I remember well Whitney Houston singing on the radio when I was a kid, “I believe the children are our future; teach them well and let them lead the way.” And I didn’t just hear this sentiment from pop culture. I heard it plenty of times in church, too: “You kids are the church of tomorrow! You’re the future!” This is why I was so struck by something the priest said at the Mass we attended last Sunday outside Orlando while we were on vacation. At this particular Mass, the parish’s candidates for Confirmation were recognized and prayed for. This was great to witness in and of itself, and the priest had many good things to say to the candidates and to the congregation in general about the sacrament of Confirmation and the need for continual conversion. The thing he said to the teenaged men and women Confirmation candidates that really stood out for me, however, was this: “You are not the Church of the future—you are the Church of today.”
The priest’s message to the young people of his parish was dramatically different from what I got as a kid. For me at least, being told that I was the “future” meant that my “present” really didn’t matter all that much. And the effect of this, I think, is similar to the effect Nikki discussed in her last post of telling mothers that they simply have to endure the “present” of motherhood to get back to “real life” again at some point in the future: it’s demoralizing and corrosive. It’s demoralizing because telling a kid they’re “the future” means there’s something incomplete about them right now and implies that they’re somehow less than full people worthy of respect at this moment. It’s corrosive because the teenage years are difficult ones, full of all sorts of nasty temptations that can set a kid going down the wrong road, and telling them they’re the “future” makes it sound like they don’t have to worry about the call to holiness until they’re grown-up “real” people.
Now, I certainly can’t claim that there aren’t any Catholics who talk of kids as “the future.” There may very well be lots of Catholics who use that silly language. But Catholicism does not lend itself to talking of children in this manner as easily as Protestantism does. I believe there are several reasons for this, but here I’m just going to talk about one: the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception.
Keeping artificial contraception on the table as a morally acceptable choice necessarily means that a fertile couple is in complete, 100% control of if and when they conceive children, just like they’re in complete, 100% control of if and when they buy a new dog or a new car. Speaking from my own experience as having at one time believed it was OK to use artificial contraception, I can now see that this belief of mine very much bled into how I viewed children. And it meant that it was easy for me to see a new child as more like a new dog or a new car than like me. Certainly, they weren’t “full” people. If they were “full” people with value independent of whether I “wanted” them or not at a particular moment, that would suggest there was something wrong with using artificial contraception to begin with. So, once a child was born, it was easy to relegate their significance to the “future”—when they would be like me and could “control” things themselves.
When it comes down to it, the contraceptive mindset is all about control, and it’s based on the premise that the very essence of being an adult or being a “full” person (as I’ve been using that term here) is the ability to control things—such as your own fertility, your own bank account, your own car, etc. And isn’t that what all the talk of the “future” church is about, too? When people say things like that, what they really mean is, “You young people will get to run this someday. Isn’t that exciting?” That, of course, rests on the notion that there’s something really, really, really special (and superior)about getting to control stuff. We know where that notion comes from, though, (don’t we?), and it’s not good: “But the snake said to the woman, . . . ‘[Y]ou will be like gods.’”