex life. It takes the question of achieving or avoiding pregnancy from an abstract consideration (Is this a healthy time to get pregnant? Can we afford another child?) to the nitty-gritty choices couples make each instant. If I don't intend to get pregnant, but signs indicate that I'm fertile tonight, I should not have sex. If I should not have sex, I should be careful about the way I present myself to my husband (who is, of course, on the same page with me) so I'm not sending a false message. If I don't intend to have sex, and he doesn't intend to have sex, should I push at him this way? Should I touch him there? Should I let him do this particular thing which is awfully sexy? Prudence looks at each action, each moment, and allows me to exercise my judgment over whether this is a particularly wise action right now, or whether it's going to lead me closer to either a lot of frustration. Am I willing to gamble the chance of nine months of aches and pains and a delightful but demanding baby at the end on the chance of a moment of pleasure? If not, am I pushing myself toward a moment of insanity where I just don't care about the possible consequences? Is finally making the decision to have sex at this moment actually an act of love and surrender, or am I allowing lust to make a fool of me? Sex has a unitive aspect, but people can be united in making poor decisions. Prudence takes the facts gleaned from NFP observations and turns them into the moment-by-moment action or sacrifice that is the lived Christian life.  

NFP Is Not Impossible
Sometimes we like to imagine that things we don't like have horrific consequences.  NFP opponents sometimes claim that some couples or some men just can't deal with the periodic abstinence it requires. By this theory, the Church's teaching about contraception must be wrong because some couples both can't deal with abstaining during fertile periods and also can't deal with having lots of children, so if both of those are just out, just totally impossible for them, then obviously God must mean for those people to be allowed to use contraception. After all, marriage is supposed to be a source of joy, not of suffering!

We guys are notorious for claiming dire physical results for not being satisfied. "Oh, baby, it'll hurt if I don't!" Let's be clear, though: abstaining from sex is possible. No one ever died from lack of sex. Men who respond to the need for temporary abstinence by turning to porn, to masturbation, or to other women are not the victims of some sort of dire necessity. They are choosing to do the wrong thing. It's sometimes hard not to do the wrong thing. And as Catholics, we are given the sacrament of confession to turn to and receive both the forgiveness of our sins and the graces to avoid sinning again.  But the basic truth remains: doing the wrong thing is wrong.

And indeed, there are many others that we are in union with when we experience the difficulties of abstaining for a time. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who have not been able to find a spouse, who are separated by distance or death or health from their spouse, who have vowed celibacy for life, or who are in the time of waiting after meeting someone and before getting married. Many other people are having to make the same sacrifices that we are, and if they are without the tantalizing presence of the spouse with whom it would not be a sin to have sex, even if it would be imprudent in potentially causing a pregnancy which would be a risk to health or resources, those people also lack the compensations of at least being physically near someone whom they love.

God's grace is sufficient to the tests that are put before us.

MrsD: The first of the Ten Commandments is, "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me." That sex is a good thing does not make it the greatest thing. That it is the form of love particular to marriage does not mean it is the only way, or the highest way, of showing love in marriage. That it is tantalizing, powerful, desirable does not mean that it is irresistible. In fact, we already know that sex is a limited, temporal, earthly form of love because in heaven, where love is perfected, there is no marriage or giving in marriage. Is it good to have sex in marriage? Yes, of course. Is it impossible not to have sex in marriage? No, of course not -- and as an example of this, we have the ultimate model of the family, the Holy Family, not plaster saints, but a real husband and wife living under conditions of celibacy. Through God's grace, they achieved this not by not desiring one another, not because they were too boring or holy or frigid to have sex (and although we know that Mary remained sinless, we're not given much of a window into Joseph's struggle except being told that he was a virtuous man), but by the actual, practical fact of abstinence. 

One thing we know: that God never commands us to sin. His will is perfect, and ours are not. We want things that are not right. We desire things that are not good. We desire good things, but at inappropriate times. We justify bad means on the theory that they will achieve good ends. We imagine that our particular circumstances give us some personal wiggle room within universally binding moral norms. Because we are human, we fall, sometimes through negligence and sometimes through actively rejecting the possibility of God's grace. But grace means that nothing God commands is an impossibility, even when it requires something as painful and humbling as setting our own imperfect wills aside.

Part 3 will deal with sex and the mistaken views about it that contribute to the difficulties in discussing the Church's teaching on contraception.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Collaborators in a Culture of Death

The other day, a friend of mine linked to an article which argued that we should not refer to the large numbers of unborn killed via abortion as a "holocaust". I agree that this is not a helpful rhetorical move. What I found myself wanting to react to was actually some of the reason behind this, the way that people think about the Holocaust (capital "H", as in the mass extermination of the Jews in Europe by the Nazis during World War Two) versus the way that we think about our own modern evils.

The author explains that a key reason for not making this comparison is that it unfairly paints the people in our modern day who participate in abortion as being like Nazis:
First of all, it is an act of rhetorical cruelty to women who have had abortions, who will easily draw from this the conclusion that they, personally, are being compared with genocidal Nazis. If we are serious about being “pro-life and pro-woman” we should avoid, across the board, statements like this that revile women as murderers, or imply that they are motivated by malice or evil.

