10. Family Planning

10. Family Planning
Little more than forty years ago, large families were a frequent and typically Catholic phenomenon. Today, in the developed world, they tend to be a rarity, also among Catholics. The swing to the small sized family began in the sixties and has intensified ever since. Three main explanations would seem to stand out: the demographic scare, or the "population bomb"; the "I-generation", with its emphasis on self-fulfillment, especially through success in professional work; the consumer mentality, as shown in a preference for material values.
The defusing of the population bomb, at least in advanced countries, is scarcely being given the comment it deserves. Around the time of Vatican II, family planning was often presented in terms of urgent social responsibility. Population growth was seen everywhere as a threat to prosperity or even survival. Whatever the situation in the Third World, the force of the demographic argument has not only been lost in Western countries, it has been totally reversed. Dwindling and aging populations are now the prospect facing almost all the developed countries, which show strong evidence of being technologically developed societies in rapid human decline.
Forty years of emphasis on self-fulfilment or on material comfort has been accompanied by an equal emphasis on family limitation. Children (one or two per family, at the most) have come to be regarded as "optional extras" for the life of a couple, not as the natural fulfillment of their married aspirations. Job, status, social life, gadgets, vacations, ease and comfort, are commonly seen as offering more happiness and self-fulfilment than do children. If one is to judge from the growing number of broken homes, fewer children per family has not led to greater married stability, fulfillment, or happiness. Nevertheless, Catholic couples too have been deeply affected by the family planning mentality, to the extent that a "planned" family is now often presented as a norm in pre-marriage instruction. The consequence is that most, if not all, of our young people marrying today regard family planning as a normal part of marriage and many, for whom it was never designed, are experiencing its effects on their married life.
All of this implies a radical change in outlook that has taken place in little more than a generation. It is a relatively short period of time and yet, I think, long enough to warrant the drawing of some conclusions.
Married love and children
It is worth recalling that Church teaching on family planning hinges on two essential principles or requirements: it must be carried out through natural methods, and there must be serious reasons to justify it.
This second requirement, that family planning must respond to serious reasons (confirmed by Humanae vitae, nos. 10 and 16), appears once again in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood" (no. 2368). Nevertheless, it has been questioned or ignored in recent years as if it represented a dated norm derived from an institutional view of marriage that takes no account of modern personalist insights and the legitimate aspirations of married love. A very different conclusion emerges from a due consideration of the Vatican II teaching that "children are the supreme gift of marriage and greatly contribute to the good of the parents themselves" (Gaudium et spes, 50; emphasis added).
What Vatican II is saying is that married love finds strength in the natural support represented by children. Without that support, it can collapse. Married love, then, remains frustrated in what should be the normal pattern of its growth, if it does not issue in this natural fruit (we repeat that couples to whom God does not send children remain a case apart not considered here). The Catechism, having said that "married love tends naturally to be fruitful", adds: "A child is not something external added to the mutual love of husband and wife, but stems from the very heart of their reciprocal self-gift, of which it is the fruit and fulfilment" (no. 2366). Material possessions, or an easy life together, do not fulfil the aspirations of married love (love is ready for sacrifice and grows through it), nor are they a condition for its maintenance and growth. Children normally are such a condition.
Sacrifice and married love
The Second Vatican Council dwells on how the generosity and courage that parents with a large family need to practice, lead them to perfection in Christ. "Whenever Christian spouses in a spirit of sacrifice and trust in divine providence carry out their mission of procreating with generous human and Christian responsibility, they glorify the Creator and perfect themselves in Christ. Among the married couples who thus fulfil their God-given mission, special mention should be made of those who after prudent reflection and common decision courageously undertake the proper upbringing of a large family" (Gaudium et spes, 50). These qualities are powerfully developed in spouses by their shared efforts to bring up such a family, and this creates an ongoing situation which favors a deepening of the regard and admiration they have for one another. Nothing in fact unites so much as sacrifice generously shared. We recall again those words of John Paul II in Familiaris consortio: "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".
