John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
Today’s Gospel tells us about a rich, apparently successful, and generally good young man. He wants to follow Jesus and asks how. Jesus tells him, first and foremost, to keep the Commandments. He says he does. Jesus “looked at him with love” and invites him to follow Him rather than relying on his goods. He did not expect that. It was a bridge too far. “He went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
We look at the young man and perhaps wonder: why did he forego the chance to follow Jesus? Yet perhaps we might ask ourselves: why do we do that?
Jesus might not be calling us to follow Him on the roads of Palestine. But He might be calling us to follow Him as God in co-creating and giving life. “All was created through Him; all was created for Him” (Colossians 1:16).
And how many Catholics turn away from following Him, sad, because kids cost money? And how many are turning children away from the banquet of life?
I do not deny that kids cost money – a lot of money. I have two in college right now. Don’t discuss bills with me.
I was recently in the ER, when a nurse came to ask me, with all the appropriate seriousness and confidential look that we now affix to such queries: “Do you ever feel threatened or in danger at home?” I could not refrain from answering: “I have two kids in college—yeah, I feel threatened…”
I know the statistics now say that raising a kid through legal adulthood (i.e., before college kicks in) runs about $235,000.00. I have three kids: three-quarters of a million more would be nice toward retirement in six years.
But I also remember an anecdote I read as a kid myself, back in the day when Reader’s Digest filled space with insightful quips. The story, in the 1960s, reported about the problems faced by propagandists for birth control in India. They thought their basic problem was language: the country’s constitution now recognizes 22, the country’s states, 31. So, to overcome the language barrier, advocates of contraception used pictures. On the left: a middle-class mother and father, clean apartment, nice furniture, two children. On the right: a family of eight children, mother and father dirty, basic necessities of life in disrepair. Point made?
Not exactly. When the poster showed up in some villages, the locals gathered, looked at the “model” family on the left, and commented: “look at those poor people!”
Mother Teresa captured the same insight, years later, in her famous quote: “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”
And the rich man went away sad.
Yes, I know that the “realistic” think I am drawing straw men, not dealing with the challenges “real” people face in life. But sometimes I think that the cost angle is somewhat like the way abortionists use the “health” argument. They claim that abortion is necessary to protect women’s “health” (and advance the even more bogus claim that abortion is safer than pregnancy). Yes, if “health” means “I am unhealthy because I didn’t get what I want,” maybe – but the relationship of such a claim to any objective standard of real health or real threats to health is light years away.
Again, I am not unrealistic: let’s just call things as they are.
Making ends meet is a real demand. But so are moral values.
Opponents of Humanae vitae often accuse the Church’s teaching of being “physicalist,” claiming the Church is only interested in preserving the external “structure” of the sexual act while ignoring its meaning and intention. One sees that in the argument that because natural family planning (NFP) and contraception both avoid conception, they are morally identical.
The paradox is that it isn’t the Church but its opponents who are the “physicalists,” the ones who reduce sexual intercourse to the physical act and separate it from the intention of the moral agent. I think the money issue helps make the difference clear.
Those who practice NFP recognize that money and child-bearing costs are a value to be reckoned with. But they also recognize that sexual intercourse, as an act participating in God’s creative work and itself capable of giving life, is a value to be reckoned with.
They recognize those values are not commensurable, i.e., they cannot simply be compared or measured against each other. They are apples and oranges, each different, but each intrinsically valuable. Likewise, Alexandra and John are each intrinsically valuable: they are not simply my “child 1” and “child 2.”
The cost of providing a good life for a child is something to be accounted for. But no cost can be attached to the life of a child – and that doesn’t mean the life is “valueless.” It’s what’s meant by the old adage of knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.
The couple who uses NFP recognizes that there are values here, most importantly, the value of the dignity of human life that God has made possible through this act and, therefore, to “use” that act while denying its meaning is not “a sin because the Pope said so,” but because it represents a lack of recognizing who is God… and who I’m not. It’s no accident that modern bioethics often pretends to “play God.”
The “moral theology” concocted by advocates of contraception depends, in fact, on a kind of utilitarian “cost-benefit” analysis, mistakenly taking the inherent value of human life as a cost that somehow gets measured against other “values,” like my resources.
But how do you affix the value to those values? How do you weigh or compare them? We’re never told. But they’re “realistic.”
And how do you know what will happen in your life? How do you know what your situation will be? How do you know that, when you have filled your barns to their eaves and your 529 College Funds to their max, that the Lord may not say, “you fool, tonight your life is demanded of you?” (Luke 12:20)
Why do you want to play God? What do you think you have the perspective of God?
Yes, the cost of kids is daunting. Yes, prudence and temperance are virtues. But so are faith and hope: faith that God is not going to do you wrong, hope that He will not give you a gift you do not need. And so is fortitude—the audacity to “go deep in faith,” and not to chicken out.
The young man went away, sad.
The problem is that choices made in history, even when repented, cannot be changed. The past is past. We may regret the past, even repent the past, but we cannot change the past.
We cannot change that 60,000,000 of our fellow human beings are dead in the United States because of a pseudo-Constitutional right. We cannot change the impact that absent population has on an aging society. And we cannot change that there are parents who now die alone because their children are dead. We may repent it, but we cannot change it.
I recently read about a movement, “No One Dies Alone,” to ensure that there is at least a volunteer at someone’s deathbed in a clinical setting. I applaud the effort, and I urge people to consider it. But I must wonder what is wrong in our modern society that this happens. And I cannot stop but ask whether the “cost of kids” is now being in some way paid for in bowling alone, being alone, … and dying alone.
And the young man was sad.
Roman Brandstaetter, a 20th-century Polish poet, wrote about that young man, many years later, in his “Confession of a Man Who Didn’t Follow the Lord.” The young man, now old, looks back on that fateful day when he met Jesus en route to Jerusalem, as the almond trees were in bloom. Acknowledging Jesus’ invitation to trust Him instead of his money, the man admits:
I chickened out
And went home.
Now, I’m an old man.
I have a large family.
My riches have doubled.
People regard me as happy.
But I feel a tangible void inside myself,
A lack of fullness,
That I fear to reveal
Even to those closest to me.
They’d certainly laugh at me.
The years have passed
But I still cannot forget
And the almond trees in bloom.
(Poem translated by J. Grondelski and all rights reserved).