And I’m not just saying “don’t make such statements publicly.” I’m not saying that we should speak kindly about women when others are listening, and reserve holocaust comparisons for our private in-house discussions. We should not make such statements at all, ever, because they are cruelly inaccurate, and demonstrate a radical ignorance of the root causes of abortion. Women don’t have abortion because they hate babies and think they should be eradicated – as the Nazis regarded Jews. Many women who have abortions have children already, children whom they love and care for, children they are struggling to feed. If not in poverty, they reside on its knife-edge, and the slightest change to income or expenses could have them facing homelessness. And as the Republican powers that be succeed in dismantling programs intended to protect the most vulnerable, this will be happening more and more. Women choose abortion – and it’s often barely a choice, because they are offered no real alternative – because they live in societies that do not look kindly on pregnant women and mothers, especially low-income or immigrant or racially Other women.
Again, I'd agree this is not a useful rhetorical tactic, but it is worth thinking about why. As such, this isn't so much an argument with the original pieces as a "this is what reading this made me think" kind of piece.

As World War Two fades out of living memory, it has come particularly in the American mind to be a morality tale about how the forces of freedom defeated the forces of genocide. In this comic book version of history, Europeans were either resistance fighters or collaborators, they struggled to save Jews from the Nazis or they were genocide supporters.

But as you read more deeply into mid 20th Century history, a much grayer world comes into view. The morality play version of the war is in some ways a product of the immediate post war years, in which a guilt wracked Europe looked at what had been wrought in the Holocaust and sought to mete out some kind of justice in order to return to normality. This meant separating "real Nazis" from "good Germans" in Germany itself, and separating "collaborators" from "resisters" in the rest of Europe. The most egregious cases were (sometimes) identified and placed into these bad categories, and the rest were in some sense able to tell themselves that they were not at fault because all the evils had been performed by those other ones.

And yet this post war division into sheep and goats was very much a simplification. The war plunged much of Europe into desperate choices, faced with forced labor, conscription, arrest, deportation, starvation, extermination. Those in middle Europe found themselves between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR, the soldiers of either one of which might decide to take you to the ravine outside of town and put a bullet into your head for reasons outside of your control.

These evils were, for most people, imposed from outside. Yes, there were the few, the architects of war and mass killings: Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Ribbentrop, Stalin, Beria, Molotov, and their imitators down the chain of command. They set things in motion and created the cruel circumstances of an inhumane time. But for many people, the experience of these evils came down to questions such as: Do I protect this neighbor at the risk of reprisals against the whole village? Do I turn in that child to protect my child? Do I join this side to try to protect my people from that side?

It's an important point that a way in which the millions killed via abortion in our country differ from the millions killed in the service of Nazism and Communism is that there is no central architect to abortion promising that if only we can wipe our this race or that class, we will achieve a new utopia. But on the ground, the decisions faced by tens of millions of ordinary people are perhaps not so very different. People in desperate circumstances are faced with situations in which it seems possible to dodge some evil or secure some much needed security if only some one person is sacrificed, perhaps someone whom we can tell ourselves isn't even really quite a person or isn't really our responsibility.

What am I arguing here: that we should think of people involved with abortion as more like Nazis or that we should think more kindly of those who participated in the Holocaust? Neither. I don't think that "who should we blast with the most opprobrium?" is a healthy set of moral questions. Moral thought should not be focused on "whom am I fighting against?" or "whom should I hate?" Rather, when we think morally we think about how our own actions are good or evil, and we try to choose the good.

I'd propose that we should deploy a sort of historical empathy, both in seeing how hard and ambiguous some choices in the past may have seemed to ordinary people who found themselves under the pressure of extraordinary circumstances, and also in how our own choices might look for people outside of our own particular historical moment and assumptions. Like those in the past, trying to survive the grinding teeth of evil circumstances, we may not have much choice about the circumstances that we face, we can only be responsible for the choices that we make within those circumstances. We don't make choices that save or kill millions, thousands, or even dozens. We may at times face choices that affect one or two. Those are the choices we may face, and they will be hard enough. We're not absolved of our moral responsibility to do the right thing because the world seems determined to punish us for doing it, nor do we get to pick the world we live in. We are, most of us, making the small choices which seem huge to us, sometimes bigger than us, yet will never make the history books.

The socially acceptable evils of each age make it easier to absolve the wrongs performed by "good people", by "people like us". It's probably not possible to really strip away the social acceptability of the evils our own time is comfortable with, nor is it a great idea to be too eager to excuse the wrongs of people who collaborated with the horrendous evils of the past. But somewhere in the middle we need to be able to see that even some of the things which may seem to be barely a choice, in the sense that society seems ordered to force our collaboration in the evil of the age, may in a moral sense be some of the biggest choices that we will ever make.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Past is not a Paradise

Making the rounds lately is an article in Crisis by Professor Anthony Esolen about the fickleness of sexual desire and how teenage boys should respond to being aroused by the masculine body. I don't intend to address the article as a whole; Simcha Fisher fisks it here. Prof. Esolen doesn't appear to think much of women's insight into the world of male sexuality, rather in the vein of the "celibate men" argument about birth control ("If the counselor is a woman, she will know as much about your feelings as I know about being pregnant"), but I think that Fisher's post is a thoughtful and necessary corrective to Esolen's nostalgia for the days of brotherly love expressed by football and coal mining.

