By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published January 17, 2008
Few things are as life changing as the arrival of a first child: the equipment involved, the middle-of-the-night wake-up calls, the Friday night dates with baby in tow—or with baby at home.
Even given these demands, parents are quick to say they would never return to life before their offspring arrived on the scene and relish the coos, smiles and playfulness of their newest member of the family. There’s just something about children.
Being open to life is a hallmark of the Catholic faith, and the church’s joyful embrace of children confirms the blessings they bring to those charged with their care. Married couples are asked to remain open to life and to prayerfully discern God’s desire for their family size.
“The ‘supreme gift of marriage’ is a human person,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs.
Father Augustine Tran, theology teacher at Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell, appreciates the power intrinsic to marital self-giving, saying, “Love was so real that you have to give it a name.”
He sees children as a blessing to help men and women recognize God’s love for all.
“God does not make mistakes; no life is unwanted. … The couple provides the matter and God puts in the soul,” he said.
Deacon David Hanson, who serves at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Cleveland, reflected that God wants humankind to be like him.
“In the marriage bond, God shares his creative nature with us. What a privilege. He gives us the opportunity to create new life as he did,” Deacon Hanson said.
Once one understands the value of having children “it changes everything,” according to Dr. Kathleen Raviele, a Tucker gynecologist, wife and mother of two adult children, who is president of the Catholic Medical Association.
“Having children makes you a better person. It helps you become a more loving and generous person,” she said.
Some couples, however, may suffer from health conditions or are unable to conceive.
“There may be fertility issues. Not all can have children,” Raviele said, and added that those couples interested in children find that they naturally are drawn to them. Perhaps they pursue adoption or a profession that serves children. “Usually what happens is that children, like their nieces or nephews, latch onto them.”
Other couples, however, decide to forgo having and raising children.
Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., a noted author and educator on the papal encyclical “Humane Vitae” and Catholic ethics, calls the family “a school of virtue” for children and their parents, as well. Called “the original cell of social life,” the family is where couples learn selflessness and pass along moral values to their children which benefit society, states the Catechism.
Adding children to one’s family testifies to a couple’s trust in God’s plan for their family and contributes to the formation of children in selflessness and generosity, most importantly.
Deciding on the size of one’s family requires that couples prayerfully discern what they are being called to undertake, keeping in mind that, contrary to societal forces, God loves life and is generous. Couples are asked to remain open to life throughout their marriage. “It is their duty to make certain that their desire (to plan their family size) is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood,” the Catechism states. It adds that couples should approach the question with a “sincerity of the heart” that takes into account a person’s nature and acts and respects the meaning of total self-giving and procreation in marriage. Couples are asked to rely on Natural Family Planning methods to regulate their family size.
“Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom,” according to the Catechism.
“It’s okay to say that you’re going to have three children as long as you’re not putting an obstacle before God,” Raviele said. “You have to trust.”
Father Tran counsels engaged couples, advising them to “always be open to one more.”
“What I usually tell couples during marriage preparation is not to choose a number of children to have but to always allow God to be in control,” he said.
Couples can be “prudent” by using Natural Family Planning, he said. “There are proper ways of (spacing children). … Natural Family Planning works with nature while contraception works against it.”
Deacon Hanson and his wife, Catherine, have seven biological children. They are also foster parents. He says how big families should be “all depends on how big our hearts are.”
“There are couples who have large families, live in modest homes, drive older cars, never take expensive vacations and seem to do quite well and are very happy,” he observed. “There is no prescription for family size. It all depends upon how open we are to God’s blessing.”
He agreed that the sin lies in limiting family size when it involves self-interest.
“We cross the line to sin in our hearts first. Is our intention pure? Are we acting out of prudence to protect our family or are we acting out of self-interest? In the end we rob ourselves when we are not generous with God, because God cannot be outdone when it comes to generosity. Children are a blessing, always.”
Teresa (not her real name) has experienced God’s generosity on a grand scale. The wife and mother to five children, ages 7 to 24, described how she had undergone a sterilization procedure known as tubal ligation following her third C-section during the birth of her third child. She was unaware of the church’s strong opposition to sterilization.
“The sad thing really is that I didn’t know the church’s teaching. I was so naïve. The nurse said, ‘You can’t do the tubal here (in a Catholic hospital).’ I never asked why.”
A series of dreams in the days that followed awakened her to “the mistake I needed to fix” even if she would never again conceive.
“The body has its functions,” she said. “When you mess with that, there are repercussions.”
After her eventual surgery to reverse the tubal ligation, she and her husband conceived their fourth child 18 months later. They went on to have their fifth with the odds stacked against them.
“These two are different. I appreciate life more,” she said. “I had only one ovary and a thyroid condition. I was also 40 when I had our fifth child. All of that was working against me having another child.”
There are blessings that come with larger families.
There’s nothing “more stressful than a house full of teenagers,” said Raviele with a laugh. “Children bring joy to the family and when the first child goes off to college it’s easier when you still have a toddler in hand.”
That rang true for Teresa.
“Going through the teenage years, I found, was difficult and the younger ones, when I was sad, would come up and give me hugs. … That was a blessing,” she said.
She believes God knows “exactly the number you need.”
“The older ones help you and the younger ones learn to pitch in. It’s not always easy, but in the end it all works out.”
She enjoys Christmastime gatherings and playing games with her family.
“The different thing now is that after we sit down to eat, the older ones go off to visit the family (of their boyfriend or girlfriend) or their friends. But my husband and I are left with the two younger ones.”
She understands that some couples look forward to being alone again but not her. She looks forward to being a grandmother one day.
While there are valid reasons to limit family size, Teresa sees a reluctance to relinquish control of one’s life to God at the root of some couples’ decision.
“I think what is driving this is fear,” she said. “‘How will we pay for college? How will we pay for this or that?’”
She advocates trusting in God’s goodness.
“He provides what we need—the food, the money. Sometimes I sit back and ask, ‘How are we able to do this?’ We have three in college. But God provides every time. We need to trust enough and let him take charge. God has a plan. When kids aren’t there, we miss the blessings they are to our lives.”
More explanation of the church’s perspective on married life and children can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1642 and following, and sections 2360-2391.