More on Virtue Ethics and Responsible Parenthood
It is good to examine how couples might apply each of the cardinal and theological virtues to their acceptance of children
As I have shown in Part I, as human beings created with reason and seeking to live in accord with natural law, married couples will find virtue ethics very helpful in embracing the twofold ends of marriage: union and procreation.
Before we get into the details, we need to remember that each virtue looks different in each human being, and thus each couple has different serious reasons in considering having more children. St. Francis of Assisi lived heroic virtue in a much different way than St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Therefore, something that makes it difficult for one couple to feel ready to actively seek the conception of another child or even to just not avoid conception may not be an obstacle for another couple. We are called to individual holiness, and the way this is lived out is based on who we are. But even so, it is worthwhile to examine how couples might apply each of the cardinal and theological virtues to their acceptance of children.
Virtue For Better or For Worse
When Pope Paul VI emphasized in Humanae Vitae the need for prudence — both when actively accepting another child and when determining that it is not the right time for another — he gave some basic categories to evaluate: physical, economic, psychological and social conditions.
In using prudence, for example, a couple would consider how the mother handles pregnancies, her current health, the father’s ability to take on tasks that the mother will be limited from, the mental health of both parents, their financial ability, the space they live in, the needs of their other children, the support they will have from friends and family as they take on the serious task of raising more children. Evaluating all of the things that fall under prudence bring other virtues into play.
Justice helps a couple evaluate what they owe to God, each other, their parents, the children already in existence, and the community outside their home. Are they able to give what is due to all of these while having another child? Does a current job take away from what is due to the family? Generosity as part of justice should lead couples to evaluate whether their desires for or against having another child is a generous act for the sake of their family or a selfish act that only serves to gratify one of the parent’s desires. Justice to the mother would mean making sure she is able to be a happy, healthy mother to her existing children.
Temperance, which is about being moderate in regard to pleasure, is another virtue exercised in responsible parenthood. Is the couple seeking lives of pleasure and ease rather than being open to the sacrifices of parenting? Are they preserving the ends of the marital act by being chaste? Is the marital act being used only for the sake of having a baby without any idea of the unitive end or loving the other? Is it being used only for union but being closed off entirely to having a baby? Is it being sought out only for the sake of pleasure? Is the couple having difficulty with fidelity or waiting during prudent times of waiting to conceive another child?
Being faithful to the ends of marriage requires the fourth cardinal virtue of perseverance or fortitude—when a couple seeks to be together for the long haul, they are living out perseverance. A couple using Natural Family Planning to track the wife’s cycles must persevere in charting every day, keeping track of signs, long times of abstinence when there is illness or confusing breastfeeding times. Parents need to persevere in taking care of babies all night long, educating their children well, earning an income to sustain the family, plus meeting everyone’s physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs. Further they need perseverance to help them continue on in all the virtues.
Reverence for the Wonder
The theological virtues, which we receive through the help of grace, guide our discernment. A couple ought to both respect the nobility of the gift of reason and trust in God’s providence to provide for the raising all of their children. In faith, couples live their belief in God by prudently following the truths of Revelation and natural law. Couples live out the virtue of hope by desiring eternal life in Heaven for themselves and for their children and by having the courage to bring a new child into the world. In charity, they do what is best for each other, the family and for the potential new human life.
Sometimes living these theological virtues means taking a break in childbearing to focus on the religious instruction of their children or to give the parents overwhelmed by constant demands time to grow in love. A couple might discern to cut back on work hours so the whole family can grow in love of each other and God through family activities. Other times a couple may feel a deep call to have another child for the sake of their being another unique, beautiful human person to love, who they can teach to love and give God glory.
When a married couple looks at the natural ends of the marital act and the truly seeks to live out virtue, they can have confidence that God will guide them in their choices about when to be open to the conception of a child. They will learn that, “Reverence for the wonder of the coming into being of a new life out of the closest union of love of two people is the basis for the horror of every artificial and irreverent act destroying this mysterious bond that exists between love and the coming into being of new men” (Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, p. 8). They will live truly human lives in living the call to responsible parenthood made by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae.