By Fr. David Nix and Leila Miller
As I have said in many sermons and blog posts, Catholics that use contraception have the same divorce rate as the rest of the United States—roughly 50%. Catholics who refrain from contraception have a divorce rate that is only 3%, even when all studies are averaged. But what about those 3% of Catholics who get a divorce while avoiding contraception? Crisis Magazine did a study about 15 years ago to ask why young Catholics who avoid contraception were getting divorces. The answer was one: They did not expect to suffer much in marriage. This blog post is written by my friend and author, mother and grandmother (and fellow Boston College grad) Leila Miller. Below, her words are in bold. My words are in italics.
Mrs. Leila Miller: One really alarming trend I’ve seen among many young Catholic wives and moms—including the “influencers”—is an almost complete blackout of discussion of the cross, specifically, embracing the cross and accepting suffering as the path to sanctity, in imitation of Our Lord. For example, the discussions of vocations among millennial Catholic women too often tend to revolve around how to not “lose yourself” now that you are a wife and mother, and to remember that you were “someone” before you were a married mom. There is also self-esteem talk disguised as spiritual wisdom such as “you are enough”—whatever that means. That sounds suspiciously like the culture talking, not Christianity. “Self-fulfillment” is also a topic of conversation among young Catholic women (some who openly embrace the label of “Catholic feminist”). But, how are we to square the pursuit of “self-fulfillment” with the Christian mandate to “die to self”? After all, self-denial and giving up one’s own will (which is the model of every saint for two millennia) is actually the opposite of “self-fulfillment”! The insistence from “Catholic feminists” that “God wants us to be happy!” is understood on such a shallow level; most don’t recognize that supernatural happiness and interior joy come precisely in putting to death our own desires and doing God’s will alone. This Christian truth is a contradiction and a stumbling block for sure, and one that is not being taught nor grasped today from what I can see.
Fr. David Nix: This week, I had dinner with a friend of mine from grade-school who reverted to Catholicism. He brought his friend, a young woman who converted from being a wiccan practioner in her teens and New Age in her 20s to having a conversion at a Colorado MegaChurch. We spoke for about several hours about what it means to be New Age, Protestant and Catholic. She said something very interesting to me: “But you have to remember that in New Age, you are your own god.” I fear that Richard Rohr is deceiving many young Catholic women with similar language about how they are “enough” or “more than enough” without any reference to Christ: “You’ll find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need.”—Richard Rohr. Notice how different this “enough” of yourself talk is from St. Paul’s admonition to imitate the service and emptying of Christ crucified: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”—Phil 2:5-7
The idea that “I’m enough” is a strange one for a Catholic to embrace, as our Faith teaches that Christ is enough. It’s not about me, it’s about Him. A Christian who loves the Lord wants to be able to say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” We wives and moms have enough crosses in our vocation to be able to beautifully conform ourselves to Him. Remember that the Christian life is always cruciform! Christ is enough, and the cross of my life in marriage and motherhood is enough! I tell everyone I know to run away fast from any Catholic influencers who speak in pseudo-mystical, attractive tones about the spiritual life and yet completely avoid the cross! Christ without the cross is a false Christ. Don’t be deceived! Taking up our own cross (and crosses lead to death) is a mandate from Christ for our salvation, not something we childishly ignore or wish away. There is POWER in the cross! The power to redeem the world! We want to enter into His suffering, passion, and death, someday to rise with Him! The cross—and redemptive suffering—is what separates Catholicism from every other philosophy, ideology, and “self-fulfillment” program on the market. Christ’s cross is the only thing that saves—so avoid or ignore at your peril. This is serious stuff. Discern the danger of the lure of a cross-less Christianity. If someone wants you to drop your cross, that person is not your friend. As the saints have said, the cross is your ladder to Heaven. But we reject the cross—our only hope! It’s crazy. The crosses we are given are the source of grace in our daily lives.”
But we will not understand the cross if it is not supercharged with love/charity. And love comes from prayer. I don’t mean a shallow “Bless this Oh Lord…” prayer. I mean marriage must be supercharged with mental prayer (daily meditation on the Gospels) the Rosary and praying out loud together. Let me give you an example of a commandment of the Church that most Catholics today find onerous and even distasteful: “The wife should love to remain at home, unless compelled by necessity to go out; and she should never presume to leave home without her husband’s consent.”—Roman Catechism, 16th century. When we read that, we picture heavy-handed, meat-headed men in the 16th century with a Monty Python accent enforcing the rule of women not working outside the house. But what if we project that line of the Roman Catechism upon our image of the early Christians in the Roman Empire? Do we picture early Christian women wanting to flit about the fleshy city without their husbands? Of course not. Do we picture men telling their wives that they are in charge of the home? Of course not. Why? Because they did the right thing (woman at home, man in headship of his family) because love made it natural. Besides Scripture, the line most quoted by St. John of the Cross is a line from St. Augustine: “Love makes all burdensome and heavy things nearly nothing.”—St. Augustine, Serm 70.3 ( Omnia enim saeva et immania, prorsus facilia et prope nulla efficit amor.) That line might read sweet, shallow and sentimental, but St. John of the Cross found it the entire center of all of his understanding of the cross and obedience: “Love makes all burdensome and heavy things nearly nothing.” If your ability to carry your cross in marriage is running on “empty,” it’s because love is running on empty. If love is running on empty, it is because prayer is running on empty. Again, I don’t mean a shallow “Bless this Oh Lord…” prayer. I mean to keep marriage without divorce on the horizon, you must pick either mental prayer (meditating on the Gospels together) or the Rosary as a family… or praying out loud together, while holding hands on your bed and speaking to the Blessed Trinity. It was because of the most intense bonds of earthly love that the early Christian men never had to convince their wives to refrain from taking a job outside the home, even when times were hard on them. (Of course, absolute financial necessity is reason enough for a woman to work outside the home, as seen in the above 16th century quote: “The wife should love to remain at home, unless compelled by necessity to go out.”—Roman Catechism.)
Right now, we are swimming in a culture that distains what is traditionally known as “women’s work“ – which is essentially keeping the home, caring for the family (love of the most important others!). Feminism is to blame, having sold us the idea that this work is “less than” what men traditionally do— earning a paycheck, getting public recognition for achievements, producing something “important.” That’s a lie. Women will never be happy when they hate their own feminine nature. The discontent comes from believing the outside voices. After all, can you even imagine if the culture suddenly exalted the work of the home and caring for one’s husband and children, nourishing and nurturing? Imagine if that was truly seen as valuable and important and beautiful? Suddenly, women would find themselves content in a vocation that is beautiful and worthy and valued—and suited for our feminine nature. The fact that many people (Catholic women!) are rolling their eyes or cursing as they read this illustrates how profoundly we have devalued the work of a wife and mom.
St. Catherine of Siena taught that Christ has a cross for us on earth, but Satan also has a different cross for us to carry on earth. Of course, the former cross leads to heaven and the latter cross leads to hell. But what is fascinating about her Dialogues with God the Father is that He shows her that His Son’s cross is actually easier to carry than Satan’s cross…even here on earth! As the old saying goes, “It’s easier to carry your cross than to drag it.” So, this is not another blog post to say: “Carry your cross, or you won’t make it to heaven.” Although this is true, we’re saying something more: The cross of your vocation will also be your earthly joy and your earthly power and even your earthly “self-fulfillment” more than any classes on womanly “self-fulfillment” or the passions that ensnare men like pornography and drugs. Avoiding things like pornography and drugs will not only make you eternally happy. We are convinced you’ll actually be happier on earth, especially if you take this full blog post’s admonition of prayer into your marriage.
And a closing few words to men: The feature image above is a painting called “Two Crowns” by Sir Edmund Blair Leighton. Notice that it is a medieval Catholic king returning form a great battle he won, or perhaps it is his coronation ceremony. He is disturbed by the fact that he, an earthly king, has outdone in worldly honors the heavenly King of Kings who stands on a cross, crowned with thorns. To be sure, Christ the King does not want to take away the earthly ruler’s crown. The above painting is not a commercial to place communism above monarchy. But it is a reminder of what a true leader looks like: Christ on the Cross. Indeed, normal arguments are sure to crop up between even the best married couples. (In fact, Leila repeatedly insists that yelling is better than divorce, and I agree with her!) But if a traditional Catholic man is repeatedly reminding his wife that he is in charge under the title of male headship of family (which I very much believe in, too) then there may be something missing in his leadership. Just as an Admiral of a Navy ship should not have to tell his crew every day, “I am in charge here,” so also the true leadership of service may be missing when a man asserts headship without cruciform service to his family. St. John Chrysostom has the remedy for that:
“Have you noted the measure of obedience? Pay attention to love’s high standard. If you take the premise that your wife should submit to you, as the Church submits to Christ, then you should also take the same kind of careful, sacrificial thought for her that Christ takes for the Church. Even if you must offer your own life for her, you must not refuse. Even if you must undergo countless struggles on her behalf and have all kinds of things to endure and suffer, you must not refuse. Even if you suffer all this, you have still not done as much as Christ has for the Church. For you are already married when you act this way, whereas Christ is acting for one who has rejected and hated Him. So just as He, when she was rejecting, hating, spurning and nagging Him, brought her to trust Him by His great solicitude, not by threatening, lording it over her or intimidating her or anything like that, so you must also act toward your wife. Even if you see her looking down on you, nagging and despising you, you will be able to win her over with your great love and affection for her.”—St. John Chyrosostom