Spouses need to improve in life - to rise above their present worth - if they are to retain their partner's love. It is good therefore - it is essential - that each spouse sacrifices himself or herself for the other. However, as we said earlier, it is doubtful if any husband or wife, on their own, can inspire their partner indefinitely to generosity and self-sacrifice. It is for the sake of his or her children that a person most easily rises above self. In this way, in sacrifice lived also for their children, each parent improves and really becomes - in his or her partner's eyes also - a finer and more loveable person.
That is why family limitation is not very properly described as a right, and is wrongly thought of as a privilege. It is basically a privation. It is meant for exceptional cases, for those couples who are obliged by serious reasons - by some powerful and over-riding factor - to deprive themselves of the fulfilling joy and the enriching value of children. A couple who, in the absence of such an over-riding factor, choose not to have more children, are starving their conjugal love of its natural fruit and stunting its growth. They are lessening their mutual preparedness for sacrifice, and in that way undermining the mutual esteem that can bind them together.
Open-to-life sexual relations are the normal expression of married affection, and alone fulfil the conjugal instinct. To encourage people, without serious reason, to abstain from such relations is to place an unnecessary and unjustified strain on the solidity of their married life. The conjugal instinct, which draws people to marry, is not a mere sexual instinct, nor is it satisfied just through the companionship and love of a spouse. It looks to the fruit of that love. In other words, people are naturally drawn to marriage by a deep desire for fatherhood or motherhood. It is not at all difficult, in pre-marriage instruction, to help couples understand that having children is not opposed to self-realization but is rather one of the most basic natural expressions of the human desire to fulfil oneself. Are we not in danger today of downgrading the privilege and the personalist dimension of parenthood? It seems to me that the way family planning has at times been presented to our Catholic people in recent decades has not always reflected the true married personalism of Vatican II. Many programs for family planning have taken almost no account of the "serious reasons" needed to justify it, and (at a deeper level) have seemed oblivious of the aspect of privation that it involves. Rather than being presented as an extraordinary recourse for couples in special difficulties, family planning has been presented as a norm and even - one gets the impression - as a formula for happiness and as some sort of ideal for Catholic married life. This approach results in the impoverishment of the true Christian vision of marriage and of the fulfillment that marriage promises.
It can be both unwise and unjust to push family planning in cases where it is not called for, or where there is in fact downright resistance to it. A few years ago, a married woman came to see me to get information about how to plan her family. She was about thirty-five, and had four children. I told her I could refer her to a reliable Catholic doctor but, noticing that she was healthy-looking, I asked if there was any special medical problem. "No", she answered, "but all my friends say that with four children I have enough". Then, seeing that she was fairly well dressed, I asked about the family financial situation. There was no special problem there either. Then, why are you so keen on family planning?, I asked. "Well," she said, "it's not so much me; it's my friends..." But do you want to have more children? She brightened up: "Oh, yes, I do. But you see... my friends..." Forget about your friends, I told her, and go ahead and have more children if that is what you want. She went off relieved and happy to be told there was nothing wrong in having more children: in following her natural instinct for motherhood, which is also an instinct of generosity.
I am obviously not questioning the value of natural family planning or the importance of providing proper instruction about it to those whose marriage situation is such that they really need it. But I do suggest that any campaign to present it indiscriminately as a normal thing for couples can only have the effect of stunting the natural growth of marital love and of setting up obstacles to generosity, to the basis for mutual esteem, and to married happiness.
A dualistic view
The crisis affecting married life has coincided with the dualistic view that would see the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage as accidentally connected, in such a way that the procreative aspect of intercourse can (through contraception) be "separated" - or rather eliminated - from the conjugal act, without in any way undermining the power of intercourse to express married union in a totally unique way.