Indeed, it is that short-sighted nostalgia that we've addressed in the past in regards to Esolen's writing, and as this is tech week and I'm short on time, I'll re-run a post from 2012 responding to his particular image of Catholic courtship of days of yore.


More Marriage, or More Virtuous Marriage?

Making the rounds lately has been Anthony Esolen's article on how to mend declining marriage rates, which asks, "Where are we nudging [the youth] gently along toward marriage and the sweetness of that life?":
It’s been more than ten years since I first noticed something odd about the generally pleasant—and generally Catholic—students at the college where I teach.  The boys and girls don’t hold hands.
Let that serve as shorthand for the absence of all those rites of attraction and conversation, flirting and courting, that used to be passed along from one youthful generation to the next, just as childhood games were once passed along, but are so no longer.  The boys and girls don’t hold hands. 
I am aware of the many attempts by responsible Catholic priests and laymen to win the souls of young people, to keep them in the Church, and indeed to make some of them into attractive ambassadors for the Church. I approve of them heartily. Yes, we need those frank discussions about contraception. We need theological lectures to counter the regnant nihilism of the schools and the mass media. But we need something else too, something more human and more fundamental. We need desperately to reintroduce young men and young women to the delightfulness of the opposite sex. Just as boys after fifteen years of being hustled from institutional pillar to institutional post no longer know how to make up their own games outdoors, just as girls after fifteen years of the same no longer know how to organize a dance or a social, so now our young people not only refrain from dating and courting—they do not know how to do it. It isn’t happening. Look at the hands.
I don't accept the lack of handholding as shorthand for the rise of these dire trends, actually, but let that pass. The question posed by the essay is how we can reestablish these social conventions and rites of courtship and flirting that were prevalent in days of yore in which marriage rates were higher and average age of marriage was lower, "when Wally Cleaver was wearing a jacket and tie to join other boys and girls at a party, for playing records and eating ice cream and dancing".

Just as many overlook that underlying the edifice of the vibrant culture of family life in the 1950s was a deeply unstable moral foundation which was a direct contributor to the widespread acceptance of changing sexual and social mores in the 1960s, so many Catholics sigh for the romanticism of earlier eras in which relations between the sexes were more defined and regulated without considering that the climbing divorce rates of later years and decades were fueled at least in part by the dissolution of some of these marriages. The question should be, though: do these external features actually function to produce not just higher rates of marriage but better marriages?

Brandon takes exception to the sentimentality of Esolen's article:

People look upstream to Austenesque visions of earlier stages, where negotiating for good bargains was still more sharply bound by concerns of familial and sexual honor, and dating, while freer, looks like cheap imitation; they look downstream to the consensual market open for all, and dating, while safer, looks stifling and arbitrary. Unless conditions are just right, dating culture will always start looking like a bad compromise. The primary problem with the state in which we are increasingly finding ourselves, the anything-harmless-goes stage, is not that it's not dating, but that anything-harmless-goes inevitably breaks down as people find they cannot agree on what's really harmless. And then people start trying to keep order by intimidation and manipulation, because that's all that's really left. We know this is how it all goes down, and we've always known that this is how it works, because these tendencies are already found in every society, just in different proportions and under different conditions. 
Dating, in short, is a low standard. For that matter, Austenesque Regency marriages are a low standard, for reasons Austen herself depicts quite clearly. The only relations between the sexes that matter are relations based on pursuit of virtue, which are both more free and more honorable than all the other options on the table. And the only possible thing that you can do to bring those about is to strive for virtue yourself and show proper respect for the particular cases you happen to come across in others. Everything else is arbitrary convention and the Goddess Fortune. [emphasis mine]
There's something charmingly retro about calling for the return of dances and social structures that throw men and women together, but Church-sanctioned socials or what-have-you, while (as Brandon points out) a lovely way to build community, can be an excuse for pushing out onto others the responsibility for virtuous marriages, whereas personal virtue is a change that starts right now, instantly, in the choices one makes every moment, in how one relates to every person one meets, man or woman. Unless relations between the sexes, and between individual men and women, are truly regulated by the pursuit of virtue and the full recognition of the dignity of all people (and this person with whom one is interacting, in particular), even Catholic social clubs and shindigs and family dances become a kind of marriage market-lite, with all the flirting, rating, and labeling that goes on in more secular venues.

I've pounded this drum before, but I do take great exception to Esolen's insistence that people need to be getting married younger. This is not because I'm opposed to early marriage, but because it is something that is generally not within the control of anyone to procure. It's sheer folly to declare, "I'm going to get married young!", without reference to a particular other person one wants to marry (and who wants to marry one). Doubtless he's referring to the cultural phenomenon of upwardly mobile young men and women who think that they must achieve certain educational and career and personal goals before even considering marriage, but it so, the answer would seem to lie in more evangelical methods of promoting the beauty of marriage than Church-based socials, as those are probably going to draw their attendance from a different demographic.

