9. Children and values
Over my years at the Roman Rota I had to study thousands of marriage cases. A common grounds of petition for a declaration of nullity is that marital consent was vitiated through the exclusion of one of the three traditional bona or "goods" of marriage: the bonum fidei (fidelity to one partner; the uniqueness of the marital union), the bonum sacramenti (permanence of the marriage bond; the indissolubility of the union), or the bonum prolis (offspring; the fruitfulness of the union).
Given the aspect of obligation involved in each of these bona or values, it is logical and, I suppose, healthy enough that ecclesiastical judges center their attention on the question of whether or not this obligation has been truly accepted by the person marrying. I do not think it is so healthy, however, if other people begin thinking of these bona mainly or simply in terms of their obligatoriness. If their thinking were to go this way, they could easily come to conclude that - since an obligation is normally something burdensome and we all tend to avoid burdens - the exclusion of permanence or fidelity or offspring cannot really be thought of as strange or exceptional; one can even begin to find good reasons for maintaining that it is something to be expected...
These are of course not merely theoretical considerations. I am afraid that to quite a number of Christians today - and even to some who have a special mission to form and guide others (pastors, teachers, counsellors...) - the idea of people excluding one or other of these bona when they marry, no longer tends to seem surprising; it even seems natural enough.
Exclusion of offspring is not natural
Exclusion, however, is surprising, precisely because it is not natural. It is not natural because one does not logically reject the obligations or responsibilities that necessarily accompany the acquisition of a good thing. If the thing is good enough, the goodness more than compensates the responsibilities. The purchase of an automobile involves burdens and responsibilities; but most people regard a car as a good thing and think that, despite the burdens involved, they are enriched by the acquisition of one car, or of two or three cars, if they can afford them .
Thank God for St. Augustine, who hit on the happy idea of describing the essential elements of marriage as bona: as "good things". Thank God for John Paul II, who, in Familiaris consortio, spoke of indissolubility in terms of something joyful that Christians should announce to the world. "It is necessary", he said, "to reconfirm the good news of the definitive nature of conjugal love" (20).
Fidelity and offspring are good things. Indissolubility is good news! The Bishop of Hippo and the Roman Pontiff have made affirmations that spur us to think: to pursue a line of thought that can lead to discovery or rediscovery. To my mind, it is vital for the future of marriage and the family that we rediscover the something hidden here that is elementary, that should be all too obvious, but has become all too obscured: the simple fact that each of the bona matrimonialia is exactly that: a quid bonum, a good thing. Each is "a good" because each contributes powerfully not only to the good of society, but also to the bonum coniugum, to the "good of the spouses, to their development and maturing as persons who have grown in worth and character and generosity: who have learned to love. (And that, of course, is the ultimate good that each of us needs to acquire and develop here on earth: the ability to love).
It is natural to want an exclusive, permanent bond
Only when people recover this way of thinking will they properly understand that since these bona are good things, they are desirable; and it is natural to desire them. It is natural, because it corresponds to the nature of human love. Man finds something deeply good in the idea of a love (1) of which he is the privileged and singular object, (2) which will be his for as long as life lasts, (3) and through which, by becoming a co-creator, he can perpetuate himself (and, as we shall see, more than himself). Precisely because of the goodness which he sees in these "goods", what is natural to man is not to fear or exclude them, but to seek and welcome them.
It is natural then to want an exclusive, permanent and fruitful marital union. It is unnatural to exclude any of these three elements. We need to get our thinking back into proper perspective so that we are hit by - and can hit others with - the fact of the natural goodness of these "goods" of marriage.
The good of fidelity or exclusiveness is clear: "You are unique to me". It is the first truly personalized affirmation of conjugal love; and echoes the words God addresses to each one of us in Isaiah: Meus es tu - "You are mine" (Is 43:1).
The good of indissolubility should also be clear: the good of a stable home or haven: of knowing that this "belongingness" - shared with another - is for keeps. People want that, are made for that, expect that it will require sacrifices and sense that the sacrifices are worth it. "Sacrifice cannot be removed from family life, but must in fact be wholeheartedly accepted if the love between husband and wife is to be deepened and become a source of intimate joy" . It is a strange head and heart that rejects the permanence of the marriage relationship.
