The Value of Children
The Church teaches that God is the author of marriage and has ordained that it be ordered to the generation of children.
by Kenneth L. Davison, Jr. | Source: Catholic.net
In America today, our society’s prevailing attitudes towards children affect even the Catholic faithful to form often unconscious impediments to properly receiving the teachings of the Church on children and marriage. Pastors need to be aware of these attitudes and squarely confront them in order to shepherd their flocks more effectively in this key aspect of their lives.
For example, one obvious societal attitude is that the “normal” family is composed of two or fewer children, an attitude that is manifested constantly in the media and by individuals who think nothing of expressing surprise, hilarity, shock, and dismay to strangers they meet who have more than this generally acceptable limit — and many a parent accompanied by three or more children has been on the receiving end of an outright lecture of disapproval from an indignant stranger who confronts them in a grocery store or other public place. A
Another conventional attitude is that children are not to be “raised” to become adults as much as they are to be simply allowed to express themselves as people that are really no different from adults, if only smaller.
We could identify any number of such pearls of conventional wisdom regarding children, however an interesting attitude of more recent vintage is that children are analogous to a fashion accessories. They can be added to a “lifestyle wardrobe” or not, as one’s whims so dictate. A simple glance at the covers of any of the popular magazines will reveal this attitude in the publicity surrounding celebrity births and adoptions, and how they fit their children into their glamorous activities, not to mention the articles inside “news” magazines which frequently illuminate the decision-making processes of more common folk (in more or less common circumstances) regarding whether to have a child or not.
Some cynics express the spirit of this practice as being the presentation to oneself of a “trophy child” to reflect another milestone along the modern highway of self-indulgence. The unspoken assumption in most cases is that, just as a pretty scarf or a tie can augment your eveningwear, a child or two may give an added flair to a variety of lifestyles, whether you live in conventional marriage or in any of the alternative “marriages” which may be in vogue, or even as a single man or woman.
Furthermore, just as public opinion has the authority to deem certain fashion accessories taboo (such as furs, crocodile shoes, or ivory jewelry), likewise the number of children or how they are raised are considered to be areas in which society may dictate “do’s” and “don’ts” to the parents.
This modern attitude and those that are closely related to it are the result of three misconceptions of the “purpose” and “effect” of children which I will discuss in this essay. To limit the discussion to the areas in which Catholics most urgently require instruction, I will only address children born and raised within a traditional marriage and focus on the relationship of these children to their parents’ marriage.
Specifically, the threefold misconceptions to be explored are the following: (1) matrimony is fundamentally focused on the good of the husband and wife, so it reaches its fulfillment in the “self-realization” of these two parties; (2) a married couple has a “right to a child” and the corresponding right not to have a child, as it is convenient or desirable to them; and (3) the effect of children on the parents’ “lifestyle” is generally negative, due to a materialistic conception of reality. All three of these misconceptions are addressed in teaching documents of the Church which should be widely distributed to the married and engaged.
I. Marriage is fulfilled by the selflessness which results in children
Many enter marriage today with the intent only to live with and enjoy one another, as evidenced by the growing number of marriages which never result in children. Although marriages later in life and the problems of sterility contribute to this problem, discussions with contemporary couples reveal that many of these childless marriages are childless by design — either the couple did not intend to have children from the beginning, or having children is intentionally postponed until later in the marriage, but the spouses find over time that children never seem to “fit” into what they want out of their married life.
In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II cites as the root of the attack on the family today a corruption of the idea of personal freedom, which in turn undermines the proper understanding of the family and marriage. Based on this corrupted conception of freedom, the modern Western person conceives of the freedom of married couples “not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God’s plan for marriage and the family,” but instead redefines this freedom of the spouses as serving “an autonomous power of self-affirmation . . . for one’s own selfish well-being.”1
Any lay person living in the world can attest to this assessment. We all know people who marry and openly proclaim that they do not want children, because they “want to marry each other, not children.” Add to this the number who get married and still haven’t decided if they even want children. Instead of encouraging the prospective couple to confront this issue, the advice of today is to shelve it until sometime after they’ve been married a while, because the fundamental task of a newly married couple should be “to get to know each other” before determining whether children have any place in their married life.
These are all very common circumstances for entering marriage today, and they are compounded, of course, by our serial marriage culture which welcomes divorce as a proper means to the self-realization of the ex-spouse — which adds an aura of insecurity and uncertainty to the period even after the wedding ceremony, creating a tendency to postpone children until such time that the couple is “sure this marriage will work out.” When this time arrives — or when it hasn’t and the spouses have separated and entered into another marriage which does seem “sure” — how many then find that the woman’s fertile period has slipped by?