Humanae vitae, in reaffirming the age-old Catholic rejection of contraception, explicitly rejected this position, teaching the "inseparable connection, established by God... between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act" (12). We have seen how the reflections of the intervening years, and in particular the personalist philosophy of marriage presented by Pope John Paul II, have led to a deeper understanding of this teaching of Humanae vitae in all its positive value. We need to guard against falling into a similar dualism with regard to the ends of marriage as presented by the revised Code of Canon Law, which says that matrimony is "by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring" (can. 1055).
The "good of the spouses" in any Christian view is not mainly the material well-being of the couple; it is, as we have seen, essentially their growth in Christ. Let us just recall those passages of Vatican II about how "Christian spouses help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in the accepting and rearing of their children" (Lumen gentium, 11); and about how children are "the supreme gift" of marriage and "greatly contribute to the good of their parents" (Gaudium et spes, 50). Children enrich their parents' lives in many human ways, and not least in virtue of the generous dedication they tend to evoke in them.
It seems to me that our catechesis on marriage of these last decades has not always followed the true personalism of Vatican II. Instead, we have let our Christian couples absorb the prevailing secular outlook which holds that one or two children may be a possible adjunct or aid to married happiness, but that three children is already a dangerous number, and more than three is almost certainly bound to make for unhappiness.
This view, which ultimately supposes an opposition between offspring and the good of the spouses, tends in fact to undermine the natural unity between the different aspects of marriage. A radically false disjunction is contained in the alternatives it offers: seeing marriage as either procreative or personalist, as if the prospects were: either more children, more burden, and therefore less love, less fulfillment, less happiness; or else, fewer children, less burden, and therefore stronger love and a more enduring happiness.
The disjunction is doubly flawed. On the one hand, it presents happiness as a goal that can be achieved without sacrifice. On the other, it curbs or frustrates the natural longing for children present in the conjugal (and not the mere sexual) instinct, which makes true conjugality such a powerful force for genuine self-realization.
A truly human and Christian scale of values
This false disjunction can only be overcome by analyzing the "good of the spouses" not in mainly material or economic terms, but according to a more truly human, as well as Christian, scale of values. As we have seen, marriage tends to the good of the spouses because it draws them out of themselves: toward each other and toward their children. The effort and sacrifice involved in this self-giving is both the proof of love and the condition for its growth. We have Christ's words for it that along this way of generosity lies fulfillment and happiness. "It is happier to give than to receive"; "Whoever loses his life will find it".
In each child the spouses - co-creators with God - give to one another the most unique gift of love: flesh of their united flesh. Nothing can so cement a marriage. Individual self-centeredness tends to pull spouses apart; children hold them together. Each child is a bond of union created by the parents' love for one another, and subsisting even when the initial romantic attraction between them seems to have faded for ever. So often the children are the factor that keeps parents united, despite the tugs and pulls of softness or selfishness. It is lack of children - or, more concretely, the refusal of children - that can pull spouses apart. "We don't want another child", is the same as saying, "we don't want another bond of union. We have two already". Two may be too few to keep a couple united.
Natural family planning has been a great boon for those many couples who really need it. To let it become a norm or an "ideal" for those who do not need it, is to foster marriages unnecessarily deprived of that "supreme gift" of children which, according to Vatican II, most contributes to the good of the spouses, enriches their lives and strengthens their conjugal love.
Now I pass on to consider another point: how natural family planning - when practiced without sufficient need - can undermine the quality of family life, as well as of married life, and thus possibly contribute to another phenomenon that has become noticeable and serious in recent years: the decline in vocations.
The decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life has become one of the most critical problems facing the Church. The number of workers - in a vastly expanded harvest - has drastically shrunk, at least in developed countries in many of which the number of yearly ordinations is a fraction of what it was a generation ago.
A variety of factors is advanced in explanation of the problem. Some refer to the "identity crisis" among priests and religious. A generation ago, this argument goes, vocations could almost always be traced back to a strong teenage admiration for some priest or nun whose dedicated lives were obviously happy and purposeful. Insofar as a number of priests and religious today fail to reflect a comparable sense of purpose or happiness, it is logical that fewer young people feel attracted to dedicate their own lives. Others point to the growth of materialism and the consumer mentality, or to the general decline of piety among the faithful. Whatever the truth in all of this, I think the root explanation is related to the family background from which vocations tend to come.
It is above all from their parents and from the family atmosphere created by them that young persons acquire their deeper values. It is in the family that the basic dispositions making for a vocation are developed: faith, personal piety, trust in God, concern for others, loyalty, generosity, a readiness for sacrifice. Vatican II insists: "Inspired by the example and family prayer of their parents, children will more easily set out upon the path of a truly human training, of salvation, and of holiness" [93].
It is obvious that there have been many changes in home life over the past forty years or so. A major one is the decline in family unity; such unity is normally a first requisite for the emergence of a vocation. Homes broken through divorce and annulment have enormously increased in this period, and a vocation from a broken home is always an exception. Bishops and Superiors are slow to accept candidates from such a background, also because experience has taught that the matter of perseverance becomes particularly difficult in their cases.
The decline in the number of united homes, however, does not sufficiently explain the vocations crisis. After all, even if one reduces the number of relatively stable families to a third or a quarter of what it was a generation ago, this is still a sizeable number. How is it we are not getting that proportion of vocations?
What is it that has changed within these stable families? Partly, I think, a decline in the spirit of other-centered sacrifice, but mainly the lessening of trust in God, which tends to result from family planning practiced without serious reasons. It is the place given to God in family outlook and affairs that has most changed.
Parents today work as hard as parents did some fifty years ago, some even harder. Yet their children often get little impression of generosity and concern for others in all that effort and sacrifice; it is too self-motivated. A spirit of sacrifice that is not truly centered on others is not likely to inspire generous attitudes. Self-forgetfulness in the service of something more important than self - "losing" one's life for the sake of the Gospel - is a necessary disposition if a vocation is to be followed and flourish. The boy or girl who does not learn that generosity at home is not likely to learn it effectively elsewhere. The setting for acquiring christian values is created only when children sense that they are more important in their parents' eyes than income, relaxation, social life, career or promotion.
What I would particularly like to put forward for consideration is the possible connection between the vocations crisis and the virtual disappearance in western countries of the large family.
Hopefully we have gotten over the rather thoughtless attitude of dismissing large families as "biological accidents". A generation ago, the parents of such families well understood the different forms of contraceptive methods available at the time, and also the existence of what was then commonly referred to as the rhythm method. If they did not have recourse to either, this represented no biological accident but rather the conscious choice to have a larger family: the choice that Paul VI, in Humanae vitae, was to name first among the ways of living responsible parenthood (10).
I think it is accurate to say that, up to the 1960s, this represented a typically Catholic approach to marriage. Moreover, as just about every parish priest knew, this approach was being lived quite naturally by many couples who had basically placed the planning of their marriage in God's hands. Use of the rhythm method was considered an exceptional recourse which, in accordance with Church teaching, was justified only if it corresponded to grave reasons, normally of a medical or financial nature.
It was no accident that many vocations to the priesthood and religious life came from large families, which were real schools of generosity. The give-and-take that necessarily characterizes family life between a sizeable number of brothers and sisters teaches generosity and a concern for others in ways that remain unknown to the only child or to the boy or girl with just one brother or sister.
As teenagers of a generation ago matured in such a family, they gradually took account of the sacrifices their parents had gone through in order to bring the family up. Often too, they could draw a contrast between their family situation and other smaller families around them, and understand that if their own family had fewer of the luxuries that other families could afford, it was because their parents had deliberately chosen to have children rather than comfort.
In such families, too, parents were less likely to object, on grounds of family "economy", to one of their children "sacrificing" his or her life to God. If the parents had other aspiration for their children, there were always several others who could fulfil them. But of course the matter went deeper than that. Usually the parents of the type of family in question reacted very positively to the possible vocation of a son or daughter, and were in fact often the first to encourage it. They were well-disposed to the idea of giving one's life to God, because their own lives were already firmly placed in God's hands.
Today, large families are a rarity, while natural family planning has been spread far and wide among practicing Catholic couples. Are there any grounds for establishing a relationship between family limitation and the decline in vocations? If there are, it seems important to take a serene look at them.
Obviously, family planning in itself leads to smaller families and thus acts as a numerical factor contrary to vocations. That, however, is a surface consideration. The heart of the matter is that natural family planning - when there are no serious reasons for it - works powerfully in the direction of the two factors we mentioned earlier. On the one hand, it is frequently the result of a lack of readiness for sacrifice, or of the channelling of sacrifice in the direction of personal self-affirmation or simple material comfort. On the other hand, and more importantly, it involves a basic attitude of reserve with regard to God's providence.
Children and standards of life
Since about 1960, the choice of many couples to limit their family to two or three children has corresponded less and less to any exceptional difficulty offered by the prospect of a large family, and more and more to the simple desire to avoid the normal difficulties that such a family involves. All of this has tended to bring about a radical change in the way that marriage and the family are understood. Values have become less human and more materialistic.
People sacrifice themselves for the things they think worthwhile. The point is that fewer and fewer couples seem to feel that children - beyond one or two at the most - are worthwhile. Motor-cars, country cottages, overseas holidays - these are all now part of one's standard of life and worth working for. The more one can have of these, the better-off one is. Children are not part of one's standard of life: a family is not "better off" if it has more children. The materialistic, non-christian standard operating here should be evident.
Until a generation ago, most Catholics would have had little difficulty in grasping the deep human truth behind those words of Pope John Paul II that we recalled in the last chapter: "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". Married couples today seem to find it harder to realize that children are values - of a totally unique order - , that to deprive their present children, or themselves, of further members within the family marks a serious limitation or reduction in one's standard of living, and that one only devalues human effort and sacrifice if one works for comfort, prestige, or possessions, rather than for one's children.
A family over-geared to material comfort is certainly not the best seedbed for a vocation. Youth always retains a natural idealism; but a soft upbringing does not favor the serious flowering of ideals. It is almost impossible for a teenager to acquire a spirit of sacrifice unless he or she comes from a family where it has been present. And it will not be present in a family unless it has been first lived by the parents, who then inculcate it in their children [94].
The consumer mentality with its emphasis on possessions and money and calculation does not favor vocations. Where the blessing of poverty of spirit is less present, people's hearts are less drawn to the service of the Kingdom of God.
Trusting God
"Three to get married" was an apt description of the approach of a large number of practicing Catholics of a generation ago, for whom marriage was an adventure whose eventual horizons were determined by God. Married happiness and God's will were inseparably connected. God's will overshadowed everything, and not least of all the family size.
The idea of being cooperators or "helpers of God" (I Cor 3:9) is what gives the Christian the sense of the fundamental meaning and dignity of existence. When imbued by this spirit, married people know that they too are "stewards of the mysteries of God" (I Cor 4:1), and that this implies not only a responsibility but also a privilege. They are cooperating in a design that transcends all human measurements and reference points. When this spirit is present in their parents, children learn it almost without noting. When it is absent, their own lives are not likely to be stirred at the idea of embarking on an adventure of faith and generosity.
While other factors have certainly contributed to the lessening of the supernatural sense of life, family planning can do so in a particular way. With the family planning approach, the divine plan of marriage is no longer unconditionally accepted. God, and God's Will, are kept at a certain distance. The "three to be married" idea is no longer taken seriously. Christian marriage, like secular marriage all around, is reduced to a tandem affair: "just we two". God is no longer welcomed, from the outset, as the senior and more experienced partner. Couples still hope to be blessed with happiness in marriage; but they no longer seem sure about who is going to do the blessing or how it is to come about. Insofar as they hope or pray for God to do it, they are very reserved as regards the extent to which he may wish to bless them with children. It is they, not God, who will decide how far children are to be considered a blessing.
