Category Archives: Catholicism

My Thoughts for Pope Francis, Part Seven: Open to Life

synodmarriagefamily

Intro | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven

My last installment of this series was in January, but just like I said then, I am not a quitter! I maintain that you do not “need a theology degree” to be able to express your opinions about marriage and family life in relationship to evangelization and the Gospel. I have never been married, but I grew up in a family. I don’t work for the Church anymore, but I evangelize, and I know the Gospel. The questions take some effort to dig into, but if you made it out of high school without learning to read and think critically, American public education is worse off than we thought.

As always, I invite comments, questions, and responses on your own blog (if you have one). We can disagree charitably, right?

The Openness of the Married Couple to Life

a.k.a. What Happens When People Don’t Read

What knowledge do Christians have today of the teachings of Humanae Vitae on responsible parenthood? Are they aware of how morally to evaluate the different methods of family planning? Could any insights be suggested in this regard pastorally?

I wish more people (Catholics especially) would actually read Humanae Vitae. It’s free. It’s been out since the 60’s. As far as encyclicals go, it’s tiny: about eight pages, including footnotes (so really six and a half). Contrast that with Laudato Si’, which is over 180 pages. You do have to get past the “royal we,” but you are rewarded with actual Church teaching. Not hearsay. Not Christopher West (because some people really dislike his style). Not the rich but dense speeches from St. John Paul II that make up the core text of the Theology of the Body.

But I would say that most Catholics have never read Humanae Vitae, even if they have heard of it. I heard a homily on its anniversary once, given by a youngish Dominican priest. I hear references to it in just about every discussion of Church teaching on marriage, children, and sexuality. Yet talking about it is no more like reading it than seeing a photo of the Grand Canyon is like being there.

So, no, I do not think Christians are aware that there is a moral aspect to family planning, and they are wholly unaware of the details in Humanae Vitae. I can think of two notable examples of women whose minds were changed when they first considered family planning a moral issue: Kimberly Hahn and Jen Fulwiler.

Kimberly Hahn, wife of well-known Catholic convert and theologian Scott Hahn, shares her story in their book Rome Sweet Home. When she and Scott were in Bible college, she led a study group in researching the historical Christian teachings on contraception and family planning. She had always assumed that every church except the Catholic Church supported it. Discovering the truth shocked her.

Jen Fulwiler, also a well-known Catholic convert, explained that when she brainstormed a list of conditions under which it would be a good idea to have sex and conditions under which it would be a good idea to have a child, they were completely different. Yet that is a modern separation. They used to be the same list. When you’ve separated out marriage from children, of course contraception seems like a basic human right. That was never supposed to happen, though.

Both of their conclusions are underscored in Humanae Vitae. We’ve got to get that actual text in front of more eyeballs! Women’s, men’s, young adult, and marriage enrichment groups would be ideal audiences.

Is this moral teaching accepted? What aspects pose the most difficulties in a large majority of couples’ accepting this teaching?

The teaching is not broadly accepted, but it’s publicly accepted by more people than before. It’s slowly becoming more common to see large, happy families. Helpfully, it’s also more common to hear about the pain of infertility, the high prevalence of miscarriage, and the desire of couples to have more children than they can or do. After decades of treating pregnancy like a terrible curse or an optional part of marriage, people are beginning to see and realize that children are a gift and never ever guaranteed. I’m also hearing couples openly admitting that they don’t use contraception. Although that’s none of my business, it is so good to have real voices in the discussion.

I think social pressure causes couples to ignore or reject the teaching more than theological disagreement. So many people believe in the myth of overpopulation or consider large families a drain on social resources. It’s very uncommon to have more than three children, so large families stick out. It’s so common to use contraception that everyone assumes that everyone else is doing it (even those who are not and are actually suffering through infertility or miscarriage; “can’t have kids” looks the same as “won’t have kids” from the outside). Couples who don’t use contraception seem like they’re religious fanatics, kidding themselves, or just plain crazy. It’s hard to stick to the truth against those odds.

What natural methods are promoted by the particular churches to help spouses put into practice the teachings of Humanae Vitae?

(Note: In this case “particular churches” means parishes and conferences of bishops in each country.)

