Is having children a moral duty for married couples?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Pope Francis provoked a fuss at his first general audience of 2022 by remarking that “many, many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one — but they have two dogs, two cats. . . . Dogs and cats take the place of children.” He continued, “This denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us; it takes away our humanity” and “civilization becomes aged.”
So, do married couples have a moral duty to bear children, and preferably more than one?
Birth rates have emerged as a pressing secular issue of this era. The Religion Guy is old enough to remember progressives’ alarm over an impending “population bomb” and enthusiasm for “zero population growth.” While those ideas persist, all the buzz these days is about the globe’s great Birth Dearth.
The lead article on page one of the January 18 New York Times was headlined “Worries in China that Population May Soon Shrink.” The trend in that nation’s official demographic report, issued the day before, suggested that 2021 may be the last year when births outnumber deaths as the population begins decreasing. The birth shortage is even bigger than in 1961 during Mao Zedong’s infamous “Great Leap Forward” economic scheme, which produced unaccountably vast famine and death.
The Times stated as objective fact that this is a “crisis” for the vast nation that “could undermine its economy and even its political stability.” Labor shortages loom but the broader problem is the lack of enough younger workers and family members to support an aging population. A U.S. expert says the coming dislocation is “beyond the imagination of the Chinse authorities and the international community.” A major factor is the Communist dictatorship’s disastrous demand between 1980 and 2015 that couples have only one child.
Last May, the Times surveyed the globe, not just China, under the headline “Long Slide Looms for World Population, with Sweeping Ramifications.” It cited a study by The Lancet showing 183 of the world’s 195 nations and territories are on track to fall below the 2.1 births per family needed for a stable population. The U.S. and the Pope’s Italy, among others, are already and steadily well below that mark. Legalized abortion is among the contributing factors. The Guy analyzed religious implications of this at www.getreligion.org/getreligion/2021/6/1/demographics-make-news-how-will-religion-shape-the-oncoming-birth-dearthand-vice-versa/.
Francis’s remark on pets and people brought a quick rejoinder for CNN from Alistair Currie, spokesman for Britain’s Population Matters organization. He linked “the Catholic Church’s position on family size and contraception” with “environmental collapse.” Having few or no children, he said, “helps everyone,” and a person’s “moral standing and character is not defined by parenthood.” Also, far from selfish, love for pets “demonstrates our humanity.”
Sabrina Maddeaux, a columnist with Canada’s National Post, informed the Pope that “we can’t expect young people to want or bear children while simultaneously refusing to make it so they can do so without significant hardship,” Moreover, couples deciding whether to reproduce must realize their offspring will face “climate disasters, all sorts of crime, hate as political ideology, and addictions.”
Well, then, do pets damage the environment and are they worth the trouble? More bemused than offended, Post reporter and dog-lover Tyler Dawson asked, “Does the Pope have any idea how much work goes into raising a pet? Or how much of ourselves we put into caring for these creatures?” After spelling out those burdens in graphic detail, he nonetheless concluded, “Pets are an almost unalloyed good.”
Most parents of human children will say the same. The Pope’s outlook emerges from the age-old human tradition of cherishing children as a gift, exemplified in Jewish and Christian civilization. In the Bible, God’s first commandment to newly created humans was “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). One Presbyterian humorist quipped that this verse does not rule out multiplying by zero or one.
Since Currie and others target Catholic teaching on reproduction, The Guy should clarify that the church does not oppose intentional “family planning” if a couple decides to limit the number of their children, nor does it condemn this as selfish. Pope Paul VI’s epochal 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae on birth control acknowledged that “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions” are involved with parenthood so it can be responsible “not to have additional children” if “for serious reasons.”
But then, the church also teaches, each marital act must remain open to reproduction without use of artificial contraception methods. Faithful Catholics should only use the so-called “rhythm method” that limits sex to infertile times in the woman’s monthly cycle.
Lest that seem eccentric, Catholics note that a 1920 meeting of all Anglican bishops in the world proclaimed “an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception.” At their next conference in 1930, the bishops opened up to other methods but condemned “motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience” to avoid childbearing.
Apart from methods, on which most other churches disagree with Catholic teaching — as do so many Catholics — there is wide consensus on the belief about marriage defined in section 50 of the 1965 “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” issued by the world’s bishops at the Second Vatican Council.
The constitution says that marriage is by nature “ordained toward the begetting and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents.” In this way, God “wished to share with man a certain special participation in His own creative work.” Most Christians agree with that.
Catholic tradition, however, has often put extra emphasis on numbers. Though couples will determine family size, the Council stated, “those merit special mention who with wise and common deliberation, and with a gallant heart, undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family.”
A footnote cites a 1958 speech in which Pope Pius XII denounced as “pagan” the “aberration” of treating human reproduction as a malady. He said “the value of the testimony offered by the parents of large families lies not only in their unequivocal and forceful rejection of any intentional compromise with the law of God and human egoism, but also in their readiness to accept joyfully and gratefully these priceless gifts of God – their children – in whatever number it may please Him to send them.”