There has to be a mean for modern Catholics between Esolen's sugar-glazed nostalgia for "boys climbing the mountains to pick edelweiss for their sweethearts" and the oddly ahistorical assertion that "a whole mode of being has been lost, a mode of being that in every culture but our own produces a wealth of beauty, and sweeps young people along with its strong tide, into marriage and a world of families," on the one hand; and on the other, Brandon's rather cynical observation that "one of the more baffling elements of American Catholic culture is gripey passivity, an intense insistence that something must be done, beyond which nothing actually ever happens, except that sometimes various people are blamed." Contra Esolen, I don't think the problem is simply that "We need desperately to reintroduce young men and young women to the delightfulness of the opposite sex." We need desperately to reintroduce young and old men and women to the delightfulness of every human person, to the very real and intensely practical implications of every single person being made in the image and likeness of God. One of the best preparations for and witnesses toward marriage is not the mere participation in customs that may have produced superficial results in previous times, but in living a real charity toward each unique person who makes up God's family, regardless of venue, in anticipation of the day when He might give you one of your own.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Darwiniana: Wall Edition

I write a long post because I don't have time to write a short post.

Why no posts, Darwins? Because I am holding up the local theater scene while Darwin builds a wall. These are two mostly unrelated jobs, and the wall is not directed at me, nor at immigrants from the nation to the south (from which Darwin bears half his genetic heritage, so just laugh because it's a joke, okay), but at the slope in the front yard which just makes no sense, landscapingwise.

Here's the first stage. Darwin spent last Saturday digging out the foundation (a wag: "This is taking your interest in trench warfare too far") and spent Saturday evening sleeping it off.

The wall begins to emerge from the primordial lawn, bringing order to chaos.

Young Jack inspects the progress. Our mums wilt peacefully in the background.

Yesterday morning the kids and I took our turns in the manual labor department. Our goal was to level the terrace before the rain started. We packed the trench behind the wall with fill and wood chips left from when the trees were taken down (a sad necessity undertaken to preserve neighborly relations by protecting the neighborly roof from falling branches). We tamped and pick-axed and shoveled, and when the rain started, I stayed out with two helpers to rake the bed as level as possible. I was in the flow. I kept working despite the children who came out every 15 seconds to inform me that the baby was hungry, Mom, and can't you hear your son crying, Mom? and the baby needs you, Mooooom. This is how it is. You're actually doing a good, necessary thing, and you're doing it well, but humans take priority. Our shoes were too muddy to bring into the house, so there's quite a pile of footwear on the back porch.

Not quite finished, but not too shabby either. The last course of stone needs to be laid, the top bed and lawn both need to be tilled, and the grass seed and bulbs planted. Next spring we'll plant some decorative trees to replace the one lost when the trunk of the tree being removed fell and crushed it. And Darwin has drawn up a color-coded map to show where all the bulbs should be planted, so that we'll never have to worry again about spring planting. One and done -- that's my kind of gardening project.


But MrsDarwin, you say! Aren't you and Darwin supposed to be writing a series about NFP? Why are you wasting your precious writing time telling us about your wall, or your play, or your family? Because, my friends, that writing requires thought and concentration, and this writing does not. And anyway, I'm don't have to think about NFP at this moment because a) baby is only three months old, and even I have nursing infertility at three months, and b) because we're currently using the most effective form of conception avoidance possible: being in different states. Darwin is off at his yearly pricing conference right now, and I am holding down the fort for a week. The good news: it's not tech week yet, and our Wednesday and Thursday rehearsals were canceled due to school kids needing to school. The bad news, perhaps: I have to take all seven kids to rehearsal tonight, because two of them are in the show (and baby always comes), and although my 11yo is a fine upstanding girl, I'm not sure about leaving her in charge of three younger siblings until 9:30. This should go well, I hope, if only my 3yo will sit and watch the show and not run bellowing around the space. St. Genesius, pray for us.

Conference week is always interesting around here. Usually the first day goes efficiently, the second day less so, and then it all falls apart and the house gradually disintegrates until Darwin comes back. I don't function well without Darwin. I'm kind of a hot mess as a single mother, and I pray that God preserves me from this state as a permanent necessity. In fact, I pray that Darwin and I will just turn into trees at the same moment and be preserved forever in a loving embrace. Then our children can build the walls and try to get workmen out to fix the wood trim and repair the garbage disposal and patch the plaster and inspect the furnace. Or they could just sell the house, hopefully at a profit since our fine wall will raise the value so much. Houses, bodies, children -- so much maintenance, so little time.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Pennsylvania Avenue

I've been doing a lot of driving along Pennsylvania Avenue recently. It's the northernmost border of our neighborhood, and the old part of town. When I turn onto it, I go by the county fairgrounds, a development of shabby townhouses, a drive-thru mart, and, past the train tracks, the middle school and the orthodontist.

I don't drive past the orthodontist much, actually. It seems like I live there. Last week my 11-year-old started her second round of braces. Today my 7-year-old had spacers put in, to make room for the brackets in a week or so. God smiled upon us and finally allowed her snaggleteeth to fall out over this past weekend, which means that the money we save on having them extracted can be rolled right back into orthodontia. I feel we are minor royalty at the office, having contributed a fair amount to the salaries of everyone there.

But if I drive past the orthodontist, I make several turns and continue on a few miles to the YMCA, where our weekend play practices are held. Perhaps you are not aware that this post is written by an upstanding member of the chorus of Hairspray (also with a minor speaking role as the Gym Teacher). I sing, I act, I tap dance unwieldily, as befits one who was nine months pregnant 13 weeks ago. My oldest daughters are also in the cast, and audiences will take more aesthetic enjoyment from watching them trip the light fantastic. Fortunately Hairspray is a show that is based around teenagers dancing, so the oldsters like me can fade into the background and do what we love, which is singing harmony.

