“Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money … if what you want to do is make a lot of money.”
~ Mr. Bernstein, Citizen Kane (1941)
Dave Ramsey is all the rage, especially among Christians. His Financial Peace University seminars are regularly advertised at churches, and his books are bestsellers at Christian bookstores. I’ve no doubt Dave has helped lots and lots of folks, and his no-nonsense approach to money is both refreshing and reasonable.
But I’ll be blunt: Dave Ramsey’s system is not for Catholics—or, rather, it’s not for childbearing Catholic couples who take the teaching of the Church seriously. At least that’s what we found out.
Several years back, we read through the Total Money Makeover and made a valiant attempt to implement its recommendations—baby steps, emergency fund, tight budgets, debt snowball, the whole shebang. We even had a family celebration when we let the kids cut up all our credit cards. Somewhere in the recesses of one of our discarded hard drives there’s a snapshot of the kids surrounding a cake decorated with Visa and MasterCard and other plastic fragments. (We meant to send the picture to Dave, but never quite got around to it.)
Anyway, for a brief time—an extremely brief time—we were debt-free, except for the mortgage. We had become “gazelle intense,” in Ramsey parlance, and we were on the road to becoming totally debt-free! But then God blessed us with another baby. And then another. Suddenly, our “financial peace” went out the window, and we were scrambling to replace those shredded credit cards. I can surmise what Dave would’ve told us if we’d contacted him during that period because of the advice he gave “Karen” on his show a while back. A mother of seven, Karen called in to ask if Ramsey’s approach could work for her big family. Dave’s reply is revealing:
The program doesn’t change one ounce. What does change is—and you already knew this long before you met Dave Ramsey—when you choose to have seven children, that is called a lot of financial burden. It’s not a criticism; it’s just a mathematical fact.
You’re not going to be fleet of foot and run from the cheetah because you’re carrying too much.
Ah, there’s the rub—and in two parts. First, the Church teaches us that whenever a husband and wife engage in marital intimacy—every time—they must remain open to having another baby. Pope Paul VI famously clarified this for the “free love” generation in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae:
The Church … in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.
In other words, contra Ramsey, Catholic couples with lots of kids don’t always choose it that way—we can’t! Dave’s whole approach is based on planning, and you simply can’t plan when you don’t use birth control, because God always gets a say.
Contrary to popular belief, Humanae Vitae wasn’t new stuff, and Paul VI wasn’t just seeking to put the brakes on twentieth-century Catholic libido. Instead, the Pope had merely updated the Church’s articulation of ancient Christian proscriptions regarding birth control, much as Pius XI had done for a previous generation in Casti Connubii (1930). The reiterations of this most counter-cultural of doctrines go back a long way, and emanate from all branches of the Christian family tree.
And it is still the teaching of the Church today, no matter how many Catholic couples choose to ignore it. The Church isn’t naïve—everybody knows that Catholics contracept at the same rate as non-Catholics—but the truth is the truth, even when it’s inconvenient. In fact, Humanae Vitae itself was addressed to “all men of good will,” not just Catholics. It enshrines a glorious reality that’s lost in our sex-obsessed world: namely, sex is about babies. It was designed that way.
That leads to the second part of the tension between the Church and Ramsey—illustrated by his reference to larger families being slowed down because they’re “carrying too much.” Carrying too much? What, like too much consumption? Too much drain on cash flow? Too much, maybe, humanness? From the Church’s point of view, slowing down in this sense is the whole point.
Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, reflected on this in a recent essay about the pastoral care of families:
Today’s mentality is largely opposed to the Christian understanding of marriage, with regard to … its openness to children. Because many Christians are influenced by this … there is a lack of desire for marriage in accordance with Catholic teaching, and there is too little socialization within an environment of faith.
Note that Müller simultaneously diagnoses the problem among Catholics (ignoring Church teaching) and its etiology (inordinate influence from an anti-life culture). Like the broader culture, Ramsey promotes building wealth and seeking the “good life,” although, admittedly, he’s encouraging a more prudent, rational approach than most. Still, once wealth and the good life are the goals, then children become columns on a ledger sheet instead of irreplaceable, infinitely valuable images of the Divine. Nothing adds more “wealth” to a family than another child, no matter what the amortization tables say.
A similar idea cropped up in a WSJ interview with Alan Greenspan of all people, the former Fed chairman. Originally a dedicated numbers guy, Greenspan changed his tune after being challenged by none other than objectivist Ayn Rand:
Mr. Greenspan then believed in analysis based mainly on hard science and empirical facts. Rand told him that unless he considered human nature and its irrational side, he would “miss a very large part of how human beings behaved.”
That seems to be a pretty accurate picture of the tension between Ramsey’s approach to family finances and the Church’s approach to family: Ramsey posits planning and control that revolves around money, whereas the Church advocates abandonment and surrender revolving around generous openness to new life—something that doesn’t always make sense on the spreadsheet. And, like it or not, that abandonment, surrender, and generosity can’t be budgeted for nor planned. It’s not math; it’s more like falling in love.
Even the Pew Research Center gets this, as demonstrated in their study on parents and kids. “When it comes to feeling happy,” the study concludes, “time with children … beats time at work.” Does this create a paradox for those trying to follow the Ramsey way? You bet! Dave would have those parents out working a second job in order to pare down their debt and work toward a life of leisure in the future. But what does our gut tell us? Second or third job? Naah. Instead, follow Pope Francis’ advice: “Waste time with your children.” And, indeed, welcome another child while you’re at it—the more the merrier!
Irresponsible, you say? Imprudent? Perhaps. But you can’t plan for every contingency, and since Catholics—i.e., Catholics who choose to follow the teaching of the Church forbidding contraception—can’t exactly plan ahead anyway, why not throw caution to the wind, and lean heavily on the Providence of God. If He decides to bless you with another child, then it’s His problem to help you make ends meet.
Besides, there’s no capital like human capital. “Openness to life is at the center of true development,” says the Pope, because, among other things, life-oriented families are where the vulnerable, the weak, and the fragile are protected and supported.
And money? Will I sound terribly juvenile and foolish to assert my confidence that God will provide? He will, although it’s certainly not likely to materialize in a form akin to ones neighbors. Relative poverty, in material terms, is bearable when one is surrounded by a riotous brood.
Besides, even the high priests of the Dave Ramsey realm side with the Church when it comes to the relative value of having more kids—like when an article on Humanae Vitae in the Business Insider last year stated: “Human progress is people.” The authors even went on to assert that it is “a good idea for people to be fruitful and multiply.”
Hmmm. Sounds like God in Genesis. Did He mention anything about a budget?
Editor’s note: This essay and other writings by Mr. Becker can be found on his blog “One Thousand Words a Week.”