This year marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae. It caused immediate shock waves in the Catholic world, followed by outright rebellion from millions of Church members, unfortunately abetted by many priests. In retrospect it was a watershed moment in the Church’s history in the 20th Century; the occasion that split the Church between its faithful members, now the “orthodox” Catholics, and a huge number of their fellows who, supposedly following their private conscience in using contraception, made the radical decision to choose which teachings of the Church to assent to, and which to give their “loyal dissent” – an oxymoron if ever there was one.
Countless books and articles have been written, showing beyond doubt the subtle – and not so subtle – link between the rejection of Humanae Vitae in 1968 and the problems that have since beset the Church: family size mirroring that of the secular world; divorce rates that follow the same pattern; shrinkage of vocations to the priesthood and religious life; wholesale lapsing and so on.
In a sense, Humanae Vitae made it painfully clear that the Catholic faith isn’t merely a comfortable spiritual “add-on” to the rest of life. It means a decisive rejection of worldly values; generosity and openness to new life; trust in God; fidelity to the unchanging teachings of the Church; a sacrificial and prayerful approach to human problems; in short, seeing life through the lens of eternity and not through the all too human conclusions of social surveys and think-tanks.
It is not coincidental that the book I am reading encapsulates this fundamental divide in a joyful, funny, wise and appealing way: One Beautiful Dream by Jennifer Fulwiler (Ignatius Press). Subtitled “The rollicking tale of family chaos, personal passions and saying yes to them both”, it tells the on-going story of Jennifer, a convert alongside her high-achieving husband Joe, describing their lives since her first book, Something Other Than God. That book told how the couple met, searched for spiritual purpose in their lives, became Catholics and (more or less) lived happily ever after.
What separates the Fulwilers from Catholic couples of the “loyal dissent” variety is their decision to practise natural family regulation and thus to be open to having a larger family size than the norm: six children in eight years. If one adds to this mix a small house in Austin, Texas, a not very large income from Joe’s work as a lawyer in a small town law firm, health problems in pregnancy and Jennifer’s longing to have space and time to write as well as being a fulltime mother, you can see other people rolling their eyes, asking “Haven’t they heard of family planning, sterilisation, the pill?”
How do two people who met as “careerist atheists”, in Jennifer’s words, change so radically? The short answer is the Fulwilers’ openness to grace, found in their fidelity to Church teaching on marriage. The author makes it clear they are not saints; they suffer the same money worries, exhaustion and setbacks as other families. What distinguishes them is their attitude: never to put merely human considerations, such as a more lucrative career or house-move, before deeper considerations, such as the realisation that having loving, supportive relatives nearby to help them is more important than having a large house in another state.
Joe, who grew up in a poor, one-parent family and got himself into Yale, watches his peers’ stellar law careers and opulent lifestyles, made at a severe cost to family life, and chooses not to make the same mistake. Jennifer comes to realise that her own authorial dreams can only be achieved within family life rather than apart from it. Beneath the self-deprecating humour of the author’s writing style and her droll catalogue of domestic disasters lies a morality tale which raises a serious question for other Catholic couples: what kind of family life do you want to have? One that follows the way of the world or one that doesn’t?