Coming to rehearsals with me is young Pog, who also came with me to auditions five months ago under the guise of my distended stomach. I wasn't planning to try out, because I didn't love Hairspray all that much, and anyway, I'm no great shakes at dancing most of the time, but especially not at seven months pregnant. But everyone was getting up on stage and singing out their auditions, and I started getting the itch that all theater people know: the urge to be up there in the thick of it, playing a role. Finally I could stand it no longer. I turned in my form, sang "Turn Back O Man" a cappella, and channeled my best Harvey Fierstein (not to be confused with Harvey Weinstein) in cold readings. And lo! I got a part, because community theater is the best that way.

As I say, Pog attends rehearsals. He is our mascot. Everyone loves him and takes turns holding him when I need to go on stage. Being the youngest of seven children, he's very mellow about being handed from person to person. He's such a good boy, and so considerate. Tonight he actually slept through the entire rehearsal, from 6:30 to 9:00. Of course, he was up smiling and cooing until 11:00 after that, but we have to make sacrifices for our art.

And I hope you will all come see our show, November 3, 4, and 5 in the Merchants' Building at the fairgrounds off Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since Pennsylvania Avenue is on our way to rehearsal, we've been picking up the young actor who plays Seaweed Stubbs. He's a fellow with a golden voice and a smooth way of moving, and we recognized him immediately when we saw him walking along the side of the road, trying to hitch a ride to rehearsal. His bike tire had gone flat. We picked him up (and on the way home, retrieved the bike), and have been going it together ever since. He lives in the townhouses off of Pennsylvania Avenue, but it's easiest for us to pick him up in the parking lot of the drive-thru mart on the other side of the road. And that's what we were doing on Saturday, turning into that parking lot as he walked toward the car, when I saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser pulling in behind me.

Our young black friend got in the car, sat very still, and, as the officer approached, held his hands in the air in plain sight.

The officer said he'd booked me going 37 in a 25 mph zone, which I had to take his word for, and asked how long it had been since I'd had a speeding ticket. I didn't know; years and years. If he checked and found that I had a clear record, he'd let me go with a written warning. As we waited, we chatted with our friend. He joked that he didn't know whether the policeman was coming for us or for him.

His hands were still in the air.

I got my written warning and we drove off.

"I'm sorry for putting you in that position," I said to Seaweed. "If he'd pulled me over before I pulled in here, you wouldn't have had to worry."

"Don't worry, it's cool," he said. But his hands had been in the air the whole time.

Later I got to wondering. I'd been driving Darwin's nice commuter car instead of the huge family van I usually take around. I wasn't the only one driving down Pennsylvania Avenue going an easy speed on a Sunday afternoon. But I was the one in a sleek silver car pulling over to pick up a black teenager in the parking lot of the drive-thru mart across the street from the shabby townhouses.

Next time we go to rehearsal at the YMCA, I'll take the two extra minutes to drive right to my friend's door and pick him up there. And I'll watch my speed. I don't ever want to be the cause again of a young man sitting rigid with his hands in air, wondering if today is the day.

This morning I drove home from the orthodontist with my 7-year-old daughter and my three sons, ages 9, 3, and three months. My boys are unlikely to ever feel that they need to keep their hands in the air when a policeman approaches the car. Like me, they'll probably be able to sigh and rummage for their license and registration, feeling no more than frustrated at the timing of it all. For them, flashing lights and sirens are merely fun. I listened to them chat as I drove down Pennsylvania Avenue past the fairgrounds at the speed of traffic. My speedometer told me that traffic was going 35. I slowed down.

Tonight we drove Seaweed home from rehearsal in the big van. We dropped him at his door and waited to make sure he got in safely. Safety first, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Friday, October 13, 2017

NFP and Authority

Melinda Selmys writing at the blog Catholic Authenticity has a post up which she says will be the first of several laying out her thoughts on NFP and the Catholic Church's moral teachings dealing with contraception, thoughts she intends to turn into a book when they are fully formed.

In this initial post, the primary problems are not, actually, with her assessment of NFP per se, but rather with how she approaches Catholic teaching. She begins with what she says she originally thought to the justification for the Church's prohibition on birth control (and allowing of NFP.)

I’ve been promising forever to write a book about NFP. It got massively derailed a couple of months back, basically because I hit major stumbling block: one of my major theses had, up to that point, been that the burdens that Catholic couples are often called upon to bear as a result of the Church’s teaching were justified by a set of larger concerns. Basically, that we were being asked to shoulder a heavy cross because of the magnitude of the issues at stake. The breakdown of the family. The increasing vilification of children as a “burden on the planet.” Widespread abortion. The reality of eugenics, which would have been a very concrete and grave issue for Paul VI and other churchmen of his generation.

The argument, as it ran in my head, was that a strong statement needed to be made because otherwise it would be impossible to take an effective stand against these other problems. Frankly, I’m pretty well able to get my head around the idea that the involuntary sterilization of the disabled, the extermination of the Downs’ community in utero, and the impoverishment and isolation of women and children as a result of “sexual liberation,” are all much greater forms of suffering than struggling with NFP. And so long as I thought these were the issues at stake, I was okay with the idea of being told that I had to take my place on the front lines, and to hold my position for as long as was humanly possible.