For my present purposes, however, I will not enlarge on these two aspects, but wish rather to limit attention to the bonum prolis: the "good" or value of offspring.
Depriving oneself of goodness
The contraceptive mentality - probed into so painfully by the healing intent of Humanae vitae - is an ailment that could prove fatal to Western society. Debate or disagreement about the specific morality of family planning techniques is not the heart of the matter: in itself, in fact, it is just one aspect of the overall pathological picture. The real sickness here is that practically our whole Western civilization has come to look on family limitation as a good thing and fails to see that it is the privation of a good thing.
I am not thinking here of those couples who, for health reasons, economic factors, and so on, really need the help of natural family planning (and have recourse to it with regret). I am thinking of those others - the very many others - who could afford to have a larger family, and freely choose not to, apparently without comprehending the goodness of what they are thus depriving themselves of. They prefer to have less of the bona matrimonialia, less in particular of the "good" of offspring, so as to have more of material goods. And the quality of their life - more and more materialized, less and less humanized - flows inevitably from their choice. Material goods cannot hold a marriage together; matrimonial goods, especially the "good" of offspring, can.
There is indeed something profoundly good in that specific aspect of conjugal sexual union in which is to be found its true uniqueness: the sharing together not so much in what may or may not be a unique pleasure, as in what is a unique power: a power - the result of sexual complementarity - to bring about a new life. Man and woman have a deep desire for such a true conjugal sexual union; and that desire is thoroughly rooted in human nature.
It seems particularly important today to underline, in all its fullness, the personalist thrust of this natural desire, which goes beyond any desire for either mere self-assertion or mere self-perpetuation.
Contraceptive sexual intercourse between spouses can be merely self-assertive: each one seeking himself or herself, and failing truly to find or know or give to the other. True marital sexual intercourse, open to life, is - of its very nature - love-assertive. It asserts mutual conjugal love and donation, precisely in the uniqueness and greatness of the shared sexual potential of the spouses.
The desire for self-perpetuation is something natural which in itself already has a deep personalist value. (If modern man does not readily grasp or feel this value, it is a sign of the extent to which he is humanly de-vitalized, de-naturalized and de-personalized). Conjugality, however, takes the procreative sexual urge beyond the natural wish to perpetuate just oneself. In the context of conjugal love, this natural desire for self-perpetuation also acquires new scope and meaning. It is no longer a matter of two separate selves, each wishing - perhaps in a selfish way - for self-perpetuation. It is rather the case of two persons in love, who naturally want to perpetuate the love that draws them to one another, so that they can have the joy of seeing it take flesh in a new life, fruit of that mutual spiritual and carnal knowledge by which they express their spousal love (cf. Gen 4:1).
Two persons in love want to do things together: to design or make or buy or furnish together something that will be peculiarly theirs, because it is the fruit of their united decision and action. Nothing is more proper to a couple than their child. The sculptor hews his vision of beauty into lasting stone. Only parents can create living works of art, with each child a unique monument to the creative love that inspires and unites them.
A society, through the monuments it builds, evokes the memory of the great things of its past, in order to keep its values alive in the present and for the future. Spousal love needs such monuments. When romance is fading, when perhaps it has died and the spouses are tempted to think that love between them has died with it, then each child remains as a living testimony to the depth and uniqueness and totality of the conjugal gift of self which they made to each other in the past - when it was easy - , and as an urgent call to keep giving now, even when it is difficult.
Working at the Roman Rota, one not infrequently comes across petitions of annulment of what clearly are perfectly genuine marriages of couples who married out of love, but whose marriages collapsed fundamentally because they deliberately delayed having children and thus deprived their married love of its natural support.
If two people remain just looking ecstatically into each other's eyes, the defects that little by little they are going to discover there can eventually begin to appear intolerable. If they gradually learn to look out together at their children, they will still discover each other's defects, but they will have less time or reason to think them intolerable. They cannot, however, look out together at what is not there.
A series of planned absences is turning the married life of many couples today into a hollowed-out reality, a vacuum that eventually collapses in on itself. A married couple can stare the love out of each other's eyes. If married love is to grow, it has to contemplate, and be contemplated by, other eyes - many pairs of eyes - born of that very love .
