A few weeks ago, a young man I’ll call David dropped in to see me. David has been working with me discerning a vocation to the priesthood, so it was with some interest that I heard him announce that he had acquired a girlfriend. We discussed the possibilities and prospects for the future, and I came to realize that his expectation of marriage and family life was very different from my own. As a fairly new convert, and one who has had little experience of large Catholic families, David had a totally different expectation of what family life would be like.
It has often been observed that Catholics who have used artificial contraception have helped cause the vocations crisis, because there are simply not enough Catholic boys and girls being born to provide the next generation of priests, brothers, nuns, and sisters, but my conversation with David made me realize that the contraceptive culture has affected the vocations question in more subtle and powerful ways.
The first of these is in the Catholic boy’s or girl’s experience of marriage and family life. Before the sexual revolution, a young man or woman from a Catholic family was likely to have grown up in a large, local extended family. He or she would have been part of a network of brothers and sisters, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who all lived within visiting distance. Within that context of a large family, the Catholic boy or girl would have seen first hand the joys and sorrows of family life.
If he felt called to the priesthood or religious life, a boy would most likely have entered the local diocesan seminary or entered a religious order with houses in his diocese. A girl would most likely have entered a religious house in her locality. They would have lived the celibate life, therefore, within the larger context of that supportive extended family and Catholic culture. In other words, they would be living within community, not just in their religious order or diocesan presbyterate, but within their own natural extended family.
Artificial contraception changed all that. “Reproductive freedom” allowed women to enter the workplace. Families enjoyed a double income. Increasing affluence and fewer children meant the smaller families were more manageable and less dependent on the extended family. As a result, the nature of the American family changed.
The large extended family, with all its joys and opportunities, was replaced with the American “nuclear family,” in which one man and one woman exist in isolation in a home in the suburbs with 2.5 children, a dog, a cat, and a double income. Increased mobility meant that this nuclear family could exist in the same sort of anonymous suburb anywhere in America.
Suddenly, being a priest, brother, nun, or sister meant you were not only isolated, but isolated without the consolation of spouse and small family. Furthermore, the celibate would naturally be cut off from all the cozy support systems that proliferate in American suburbia. The old, localized extended family always had room for the spinster aunt, the cousin who was a religious sister, or the uncle who was a priest. But who wants a single person at a dinner party, the PTA, or the country club — especially a single religious person?
The second shift due to contraception is buried more deeply within the observable societal changes. We have experienced a radical change in the deeper understanding and expectations of marriage. Before the sexual revolution, a young Catholic boy or girl experienced a family context in which being a husband or wife, father or mother, would have demanded a natural kind of self sacrifice.
In most families, the man would have worked hard to support a wife and many children, and the woman would have given her life in bringing up a large family. Both the man and woman were expected to lay down their lives in a vocation of self-sacrifice, and the Catholic young man or woman would have accepted this vocation within marriage as the norm.
It was within this context of self-sacrificial family life that a young man or woman’s vocation to the priesthood or religious life would have been formed. The young person therefore did not question the demand for a life of self-sacrifice; it was assumed that this was the foundation of a good life. The question, then, was which manner of sacrifice is best for the individual: Dying to self through marriage and family, or dying to self through a religious vocation?
Now, because of artificial contraception, the whole underlying assumptions and expectations about marriage have shifted. Marriage is no longer a way to give all, but a way to have it all. Therefore, when a young person today considers a religious vocation, they are not choosing between different paths of self-sacrifice; they are choosing between a life that seems to have it all and a life that seems to have nothing. They must choose between a home in the suburbs, 2.5 nice children, and a double income or total self denial. The choice is between a familiar form of hedonism or an inexplicable form of heroism.
Finally, a contraceptive culture is inherently sterile. When the marriage act is open to life and is creative, it shows that self-giving is the way of life and fruitfulness. This re-echoes in the search for religious vocation for a young person. If they have seen within marriage that self-giving obedience to the Church and personal sacrifice bring forth abundant fruit and new life, then they will understand implicitly that the religious vocation — with its own set of sacrifices — is also, implicitly, a life of fruitfulness and joy.
Could it be, therefore, that one of the solutions to the vocations crisis is better marriage preparation? At every opportunity — in marriage preparation, RCIA, and all forms of catechesis — the true understanding of the sacrament of marriage must be explained, expounded, and extolled. In the face of a culture that overwhelmingly assumes that marriage is an opportunity for self-fulfillment, we must remember that to be a Christian means we must take up our cross and follow Christ. At every opportunity, we must be reminded that the way to the abundant life is through service to others, and we must therefore never forget that marriage is for giving, not for getting. We must rediscover the deep wisdom of Humane Vitae, for at the heart of a self-sacrificial marriage must be the mutual self-giving and creativity of the marriage act.
Once young people who are searching for their vocation come to realize that they must decide to either die to self through marriage or die to self through a religious vocation, they will not only become far more realistic about marriage, but they will also view the religious life in a more attractive light.