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By Father Matthew Habiger, OSB | A moral theologian, former president of HLI and noted expert on Natural Family Planning, Fr. Habiger is a monk at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas. Contact him at email@example.com.
Ranking high among the most important decisions a couple will make during their married life, is the number of their children. Marriage and family go together. If a child has not arrived after two years of marriage, the couple begins to feel that something is missing in their relationship. Infertility problems can cause great duress. The couple desperately wants to enjoy the blessing of their own children, but they cannot. Today about 20% of young couples experience some form of infertility. Natural Family Planning (NFP) is a great help in overcoming infertility in a morally good, and effective, way.
Many people think that this decision is left entirely to the discretion, or whims, of the couple. A short reflection upon this will indicate that this is not true. Yes, ultimately only the couple can decide upon the size of their family. But, No, they are not absolutely autonomous in making these decisions. By far, the most important treasures for a husband and wife are their gift to each other, and the gift of their children. Everything else, e.g., money, property, status, luxury items, etc., completely pale in significance to those very special persons, called children, the progeny of your own flesh and blood.
As a monk and priest, the good Lord has asked me to remain celibate. The celibate is called to be single hearted in his/her focused devotion to the Lord, and in the service of His people. But I assure you, the celibate person has the same longings as anyone else for the intimacy of marriage, and for the joy of holding and hugging his/her own children. In other words, everyone instinctively recognizes the goodness of marriage, spousal love and family. Part of a priest or religious’ role is to strengthen marriages and to foster healthy, happy families. In my work with NFP Outreach, I am constantly reminded of this. We do this by teaching God’s plan for marriage, spousal love and family, and helping people see the beauty of that plan.
A child is both a gift and a challenge. A person is the most complex thing that God created. We can enter into relationships only with other persons, our peers, who share the same God-given human dignity. Any relationship will bring challenges with it. When a couple chooses to have a baby, they are making an 18-20 year commitment to that person. That is how long it takes to bring a child to self-sustaining maturity. This is a huge commitment! But it is also very rewarding.
Simply reflect upon the delight that each of us has experienced from the constant and devoted care that our parents gave us as we were growing up, and when our personalities were taking on their definitive contours. Each of us can recall many examples of times when we presented real challenges to our parents’ patience, understanding and ingenuity. We were constantly changing, experimenting with new ideas, forming new relationships – all of which required some monitoring and guidance from our parents. We went through different moods; we defied authority and resisted well-deserved criticism; we gave precedence to numero uno. All of this gives proof to the doctrine of Original Sin. Our parents were always there to guide us through these perilous moments. The older we became, the more complex and challenging our difficult moments were for our parents.
Yes, bringing a son or daughter to the level of maturity that equips him to deal with the normal perplexities of life is a great accomplishment. It required a lot of sweat, tears, worry and determination on the part of our parents, all of which was motivated by love. In our chastened opinion, we think that we deserved all this nurture from our parents. And, in truth, this is part of the joy of parenting. Real love is always self- sacrificial. That means that love can be very demanding at times.
Mothers tell you that they never stop worrying about their children, no matter how old they are. That is what mothers do, because that is the way God designed them. Fathers, in their own way, are also always concerned about the welfare of their children. Grandparents love their grandchildren, because in them they see a continuation of the community of love and life they fist formed in their marriage. It is very likely that young parents only begin to appreciate all that their parents did for them as children, when they begin to nurture and parent their own children. Some insights come late in life.
Why should a young couple be open to having a large family? God has a plan for all the important mattes in our lives. He knows exactly how many children He wishes to send to a given couple. He already knows the names of these children. He knows that the greatest gift He can bestow upon a couple is the gift of the child. Couples with large families understand this. God’s plan for marriage is that a man and woman fall in love, and then commit themselves to sharing their lives together into the unknown future. Marriage is an intimate communion of love and life. Spousal love, as God designed it, is always open to the goodness of love and to the goodness of life. These two dimensions are part of every spousal act. Because God designed spousal love this way, these two dimensions are inseparable. “What God has united, let no man take apart.” All love is life giving. It is never intentionally made sterile. All marital love is modeled upon God’s love within the Trinitarian communion of divine persons. And God’s love is always life giving. It is never sterile.
