2cornucopias

Conversion Insights – Part II by Kathleen Prevost

In 09 Faith Journey on 2012/05/07 at 11:09 AM

Chastity

As a young Christian adult, I wandered. I attended church wherever I was employed as an organist at the time.  I read the Bible and devotional books regularly, but my prayers were sporadic at best, and I had no heart whatsoever for the poor.  Because of the example my family and neighbors had set for me, I had formed healthy (if ascetic!) habits early on: no drinking, no smoking, no dancing, no sex.  After college I stopped teetotaling, and my first date with my future husband was at a Texas two-stepping dance hall; but I continued to be celibate, understanding that sex and marriage should go together and that I didn’t want sexual diseases or pregnancy, which at the time seemed to me equally undesirable.

When marriage approached, I thought, “Well, I need to get on the Pill, because that’s what one does.”  I made an appointment at the university health clinic and told the nurse what I wanted.  She replied, “We can’t do that for you because this is a Catholic university.”  I was shocked and upset.  I knew nothing of Catholic teaching on sexuality.  Living as the typical impoverished graduate student, I had no money and relied on the university health plan.

Eventually I made my way to a bookstore near the university, where I found one of the Billings books on natural family planning.4  I really liked what I read – not at all for religious reasons, as neither my husband nor I had the remotest inclination to become Catholic at the time.  Rather, I strongly disliked the idea of suppressing my fertility with drugs as if fertility were a disease.  My husband, who long before had begun to ponder the moral issues surrounding sexuality and procreation, agreed to give it a try.

So, in order to avoid the Pill, we began living in the way married Catholics are taught to do.  Becoming accustomed to natural family planning helped us later find reasonable the Catholic instruction on marital chastity.  I read Oxford professor Elizabeth Anscombe’s essay Contraception and Chastity4

She defended Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and traced its roots through centuries of Catholic theological development.  I also read Pope John Paul II’s writings on marriage and family, generally known as his “theology of the body.”  Before Vatican II, Flannery O’Connor wrote in her humorous and unsentimental way: “The Church’s stand on birth control is the most absolutely spiritual of all her stands and with all of us being materialists at heart, there is little wonder that it causes unease.  I wish various [priests] would quit trying to defend it by saying that the world can support 40 billion. I will rejoice in the day when they say: This is right, whether we all rot on top of each other or not, dear children, as we certainly may. Either practice restraint or be prepared for crowding.”

Since then, Pope John Paul II transformed Catholic teaching about chastity.  His theology of the body took the church doctrine that O’Connor called “absolutely spiritual” and made it concrete and real.  He did so with particular insight into women’s gifts and desires.5   I was greatly encouraged to find this thoughtful Christian instruction which celebrates human sexuality and domestic love.

The Value of Life

After our marriage, we joined an Episcopal church guided by a faithful, wise, humble, and joyful priest.  The benevolent parishioners there became, and still are, like family.  They welcomed us into their network of friendships.  Through work with the homeless and hungry in our town, they taught us to care for our disadvantaged neighbors.

Time passed, and we did not have our first child for several years.  I had been indifferent to   motherhood, wanting to complete my education first.  I had been ambivalent about abortion, seeing it as the woman’s prerogative and a necessary evil after rape or incest. But when we began to try in earnest, conception didn’t happen for a year.  Suddenly I wasn’t in control anymore and something deeply desired appeared unobtainable.  For the first time, I began to see childbearing as something more than simply a matter of my will to do or do not.

Our first child was born, followed soon by a second.  Then we suffered three miscarriages over three years. Each miscarriage occurred during the first three months – the period of time during which most abortions are performed. I held what gynecologists euphemistically refer to as the “products of conception” in my hand, and cried.  These heartbreaking losses compelled me to see new life as a treasure, a gift, not the immature and somehow less worthy beginnings of a complete human person.  I saw that the response to an act of violence against a woman should not be another act of violence against the woman and her baby.6   Through suffering, I began to have more of a heart for all the poor – those who are materially impoverished and politically oppressed everywhere, including the unborn.

We went on to have three more children.  The last, Elizabeth, died at 20 weeks in utero. The ultrasound had revealed no complications; three days later, my water broke.  A baby doesn’t die immediately in such circumstances.  To avoid risk of infection, my medical friends advised us to terminate. But we heard her strong heartbeat and couldn’t do it.  I remember thinking as I lay in the maternity ward bed: “I am her hospice.”  She died three days later. After delivery, we held her and spoke about her with her siblings.  My oldest daughter fashioned a large “It’s a Girl!” ribbon and hung it on the hospital room door.

As painful as it was, and as much as I long to have known her, Elizabeth’s brief life was a beautiful gift.  It made concrete the church’s counsel to treasure life “from conception to natural death.”  Our understanding came the hard way, through experience.  But the church has been valuing life for two millennia.  In the Roman empire Christians were viewed with alarm because they broke the conventions of the time: they loved all men (not solely their friends or people of status), and they refused to leave their unwanted newborns by the side of the road to die.  In medieval times St. Francis renounced his wealth and heritage in order to live as a brother to the humble and the impoverished.  In recent years, the Catholic church has aided the poor more prominently and vocally than any other large group in Christendom, through official church teaching, through Catholic charities, and through luminous saints like Mother Theresa.

Immigrants, the elderly, those in economic poverty, outcasts because of status or skin color, the handicapped, the unborn – the church shelters them all.

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