Conjugal love, then, needs the support represented by children . Children strengthen the goodness of the bond of marriage, so that it does not give way under the strains that follow on the inevitable wane or disappearance of effortless romantic love. The bond of marriage - which God wants no man to break - is then constituted not simply by the variables of personal love and sentiment between husband and wife, but more and more by their children, each child being one further strand giving strength to that bond.
There is a passage in a homily of John Paul II in Washington, D.C. in 1979 that should be specially highlighted: "it is certainly less serious [for parents] to deny their children certain comforts or material advantages than to deprive them of the presence of brothers and sisters, who could help them to grow in humanity and to realize the beauty of life at all its ages and in all its variety" . I would suggest to parents too easily inclined to family limitation, that they read the Pope's reminder in the light of the Vatican II teaching that "children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute to the greatest extent to the good of the parents themselves" (Gaudium et spes, 50). It is therefore not only their present children, but also themselves, that such parents may be depriving of a singular "good", of a unique experience of human life, the fruit of love.
One frequently comes across statements to the effect that "family planning or limitation is more readily accepted by people as they get better educated". Whether we realize it or not, to admit such statements unquestioningly is to concede a whole philosophy of life. A very particular type of education, thoroughly imbued with a very particular kind of values (or rather of anti-values), is necessary before people are brought to the point of easily accepting family limitation. Can such education be regarded as Christian education? Can it be regarded as true education at all? It is worth recalling the judgment that John Henry Newman, in the 1850s, passed on the education of his time. Modern man, he said, is instructed, but not educated. He is taught to do things, and to think enough so as to do them; but he is not taught to think more .
This whole issue is one of values and choices: of goods and options. Few people can have all the goods of this world. But most people have a certain choice. I can choose good A or good B, though possibly not both. Then I have to choose between them. The wise and properly human choice takes the better good, and knows it is richer in choosing so: that is the educated choice. The less human or less wise choice opts for the inferior good; and probably does not know it is duping and impoverishing itself. There is a forceful passage in the Bible which is not altogether without relevance here: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live" (Dt 30:19). There is no half-way choice between life and death. What, one may ask, is the real term of the choices the Western world is making?
In Kenya, in the 1980s, an African who had learned that the Western fertility rate averaged about 1.2, remarked to me: "Western couples must be very poor if they can't afford to have more than two children..." He was not a qualified "expert" in the Western sense; yet his words may be worth pondering. They could be complemented with another bit of "non-expert" wisdom, this time from the West itself. Some time back in England, I knew a recently married couple, a normal couple who wanted children. One child was born; but then there was an unwanted delay of three or four years. At last the mother became expectant again. Their first-born too was filled with expectations. But - a miscarriage occurred. The father had to tell the child he was not going to have that little brother or sister he wanted. "Look; Mom's not going to have that baby after all"; and, bowing before God's inscrutable ways, he added, "it's better that way..." The child however didn't bow so easily: "But, Daddy, is there anything better than a baby?..." . Computerized programs never anticipate the things that children come up with. The wisdom of children is part of the bonum prolis.
Sense of values
The child in that episode had a true sense of values: which, according to Humanae vitae, is precisely the first thing a married couple need to possess if they are to approach family planning correctly (21). A true sense of values is not shown by the couple who fail to see that a child is the best acquisition they can make, and the one that enriches them most.
Many married couples in the West no longer seem to realize the simple truth that children are the most personalized fruit of their own conjugal love; and are therefore the greatest gift they can make to one another, being at the same time God's gift to both of them.
"But - if we have an extra child, our children and we ourselves will be less well-off..." You will hardly say that the extra child will be less well off, unless you wish to rank yourself among those who wonder whether life itself is a good thing, or whether non-existence may not after all be preferable to existence.
"But our other children - those we have already - will be worse off..." Will they? Pope John Paul suggests that, in terms of truly human values, they will not.
"But, we ourselves... we will be less well-off. We will have a tougher time..." You may have to work harder, that is true (many people work very hard today so as to have material "goods"), but will what you are working for make you less happy?
