Last week I alluded to the fact that the recent announcement of my pregnancy prompted many of you to ask questions regarding how Catholic couples ought to approach the question of how many children to have. Many of them ran along the lines of these:
How do we know when the time is right for us to have another baby? Or for that matter, how do we know when the time is right for us to stop having babies? Is it wrong to avoid pregnancy strictly for financial reasons? Would it be selfish to have another baby despite my growing older simply because I want one?
Before I attempt to address this topic, I want to begin with a disclaimer: I am no kind of expert and I am not an authority on this subject. There are way too many people out there who pretend to know what is best for everyone and are more than eager to share their family-planning opinions with the world. Just think of the busy bodies who insist upon asking a couple who struggles with infertility, “When are the two of you going to ever have a baby?” And need I mention the reproductive police who patrol the aisles of your local supermarket? “What? Pregnant again? Don’t you two own a television?” No sir. I stoutly refuse to join their ranks.
I will not pretend to know what is best for everyone because of course I do not. How on earth could I? Just as God does not have a single “correct” plan of life for all individuals, neither does He have a single “correct” blueprint for the perfect family size. But of course that’s where the discernment comes in. And that’s where so many of us have questions. We know that we are supposed to make responsible, moral decisions regarding the size of our families, but how exactly do we do that?
Well, let’s see… How should serious Catholics approach making any important decision? We should begin with open hearts and minds. We should consult the teachings of the Church. We should seek spiritual direction if needed. And we should pray.
In Gaudium et Spes Pope Paul VI reminds us that:
Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents.
Then in Humanae Vitae Pope Paul VI further explains:
In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth.
If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier.
So we learn that having children and raising them are the natural and primary purposes of marriage and sex. And it is further made clear that we are called to use only natural, moral means of regulating births and to do so only when we have “grave motives.”
My guess is that most couples who struggle with discerning family size find the “grave motives” part the tricky part. What exactly qualifies as a “grave motive?” Well, if you ask around you can find people who will tell you that nothing short of certain death or destitute poverty qualify as grave motives. And if you ask around some more, you can find people who will tell you that wanting to avoid stretch marks is a grave motive.
I won’t tell you either of those things. What I will tell you is that God knows what qualifies as a grave motive for you and your family and that if you really are wondering what’s best for you and your family, you need to ask Him. That’s where the next part comes in…
Spiritual Direction and Prayer
I firmly believe that those who find themselves at odds with a spouse over whether or not to have another child or those who question their real motives for wanting to have or wanting to postpone another pregnancy can find resolution only through prayer.
If you honestly seek to know and do God’s will, all you need to do is ask Him for help in doing so. He will not fail to answer you. Don’t pray, however, that God will change your husband’s mind and give you permission to have another baby. Don’t pray either that God will open your wife’s eyes to the financial necessity of avoiding another pregnancy. That’s not honest and that’s not open. Pray instead that both you and your spouse will come to know and accept God’s will for your family. And then keep your heart open to hearing the answer, even if it’s not the one you want to hear.
For those who use Natural Family Planning, deciding whether or not to have a baby is not a permanent decision, but a month by month decision. And, as it turns out, in NFP there is a built-in motivator that encourages couples to be open to life and generous with their fertility: Abstinence is neither easy nor fun. Couples who use NFP to avoid pregnancy must ask themselves each month, “Are our reasons for avoiding pregnancy at this time serious enough to warrant this kind of personal sacrifice?” In this way, NFP encourages its users to discern family size thoughtfully, carefully, and generously.
Finally, whatever you decide, during your fertile years I would encourage you to keep the question of having another child open. There are enough couples out there gleefully announcing “No more children for us! No way! Not ever!” and we don’t need to join the anti-life chorus.
For married couples, children are God’s choicest blessings. May we always be mindful of the blessings of children and may God guide us in every decision we make for the betterment of our families.