We have no wish at all to pass over in silence the difficulties, at times very great, which beset the lives of Christian married couples. For them, as indeed for every one of us, “the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life.” —Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae
Earlier this month, Richard Becker published an essay in Crisis on financial guru Dave Ramsey. The occasion for Becker’s article was a phone call to Ramsey’s radio show from Karen, a mother of seven whose family was struggling with out-of-control debt. Ramsey told her that getting family finances back under control is much more difficult when “you choose to have seven children.” “It’s not a criticism,” said Ramsey, “it’s just a mathematical fact.” He also said that the family’s size will inevitably “slow them down” as they battle to escape their debt. Nevertheless, he insisted that Karen and her husband work hard to get their money under control, and not use the size of their family as “an excuse” to be irresponsible. Becker’s response was respectful, orthodox and well-written. He presented himself and Ramsey as differing more in emphasis than in good will, and I’m sure Mr. Becker won’t mind if I for my part make a case for tipping the scale of emphasis back in Ramsey’s direction. Becker was “blunt” enough about his point: While Ramsey is “all the rage” among Christians, his advice is “not for childbearing Catholic couples who take the teaching of the Church seriously.”
As a young Catholic couple, my fiancée and I take Catholic teaching very seriously, which is precisely why we take Dave Ramsey’s advice. Since I proposed to Carey, she and I have looked for what good counsel we could find. We get the bedrock stuff from Catholic encyclicals. But when it comes to applying Catholic principles in the concrete world, Ramsey has been our greatest help. Why? Because Ramsey emphasizes an aspect of Catholic teaching that is severely under-emphasized in Catholic circles: A moral duty for couples to contribute to society instead of taking from it.
Gaudium et Spes emphasizes the integrity and value of marriages during the hard times when conception should be avoided. When the family finances are in disarray, a prudent concern for “the welfare of the children” demands “that the mutual love of the spouses be embodied in a rightly ordered manner.” At times like these, couples may decide to delay the conception of a child, despite their “often intense desire.” Casti Connubii praises this effort as “virtuous continence.” The same encyclical denounces the self-excusing claim by some couples that “they cannot on the one hand remain continent (practice NFP) nor on the other can they have children because of the difficulties whether on the part of the mother or on the part of family circumstances,” such as unmanageable family debt. In the eyes of the Church, you can’t have it both ways. Couples must decide whether “family circumstances” allow for another child. If not, then nothing will do but the “virtuous continence” of NFP.
Getting engaged doesn’t mean signing up for a honeymoon cruise away from the madding crowd of society. As much as Carey and I would like to simply bask in the glories of Catholic marriage, the task in front of us involves a lot of planning for the future—and planning isn’t fun. We can hardly wait to have a child (we’re already arguing and laughing over names!). But Humanae Vitae teaches us to weigh the “economic” and “social conditions” that might keep us from getting what we long for just as soon as we would like. If we shirk this marital responsibility—in defiance to the Church—then there will be a price to pay. And most importantly: we won’t be the only ones to pay it. According to Humanae Vitae, to treat our marriage imprudently would be to fail not just ourselves, but our family, Our Lord, and the common good of society.
From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator.
And how are we to determine God’s will? According to Humanae Vitae, we must use the means that God has given us: Reason and free-will.
The self-discipline, will-power and prudence that Ramsey advises are hardly “all the rage” in this generation, and Catholics are not exempt from the cultural influences that downplay “responsible parenthood.” The very same corruption that is leading secular society to ruin has also infected the Catholic subculture. This corruption is characterized by an avoidance of responsibilities, an emphasis on rights, and a belittling of the public virtues taught by the Catholic Church and encouraged by Dave Ramsey. Couples like me and Carey are not only up against an anti-family secular culture, but also a Catholic culture that celebrates our right to have a family while giving us no guidance in the very aspect of our family that the secular world attacks: The duties that family entails.
In fact, we Christians have a pitfall all our own in taking rhetorical recourse to Grace (“God will provide!”), and testing God at the very moments when He may wish to test us. Just as secular hedonism leans heavily on outside forces to supply one’s base desires, so Catholic couples are tempted by this age to “throw caution to the wind,” and to put their families’ welfare in their neighbors’ hands. Catholic authors often promise that this approach allows us more freedom in pursuing the holy vocation to transmit life. But in the end, this promise is a trap. When incautious families fall on hard times, they can lose control of what God entrusts first of all to them and not to WIC and Medicare, or even to their local parishes or parents. We have a duty to give to society a morally upright example that contributes to the common good. We do not have a right to demand material goods from society in order to feed our own imprudence.
There are perhaps wealthy Catholics, or Catholics who live in exceptionally healthy communities, who do not understand what it is to be “poor” in today’s America. I do. I’m familiar with what might be called the “dependent class,” a large group that should be distinguished from the hungry and the homeless. These dependents don’t lack food and warm clothing, roofs over their heads, running water or even healthcare. What they do lack is the dignity and moral character that comes with being free and contributing members of society. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate, we must respect “personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others.” This respect for the subsidiary duties of the family is a protection against what he called “any all-encompassing welfare state.” When people are relieved of their duties, it is only a matter of time before they are deprived of their rights.
As we approach marriage, Carey and I dread the thought of putting our family in danger of losing its dignity. So we make plans. And Dave Ramsey helps us. He recognizes what is at stake; the welfare, not only of our family, but of society. He also understands that this welfare is not only a material right, but a moral duty. Ramsey is one of the few voices who encourages young Catholic couples to live sober and upright lives, and we believe he should be cherished by Catholics and imitated by catechists.