This varies by diocese. I’m most familiar with the Diocese of Austin because I didn’t have any personal or professional interest in locally-approved NFP methods when I lived in any other dioceses (so far Washington, Military Services, Fort Wayne–South Bend, Birmingham, and Mobile). The Diocese of Austin NFP page has an up-to-date list, with the Family of the Americas method (ovulation-only) being the most recently approved. Most dioceses also approve the Creighton FertilityCare method (sympto-thermal) and Billings method (ovulation-only).

What is your experience on this subject in the practice of the Sacrament of Penance and participation at the Eucharist?

I am openly celibate and have never been pregnant, so my firsthand experience is basically nonexistent. I have some conjectures and hearsay, though, for what it’s worth.

I think everyone is aware that churchgoing, Eucharist-receiving couples include those who are using contraception. It’s sad, but it definitely happens. Based on the lines I see for Confession, many more people receive the Eucharist than go to Confession even once or twice a year. The groups must overlap, so that the aforementioned contracepting couples are receiving the Eucharist even though they shouldn’t be.

I don’t know what to do about that. I’m sure they’re aware that they shouldn’t be contracepting. Even non-Catholics know the basic teaching. I’m slightly less sure that these couples know they shouldn’t be receiving the Eucharist if they have used contraception (without receiving Reconciliation and stopping usage before receiving). So many people see receiving the Eucharist as just “what everyone does” at Mass, like standing and kneeling. But that’s not true.

I have heard two older women (as in, at least 60 years old now) tell me their stories of looking for a priest to say, in the confessional, that using contraception was okay and they didn’t have to stop, or that they “already had two children,” so they couldn’t be expected to remain open to life. They found those priests. Those priests’ attempt at good counsel isn’t true, either, but the blame for that lies on those priests and their teachers, not the women. I hope that’s not happening anymore, but based on some of the discussions I’m hearing about communion for the divorced and remarried, it probably does. We can’t stop at converting the lay faithful; we need all the clergy behind us.

What differences are seen in this regard between the Church’s teaching and civic education?

I never heard about any method of family planning or pregnancy avoidance in public school other than abstinence and contraception. Abstinence was always mentioned, with a solid shout-out to its effectiveness… and a solid base of disbelief that anyone would ever do such a thing voluntarily. No surprises there.

The thing is, I didn’t learn about NFP until college. I remember seeing a small ad in the church bulletin when I was in 8th or 9th grade (the only time my family went to church weekly) about classes for married couples on the “new, scientific” method that replaced the “old rhythm method.” To be fair, I think I only set foot in a church about twice before I came back for good when I was in college. Then I got the details, and now that I’m an adult, I can’t even begin to describe how useful that knowledge would have been when I was younger.

Currently, the secular world has adopted its own form of NFP. This can only be good news for the Church. Their term is “fertility awareness method,” which is arguably more accurate. It’s the same scientific concept as NFP without the religious foundation, and it allows barrier methods instead of requiring abstinence during peak fertility. It appeals to the no-chemicals, natural, “green,” highly-informed sensibilities of contemporary Americans. There is potential for the NFP community to do some ecumenical crossover work there. Cassie Moriarty’s short film “Miscontraceptions” is a step in the right direction.

How can a more open attitude towards having children be fostered? How can an increase in births be promoted?

The tough thing about dramatic social change, such as couples having fewer children, is that it takes time for those decisions to bear fruit (pardon the pun). Social Security may be gone when my generation retires because there are not as many workers contributing as retiring; the retirees didn’t have enough children. Catholic elementary schools built to hold the Baby Boomers are now closing because the children of Boomers are fewer in number or went to public school. (The schools that survive are enrolling Hispanic students as that population explodes.) Women were told to pursue education and careers before childbearing, and when they did, they had fewer childbearing years left and more difficulty conceiving later in life.

There are two aspects that can help promote child-rearing. First is the understanding that children are the quintessential fruit of marriage. When marriage is all about the love between adults, children become an accessory, and there are fewer of them. Second is the understanding that children are a gift. When couples at least believe they deserve children—and whenever they want them—they are less willing to accept “surprises,” “imperfect” babies, or any more once they are “done.” Changing a culture takes time, but it is possible.


