The number of children in a family is first and foremost a question of God's will.
”In its true meaning, responsible procreation requires couples to be obedient to the Lord's call and to act as faithful interpreters of his plan. This happens when the family is generously open to new lives, and when couples maintain an attitude of openness and service to life”(Evangelium Vitae, 97).
So many arms are closed to life. So many hearts are closed to the building up of God's family. So many people are closed to God's plan for their family.
“Will you accept children lovingly from God?” As couples joined in sacramental marriage, we were all asked this great question — and we all answered yes. Yet how many placed a limit on the number of children they would lovingly accept? How often, rather than reflect on the joy of following God's plan for us, do we decide beforehand what that plan can be?
Recently I met a young woman with three beautiful children. She confided to me that her husband is hoping for another. While she longed for another baby, she feared she could not handle a fourth child. Since I was introduced as a mother of eight, she apparently felt I could shed some light on her dilemma.
People often come to my husband and me with similar questions and fears; their constant question is “How do you do it?” These days, people look on large families with both astonishment and fear, especially at the prospect of having such a family themselves. But why so much fear?
Perhaps it's a sign of the times. Parents are often overwhelmed and incredibly pressured by the demands of our society. Both parents are expected to work long hours outside the home. They are expected to cart their children back and forth to sports and activities in every season, at all times of the day and week, and to appear at every conceivable school event. Parents are forced to compensate for those same schools' failure to provide for their children's basic educational needs. Even many churches put more emphasis on social events and volunteerism than on the needs of families.
No wonder, then, that any parent, even with only one child, might feel overwhelmed by the breakneck pace of modern society. How often do we hear people say: “One's enough for me,” or “Two is all I can handle”? Pope John Paul II speaks of the problem in Familiaris Consortio,6:
“In the richer countries, excessive prosperity and the consumer mentality paradoxically joined to a certain anguish and uncertainty about the future, deprive married couples of the generosity and courage needed for raising up new human life: thus life is often perceived not as a blessing, but as a danger from which to defend oneself.”
CHILDREN AND FALSE VALUES
In a “quality of life” society, children are not valued. They are seen as a threat to one's lifestyle. Witness contraception, sterilization, willfully barren marriages, babies in trash cans — and millions upon millions of abortions.
Yet do we — even we, as Catholics — understand the true value of children, here on earth and in eternity? By their own precious contribution, children build up community within the family and contribute to the sanctification of their parents (Gaudium et Spes, 48). More than a source of personal sanctification, children are a gift and a unique reflection of God's own image, full of an unrepeatable spiritual richness all their own, given first to the family and community, then to the universal Church and all humanity, and finally to the communion of saints. Every child fits into God's infinitely wise plan for mankind. So, knowing what good, what love, what blessings a child can bring, why should we limit ourselves to one or two? And if only God knows what is best for our sanctification, and our true goal is heaven, why would we close our hearts and minds to his will?
There are those who limit the size of their family, after prayer and with grave and pure motives which are founded in love of God. Yet how often do we see such prayerful reflection? Sadly, all too many act on motives based on worldly values. These motives lie, above all, in two areas: selfishness and fear — fear which amounts to a lack of trust in God.
BEING OVER HAVING
In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II mentions a “correct scale of values” with which a couple should make family decisions, including family size. Basically he says we should remember the primacy of being over having, of the person over things. He also describes a materialistic attitude which we can see prevalent in America today:
“The only goal which counts is the pursuit of one's own material well-being. The so-called ‘quality of life’ is interpreted primarily or exclusively as economic efficiency, inordinate consumerism, physical beauty and pleasure, to the neglect of the more profound dimensions — interpersonal, spiritual, and religious — of existence” (Evangelium Vitae,23).
