Pope Francis got himself into trouble with the commentariat last week for some things he said during his January 5 audience that were critical of married couples who decide against having children. “Many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they [intentionally] just have one – but they have two dogs, two cats [that] take the place of children…. this denial of fatherhood and motherhood diminishes us, takes away humanity.” Many resented the pope’s description of them as selfish, citing economic, professional, and environmental concerns as rationales to not have children. In spite of this, why does Pope Francis reemphasize the perennial Church teaching about marriage, that procreation is a great good?
The philosopher Christopher Kaczor, who teaches philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, wrote an article a few months ago in Church Life Journal entitled: “Do Children Contribute to the Flourishing of Their Parents?” In it, he points out that some married couples see procreation and the raising of children as just one lifestyle option among many. The hedonistic mindset, which resents perceived restraints on personal autonomy, “regards marriage with suspicion and children with even greater suspicion. Human flourishing, according to this view, involves lots of sex, drugs, drinking, and lack of suffering…. Here contraception is not just an option but an obligation.” In contrast, he notes, the Second Vatican Council reminds us that “marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents” (Gaudium et Spes, 50).
Kaczor argues that this is true in many ways. Children are living reminders of their parents’ loving union in holy matrimony. They are also a lot of work, which fosters marital friendship and a shared emotional life, giving husbands and wives countless opportunities to recommit themselves to their marital promises of lifelong love, honor, and fidelity. Kaczor also notes that couples who follow Church teaching, eschewing contraception in favor of fertility awareness methods or Natural Family Planning to space pregnancies, are likely (though not always) going to have a larger family. “If a couple has a larger family, they will almost certainly have a larger share of the emotional highs and lows that accompany having any children. Having children adds something radically new to one’s life, an unconditional commitment of love to this particular person until death… Although no explicit vow is made to the child, good parents have an unbreakable commitment to each child that reflects the unconditional commitment of the marriage vow, in its turn a visible sign of the invisible reality of God’s irrevocable love for each of us.”
Pope Francis is often harsh in his criticism of contemporary culture, which obsesses over personal autonomy, self-creation, and control over one’s circumstances. It’s because he knows that the good life is found in the sacrifices that, in marriage, come with children lovingly accepted from God, which bring with them frequent feelings of helplessness as well as countless occasions to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. At the same time, we must be mindful that many couples struggle with infertility, so we must never make uncharitable judgments about personal situations we know nothing about. Moreover, we must reexamine the way our society has evolved, with families facing greater financial pressures (health care, education, housing) and less support from shrinking and dispersed extended families. These things make having larger families more difficult, and reinforce the hedonism that is blind to what is truly best in life, thereby diminishing us and making us less humane.