The primary misunderstanding underlying this is the idea that marriage is centered on the husband and wife, while, on the contrary, the Church teaches that God’s institution of marriage is also ordered to the good of children. Sacred Scripture reveals this in Genesis 1:28 in which the first command of God to his newly created humans is, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. . . .” St. Thomas Aquinas agrees that the primary focus of marriage as revealed in Scripture is to have children.
Aquinas notes not only that Genesis 1 reveals that God established in the state of innocence before the Fall the primary duty of married life as the begetting of children,2 but he goes on to reinforce this conclusion through an analysis and synthesis of the other creation story of Genesis 2. Aquinas comments that the additional command to the newly created humans in Genesis 1:28 to “subdue” the earth and “have dominion over” would more efficiently have been accomplished by creating another man as the “helper” referred to in Genesis 2:18.
Instead of a man, however, God created a woman as the “helper,” signifying to Aquinas that God is addressing the need to have a helper to fulfill the first command, not the second, leading him to conclude that having children and raising them is the divine purpose for the institution of marriage.3
Church teaching on this point is more nuanced, but upon a close inspection very clear: marriage is instituted for the sake of children first, and spousal benefit second, because there is no real conflict between these two objectives, despite the conventional wisdom that this is a zero-sum game which means the spouses must either jealously guard their personal good or sacrifice it by working for the good of their children.
While the Code of Canon law introduces the sacrament of matrimony by stating that marriage is “ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (canon 1055§1, my italics), other Church documents clearly put these two purposes in perspective relative to each other and suggest the latter point has predominance. Thus the Catechism refers to Familiaris Consortio in declaring that “the fundamental task of marriage . . . is to be at the service of life,” (CCC 1653) which John Paul II further specifies is accomplished by “actualiz[ing] in history the original blessing of the creator . . . of transmitting by procreation the divine image from person to person” (FC 28).
Vatican II teaches that the “very nature” of married love is not spousal development, but that “matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and . . . in them . . . [are found] their ultimate crown” (Gaudium et Spes 48; see also GS 50).
Furthermore, an understanding of how man discovers his true self, how he truly achieves “self-realization,” is marvelously revealed to be through having children in marriage, not by focusing on the spouses.
Man discovers himself only in sacrificing himself as Jesus did to the will of God and for others. In marriage this sacrifice is enacted by sacrificing one’s procreative capacity to God’s will and to the spouse in the totally self-giving act of uncontracepted sexual relations, which can result in a new life which will in turn require of the parents further acts of self-sacrifice on an ongoing basis.
In other words, only by this total sacrifice to the spouse can one be open to the greatest knowledge of self — to true “self realization,” not the contemporary counterfeit which presents this realization as accomplished by spousal selfishness.
Instead of seeing children as interfering with the “fulfillment” of the individual spouses in the marriage, being open to children is the only means to actually achieve this fulfillment: the total sacrifice of oneself in a single act of conjugal relations which is totally self-giving creates the potential for an even broader and deeper sacrifice to the needs of not only the spouse, but to another person born of that act of marriage who will require new and different forms of sacrifice. John Paul II writes that the gift of oneself to one’s spouse in marriage “does not end with the couple, because it makes them capable of the greatest possible gift, the gift by which they become cooperators with God for giving life to the new human person,” allowing the spouses the opportunity to “transform their whole lives into a ‘spiritual sacrifice”’ (FC 14, 56).
II. Every child is a wanted child — when you are properly ordered to God
Once we realize that spouses are joined in marriage not to “get” for themselves but to “give” to children, that the “fulfillment” of marriage is not each spouse “getting” more from the other spouse, but in “giving” more completely to the spouse which includes giving to the children that their union begets, we can begin to shed light on the second modern misconception, which is that the spouses have the “right” to a child or not, as they see fit.
In the modern world, not only do we see all sorts of contraception technologies to prevent an “unwanted” child, either permanently or temporarily, but, on the other hand, we also see the irony of a tremendous range of artificial conception techniques, from in vitro to surrogate mothers to sperm banks and beyond, as individuals lay claim to a child.
Furthermore, the child that is claimed is often intended to be a “designer child” with just the sex and other qualities desired to meet the “parents” particular needs as they see them. The underlying assumption is that the right to be a parent or not is prior to the right of a child to be born.