In a general audience on Sept. 5, 1984, the Holy Father talked about couples using infertile periods for “unworthy reasons” in seeking to avoid having children, thus lowering the number of births in their families below a “morally correct level.” He went on: “This morally correct level must be established by taking into account not only the good of one's own family, and even the state of health and means of the couple themselves, but also the good of the society to which they belong, of the Church, and even of the whole of mankind. In no way is [Humanae Vitae's presentation] of ‘responsible parenthood’ exclusively directed to limiting, much less excluding children; it means also the willingness to accept a larger family.”
Humanae Vitae talks of the total man, who exists on earth and for eternity. The decisions of a total man must be based on both these realities. Likewise, our decisions regarding the transmission of life and of conjugal love must be made with a view to the present and, always, to the eternal.
THE NFP DEBATE
There is an ongoing debate at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio regarding whether Natural Family Planning (NFP) may be used in the absence of grave motives, as a means of prayerful participation in the procreative planning of one's family. Some hold that, to be fully open to God's will, a couple should simply accept all the children with whom God chooses to bless them in the natural course of their marital relations. Another school of thought holds that spouses should take an active role in deciding the number and frequency of their bearing of children, using NFP to plan and space each child in accord with an intelligent and prayerful evaluation of their physical, economic, and spiritual ability to raise that child.
There are points to be made for both these opinions. But it is important to note that both approaches are approved by the Catholic Church, while artificial birth control is not. On the one hand, the “come what may” approach shows a childlike trust in God's providence, allowing him to plan your family, relying on him to guide you and to provide for the welfare of the family as it grows.
On the other hand, prayerful recourse to NFP need never be offensive to God. When the angel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin, God ordained that he would ask her consent to his plan for her to conceive and bear his Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. He desired her fiat, her “yes.” Likewise, God calls us to cooperate by letting him create through us.
God showed this to us beautifully with the example of our Lady. He wants us, as procreators, to give our “yes.” Every time spouses enter into conjugal union, we give our implicit yes. Moreover, a couple using NFP offers an explicit yes by entering conjugal union during a fertile period, whereas a “come what may” couple is saying continually “let it be done to us according to your will.”
THE ROLE OF GRACE
As I've mentioned, my husband and I meet many fearful couples. Frankly, I am seldom able to see in their circumstances a “grave motive” (Humanae Vitae, 10) or serious reason for them to limit the size of their family, for them not to have a third, fourth, or fifth child. Of course I realize there may well be circumstances I cannot see. Yet again and again, I hear the same mantra: “I don't know how you do it!” To so many, it is inconceivable how, with such a large number of children, we can be a happy, loving, and functioning family. To them, we must be an anomaly, even an impossibility. But large families testify loud and clear to the possibility of it all, and by their very strength and love silently encourage other families to open their arms to more children.
I'd like to tell couples how we manage it, on a practical level. But here I can only touch on the essence of “how”: grace. As each new child is added to a family, though the workload and demands on parents seem to increase exponentially, grace provides the ability to meet these demands because God truly provides. Indeed, the grace you need for raising each new child is already in your possession, and has been from the moment you were joined in holy matrimony.
Like all sacraments, marriage confers grace. But the graces one receives in the sacrament of marriage are deposited, if you will, in an account, from which you can withdraw what you need, when you need it, through prayer and cooperation with God's plan. Pope Pius XI spoke of these graces:
“The grace of matrimony will remain for the most part an unused talent hidden in the field, unless the parties exercise these supernatural powers and cultivate and develop the seeds of grace they have received. If however, doing all that lies within their power, they cooperate diligently, they will be able with ease to bear the burdens of their state and to fulfill their duties” (Casti Connubii, 41).
In other words, God does not send you more than you can handle with his help and the sacramental graces you received in your marriage. So do not be afraid to accept more children; prayerfully ask yourself the important question, “Do I have all the children that God intended me to have?”
In the Lord's Prayer, we ask God that his will be done. But those who limit the size of their families without grave motive or serious reason are actually saying “my will be done.” We should continually pray for the grace to be able to accept God's will in our families, for our families and for eternity. Pray we may open our arms and say, “I trust you, Lord. Send me children according to your will.”
Carla Coon writes from New York.