David Mills, writing at Aleteia, has “A Marxist Lesson for Breeding Catholics.” His argument opens (and boils down to):
Only the affluent will find being open to life easy. For us, another child means an adjustment downward, but he doesn’t tip the family into poverty, or into deeper poverty. He may mean giving up a vacation if the family’s wealthy, or the Thursday family dinner out if the family’s middle class. Her arrival won’t mean giving up food, or rent or the parochial school that can make all the difference to his older siblings’ future.
Most of us who write about these things can afford to be romantic about them. Those in the Catholic chattering classes who compose warm glowing stories about the beauty of the Catholic teaching—as I have here, for example—tend to forget that we write from privilege. We forget what Marxism 101 would teach us, that we see the world from a specific place in society and favor its interests, and without great effort will be blind to the perspectives and interests of others, especially the poor.
There is in much Catholic writing on married sexuality a reflection of bourgeois good feeling; it treats the Catholic teaching as a pure blessing, with formulaic nods to its difficulty, when for others, not so privileged as we are, it can be a burden and a threat. Catholics who write and speak on sexuality tend to be perky.
(Emphasis supplied and hyperlink removed.) He goes on in this vein for a little while, coming to this conclusion:
It can’t be acceptable, from the Catholic point of view, that the marital act is so strictly bound by economic status that husbands and wives can enjoy the divine gift of sexual union only if they can afford the result. The Catholic teaching is not for the middle and upper classes alone.
We the comfortable, who speak so romantically of being open to life—because for us, with our privileges, it is a romance—could find ways to make it a romance, and not a terror, for others too.
The comments, perhaps predictably, have a roughly bimodal distribution. For our part, we think, on one hand, Mills’s comments are sort of trivial: yes, financial stability and reasonably good health may make the material and physical aspects of children easier; yes, the financially stable and reasonably healthy may have a particular set of biases that informs how they approach Church teachings; and, yes, Catholic commentators on these issues can be, as an acquaintance noted elsewhere, a little glib—even, horribile dictu, a little perky—about these issues. On the other hand, as another acquaintance noted, Mills seems to miss an obvious issue in this context: the extent to which the Church proposes solutions to the problems he identifies. We think that the Church’s social teaching—especially the Church’s economic teaching—provides important solutions to and conceptual frameworks for the problems Mills identifies.
Consider first this passage from Quadragesimo anno,
In the first place, the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family. That the rest of the family should also contribute to the common support, according to the capacity of each, is certainly right, as can be observed especially in the families of farmers, but also in the families of many craftsmen and small shopkeepers. But to abuse the years of childhood and the limited strength of women is grossly wrong. Mothers, concentrating on household duties, should work primarily in the home or in its immediate vicinity. It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father’s low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties, especially the training of children. Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman. It will not be out of place here to render merited praise to all, who with a wise and useful purpose, have tried and tested various ways of adjusting the pay for work to family burdens in such a way that, as these increase, the former may be raised and indeed, if the contingency arises, there may be enough to meet extraordinary needs.
(Emphasis supplied and footnote omitted.) One can, if one is so inclined, also look to Rerum novarum itself for further guidance on the role of a just wage in supporting a family. But wherever one looks, the point is largely the same: workers are entitled to a just wage, suitable to permit those workers to support their families. And it seems to us that in this principle is the solution, at some level, to Mills’s basic problem regarding wealth and openness to life. Put another way, Mills says it cannot be acceptable to the Church that economic circumstances restrict couples’ openness to procreation according to God’s plan. And it isn’t acceptable. The Church says that workers are owed a just wage, and a just wage ought to be sufficient to support a family, if perhaps a little frugally. If economic circumstances are such that one cannot support a family, then it seems to us that one not being paid a just wage.
To expand upon this issue briefly: the question of just wages (or living wages or what-have-you) is politically a sensitive question in the United States today. However, it is, we think, safe to say that most jurisdictions have not adopted a living wage, and to the extent that a living wage is a just wage, those jurisdictions have not adopted a just wage. However, we acknowledge that following Quadragesimo anno, it is an open question whether a living wage is always a just wage, especially if the condition of the business (employer) is not taken into consideration in arriving at a living wage. However, in many cases, a living wage may approximate fairly reasonably a just wage. In this regard, therefore, these jurisdictions have failed to follow the teachings of the Church (or, more precisely, they have permitted employers to deviate from the demands of justice). And if this failure has caused the consequences Mills identifies—that is, economic circumstances chilling parents’ openness to procreation according to God’s plan—then it seems to us that those jurisdictions have a double responsibility to rectify their failure.
Mills also identifies a risk—to his way of thinking—for affluent Catholic parents:
The affluent for whom the Catholic teaching is not a great burden can fall to the temptations of their class, one of which is to think of their children as lifestyle accessories. The Catholic just has more of them than his secular and Protestant neighbors and can feel a little proud of it. It is easy to feel smug when you can say that you have X number of children when speaking to someone who has X minus 2 or X minus 3 children. You can feel that God rewarded your obedience and sacrifice by giving you more “toys” than your friends have.
(Emphasis added.) Now, consider this passage from Laudato si’:
A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”. When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay.
(Hyperlinks and footnote omitted and emphasis supplied.) It seems to us that the problem of children-as-reward—we have long called children in such unfortunate situations “trophy children”—is very much of a piece of the “misguided anthropocentrism” and “practical relativism” that puts the individual ahead of all others, including one’s children. In this case, the attitude Mills identifies has a certain spiritual dimension, especially since whether one has children and how many is a matter fundamentally left to God’s designs, but to the extent that one views one’s children as a reward or something like that, that attitude is essentially anthropocentric. While this insight is not as concrete as Pius’s discussion of just wages and their relationship to proper family life in Quadragesimo anno, it must be said that Francis provides a framework to think about the phenomenon of trophy children. Within this framework, it may well be possible to arrive at more concrete discussions of the problem.
In sum, the doctrinal issues that Mills identifies—particularly the economic pressures on procreation—are addressed, more or less directly, in the Church’s social teaching. Other issues can be understood better, if not solved, through other themes in the Church’s teaching. Now, we acknowledge that these doctrinal issues are not entirely Mills’s point, which is that healthy and wealthy Catholics tend not to understand that the Church’s teaching on procreation may be daunting to less healthy, less wealthy folks. However, it seems to us that the glibness, as one of our acquaintances put it, of some Catholics toward the question is a function of an incomplete understanding of the Church’s teaching on these issues.