The author intends this as a "here was the good reason I thought the Church had before I realized the real motivation" view, but I'd argue that this is actually hugely problematic. Think about what's being suggested here, that the Church taught that using contraception was wrong in order to send a symbolic message rejecting the various evils common in the culture relating to sexuality. This, however, would be a utilitarian rationale: We need to send a strong message about sexuality, so we're going to announce that using contraception is a sin as a symbolic gesture to make a point.

Now, many people have said that the Church's teaching is in fact a powerful symbol of opposition to the culture's degraded understanding of sexuality. That may be true. But that isn't the reason for the teaching. It is, if anything, a sort of side benefit.

Keep in mind, the Church does not tell us not to use contraception as a useful discipline. It is not like the command to do some penance (such as not eating meat) on Fridays. The Church says that using contraception is intrinsically evil, an action wrong in and of itself. (Other examples of intrinsic evils include lying, torture, rape, and abortion.) If the Church said this not because it believed that using contraception was wrong but rather to make a rhetorical point, the Church would be acting falsely and viciously. Indeed, if the Church were to do this while claiming to exercise her solemn teaching office, the Church would prove herself to be something other than what the Church claims to be. The Church would be false.

I don't think that Selmys has followed this line of reasoning through to that conclusion. After all, this is the explanation for the Church's teaching which she thought was reasonable. But as she charts her disillusion it's important to see the problems with the starting point and with a vision of the leaders of the Church sitting down and saying to themselves, "Hmm. We need to make some big gesture showing how everything is wrong with the modern world's approach to sexuality. I know! Let's say that using contraception is a sin!"

Selmys continues:

So, I wanted to get historical support for this thesis and naturally my research led me to the Papal Birth Control Commission.

And that’s when the I totally lost my shit.

Because the bottom line for the guys who seemed to be responsible for the decision to promulgate the teaching as it was promulgated wasn’t any of those important issues that I mentioned above. They got a mention, sure, but there were actually reasonably good arguments put forward on the other side to suggest that the Church’s ability to effectively combat the evils described above was actually going to be compromised by an overly absolutist approach to contraception.
They spelled out the reason quite explicitly in their minority report:

If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951.

It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. The fact can neither be denied nor ignored that these same acts would now be declared licit on the grounds of principles cited by the Protestants, which Popes and Bishops have either condemned, or at least not approved.

In other words: if we admitted that we were wrong it would make us look bad, it would make the Protestants look good, and it would undermine our authority.

That was the bottom line. Not abortion. Not the casual and irresponsible use of women for men’s sexual gratification outside of marriage. Not eugenics. But the authority of men who do not ever have to bear the brunt of the teaching.

What we have here, I would argue, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Church's function is in transmitting Christian doctrine. Selmys finds it shocking that those on the papal commission who wrote the minority report said the Church could not declare the use of contraception moral when the Church had previously taught it to be immoral. However, contrary to what many outside (and some inside) the Church seem to believe, the Church does not decide matters of doctrine. Rather, the Church was founded by Christ in order to preserve and pass on His teachings through all history. To aid in this, Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would protect the Church from teaching error.

If the Church at one time taught that using contraception was immoral, and then later taught that it was moral, the Church would be directly contradicting itself. This is not like some human institution changing its policy on an issue. It's not a matter of those "in power" not wanting to end up with egg on their face and admit they were wrong. Given the Church's self understanding, if the Church were to directly contradict its past teaching, the Church would basically render itself void. Those tasked with the Church's teaching authority thus understand that part of the work that they are called to do in preserving and transmitting Christ's teaching to the world is, when examining some question, to determine whether the proposed teaching would contradict past teaching in some way or whether it would simply serve as a clearer application of what has always been taught.

When the papal commission on contraception examined the topic, both the majority (pro contraception) and minority (anti contraception) group realized this. The majority tried to argue that modern means of contraception and a modern understanding of sexuality and fertility in the context of a married couple's overall lifetime, was such that the Church could approve the use of contraception without contradicting past teaching. The minority argued that this was not the case. Paul VI evidently sided with the minority.

So when the minority argued that to approve contraception would contradict past teaching, it was not engaging in some sort of face-saving operation. It was doing what Christ commissioned the Church to do: preserving his teachings unchanged.

If we assert, as Selmys suggests, that "the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951" we're basically asserting that the Catholic Church is not what it says it is, that it does not authentically transmit the true doctrines of Christ when it teaches on matters of faith and morals. Because, again, according to the Church's self understanding, it is not at liberty to simply make doctrines up. The Church is not a debating society in which people examine the available evidence, decide what is probably true, and promulgate that as a doctrine. The Church has the authority only to preserve and explicate the truth which was given to it by Christ.

This question of how the Church arrives upon an understanding of doctrine relates to another issue which upsets Selmys:
More distressingly, many of the proponents of the traditional teaching, at one time or another, openly admitted that the natural law arguments they were using didn’t actually hold up to rational scrutiny. And we have records of private correspondence showing that they were more than willing to engage in a certain amount of Machiavellian political maneuvering in order to get their agenda pushed through.