I did my best not to go off on any tangents there and to stick most closely to what I know. Do you see differently? Have you read Humanae Vitae? How do you think we can evangelize the culture with the gospel of marriage and family life?

A Response to “What Sucks about the Catholic Church”

Every spring brings the Church a batch of shiny new Catholics, and every year I see the same list of complaints. No, not the ones about people “taking your pew.” The ones about the niggling weaknesses in the Church. Many adults who enter the Catholic Church, especially those who were members of other Christian traditions first, are confident that they have found the truth, but they see persistent problems here. For Albert Little, a newly confirmed Catholic, this takes the form of a particular list: “What Sucks about the Catholic Church.” Mildly vulgar language aside, he makes three primary points that caused me to reflect on some blind spots remaining in our faith.

A Response to "What Sucks about the Catholic Church," at AustinCNM.com

Read the rest at Austin CNM.

Single Life Is Not a Vocation

One of my grad school friends teaches middle school religion. She also has a blog, but hers is a lot more about teaching (her job) than mine is ever about construction admin work (my job). She posted recently about her joyful experience teaching her students about the priesthood. It’s part of the vocations section of her curriculum (produced by the Congregation of Holy Cross, who run Notre Dame, where we went to grad school), and she mentioned that they were covering four vocations.

Single life is not a vocation. I'm single, and I'm okay with that.

Four vocations. That caught my eye. As far as I am concerned, there are only three vocations. I asked a few questions in the comments section1 to clarify and draw out the discussion. She kindly replied to my comment, but my follow-up response got so long2 that I decided to turn it into a blog post instead.

The first three vocations in her vocations unit are the same ones every Catholic recognizes: marriage, priesthood, and religious life. I’m on board with that.

The fourth is single life. That is where I have a totally different point of view. The broader sense of vocation (i.e. anything God is calling you to do) has been mixed up with the narrower sense of vocation. I don’t think single life as a vocation belongs in the same category as marriage, priesthood, and religious life.

As I see it, there are vowed vocations, and then there are all the other kinds of vocations.

What Makes Vowed Vocations Different

Vowed vocations are marriage, priesthood, and religious life. You have to take a vow to enter any of those vocations, so I’m going to make an effort to call them “vowed vocations” from now own. It’s so clever, and everybody loves alliteration.3 None of those vocations become a binding commitment until you take the associated vow. At any point before you take that vow, you can slow down the formation process or completely walk away. Once you’ve take the vow, you’ve taken on a new state in life.

Furthermore, people in vowed vocations all commit to someone else by definition. You can’t get married, become a priest, or become a religious unless another person (your intended spouse, your bishop, or your superior, respectively) agrees that God is calling you to that vocation. Once you take the vow, that person is stuck with you (hopefully in a positive way).

Still furthermore, you can enter vowed vocations without needing permission to leave your current state, and you must have permission to leave them. My friend noted that she and her curriculum emphasize that vocations can change; that’s true, but you can’t just walk away from marriage, priesthood, or religious life. We are all born unmarried, not priests, and not religious (the noun, as in monks and nuns; not the adjective, as in spiritual). If you want to get married, be ordained a priest, or become a religious, you don’t need to be released from single life first. If you are already a spouse, priest, or religious, you will need permission to go back to being single or to take on another vowed vocation. For those reasons, I consider vowed vocations permanent. They last for a lifetime.

The Other Kind of Vocation

On the other hand, since “vocation” means “a call,” you can use the word “vocation” to apply to anything God might be calling you to be or do. If you have a profession or volunteer commitment that helps you grow in holiness and joy, you can call that a vocation. If that profession or volunteer position is made easier by your being unmarried and childless, you might conclude that God is calling you to stay that way. Dawn Eden, a Ph.D-level theology student, writer, and speaker, revealed in her new book that she has consecrated her celibacy to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for exactly that reason. You could also be called by God to be a theologian, writer, and speaker who is married and has children, though. Jason & Crystalina Evert, their six children, and the Chastity Project are my favorite example of that. You could be called by God to work in or run a completely secular business in a spiritually-informed manner. Those are all valid, licit, real, joyful, fruitful, pick-your-favorite-positive-adjective calls from God. In that sense, they are absolutely vocations. They bring life to the world.