The happiest couples are those who are consciously open to doing the will of God in their marriages. That is why NFP couples have such a small divorce rate. They know God’s plan for them, and they consciously choose to direct their lives according to that plan. True, real life brings its tensions and crosses. But these inescapable realities prepare the couple for attaining deeper levels of their relationship in love and devotion. When you are open to life, you become a very generous person. Your horizons are expanded beyond your wildest expectations. Your capacity to give and receive love exceeds anything you thought possible.
We need to keep in mind that there are some very generous people at heart, who carry heavy burdens. They have grave reasons for postponing another pregnancy. Perhaps they are financially strapped, or have health problems, and are just doing the best they can in their present circumstances. NFP is there precisely to help people with just reasons. For such a couple, having another child at this point in time is NOT God’s will for them, and they should wait until they are better prepared to take on additional responsibilities. They cooperate with God’s will for them, and use good prudential judgment.
There are some couples whose infertility cannot be changed. The Catechism teaches: “The Gospel shows that physical sterility is not an absolute evil. Spouses who still suffer from infertility after exhausting legitimate medical procedures should unite themselves with the Lord’s Cross, the source of all spiritual fecundity. They can give expression to their generosity by adopting abandoned children or performing demanding services for others” (CCC 2379).
Too many couples today take their criteria for the size of their family from the social propriety of the present moment. But does this make sense? Major decision in your life should not be based on popular trends, today’s popular talk shows, the Green People, cultural élites who shape public opinion, population myths and those skeptics who think that God is incapable of providing for the material needs of all His people. I am baffled to find Catholics who are more influenced by secular trends on this issue, than by their Faith and their relationship with God.
Perhaps couples don’t have much of a relationship with God. That can be rectified. Begin associating with couples who have found God and who delight in discovering His will for them and their marriage. Ask them how they do this. Begin to use all the helps and graces God has given us by means of His Church. Get to know the Author of all life, the Source of all love, the Designer of marriage, spousal love and family, and the Creator of all that exists. Get into a relationship with God. He has been waiting for us a long time.
Perhaps couples do not know their Faith. That can be corrected. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Read the 16 documents of Vatican II, especially The Church in the Modern World, sections 48-51. Read Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and John Paul II’s The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, and his Letter to Families.
If children are a blessing from God, then it makes sense that we should maximize these blessings. Surveys show that couples using NFP usually have more sex, and enjoy it more, than couples who contracept. They also have more to show for their conjugal life. The first Commandment in the Bible is “Increase and multiply!”
On a purely natural plane, small and child-deprived families cause many of our social problems today. The shortage of young workers and taxpayers now imperils social security and pension plans. Look at Japan, Russia, China and Western Europe. Families are the greatest consumers. If you want an economy to thrive, then don’t discourage your best customers and greatest consumers. A vibrant nation requires the energy and talents of its youth. Do not support groups that discourage parents from having their families, and guide them to shift their focus to their own comfort and luxury. A vibrant Catholic community needs many moral guides and spiritual leaders, e.g., priests and religious. These invariably come from generous families who are strong in the Faith. The present crisis in priestly and religious vocations is directly related to child-deprived families, contraception and sterilization.
How many children should you have? This is a very important question. It deserves your best and sustained thinking. Before you close the door to accepting a new life into your family — your intimate communion of love and life — ask God what He wants for you, for your marriage and family. If you ask, He will tell you. Remember, your children will exist forever.
Many men with large families have told me, “I can’t imagine my life without all my children.” Would it not be a great tragedy if a couple were to come to the end of their lives, and wonder what it could have been if they had been more generous with their God and His plan for them?
How many children? The choice is yours. Make it a good, and generous, choice.
Please note: In his work with NFP Outreach, Father Matthew offers NFP Parish Retreats and Parish Missions on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Theology of the Body. If you are interested in hosting on of these missions or retreats, contact Father Matthew at firstname.lastname@example.org.