For me, this was extremely distressing.
One of the things that attracted me to the Catholic faith in the first place, and that solidified my Catholic identity in the period immediately after my conversion, was the constant claim of Catholic apologists that the faith was fundamentally rational. That if you were only willing to honestly follow the argument with good will, you would arrive at the conclusions put forward by the Church. The realization that the teaching on contraception had been promulgated and promoted by people who knew that the argumentation did not actually hold water meant that on a fundamental level this teaching did not result from a commitment to following an argument in good faith.

Now, supposedly that was okay because the Holy Spirit could guide the leaders of the Church to infallibly promulgate true conclusions out of faulty argumentation. Right out of the gate, that’s a bit of a swallow for me because it seems to undermine the claim that faith is reconcilable with reason. Reason will always reject a conclusion once the premises are found to be false. It may return to that conclusion later, should other evidence be found to substantiate it, but to simply barrel on through on the assumption that better proofs are sure to show up eventually is just a blatant exercise in the kind of irrational faith that atheists rightly complain about.

But again, the function of the Church is not to think its way to some exciting new doctrines based on really good arguments. The Church does not invent doctrines at all, its job is merely to preserve and clarify them. This can at times mean that the Church will find itself in the position of defending true doctrines with bad arguments. The Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from making bad arguments, just from teaching false doctrine. And because the Church is not the inventor of doctrine, the truth of the doctrine itself is not dependent of the ability of the Church to explain why a particular doctrine is true.

Think about other moral doctrines.  It is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that marriage can only exist between one man and one woman.  Polygamy is wrong.  Marrying someone of your own sex is wrong.  Are the arguments for these doctrines good and convincing?  Some people may believe that they are, some may believe they are not.  We do believe that these moral laws are available to human reason.  It is possible for someone, using natural reason, to come to an understanding of how marriage should properly be between only two people and only people of the opposite sex.  However, the fact that these truths are available to human reason does not necessarily mean that the path will be obvious to all people at all time.  And while the Church is promised the ability to preserve these true teachings, it is by no means assured that the very human people who are serving as the shepherds of God's flock at any given time will successfully identify and deploy the arguments which will be convincing to the great mass of people at any given time.

Is the faith fundamentally rational?  Yes, it is.  It is, first of all, not contrary to reason.  We do not assert mutually contradictory things as true.  The Church will not tell you to believe X and Not-X simultaneously.  (Indeed, it is precisely to avoid this sort of contradiction that the Church looks carefully to avoid contradicting itself, as the minority report did in the preparation of Humanae Vitae.)  However, the fact that the faith is rational does not necessarily mean that each and every person, with that person's biases and experiences, will find the necessary arguments to prove to himself the doctrines of the faith from first principles. 

I want to write a couple posts in collaboration with MrsDarwin addressing some of the actual points about NFP which were brought up in this post and others by Selmys and some of her circle.  However, with this post in particular, it seems to me that the biggest issue is not in fact NFP or contraception, but the very question of the Church's doctrinal authority. 

Monday, October 09, 2017

Book Review: The Weeping Time

I don't have time to accept many book review requests, but I was glad that I got the chance to read The Weeping Time by Anne C. Bailey, coming out at the end of this month from Cambridge University Press. The book is a detailed study of the largest slave auction which is recorded in US history: 436 people (including some mothers with infants just a few weeks old) sold off on March 2nd and 3rd, 1859 in the process of liquidating much of the estate of Pierce Butler Jr. of the Butler Plantation.

To be sold at auction, and separated from family and community, was one of the many recurring cruelties of the slave regime in America, but this event stood particularly large in the histories of the people who were put up for auction on those two days because the Butler estate had prior to this been known for never selling its slaves. The same enslaved families had lived on the Georgia sea island estates for generations, and even spoke their own semi-separate dialect infused with words and structures from their native West Africa.

Bailey, a professor of history and Africana studies at Binghamton University SUNY, makes this history all the more fascinating by keeping her focus so close. We meet Jeffrey and Dorcas, a young couple in love. Jeffrey is sold for $1,310 on the first day and tries to persuade his new master to buy Dorcas so that they can stay together. He first makes a personal appeal (that they love each other, will be true servants, and will have many healthy children for him) which gets no traction, then takes another approach telling him of what a prime rice hand she is, easily worth $1,200. His buyer seems persuaded by this approach, but then at the last moment Dorcas is included with a family of four for a single price, and the buyer loses interest. As the auctioneer's hammer falls, separating Dorcas from him forever, Jeffrey pulls off his hat, drops to his knees, and weeps.

Another young couple, Dembo and Frances, aged twenty and nineteen, manage to pull off a coup: finding a minister among the buyers attending the auction they persuade him to marry them. They are then sold as a lot together, for $1,320 each, to a cotton planter from Alabama, separated from their extended families but able to remain together.

We have these details about the auction itself because Mortimer Thompson, a northern reporter, posed as a buyer at the auction and then wrote a detailed account for the New York Tribune. Coming as it did less than three years before the Civil War was to break out and four years before the emancipation proclamation, the story of the slaves put up for auction (some of whom would return to the area of the Butler Estate after the Civil War in order to find loved ones they had been separated from in the auction) is closely entangled with the escalating tensions over slavery in the United States. The sale itself was itself in some ways tied up with the debate over slavery. Pierce Butler Jr. lived in Philadelphia most of his life and lived of the proceeds of the slave plantations he inherited in Georgia. In Philadelphia he gambled and spent away his money, and also married British actress Fanny Kemble. Kemble was strongly anti-slavery and wrote about her visit to Butler's plantation. Her opposition to slavery was one of the several differences cited in their divorce, which was one step on the road to Butler's eventual financial collapse and the sale of his estate.