That is where the similarity ends. In contrast to vowed vocations, non-vowed vocations don’t require you to take a vow (of course), and you can combine them with a vowed vocation. You can be a spouse and parent who does honest, faith-inspired tech work from a home office. You can be a priest who does public speaking. You can be a religious who grows coffee beans. You can be a never-married single person who is an author. You can be any of those and be a missionary evangelist. If you decide to stop doing tech work, speaking, growing, writing, or evangelizing in mission territory, you haven’t broken a vow, and you remain a spouse, priest, religious, or never-married single. They’re not inherently connected.

Continuing the contrast, a non-vowed vocation can be discerned by one person alone. You might need clients, an audience, customers, readers, or people to evangelize, but your pastor doesn’t need to agree that God is calling you to be a techie/speaker/farmer/writer/evangelist. You identify it, and then you’re in.4 No one is stuck with you as a fellow techie/speaker/farmer/writer/evangelist or your client/audience/customer/reader/student, positively or negatively.

As I noted above, you can have a vowed vocation and a non-vowed vocation. A non-vowed vocation doesn’t usually require you to be married, divorced (with or without an annulment), widowed, a priest, a religious, or a never-married single. It may be easier in one of those states of life, but it’s rarely required. (I was a never-married single facilitating marriage prep. Your oncologist doesn’t need to be a cancer survivor.) Thus, you don’t need to leave your current state in life to enter non-vowed vocations. If you want out of your non-vowed vocation, you might have to find another means of financial support or something else to do with your time, but you don’t need the Church’s permission. You can change jobs or volunteer in another field at any time. Non-vowed vocations come with great freedom.

What to Do with the Singles

Looking at history, most people get married eventually. Some become priests or religious later in life after having never married. But we currently have a larger population of never-married Catholics who aren’t also priests or religious than ever before (at least in the U.S.), and we’ve blurred the line between vowed and non-vowed vocations in an attempt to figure out what to do with them. Some (like Dawn Eden) are intentionally remaining single. They feel called by God to a non-vowed vocation and do not feel called by God pursue any vowed vocation.Some have made promises, consecrations, or private vows to solemnify that decision to remain single for life.5 That is awesome, and I’d imagine it gives them an incredible sense of purpose, clarity, and peace. It does not, however, give them a vocation on the level of priesthood, marriage, or religious life.

The problem is that many never-married people do feel called to a vowed vocation and do not feel called to intentionally remain single. You can be single but plan to (or hope to) be ordained a priest, get married, or become a religious; thus, you’d be single but not feel called to remain so. You could even be living a non-vowed vocation and still be waiting for the day you will take a vow. This is my life. I live in the “already, but not yet.”

I do not feel called to religious life, and I do not feel called to remain single. This is not the time for that story, but trust me; I’m pretty sure. I do feel called to be a reader, writer, and teacher. This blog and my professional and volunteer activities answer that call. I don’t think you can be called to marriage in general, though; you can only be called to marry a specific person. (If you’re already married, that person is your spouse.) So, although I never identify myself as being called to marriage, I hope I will hear that call someday. I don’t have a vowed vocation, but I want to.

This opinion admittedly doesn’t bring much encouragement, but I think it carries much more logic and realism than the other point of view: insisting that being single means you are called to it as others are called to priesthood, marriage, or religious life. It remains possible that I will never marry despite my desire to. It remains possible that I have a “missed vocation.” (I’m still working out my thoughts and feelings on that.) But trying to shove my single self into a sphere where I don’t belong is not going to help. Identifying just three vocations is fine by me.


  1. Hers is usually very quiet, but comments are not dead. I still leave comments. 
  2. Don’t be that person who posts a huge wall of text as a comment. If you need more than one 5–7 sentence paragraph to make your point, be more concise or post it on your own blog. 
  3. The “clever” part is sarcastic. I’ve also heard them called “permanent vocations,” or “states in life” as opposed to just “vocations.” 
  4. Religious communities can be a little stricter. For example, some communities are teaching orders, so if you can’t teach, you might not be accepted into that community. 
  5. You might be wondering about consecrated virgins. That is a public, vowed vocation. Consecrated virgins must be female (as far as I can tell) and either never-married or widowed (a.k.a. free to marry). If they later wish to marry, they must be released from their vows. 

