On this blog we often talk about family size and the low – below replacement – fertility rate many countries are experiencing. Pope Francis has recently made comments about family size which have made headlines around the world. Many things he says seem to do so, which is no surprise given his status as the leader of the Catholic Church and the respect that the world, including the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, give to that position. However, the media spin on his comments and the sentences that are ‘cherry picked’ out do often cause his meaning to be distorted, as does a lack of background in Catholic theological teachings on the part of readers.
As a 30 year old Catholic in the midst of having a family, I can say that I have never considered that Church teaching compels me to have a large family. Yes, marriage must be open to life and children by its very definition. Yes, having a child is the most amazing miracle I will likely ever take part in and an incredible gift. However, there are many reasons in my view that a couple may consider that it is not now a good time to have another child. The Vatican translation of the 1968 document, Humanae Vitae, itself a restatement of the Church’s longstanding teaching (originally in Latin) is as follows:
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.
It is indeed serious to consider that you would never have another child because this would mean a closed mind to what God might want of you forever into the future. However, in the present, the teaching emphasises a balance between generosity and prudence, which is what the Pope was commenting on. Couples must be open to what God wants of them as individuals, and that will have huge variance from couple to couple given personal circumstances.
In saying that, a sacrificial spirit is also a huge part of Catholic teaching. For some, part of that call might well be taking on the challenging and self-sacrificing task of raising many virtuous citizens through providing for a large family. I have nothing but admiration for mothers of large families – they are normally such beautiful, happy people who really are laying down their lives for others every day. That’s not to say that that is everyone’s calling.
There are some Catholics who need to be reassured that they are not compelled to keep on having children without regard to their circumstances – perhaps they misunderstand this teaching and the Pope wishes to clarify it in order to help and guide them. He does not only focus on the West after all! Here in the West, where fertility rates are worryingly low, some might need to focus a bit less on the material and a bit more on generosity. Again though, I hasten to add that we are not in any position to judge any individual family’s decision about how many children is right for them – but we can analyze trends as a whole.