The Weeping Time provides a ground level view into slavery as it shaped the lives of the specific people on this estate, from their ancestry on the rice coast of Africa, to their generations of enslavement on the Butler estate, to the sudden disruption of their lives due to the financial misfortunes of an absentee owner. It's a fairly quick read at 175 pages, and does an important service of making this history about people rather than just "the peculiar institution" in some abstract sense.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

When Ideology is Blind to Truth

My friend Leah Libresco Sargeant is not a fan of guns and has never shot one. She's also a person who cares deeply about truth and understanding. And she helped with reporting for FiveThirtyEight's well done study on gun deaths in America a while back. (A new FiveThirtyEight piece today refers back to that study and talks about how mass killings are different from the vast majority of gun deaths in the US, and thus addressing one is not necessarily a way to address the other.)

For all these reasons I was stuck by this tweet from Leah yesterday:

Needless to say, as a gun aficionado I myself tend to find a lot of what gun control advocates say both unpersuasive and riddled with errors. But if someone like Leah who doesn't like guns feels that she was actively misled about the topic (while still not liking them and wishing people did not want to own them) that indicates a problem with a lot of what gun control advocates say.

This is not, however, a post about how gun control advocates are wrong. I think that would be a somewhat insensitive post to write at this particular moment, when a lot of the calls for immediate action are in fact calls of pain and emotion which should be treated as such. There is not much more aggravating than to express one's deeply felt emotions and have someone come back insensitively with a "Well, actually..." response.

What I'd like to think about here for a moment is why this is. Why is it that so many people who do indeed care deeply about reducing suffering and violence (and I honestly think they do -- I do not think that most gun control advocates are simply tyrannical gun grabbers out to take away people's freedom because they dislike it) say things about guns and gun laws that are factually untrue, and do so repeatedly when the answers are not even that hard to find?

I think the answer has to do with the tendency to distrust and discount the humanity of our opponents on highly contentious issues. Leah's husband Alexi Sargeant wrote a good piece for First Things a few months ago entitled "Pro-Life, Pro-Truth" where he talked about the importance of those in the pro-life movement not allowing themselves to make and repeat arguments based on claims that aren't true or are at the least exaggerated.

We must treat truth, like an unborn child, as an innocent under threat. If we persist in the metaphor of “culture war” to describe the fights over abortion and related issues, then we must wage it as a just culture war, in which virtue is as indispensable as valor, and compassion for our opponents more important than rallying our allies with rhetorical overkill.

I am not talking only about avoiding flagrant fibs. Our responsibility to truth includes a responsibility to use statistics in a conscientious way, without being glib or misleading. Like any savvy debater using data, we should double-check statistics that seem too convenient for our cause, and triple-check any from a partisan source friendly to us.

Crisis pregnancy centers and pro-life women’s health care organizations do a lot of good work helping uninsured women get care. But they sometimes succumb to the temptation to overstate the statistical connection between abortion and clinical depression—rather than simply share stories of real women experiencing post-abortion grief, they exaggerate the pervasiveness of the condition beyond what mental health studies show.

Another example which occurred to me was Senator Kyle's famously "not a factual statement" that abortion is more than 90% of what Planned Parenthood does. Of course, people often throw around terms like "ninety percent" in a colloquial fashion, but it was particularly unfortunate to have such a high profile stumble on this topic because Planned Parenthood does indeed routinely misrepresent how large a portion of their services abortion represents.

I don't think that pro-lifers intentionally pass on misleading information. However, because we know that abortion is evil, when some study or quote comes along that seems to agree with our belief that abortion is evil we are inclined to believe it without checking much. Additionally, because we believe that abortion is evil, it's easy to see the people who support abortion as evil or dishonest, and so if rebuttals to a claim we see that reflects badly on abortion mostly come from people who are pro-abortion, we're not likely to take them as seriously. If they're evil people out to support evil actions, why should we listen to what they say?

Needless to say, this problem is hardly restricted to one side. Why is it that obvious untruths like the claim that an unborn baby is "just a clump of cells" rather than a separate living individual are so easily passed around on the pro-choice side? Again, because the claim is heard from people they trust and the opposite claims (when the heart begins to beat, when brain activity is detected, etc.) are most often heard in the political arena from those who are anti-abortion.

The gun debate, and likely many others if we sat down and thought up a list, is subject to these same dynamics. People who are in favor of gun control are often prey to simplistic and just plain wrong claims about how guns work, what the current law allows, or what sort of gun deaths could be prevented by various "common sense" gun measures that have been proposed. People who know and use guns can easily see through these claims, but so could people who don't like guns if they took the time to do basic research rather than repeating whatever sounds true. It's necessary for people to listen to the other side in these contentious debates and do basic research if they are to avoid undercutting their own beliefs by repeating obvious falsehoods.

UPDATE: Leah expanded on her thoughts in a WaPo opinion piece that just went up.