Love Seeking Justice and Mercy (Review: “Change of Heart”)

I do not support the death penalty. I don’t think any Catholic ought to, although I respect the option Catholics have within our tradition to do so. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that, in the modern world, sufficient means exist to contain dangerous criminals indefinitely without ending their lives, so the cases in which death is the only way to ensure public safety must be few (see paragraph 2267). I don’t have any personal experience with death row, though, and I can’t even begin to try to place myself in the shoes of the perpetrators of capital crimes, their families, and the victims’ families. It’s a blessing that I can’t relate to them.

Change of Heart: A Review at AustinCNM.com

Jeanne Bishop can, though. In 1990, Bishop’s brother-in-law Richard Langert, sister Nancy Langert, and their unborn child were shot in their home in an affluent Chicago suburb. Their murderer, David Biro, was arrested shortly thereafter; he was a high school student whose family Bishop’s knew. Although she had every reason to write him off to his death sentence and go about her grief and her life, she found herself discovering new faith in Christ and embarking on a difficult path to true healing, forgiveness, and working for justice. She details her story in Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer.

Read the rest at Austin CNM.

In Defense of Octaves

This year, I am discovering a new pet peeve into which the Holy Spirit has been roped. The Holy Spirit and I are basically besties, so that has me particularly miffed.

I’m annoyed at any holiday (church or secular) being dragged out longer than one day. Except, that is, for the ones that are already multiple days. It is not “still Pentecost.” It’s not even still Easter. We need to let it go.

Keep Calm and Let It Go

Time for a liturgical calendar lesson, and with less bitterness and confusion than the last one! (At least I think so.)

Seasons

The Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar contains several seasons:

  1. Advent, beginning on the First Sunday of Advent, which is the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Andrew (November 30)
  2. Christmas, beginning on the Nativity of the Lord (the day most people just call “Christmas”)
  3. Ordinary Time, beginning on the day after the Baptism of the Lord (which is the first Sunday after Epiphany, whenever Epiphany is celebrated)
  4. Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday
  5. The Triduum, beginning with the evening celebration of the Solemnity of the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Holy Thursday)
  6. Easter, beginning with the Easter Vigil
  7. Ordinary Time, beginning on the day after Pentecost and resuming (not restarting) the numbering from January

The year begins with Advent, so Christmas is before Easter in time (although not in importance). Kendra and I had a fun chat about that a few years ago.

Note that the Triduum and Easter seasons begin when those particular Masses start. Earlier in the calendar day, the previous season is still in effect. At noon on Holy Thursday, it’s totally still Lent. At the moment the liturgy begins in the evening, it’s not technically Lent anymore.

Solemnities

The highest celebrations on the calendar are called “solemnities” (“solemn” as in “extra fancy,” not as in “sad.”) That means:

  1. The solemnity is celebrated on the evening before the day as well as on the day of the feast. Christmas Eve is probably the most well-known of these evening-before celebrations, properly called “vigils.” (You may also have heard of Halloween, a.k.a. All Hallows/Saints Eve.)
  2. Any feasts or memorials that would usually fall on either day get knocked out of the way and ignored from about 4 p.m. the day before to 11:59 p.m. the day of. (The technical term is “suppressed.”)
  3. If the solemnity is also a holy day of obligation, you satisfy your obligation to attend Mass by attending any Mass in any Catholic rite at any time during those 32 or so hours.

Some solemnities also begin liturgical seasons. Not every season begins with a solemnity (e.g. Ash Wednesday begins Lent but is not a solemnity). Not every solemnity starts a season (e.g. the Ascension of the Lord always falls during Easter, but there’s no Ascension season).

