Friday, August 28, 2009

Children, Priests, and Prophets of Nonsense

Canada's National Post has had an interesting series of articles on the value of children. Some of the tones taken on both sides of the issue have been less than charitable. However, my interest in the discussion is focused on Corinne Maier and Fr. Raymond J. de Souza. Maier is a French author of a book called, "No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not To Have Children." Her article in the National Post, excerpted from her book, can be found here. An article on Maier by British writer Emma Tucker in the London Times Online can be found here. Maier's focus is on France but she expands to include all of the Western countries. Her comments range from innocuous to outrageous. The latter, includes such things as this (quoted by Tucker):

“It’s not that there are too many people,” she writes, “but too many rich people. No one needs our children, because we and they are the spoilt kids of a planet that is on a collision course. To have a child in Europe or America is immoral – more scarce resources wasted on a way of life that is ever more voracious, capricious, hungry for fuel and destructive of the environment.”

The idea that it is "immoral" to have a child in Europe or America is silly on its face, and it would be laughable if only so many people did not actually believe it. Maier herself has children, so she does not really believe what she says. Tucker goes on to report:

So would Maier tell a “childfree” friend who was contemplating motherhood to resist? “No, I wouldn’t as it’s not my place to interfere in other people’s business,” she says.

So why write her book? Maier wants to have her cake and eat it, too. (And smash it in your face.)

Maier takes issue with what is apparently a campaign by the French government to increase the nation's birth rate by promoting having more children. Tucker says, "So yes, France has a high birth rate...." Tucker's idea of "a high birth rate" is a bit distorted. According to the CIA's statistics, France's birth rate is 12.57 births per 1,000 (2009 estimate), making France #162 in the world for birth rate. Apparently Tucker thinks that France has a high birth rate by comparison to the United Kingdom, which has 10.65 births per 1,000, ranking as #182 in the world. The United States is a little ahead of France, but not by much, with 13.82 births per 1,000 (#153). Canada, home of the National Post, has a birth rate below the United Kingdom at 10.28 births per 1,000 at #192. Even India, which has a substantially higher birth rate (21.76 births per 1,000) is only #87 in the world. Italy has a birth rate of 8.18 births per 1,000 and ranks #222.

Most interesting to me was a wonderful article written in the National Post in response to Maier's article. This article was written by a priest, Fr. Raymond J. de Souza. The article, "Why Priests Don't Have Kids," is a beautiful explanation of the rational behind priestly celibacy in the Latin rite of the Catholic Church. Here is Fr. de Souza's article in its entirety:

Childlessness advocates tell us, in sum, that children require a lot of sacrifices. That's not news. What may be new is that people now feel confident enough to argue publicly that those sacrifices are too great -- in short, that the child is not worth it. I say "may be" new because while the technology has changed over the millennia, the human heart has not. No doubt in every age there were a few who thought children not worth the bother.

The book excerpted in these pages [Maier's No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children] this week makes the argument that life would be more convenient, and therefore happier, without children. That does not really follow. Many things, including most things that give meaning to life, are inconvenient on one level or another. A life of great ease and convenience and even wealth is not necessarily a happy one. Surely the mother at home with toddlers is more constrained than the jet-setting sybarite, but if you know people in both categories, you know that the latter is not necessarily happier than the former.

But any father or mother could tell you that. I, as you would correctly intuit, have no children. Catholic priests of the Latin rite are celibate (the Catholic eastern rites have married clergy).

Understanding the celibacy of the priest requires an understanding of what marriage and children are all about. If they were bad things, or wicked things, or merely things constraining human flourishing, then celibacy would simply be required for everybody. Only if they are good things, very good things, does it make sense to sacrifice them for something greater. So if children are such a good thing, why does the Catholic priest remain celibate?

The first answer is that is how Jesus lived. He chose not to marry and have children, contrary to the norms of his time--and our time too. In the Catholic sacramental world, the priest acts not merely as a representative of Christ, but in the person of Christ Himself. What a priest does no merely human power can do--baptize, forgive sins, consecrate the holy Eucharist. So when the priest acts in the sacraments, it is Christ who acts. The priest then is meant to be an icon of Christ. That is understood, incidentally, even by those who are not Catholic, which is why priestly wickedness occasions so much attention and legitimate opprobrium.

The identification of the priest with Jesus Christ is deeply rooted in the apostolic tradition. Though the apostles were certainly drawn from married men, the biblical witness indicates that they left married life behind, or never married, in response to their vocation. The apostolic tradition has roots even farther back, in the priests of the Jewish covenant, who refrained from conjugal life when engaged in their sacred duties.

There is another dimension at work -- what we call the eschatological dimension. The priest lives now as we all hope to live one day, in the blessedness of heaven. In heaven, there is no marrying or giving in marriage, as Jesus teaches. Marriage and family are for this world. To be sure, it is precisely through marriage and family that most learn the virtues that prepare them for blessedness in heaven. But it remains a preparation.

The priest, and others in consecrated celibacy, lives now as a sign of the world to come, with his life fixed upon the promise of the eternal fulfillment God provides. In freely renouncing the great good of married life and children, the priest points to the world to come. Indeed, without the world to come, the celibacy of the priest would make little sense.

The childless by choice are aiming to maximize some of this world's goods -- education, professional advancement, travel, wealth and, to be blunt, consequence-free sex. For this they are willing to sacrifice their most enduring stake in this world: The only enduring thing we leave in this world is our children. The priest's motivation could hardly be more different. He sacrifices his enduring stake in this world not for more of this world's transitory goods, but for those things that are more enduring than this world itself.

The child by his very nature points to the future. The childless advocates reject the future in favour of the present. The celibate priest points to the future beyond the future even children promise-- eternity.

Fr. de Souza's comment about "childless by choice" needs further clarification and qualification. I would not want to impute to couples who did not choose to have children that they did so for maximizing the world's goods. However, Fr. de Souza is right to challenge all of us--with children or not--to look inward at how we aim to maximize the goods of this world at the expense of sacrifice and service.

Fr. de Souza's article sparked many, many comments. Some were supportive, others were critical. Some were thoughtful, some were combative. Some were just plain nasty. Many did not understand (because not addressed in the article) that celibacy is a discipline, not a doctrine. On the positive side, a secular newspaper actually published a priest's article, and it began a conversation. It does show that the message of Catholicism is one that meets a great deal of resistance in the secular world, and we should be prepared to face that resistence.


the booklady said...

Excellent Pete! Well-written and oh so important! Sadly I meet so many young women today who think motherhood is too much trouble, expense, pain and/or sacrifice. I am adamant that it is the fulfillment of a woman and my only regret is that I don't have more children. They think I'm crazy. (sigh) I pray for them ... and for our wonderful fathers, both those who are married and those who are priests.

Pete Caccavari said...

If we all understand the difference between "sacrifice" and "inconvenience." "Sacrifice" is something we do for another person or for God, for atonement, for mortification, for spiritual development. "Inconvenience" is an obstacle to the satisfaction or our own will. If we approach children as a sacrifice rather than an inconvenience (while still recognizing the immense joy that children bring which nearly always substantially outweighs the sacrifice), we will see children in a much more positive light both for themselves and for our relationship to them.