I recently ran into a few moms who have large families. (By “large”, I mean families with 5+ children, even though society is saying that anything over 2 children is “huge”.) The kids of these were playing around, but still under the watchful eye of mom and dad. These families, often criticized as ignorant or sexually imprudent, caused me to pause and reflect on the Church’s teaching on family matters.
First of all, I went to the Church’s document on human life, “Humanae Vitae” (1968). This document had a prophetic nature, in that many of the predictions Pope Paul VI made, have come to pass. Furthermore, this document was rejected when it was first published. Recall that the promulgation was on the very cusp of the so-called “sexual revolution”. There, in paragraph 10 I read: “With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” At first glance it would appear that the Church, in her wisdom, is letting parents space the births of their children for many reasons. But is this the case? The answer comes a few lines later, when the Pope clearly states that, “In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.” (HV 10). Here we find the need to order priorities correctly.
As a newly married woman, I have had many conversations with my husband about our future family. We kept coming back to the same seeming roadblocks; we have not bought a house yet, we have one full-time income, we are just getting used to living as a couple, and so on. At one point we both stopped and looked at each other. I could tell that he and I had just realized the same thing: we were falling into the secular trap. These things are important, but they are not priorities. In going back to “Humanae Vitae”, we realized that our first priority must be the love of God, and the desire to fulfill His holy will for our married life. We started praying, asking the Lord that His will be done. The Lord is first in our relationship, and then comes the love of each other (in Christ, of course). Suddenly all the worries, questions, and “what-ifs” seemed ordered. What constitutes a “serious” reason for spacing children will look different in each couple’s life. One thing is constant, and that is the primacy of God’s will.
In reality, there will never be a “perfect time” to have kids. Financial worries, socio-economic status, possessions and so on will never be enough. It is very easy to always find yet another reason to not have children. Children do require time and money, but what is a child? From the very first moment of conception, a child is a human being who is beloved by God. The USCCB (United States Catholic Conference of Bishops) reminds us that, “Procreation, Scripture teaches, is a gift from God (Gen. 1:28). When spouses conceive new life, they participate in the Lord God’s creative power. This is an awesome privilege and sacred responsibility!” The Lord gives this little miracle to a couple when He wills it. There is nothing moral a couple can do to make it happen or prevent it from happening. Anything that would directly prevent (e.g. contraceptives, the pill, abortion, etc.) or unnaturally cause a pregnancy is immoral (e.g. in vetro fertilization, “test tube” babies, etc). At this point, the question of natural family planning (NFP) comes up, since the Church allows and even encourages it. Is it moral?
Natural family planning is a method used by many couples to achieve or avoid pregnancy, but it is not synonymous with contraception. This method uses the natural cycle of a woman’s body to help predict when conception is most likely to occur. There are several programs, and each suggests slightly different ways of charting a cycle. There are actually only a few days in which a woman is fertile, and couples who are hoping to space their children can abstain on these days. Even though the success rate is high, these methods do not use any form of contraceptive devices or pills; they simply rely on symptoms a woman experiences naturally during her cycle. As such, NFP remains open to the possibility of life, if God wills it. NFP permits a couple to responsibly and prudently discern when to have or not have conjugal relations while always remaining open to life. And therein lies the major difference: contraception (contra=against) directly prevents conception, whereas NFP helps a couple to know when to abstain or not abstain. God not only designed us with a sexual nature. That would be a monstrosity of humanity, which would be guided by unchecked urges. God saw that with this precious gift of sexuality, an intellect was also needed. He gave us the gift of an intellect, but it is up to us to form that intellect. No one is born with all the knowledge he/she needs for the rest of their life. Just so, no one is born with the wisdom it takes to prudently govern his/her sexuality according to the will of God and one’s state in life (e.g. married vs. single). This is called chastity.
And so I return to my opening quetison: are these families ignorant or imprudent? No, they are not. In reality, these families, and any family that follows the Church’s teaching on sexual morality (regardless of number of children), is a shining beacon of hope for us. Seeing families with many children should not stir condemnation in our hearts, but rather admiration and support. These families are raising up a new generation of Catholics in an age when the average American family is not having children at the replacement level. We should be honored to know them, and proud to stand by them in trials! The parents of these large families are often living a sacrificial life to a heroic level. It is a privilege to have children, but it is also a cross. Christ taught us to take up our cross and follow him. Catholicism is not for wimps. It is for strong individuals who are humble enough to be educated and molded in the teaching of the Church, and who conform their lives to this teaching. Many couples long to have children, and are unable to. These couples witness to the beauty of the Church’s teaching in a hidden way. I think of them as the contemplatives, who (like their religious counterparts) strengthen the church through prayer and hidden acts of obedience. Each married couple is called to carry the cross together; in marriage they were made one. This cross comes in different forms, but with the sacrifice it entails there is always a great blessing. Many pre-marriage courses fail to impart this important message on young engaged couples. The cross is real, and it comes in different forms. Children are a blessing, but the sacrifices required to raise them up to be saints can often be a cross. That is why the Lord gave us many gifts, among which are our intellect and our sexuality.
My husband and I have started a new habit. Whenever we see a family with many children, or a pregnant woman, or a couple with a tiny infant, we thank them for having a children. They often look at us quizzically, baffled by our remark. Then their first confusion melts into a smile, and I can tell that they understand. They have done something counter-cultural. They have brought forth life with the help of God Almighty. They are in the presence of a miracle, and sometimes it just takes someone else’s “thank you” to remember that the cross is a blessing.