In seminars, when this matter comes up, I have at time asked my students to consider a small matter of comparative analysis. It goes something like this:
Children Cars TV/VCR Education Holidays
of children abroad
FAMILY A: 2 2 2/2 Good or best schools Yes
FAMILY B: 5 1 1/0 Second-rate schools Never
After putting this on the board, my first question to the students is: Which family has the higher standard of living? They all answer: Family A, of course. So I repeat the question: Which family has the higher standard of living? There may be the slightest hesitation, but they repeat the same answer. So I repeat the same question again, and a third, and perhaps a fourth time. Perplexity sets in, hesitations grow, until in the end someone "concedes": "well, of course, if you start considering children as part of your standard of life..."
"If you start"... It is indeed time that we started putting children on the assets side, and not on the liabilities. On both, you say? OK; on both: like your motor car. A car is an asset and a liability. It costs money and effort and attention to acquire and to maintain: just as a child does. Your choice should begin by considering which is worth more, because to choose the other is to lower one's own standard of living .
"Which will give me more satisfaction?" is no doubt a utilitarian rather than an idealistic viewpoint. Yet, even if a person wishes to apply that view to our subject, he or she would do well to consider the money and time and effort that people nowadays put into golf or computers or creative gardening, working at them, reading all about them, in search of a satisfaction they do not always get.
How come they do not think parenthood worth working at? How is it they do not study books (there are plenty available) on how to enjoy caring for one's children, on the satisfactions of being a parent? And how is it (our horizons broaden again) they do not sense the call of an utterly unique creativity, the adventure of being co-creators?
Somewhere deep in their hearts, couples probably do sense the truth of the fact that a child is a good and a great gift. The trouble is that they have been conditioned not to trust that truth. They have to be helped to trust it; and it is clear (at least to my mind) that only couples who have chosen the "good" of offspring - in all the fullness with which God wished to bless their marriage - can teach them. Pope Paul VI took good care to mention such parents first, among those who live up to God's expectations for responsible parenthood and exercise it "by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family" (Humanae vitae, 10.).
So many marriages today are suffering from self-privation, a voluntarily induced impoverishment, brought about by a refusal of the gift of life and a rejection of the fruitfulness of love. Our modern well-off Western society may go down in history as "the deprived society"; where people - entire peoples - ailed to death through letting a sense of true human values be gradually sucked out of their lives.
The loss of sexuality
A final word on this concept of privation. At times a privation may be wise and necessary - for instance when health reasons demand that a person abstain from solid food. But it is none the less a privation. And, if it is not to end in death, it must be a temporary measure, so that the patient can get back to being nourished by a normal and healthy appetite. The western appetite for sex today is not normal; nor is it healthy; nor, as I suggested in the last chapter, is it really sexual.
The proponents of contraception reject the Church teaching that the procreative and unitive aspects of conjugal sex are inseparable and maintain that it is perfectly legitimate to separate them. But that is not what contraception actually does. Its real effect is not to separate these two aspects (with the implication that, though it annuls the procreative, it respects the unitive), but to destroy both. Contraceptive sex is not procreative: that is clear to everyone. What is not so clear to people is that it is not unitive, in any conjugal sense. The ultimate analysis, however, tells us that it is not sex, in any real human sense, at all.
What is being separated is not sex from some element extraneous to sex; or even from some element peculiarly connected by an unfortunate accident of biological design to sex. What is being separated is the action of sex - the apparent action of sex - from the meaning of sex. The reality of sex is being totally put aside; and people are being left with a mere pantomime of sex.
What is being separated is the very "body" of sex from the "soul" of sex; and what is being left is the corpse of sex. What contraception gives people is apparent "body-sex" that is actually soul-less sex. It is mummified sexuality: dead sex. Our modern world is busy in the process of killing human sex and sexuality.
Many modern marriages are lacking a true sexual appetite. The sexuality marking them is not a truly human sexuality. A maimed masculinity and a maimed femininity are meeting in no authentic conjugal encounter. Such marriages, denied the essential humanizing and personalizing qualities of true conjugal sex - denied the true bonum sexualitatis: the true "good" of sexuality - are in danger of death by conjugal-sexual starvation. A self-imposed barrenness is denying their love the fruit which love itself is designed to produce, and which it needs for its own nourishment and survival.