Remember when Pope Francis made the not-so-revolutionary statement that parents are called to both generosity and prudence in discerning their family size?
Not surprisingly, and like always, the media interpretation was quite different. According to them, Pope Francis says “Catholics shouldn’t breed like rabbits.” Which is, of course, not at all what Pope Francis said.
But I’m not really interested in rehashing what the Pope actually said as opposed to what the media claims he said, as several other bloggers have already done an excellent job doing so. Rather, I’d like to expound upon what the Church means by responsible parenthood, because this seems to be a concept that Catholics on both end of the spectrum don’t fully understand.
What is Responsible Parenthood?
Pope Paul VI gave a very clear, concise explanation about what constitutes responsible parenthood in Humanae Vitae (HV), paragraph 10 (all bolding mine):
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.
If you have a large family, you can practice responsible parenthood. If you have a small family, you can practice responsible parenthood. All families regardless of their size are called to practice responsible parenthood with both prudence and generosity. Like so many other aspects of Catholicism, it is not either/or, it is both/and.
Not prudence (small family) OR generosity (large family). Prudence AND generosity.
What is prudence?
We can turn to paragraphs 1806 and 1835 of the Catechism for that answer:
1806 Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.”65 “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.”66 Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle.67 It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.
1835 Prudence disposes the practical reason to discern, in every circumstance, our true good and to choose the right means for achieving it.
Simply put, prudence is applying moral precepts to every day situations. A prudent couple may discern that they are not called to have another baby, and use right means (NFP) to avoid conception. A prudent couple may also discern that they are being called to have another baby, and use right means (the marital act) to achieve conception. Neither couple is “wrong” in what they choose to do, as long as their consciences are properly formed according to the Church, and they have done their utmost to discern God’s will for their lives. Some may not know if they have discerned correctly until Judgement Day.
HV 10 continues,
Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. 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.
The Church tells us we need to keep a right order of priorities, and then gives us those priorities AND their proper order! God, ourselves, our families, and human society. Notice that “having another baby” does not top that list. Nor is it #2. If a woman has a grave health risk in which pregnancy could cause grave harm or even death, she is not required to try to conceive again in the hopes that everything will turn out all right.
For example, look at the story of Andrea Yates. She had severe PPD/PPP after her first several pregnancies, and her doctor had warned her that she needed to get serious treatment before having another baby, but she conceived anyway. The result was tragedy.
We are reminded that we have to conform all of our actions to God’s will:
From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.
Paul VI had already promulgated this teaching in Gaudiem et Spes, several years earlier:
Let [parents] thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God. But in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel. That divine law reveals and protects the integral meaning of conjugal love, and impels it toward a truly human fulfillment. Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice,(12) married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate.
Rabbits do not care about the objective moral order. Rabbits do not stop to question their consciences before engaging in intercourse. Rabbits do not have a right order of priorities.
Rabbits are not bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the creator.
We are not to be like rabbits, mindlessly using our bodies without also engaging our human reason. That soundbyte, however, doesn’t garner the amount of clicks that “Pope says Catholics shouldn’t breed like rabbits” does.
Large Families and Responsible Parenthood
Finally, I’d like to point out something else Paul VI said in Gaudiem et Spes:
Among the couples who fulfil their God-given task in this way, those merit special mention who with a gallant heart and with wise and common deliberation, undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family.
Note that Paul VI did not say the people who merit special mention are “those who just have baby after baby after baby without any regard to the conditions I just discussed.” Catholics are encouraged to have large families, but only if, after “wise and common deliberation,” they feel they are called to do so.
Given these precepts, let’s look at the example Pope Francis himself used. He spoke of a woman who’d had seven C-sections and was pregnant with her eighth child. Here is exactly what he said:
This doesn’t mean that the Christian must make children “in series.” I met a woman some months ago in a parish who was pregnant with her eighth child, who had had seven C-sections. But does she want to leave the seven as orphans? This is to tempt God. I speak of responsible paternity. This is the way, a responsible paternity.
We don’t have all the details because Pope Francis did not give them, but we know he was concerned enough about her situation to use her story as a caution to others.
It seems safe to assume that she had some health problems that made deliberately achieving another pregnancy very imprudent, or lived in an area of the country that made having a C-section much more dangerous and risky than it is in the United States.
I say “deliberately” because I doubt Pope Francis would have used her story if she’d been trying to avoid pregnancy but was victim to the failure rate of NFP; he speaks of “tempting God,” which seems to imply that the woman in question became pregnant deliberately, and rationalized her decision by stating she would trust God to save her from the consequences of a poor choice.
It seems also safe to assume, given that he prefaced the remark by stating that Christians do not have to have children “in series,” that this woman was of the providentalist mindset (e.g., couples who make no attempt to space pregnancies because they feel it is inherently wrong to do so).
As Pope Francis expressed concern that this woman would lose her own life as well as orphan her seven older children, it seems he was reminding the Catholic faithful that our discernment must, as Gaudiem et Spes says, “…thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring.”
Trusting God versus Tempting God
Remember that we have free will. We can choose to have sex, and a baby might result from that decision. That does not mean the decision corresponds to the will of God. To make the claim, “Well, if you do conceive that means God willed it to happen” can set a dangerous precedent. For example, it could lead to claiming that since babies are conceived via immoral means like IVF, or even rape, those means are therefore good. But while the end might be an objectively good thing (a new human life), the means to that end are not always moral or in accordance with God’s will.
God’s ways are mysterious. He can bring good out of our own bad decisions and bad situations. There are many women who discerned they should not conceive due to grave health reasons but who unintentionally conceived anyway. In cases like these, intent matters. The women were not trying to be reckless or imprudent or tempt God; they were trying to act according to the precepts of responsible parenthood. But that is simply the nature of our fallen world — sometimes we can act as virtuously as we can and yet things still go wrong. (That’s not to say the child is wrong, merely the situation.) In those cases, all we can do is trust God that there is a larger plan, and that He will bring good out of whatever bad situations we find ourselves in, whether or not those situations are the result of our own bad choices. Easier said than done, right?
However, we need to make the distinction between trusting God and tempting God. We trust God to take care of us, but in turn God trusts US to discern wisely and try our hardest to make decisions that are in conformity to His will — and He trusts us to be both prudent and generous when it comes to our family size.
We tempt God when we make decisions that are reckless or irresponsible, especially if we make those decisions on the basis of trusting God to protect us from the consequences of our actions — which He doesn’t always do. I can’t throw myself off a cliff and trust God to save me. He will allow me to suffer the consequences of my own bad choices, even if He chooses to somehow bring good out of them.
Okay? Okay. Now, go forth and multiply…
….prudently, generously, and in conformity with the will of God.
A version of this article was originally posted at my old blog in January 2015.