Octaves

Two solemnities during the year are celebrated as “octaves.” They are the Christmas octave and the Easter octave. That means:

  1. They have all 3 characteristics of solemnities listed above. You know the evenings-before as Christmas Eve and Easter Vigil (curiously, not “Easter Eve”).
  2. The vigil Masses have special readings and prayers that are only used during the vigils. The day-of Masses have different readings and prayers, although they are similar.
  3. The 7 days after Christmas Day and Easter Sunday are all also solemnities.
  4. For the remaining 7 days of the octave, Mass is celebrated as though it is still Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. The prayers all say “today,” Easter octave Masses end with “Go in peace, alleluia, alleluia,” and so on. That makes 8 days total, a.k.a. an octave (like an octagon).
  5. After the octave ends, the season continues, but with less solemnity/fanciness. The remaining days of the season are not automatically solemnities.

If you pray any part of the Liturgy of the Hours daily, it’s hard to miss an octave. You literally pray the exact same psalms from Christmas Day and Easter Sunday every single day for eight days. It feels a little monotonous, but boy, does it stick!

My Pet Peeve

Pentecost has a special vigil. I’ve never heard of it actually being celebrated anywhere, but parishes have the option of using all of the vigil-specific readings and extending the liturgy with additional songs and periods of quiet reflection. It would be like the bookend to the Easter Vigil. And it would probably be awesome. But it is not an octave.

Let the octaves be octaves, and let other holidays just end. I am not a fan of saying that you’re celebrating a holiday after the holiday (unless it’s an octave, which means it’s not “after”). You don’t have a Halloween party on November 2. (I did go to one on November 1 a few years ago; I dressed as St. Michael and considered it an All Saints Day party.) You don’t get ashes on the Thursday or Friday after Ash Wednesday. Nobody was still celebrating Memorial Day yesterday.

This all came up because I’ve heard more than one well-meaning Catholic suggest that it’s still Pentecost. It’s not still Pentecost. Pentecost only gets one day. It’s Ordinary Time now, and that’s kind of a bummer after the glory of Easter, but we didn’t receive the Holy Spirit to just sit around. We’re supposed to go!

So go! Celebrate living with the Spirit of God inside you! If you’re really itching for something special to celebrate, it will be Trinity Sunday in a few days, and then Corpus Christi, and then the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts…. Wow. That is a good plan for curing your post-Easter blues. It’s like the Church knows what she’s doing or something.

A Response to “Should Children Make Up Their Own Minds About Religion?”

I did not grow up in church. That surprises people who have only known me as an involved Catholic, but it’s true. My mom’s side is the Catholic side of the family, and they’re only occasional churchgoers. My dad’s side is mostly non-churchgoing, and they’re not Catholic. When I go home for Christmas, I go to church alone.

I received my Sacraments of Initiation on the typical schedule, for which I am grateful. Even though my parents didn’t go to church, they made me go to CCD. When they had more children and we got older, we went to Mass, too. The years preceding Confirmation (when we were going to Mass every week) kick-started my faith into the life I live now. I got to experience what being a Catholic was actually like, and that turned out to be something I wanted.

I say all this to make a point: even when you don’t force children to follow any particular religious path, they have to make up their minds eventually, and they’re going to need a foundation to start from. I lived it. I saw it multiple times when I was teaching RCIA. And I read it, supported by argumentation, in the First Things essay by Jason Stubblefield, “Should Children Make Up Their Own Minds About Religion?”

Should Children Make Up Their Own Minds About Religion? A Reponse at AustinCNM.com

Photo by Olaf Meyer.

Read the rest at Austin CNM.

The First Steps on the Road (Review: “Loved As I Am”)

To love is to do what is best for the beloved. Some people are easy to love, especially when we have great affection for them besides. Some people are rather more difficult to love.

Consider God’s love for us. We rejected him from the very start of humanity, and we reject him individually now, in varied ways, every day. Perhaps the most complicated form of rejection is the refusal to accept God’s love or even to believe that it is available to us. We have to be better before we can be loved, we think, or God won’t love us until we’re good and perfect and never make mistakes. That won’t happen this side of heaven. What will get us to heaven is embracing the love of the God who stands waiting for us constantly, always seeing us and loving us just as we are and desiring more for us than we could ever imagine. It is this journey from feeling unloved and forgotten to finding great joy in the love of the Father that Sr. Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, shares in Loved As I Am: An Invitation to Conversion, Healing, and Freedom through Jesus.

Loved As I Am

Read the rest at Austin CNM.

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