This is the final column in a six-part series on Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s profound and heroic 1968 encyclical. The series’ introduction is here. The question of “responsible parenthood” as the Church defines it is taken up here. Questions about the unitive and procreative meanings of sex and why they should not be separated are discussed here. Questions of conscience are taken up here. How NFP and contraception are radically different is discussed here.
In this column, we will turn to the question of whether American Catholic spouses should aim for large families.
AS MANY AS THEY CAN HAVE?
As we have seen, the Church does not teach that married couples have a moral obligation to produce as many children as they can. In our modern age, she encourages responsible parenthood. This can mean limiting family size using moral means.
Certainly in many places in the third world it is not hard to imagine couples who can have good reasons, grave reasons, to limit their family size. These reasons can include poverty, disease, lack of access to education, severely inadequate housing, obligations to already living family members, and so on.
However, the Church is also always on the side of generosity and fertility. After all, God did say, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gn 1:28). As the Vatican II Constitution Gaudium et Spes puts it, “Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents” (§50). Being prolife and optimistic, the Church views children as a great blessing to herself, the spouses, their families, their communities, and the world.
IS AMERICA A THIRD-WORLD NATION?
Are there good reasons for us to consider not smaller but larger families? The supposed reasons why people should not have children in third world countries do not exist in America, except in special cases. Do we face famines? Have no access to medical care? Live in shantytowns? Scrounge for clean water? Have no schools to educate our kids? No. Even poor Americans enjoy luxuries middle class people in developing countries dream of. So, except in individual cases, there are no negative general reasons Catholic couples could decide not to have large families, except that people might say nasty things about us.
And there are positive reasons Catholic couples could decide to try to have large families. The operative word here is try. Remember, it is never totally up to us: Our fertility and God also must say yes to each child.
Because of the opportunities that exist in America and the leadership that America enjoys around the world, our Catholic children have a lot to offer the world in the future. Our numerous Catholic children can have a disproportionately positive effect on the rest of the world through their optimism, competence, and sense of service—that is, if we have them and help them develop these qualities.
In addition, the surest way we Catholics can overcome the culture of death is by having children. People who are for life have children; those who embrace the culture of death do not. The pessimists will not pass on their views to the next generation, but we Catholics will transmit our own positive ones. By choosing to allow each of our marital acts to be open to life, which in the normal course of things means having children, we will also be witnesses to life against the culture of death.
In his 1947 landmark study Family and Civilization, American sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman persuasively argued that couples who marry, stay married, have children, and go through the hard work of supporting and educating them have been the backbone of every civilization which has ever existed. This is true even if other people don’t recognize what we are doing and if they call us irresponsible and a drag on society for having a bunch of kids. In reality, when the babies we have now grow up, they will be providing the services that people who refuse to have children will need.
To reiterate, this does not mean that Catholic couples have to have large families. It does not even mean that they will have large families if they want to.
BENEFITS OF A LARGE FAMILY
But what are some of the benefits for us, Catholic spouses?
One benefit is the knowledge, as mentioned above, that we are providing a real service to society. In our generosity and self-sacrifice we have a better chance to produce children who will themselves be generous and sacrificing rather than seeing the world as the venue for their own self-gratification.
A second benefit of having a large family for us is that it will increase the likelihood that we will have children who will take care of us and love us when we are old. A terrible problem today, one which will only grow over time, is that children who suffered through their parents’ rejecting each other through divorce are now in turn rejecting their parents who are old and needy.
A third benefit of having a large family is the way it increases our own sense of what I’ll call “dependent creatureliness”. To be married and have only one or two children in a modern, affluent society is relatively easy. You can get a false sense of your own efficacy. But when you get out there beyond your comfort zone, maybe with the third or fourth child, you begin to realize how inadequate you are to the task. You realize how much you need the help of your spouse and extended family, schools, larger civic organizations and society, the Church and the sacraments, and especially God. As our family size grows and each child grows older, our sense of how much we must rely on God only increases, since the actual society in which we live does little to support the family.
Creaturely dependence is something which people in past ages understood. It is something which people in much of the developing world today still understand. But it is something we have lost in this country because of our artificial lifestyle. Blessed are those who know their need for God. Catholic spouses who are generous in having children know this in their bones.
So, if this pertains to you, why not talk with your spouse about one more child?
© 2014. Kevin Aldrich. All rights reserved.