Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I was wondering if you could help me with a question posed by a friend of mine. He believes in a sort of utilitarian worldview--now he doesn't practice this, because he finds it rather impractical, but I think it's unhealthy and would like to be able to argue coherently why. For one thing, he believes that if a person has a genetic condition such as down syndrome or clinical depression, he should not have children so as not to risk inflicting the misery caused by this disease on another human being. This worldview feels very wrong to me, but I can't quite pin down why, except that life is a blessing and that this view of things seems rather akin to Nazi philosophy. He doesn't believe that the government should prevent people with genetic conditions that make them miserable from procreating, but as he himself has one of these conditions, he believes that it is his moral duty to avoid risking inflicting suffering on any offspring, by not having children at all. He is an agnostic, but a very intellectual and thinking one; he believes that it is nearly certain that God exists. How should I approach this topic when he brings this up in conversation?
I like the paradox of the utilitarian worldview being impractical for your friend. It's a good sign. It means he favors common sense over ideology, which is very healthy. Your friend is right, the problem with utilitarianism is that it's not useful. It takes a second thing (usefulness) and puts it first. The real trick is to ask what is to used and what is not to be used. People, for instance, are entirely exempt from utilitarian calculations because people are not to be used but loved. People are not means to ends. They are, says the faith, the only thing God wills for their own sake. Things are to be used and persons are to be loved. Start loving things and using persons and you have fallen into the root of all sin.
That bears on the question of child-bearing because it bears on the question of what is more important: the person of the child or the thing called suffering. If you elevate the purpose of life to "avoid suffering" then you needn't confine your fears to some chromosomal aberration. The fact is, the most beautiful, healthy, intelligent perfect child is no more going to be able to avoid suffering than a baby with clinical depression or Down's. To make avoidance of suffering the criterion for child-bearing is to effectively decree the extinction of humanity.
What is needed here is not really a syllogism, it seems to me, but an exhortation to courage. Your friend's child will most certainly suffer--if not with clinical depression then with something else. But to be denied a shot at existence on the basis of that? Heck! I've suffered terribly at times. So have you. So has your friend. And that includes not merely temporary pains but lifelong struggles, failures, debilitating psychological blows and a line drive to the groin when I was in sixth grade that I will never forget.
I would not, for all that, trade these pains for non-existence. Nor would you. Nor would your friend. What he needs to do is to have the same courage for his child as he has for himself. That's what I would say in your shoes. Your mileage may vary since you know him better.
Two seemingly irrelevant suggested readings: Manalive and St. Francis of Assisi, both by G.K. Chesterton. What is needed here is a stronger sense of life as a gift to be received with gusto and gratitude instead of a minefield to be avoided as a source of pain. When that sense of gratitude is healed, I suspect the timidity and fear will go too. He needs courage and encouragement more than anything, it sounds to me. He doesn't sound like a bad bloke. Just somebody who needs to really know the good news that Hope is real in Christ Jesus.