2016-06-30
Angela Bonavoglia is a writer and speaker on women's issues. Author most recently of Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church, and editor of The Choices We Made: Twenty-five Women and Men Speak Out About Abortion, Bonavoglia has argued that the Church refuses to empower women or address their needs. She corresponded with Beliefnet via email about married Catholics who choose not to have children.

What is your religious background?

As I wrote in "Good Catholic Girls," I grew up Catholic. As a girl, I spent a lot of time visiting the basement chapel of St. Ann's Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I'd chat with God. I told God everything, and God listened. I've taken those moments of trust and peace with me all my life. But that was my private Catholic Church. As I grew up, I came to deplore the Church's demonization of sexuality, its arrogance and its hypocrisy. By the time I was into my twenties, I became a Catholic in revolt. Later, I marched. I wrote. But somewhere along the way, I gave up. I became a Catholic in exile. Today, I am an itinerant Catholic. I make my way to Mass as often as I can, hoping the sermon will not drive me away. I go on Christmas and Easter,
because they celebrate beginnings and hope; on Good Friday, because I need help facing death; and on many other days, when I am especially grateful, when I am lost, and when I have been brought to my knees by life. I pray everywhere and all the time. I have long known that born a Catholic, I will die a Catholic. How would you describe Catholic teaching about, and attitudes towards, "childless by choice" marriages? Married Catholic men and women who are "childless by choice" are invisible in the Catholic Church. And where their existence is remotely implied, they are demonized. The Church teaches that "marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained to the begetting and education of children." Following from that, the only morally acceptable sexual activity is between married people open to procreation. Only abstaining from sex during the woman's fertile period-the so-called rhythm method of birth control-is allowed. And that is only allowed for "serious" and "grave" reasons, that is "physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife," or "external circumstances," and it must be done in the context of an overall commitment to "responsible parenthood." While the Catholic Church moved ahead with Humanae Vitae in recognizing the so-called unitive as well as procreative values of married sex, Pope Paul VI maintained the Church's insistence that every act of sexual intercourse must be "open to the transmission of life."
So the man and woman who enter into a marriage and choose not to beget children, who use some form of birth control or perhaps permanent sterilization to achieve that, would be guilty of practicing what Pope John Paul II denigrated as a "contraceptive mentality." He saw contraception as well as abortion as rooted in a "hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfillment." That means that the couple that could have children but chooses not to is seen as self-centered, selfish, hedonistic, irresponsible, and essentially, morally corrupt. And there is another message: that a married woman, in order to be good, must bear children. I never thought God expected me to create another life in order to deserve this one. How do you respond to the phrase you quoted--that childless-by-choice couples "[regard] procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfillment"? Is not having children about personal fulfillment or something else? I see myself as a person committed to justice, equality and helping to make a better world, especially for women. And that comes directly from my Catholicism, especially from Jesus's life and the Beatitudes he preached--blessed are the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful. Propelled by those beliefs, I earned a Masters in Social Work, serving alcoholics and drug addicts, the elderly and infirm, and foster children. In time, however, I directed my passion to my pen and found that I drew the most satisfaction from writing about social issues and equal rights, especially women's rights. I've written about violence against women; women struggling to overcome breast cancer, eating disorders, and depression; women coping with poverty and the fallout of "welfare reform"; women's reproductive health, from preventing STDs to unwanted pregnancies; and women working to find their voices in business, politics, and religion.
I don't think there is anything selfish about doing work I love in an intimate partnership with a husband I love, without having children. What has your personal experience been when you tell other Catholics that you don't want children? I would never make a proclamation like that! I'd be afraid of offending someone-and not just Catholics. A kind of suspicion can arise, or at least discomfort, with a woman who would own up to not wanting, to never having wanted, children. I think it might be related to sex; motherhood takes the edge off women's suspect sexuality. By the same token, people rarely ask me why I have no children. They assume I longed for children, but simply couldn't have any. But not having children is just one more choice women make, a choice that does not alone or fundamentally determine our value or our moral place in the world. Many people see children as bringing happiness, and wonder why a person wouldn't want that joy. Do you think that's a fair assessment?

Not everyone sees bearing and raising children as an unmitigated joy. And frankly, that includes many of those who chose to bear and raise children. I hate to quote Dr. Phil, but when he asked 20,000 parents if, knowing what they knew now, they would have started a family, 40 percent said no. It is a tremendously demanding task that consumes one's life for decades. Some women prior to motherhood see that quite clearly. They may feel called to do something else in the world, which they know they cannot do and raise children, too. They may have parented siblings and want an adult life that is what someone once called "child free." They may enjoy other people's children, but be happy to go home to a quiet house. Whatever the reason, they make the choice, then dive into their lives with gusto and without regret. Is one or both spouses not wanting children still grounds for annulment in the Catholic Church, and if so, do you think that position should be changed?

Yes, that would surely be grounds for annulment of a marriage. But I think annulment is a deeply disingenuous process; to me, it is Catholic divorce. The sacrament has been celebrated; I don't see how you can undo that. At the same time, I think that a couple must be on the same page before they marry on the decision to have children. If they are not, chances are the longing of the partner who wants a child will be too deeply felt to be ignored. Do you think religions should evolve to a point where having kids isn't seen as the logical end or a goal of marriage?

I think, as theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether has suggested, that we need more types of pastoral and liturgical "covenants" to bless the different ways people join in intimate partnerships. One of those could be a lifelong commitment that would include having children, while another might be a lifelong commitment without children. Why do you and others stay with the Catholic Church when it's hurt you so much--and when you find its teachings so problematic?

I asked all the women in "Good Catholic Girls" why they stay. All of them started from the same place-their love of the Church. For me, being Catholic isn't something I can change, any more than I can change the configuration of my bones. I love the sensuality of the religion-the imagery, the incense, the music and the Mass. I love the saints. I find enormous comfort in the Resurrection, and could not live without the Eucharist. It is food for my journey.

What advice would you give other married Catholic women who don't want children?

Love your partner with all your heart. Handle your reproductive potential by listening to your conscience. If the call to parent isn't there, chances are, another call is; follow it. In choosing not to have children, you have not failed God, humanity, or yourself.

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