A funny thing happened on my way through the grocery store last week.
I was out with all three kids, navigating aisles and getting some staples. The cart we were using was shaped like a racecar—the kind that kids drive with fake steering wheels. The kids had their hands in a little bit of everything, and it was work to keep them sane while checking nutritional information on whole grain Goldfish.
When I was checking out, I pulled Lucy from the cockpit and saw a small plastic square package on the seat next to her.
I figured she had grabbed a piece of candy from a shelf as I was browsing for spaghetti noodles. I asked her what it was and she said she didn’t know. I picked it up and was shocked to find that it was a condom!
Foolishly, I asked in an even more commanding voice where she got this, and of course she didn’t know. I was stumped as to how it got there.
After checking out, it struck me. The label on the condom indicated that it was produced by Planned Parenthood as some sort of public service. Some confused soul saw me wrestling three kids in the store alone and figured I needed one. They must have tossed it in the basket while I had my back turned.
I felt judged and terribly misunderstood. The anonymity bothered me—I was the victim of a hit-and-run. I wanted to be able to respond to the person who had made so many assumptions about me; I wanted a serious conversation about fertility and generosity and family life.
I think I was offended most by the fact that it was unsolicited advice, especially coming from a Planned Parenthood advocate.
It got me to thinking, though, about advice and what sources of authority Stacey and I allow in our marriage. For many, I’m sure it would sound equally odd to take advice from a bunch of old, celibate men living in Rome.
Stacey and I have used Natural Family Planning for all of our married lives, and at root, that decision was based on what the Church teaches about human sexuality—that in addition to uniting husband and wife, the sexual act should always be open to new life. NFP uses proven methods to follow and interpret signs from the woman’s body to determine periods of fertility and infertility, and thus allows us to remain true to both of those ends.
Why would we prefer old, celibate men to Planned Parenthood when it comes to bedroom advice? Because the advice that comes from the old, celibate men in Rome also comes from young, celibate men in Ireland, and young, married women in the fourth century, and middle-aged bricklayers in France, and sixteenth-century Spanish farmers, among billions more—all of whom have found this kind of advice to be a reliable path towards holiness.
Church authority is articulated and protected by the hierarchy, yes, but it originates in the lives of the faithful, like you and me, who wrestle with the gospel in the particular circumstances of their lives. I see it coming much more from the “bottom-up” than from the “top-down.” When I consider that the generations who have gone before me have found in this authority authentic joy and happiness and communion with one other and with God, it is compelling to consider that advice for the wisdom it holds.
I don’t pretend to know every detail about how my car works, so when the family wagon needed new shocks and struts, I was happy to rely on the authority of the mechanics at the dealership. Why would I assert my independence over a much more complex reality such as human sexuality? Turning my back to the accumulated wisdom of generations just so I can have things my way sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Perhaps next time I go to the store, I’ll toss copies of “Married Love and the Gift of Life” into a few grocery baskets myself.