Stop Judging Someone By The Number Of Children They Have

Stop Judging Someone By The Number Of Children They Have July 19, 2018

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand (Rom. 14:3 RSV).

There is a misconception shared by many Catholics, and also to some degree with other Christians, that suggests that the quality of a person can be found in relation to the number of children they produce. Often, a married couple without children find themselves to be judged as being wanting in their walk of faith. Likewise, those with one child (or even a few), are treated with suspicion. Those who are elderly and single all their lives, without having had a family of their own, likewise are judged and considered to be abnormal, if not subnormal. All this is because of a belief that Christians are called to be “fruitful and multiply” by having as many children as is possible.

This is an odd sentiment, especially for Catholics who have a tradition not only of promoting the good of celibacy, but also of the good which could be found in abstaining from sexual relations in marriage (Josephite Marriages). There are saints, such as Sts. Julian and Basilissa, or Galactian and Episteme of Emesa, who were married, but made the choice to remain without children, indeed, to remain without sexual relations. Their willingness not to consummate their marriage was seen as something unusual, indeed, heroic about their lives, as they went against the grain for the sake of another calling. Social conventions which impose upon others a false “normalcy” end up hindering the quest for holiness, as those conventions become legalistic norms which others try to follow, whether or not they should. Those who are not seen as normal, who do not accept social conventions, often find themselves being told they should have no voice about the common good because they do engage society the same way as everyone else. Many women martyrs faced the full fury of such an ideological approach to society as they rejected calls to marriage, finding themselves executed by the state as a result. How can it be so many Catholics have failed to learn from these examples and have returned to the brutal judgmentalism which led to so many innocent women being put to death?

No one has to have children to be a good member of society. Indeed, no one needs to have children in order to have something to offer to society and to help society as a whole in its pursuit for the common good.  This is why it is very sad whenever there is some sort of ideological push to denigrate those without children, saying that their inexperience in sexual affairs makes them incapable of understanding what it takes to help those who have families, and therefore, unable to pursue the common good.Catholics should recognize the flaws of such arguments as they are often used to ridicule celibate priests, monks, and nuns. Whether or not someone has a family and children, they are still a part of society, and they should not be seen as subnormal or abnormal based upon an unjust generalization of what is “normal.” What is normal changes from culture to culture, society to society, ideology to ideology: some societies find it normal to be promiscuous; should they denounce anyone in monogamous marriages as abnormal and unworthy of a voice?

Marriage is a good, and having a children is a possible good in marriage. It is a way for society to continue, as St. Augustine understood. But he also pointed out it is a limited, that is relative good; there are times in which it is not as important:

Now this propagation of children which among the ancient saints was a most bounden duty for the purpose of begetting and preserving a people for God, among whom the prophecy of Christ’s coming must needs have had precedence over everything, now has no longer the same necessity. For from among all nations the way is open for an abundant offspring to receive spiritual regeneration, from whatever quarter they derive their natural birth. So that we may acknowledge that the scripture which says there is “a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing,” is to be distributed in its clauses to the periods before Christ and since. The former was the time to embrace, the latter to refrain from embracing.[1]

With billions of humans living in the world today, there is no need to double, or triple its size, by expecting families to produce large numbers of children. There is no need for everyone to have a child of their own. If the population is reduced in size, society is not going to fall apart and collapse. In actuality, it will help undo some of the burdens overpopulation places on the environment.  The problems associated with overpopulation are real; while it might not be a problem everywhere, for now, Gaudium et spes indicated that “in certain parts of the world problems resulting from population growth are generating concern.”[2]

St. Augustine would have no problem in saying in such situations, it is a time to” refrain from embracing,” and that those who do should not be considered abnormal or less than normal because they somehow did not “experience” what others have experienced in relation to procreation and raising a family.  Indeed, following St. Paul, he suggested that there are times in which married men should act as if they had no wives, that is, to have to marital relations, because in doing so, they can focus on what is good and true, following God:

And thus to some extent he explains what he had already said: “Let them that have wives be as though they had none.” For they who have wives in such a way as to care for the things of the Lord, how they may please the Lord, without having any care for the things of the world in order to please their wives, are, in fact, just as if they had no wives. And this is effected with greater ease when the wives, too, are of such a disposition, because they please their husbands not merely because they are rich, because they are high in rank, noble in race, and amiable in natural temper, but because they are believers, because they are religious, because they are chaste, because they are good men.[3]

St. Ambrose would find it odd that so many Catholics treat procreation is superior to virginity, and that anyone would be judged because they have no children. Marriage, he said is good, but virginity he thought was better. “Marriage is good: through it the means of human continuity are found. But virginity is better: through it are attained the inheritance of a heavenly kingdom and a continuity of heavenly rewards”.[4] Ambrose promoted a change in society to promote such virginity, to recognize those who followed such a pursuit as being worthy leaders in society.

There are some, likewise, who find themselves promoting “large families” as a way to protect “society” from “outside invasion,” that is, out of xenophobic fear of the other. This is especially the case in Europe, where so many racists decry the “death” of Europe because family sizes are shrinking while foreigners have larger families. Those who do not have large families are treated as traitors, but it is those making these arguments who have betrayed humanity.  Europe will die out, not because of an influx of foreigners, but by a rejection of the common good; if it embraces these xenophobic ideologies them then it will deserve to die out as it is judged for its rejection of what is good.

Christians need to stop judging fellow Christians for the size of their families. So long as someone follows the common good, and embraces with fidelity the teachings of Christ, they are God’s servant and the judgment should be left up to God. No one should compare their family with others, thinking that if they have less children than others, they are somehow unfaithful to God: God does not call all to have large families, indeed, God does not call everyone to have a family. Being without children should not be treated as a thing of suspicion. It isn’t. There is a time and place for children, which is good, but there is also the time and place for some to have few or no children, especially in a world in which overpopulation is a problem. Family planning does not have to be seen as a bad thing, indeed, Gaudium et spec suggested that governments even have a right and duty to deal with the problems of population so long as the means is just:

Governments undoubtedly have rights and duties, within the limits of their proper competency, regarding the population problem in their respective countries, for instance, in the line of social and family life legislation, or regarding the migration of country-dwellers to the cities, or with respect to information concerning the condition and needs of the country. Since men today are giving thought to this problem and are so greatly disturbed over it, it is desirable in addition that Catholic specialists, especially in the universities, skillfully pursue and develop studies and projects on all these matters.[5]

Instead of treating families, indeed, secular life as a “one size fits all” model, we must recognize the diversity which is to be found in the human experience, with everyone having something to share and add to the common good.


[IMG= San Lucas Polyptych by  Andrea Mantegna [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons]

[1] St. Augustine, “On Marriage and Concupiscence. Book I”  in NPNF1(5): 269.

[2] Gaudium et Spes. Vatican Translation. ¶47.

[3] St. Augustine, “On Marriage and Concupiscence. Book I”  in NPNF1(5): 270,

[4] St. Ambrose, “Letter 44” in St. Ambrose Letters. Trans. Sister Mary Melchior Beyenka, OP (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1954), 226.

[5] Gaudium et Spes.  ¶87.


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