I’m posting this column reprint as a followup to my “Why Stop at Two” post of a few weeks ago. In that post, I talked about why we’ve chosen to have a big family; this post focuses on the Catholic Church’s teachings on family size. This was too long for the East Tennessee Catholic in this form; it was condensed and split into two columns which appeared, I believe, in early 2009.
“God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth’”(Genesis 1:28).
You know He said it, but what did He mean?
A few months ago I told you why we have chosen to have a “big Catholic family.” Today I am making good on my promise to write on what the Church says about family size.
To be honest, though, I am humbled by the task I’ve set myself. It’s already been done, you see, much better than I could ever do it and by scholars with much more authority than I. But you’ve probably never read Gaudium et Spes, have you? Or Familaris Consortio? How about Humanae Vitae or Evangelium Vitae? If you’re in a Renew group, you’ve at least read some of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but we haven’t gotten to this part yet.
I’m not criticizing you, although I think it’s a shame, and I hope that Catholic educators today are doing a better job of getting some of this material into the hands of high school students. Even though I minored in Theology at a Catholic university it was only by accident that I ended up in a Christian Marriage class where some of this material was required. I’ve been fortunate since that my work with the Diocesan Respect Life Committee and with this column have led me to delve deeper into the writings that explain the doctrines Catholics profess to believe. I hope after reading just the small sampling I provide here that you might be tempted to go further, to be inspired as I have been by the Church’s vision of marriage and family–it’s so much more than the secular version.
Here’s the crucial point for most of you: The Catholic Church does not require or even suggest that you forgo all forms of birth spacing or regulation in order to bear as many children as physically possible throughout your reproductive years. Surprisingly, that’s actually an Evangelical Protestant idea–a minority idea–called the “Quiverfull Movement.”
This movement springs from Psalm 127:3-5: “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; They will not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.” Its adherents, mostly U.S. conservatives, believe in receiving as many children as possible as blessings from God, rejecting even Natural Family Planning.
Now the Catechism of the Catholic Church does say that “Sacred Scripture and the Church’s traditional practice see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity” (2373). But it also says, “For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children” (2368). In Gaudium et Spes we read that “certain modern conditions often keep couples from arranging their married lives harmoniously, and . . . they find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased”(51). This is further clarified in Humanae Vitae: “Responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth”(10).
The problem is that many people hop on the “It’s okay to limit births,” part of the message without paying attention to the “grave motives” and “moral law” part. This is NOT okay: “In the task of transmitting life . . . they are not free to proceed completely at will, as if they could determine in a wholly autonomous way the honest path to follow; but they must conform their activity to the creative intention of God, expressed in the very nature of marriage and of its acts, and manifested by the constant teaching of the Church . . . If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier” (HV 15-16). “It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood” (CCC 2368).
So, to simplify: Catholic couples are called to cooperate with God in the transmission of life, being as generous as their particular circumstances allow, limiting births only by the use of natural methods and for suitably serious reasons.
This casts it all in such a negative light, though! Listen to what some of these documents have to say about the meaning and the function of marriage and family in God’s plan: “Called to give life, spouses share in the creative power and fatherhood of God” (CCC 2367). “Spouses, as parents, cooperate with God the Creator in conceiving and giving birth to a new human being . . . God himself is present in human fatherhood and motherhood . . . In procreation, therefore, through the communication of life from parents to child, God’s own image and likeness is transmitted, thanks to the creation of the immortal soul. . . . in their role as co-workers with God . . . we see the greatness of couples who are ready ‘to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Saviour, who through them will enlarge and enrich his own family day by day’ . . . Thus, a man and woman joined in matrimony become partners in a divine undertaking: through the act of procreation, God’s gift is accepted and a new life opens to the future” (Evangelium Vitae 43).
“Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents . . . All should be persuaded that human life and the task of transmitting it are not realities bound up with this world alone. Hence they cannot be measured or perceived only in terms of it, but always have a bearing on the eternal destiny of men”(GS 50-51). “Conjugal love . . . does not end with the couple, because it makes them capable of the greatest possible gift, the gift by which they become cooperators with God for giving life to a new human person. . . .Their parental love is called to become for the children the visible sign of the very love of God . . .Christian marriage and the Christian family build up the Church: for in the family the human person is not only brought into being and progressively introduced by means of education into the human community, but by means of the rebirth of baptism and education in the faith the child is also introduced into God’s family, which is the Church. . . . The commandment to grow and multiply, given to man and woman in the beginning, in this way reaches its whole truth and full realization” (Familiaris Consortio 14-15).
If you were married in a Catholic ceremony you answered “yes” to the following question: “Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” Chances are when you promised that you did not really understand any more than I did what it really meant. Now that you have read just a little of the teachings that inspired the question, I hope you might prayerfully consider whether that longing you’ve sometimes felt for “just one more” might be the voice of God.