A different sort of Christian family atmosphere is bound to result from this approach, which ultimately involves a radical skepticism about the idea that life is better off if left in God's hands. This idea no longer seems prevalent among married couples. One plans one's marriage as one plans one's vacation.
Which parents, after all, most encourage their children to put their trust in God? Those who practice family planning for trivial or self-centered motives, or those who welcome the children God sends them? What a deep Christian and human truth is expressed in those words of the Catechism, where, under the heading of "The gift of children", it says: "Sacred Scripture and the Church's traditional practice see in large families a sign of God's blessing and the parents' generosity" (no. 2373; emphasis in original).
It figures. Generous parents make for generous children; calculating parents make for calculating children. Unless parents respond generously to their own particular vocation from God, are their children likely to be generous in responding to whatever call God has for each one of them?
A vocation to the priesthood or dedicated life involves a whole-hearted response to what is seen as a divine plan for one's life. It is the free choice of a difficult way that appears both as a challenge and as a privilege. In former times, those deeply Catholic families of the type we have mentioned sensed the great privilege involved in a son's or daughter's vocation. This is what underlaid the expostulation one mother addressed to her own children on hearing the news that a neighbor's son was going on for the priesthood: "Will none of you give me that pride?" No matter how much one discounts the possibly over-human aspects of a comment like that, it clearly shows a priority of a Christian over a material or secular outlook: the values of a parent who is convinced that it is Gods' will or providence, more than any human prudence or planning, that gives meaning to life.
If trust in God's providence is allowed to diminish in a family, things that are then lost include the vision of difficulties and hardship as part of God's will, and therefore as ultimately good and positive. The way things are seen in this respect has a big impact on the question of perseverance of priests and seminarians. So many priests, for instance, have formed their own idea of what service of God and his people should involve, and are frustrated and disheartened if the reality is different. They would have been stronger if they had grown up in a family ready to expect anything of God.
A word could be added on how all of this relates to the Third World in particular. The link between economics, demography and human happiness is not easily established. Some economists attribute the economic ills of the Third World to over-population. Others hold that burgeoning populations are an essential element to economic growth. For our purpose, I would rather bypass that unresolved debate, and suggest two important considerations.
(1) Families in the Third World tend to be larger, poorer, and happier, than those in the West. It is not easy for Westerners to realize the extent to which the people of the Third World, especially in Africa, firmly convinced that children are a blessing, have a natural resistance to family planning ideas. But that resistance can be overcome, and many Western agencies - governmental and non-governmental - are spending constant effort and enormous amounts of money so as to overcome it.
I have just said that Third World families tend to be larger, poorer and happier, than Western families. Of course one finds exceptions, but these do not invalidate the overall fact. This points out alternatives and suggests options. Which is preferable: "larger, poorer and happier", or "smaller, richer and less happy"? Each couple must make their choice; values are certainly put to the test in the choosing.
(2) The other point is that vocations, which are scarce in the West, are abundant in the Third World. And yet church agencies or groups are indiscriminately promoting family planning in many Third World countries, and so fostering approaches to married or family life which have arguably had very much to do with the vocations crisis facing the West.
From long experience I know how surprised Africans are when church sources (and not just secular agencies) methodically encourage them to the use of family planning. They find it hard to reconcile their natural sense that children are a couple's first riches, and the contrary message coming to them, apparently with the claim of being gospel-backed. It means placing an uncommon stress on their faith, and on the quality of their christian family life.
The achievement of the christian ideal in marriage no less than in dedicated life or in the priesthood, depends on faith, on trust in God's fatherly care, on loving acceptance of his will. The natural thing, when married people turn to priests or religious for guidance, is that they be encouraged along ways of generosity; in their hearts it is what they both expect and respect. It is no help to the solidity or happiness of their family life if they are encouraged, without serious need, to frustrate their normal longing for children and to blunt their natural readiness for generosity and sacrifice; nor does it augur well for the solution of the vocations crisis.