The Church teaches that this assumption turns on its head the proper perspective of the “rights” of the parents and the child. The Catechism says a child is “not something owed to one, but is a gift,” and since a child is a human person, he cannot be reduced to a piece of property, which is the assumption underlying such a “right to a child” mentality (CCC 2378 — quotation marks in original). If a child is a “gift,” then, does a good Catholic have the option to refuse the gift? The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addresses this question directly by arguing that it is the child, not the spouses, who have genuine “rights” in this area! It is the child who has the right “to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents,”; spouses, therefore, have no “right” to either interfere with any specific conjugal act to prevent the conception of a child, nor do they have a right to promote conception outside the conjugal act.4
Parents do not have a “right” to the arrival of a child, nor to specific characteristics of a child, nor to choose which conjugal acts may result in a child. The Bible provides additional perspective on this issue by addressing the obligations the spouses have to actually engage in sexual relations, which can be seen to have further implications regarding the obligation to have children.5
St. Paul teaches that, by marrying, one is giving to the spouse the right to sexual relations (1 Cor. 7:3-5). Although he also allows abstinence, he stresses that this should only occur with mutual consent and be only for short periods (1 Cor. 7:5). It follows from the above that, by engaging in sexual relations, they both must allow a child the “right” to be conceived of each of their conjugal unions and that this is expected in marriage as a matter of course.
In summary, the Church’s constant teaching is that it is not the parents who determine whether a child is “wanted;” if God wills a child to be conceived by a specific sexual act, the child is by definition “wanted,” and the parents “wants” have no relevance in the matter (except that they should also want what God wants).
III. Children are a blessing, not a burden — when viewed from heaven
The final modern misconception derives primarily from the prevalent limited and materialistic conception of reality. Many couples see a child as creating a drain on their material resources, thereby having a negative impact on their “lifestyle,” notwithstanding any emotional benefit a child may give them.
Beyond the household impact, we are all aware that today’s conventional wisdom is that each human individual is a burden upon the environment, a mouth to feed that drains the world’s food supply, and a depleter of the earth’s natural resources. In other words, each additional child born has a negative impact on mankind as a whole.
The correct perspective, however, is that this world is a preparation for the next, so we cannot reckon the cost-benefit of a child purely from an earthly, materialistic perspective. The Church reminds us that “physical life . . . certainly does not itself contain the whole of a person’s value, nor does it represent the supreme good of man who is called to eternal life.”6
Instead of simply calculating the economic cost to the family to feed, clothe, and otherwise raise a child, we must recognize the spiritual implication that every child not conceived on earth cannot go to heaven. We are truly “populating heaven” by having children! This was best expressed by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii, 15:
Both husband and wife, however, receiving these children with joy and gratitude from the hand of God, will regard them as a talent committed to their charge by God, not only to be employed for their own advantage or for that of an earthly commonwealth, but to be restored to God with interest on the day of reckoning.
In addition, the Church teaches that children have a positive spiritual effect on the parents, which must be considered. We could say that the children are also helping to “populate heaven” by providing spiritual benefits to their parents! Vatican II taught that “children contribute in their own way to making their parents holy” and that they “contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents.”7
Pope Paul VI indicated how this is so: “all the members [of a family] evangelize and are evangelized. The parents not only communicate the Gospel to their children, but from their children they can themselves receive the same Gospel as deeply lived by them.”8
Furthermore, Vatican II reminds us that it is by their very economic impact that children help to sanctify their parents, because the sacrifice and generosity the parents must practice are spiritually beneficial, not, as the conventional wisdom would have it, a “negative” (GS 48-50).
Finally, in response to those who argue that human beings have a negative effect on the material resources of the planet, one must respond that each individual can have a positive spiritual impact on society, and that these spiritual goods are those that endure when the material has passed away.
The family, which John Paul II stresses is only realized in its “full and specific sense” as parents with children, serves primarily to bring the Gospel to all of society (FC 69, 42). The Church teaches that the family is the “first and vital cell of society” in imparting positive social values, morality, and spiritual benefits.9
We have seen that the Church teaches that three of the popular attitudes regarding children today derive from spousal selfishness in their conception of the purpose of marriage, the discounting of any interests outside of the couple itself which should influence the decision to bring children into the world, and an earthly, materialistic conception of reality that ignores the eternal, spiritual dimension of human life.
These attitudes result in the view that children are analogous to the property of a married couple, property which can be demanded or refused, as the couple sees fit. At the root of these misunderstandings is the refusal to comprehend the revelation that God is a fundamental actor in marriage and in the conception of every child. If God is excluded from a marriage, then we can expect misconceptions of this sort about the purpose of children and their effect on parents to certainly result.
But the Church teaches that God is the author of marriage and has ordained that it be ordered to the generation of children. Furthermore, God has revealed that he is as intimately involved in the conception of every child as the child’s parents, an understanding which, if taken to heart by married couples, can go far in correcting these and other misconceptions about the value of children in our modern world.
The conventional wisdom of our society is opposed to these truths about marriage and children, so pastors have an obligation to speak up as a “sign of contradiction” to educate the Christian faithful so that they, too, will not be swept away by the currents of secular public opinion.
From the beginning, God has urged his people to marry, commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply,” and promised that he will be with those who obey his command. If the Christian married can be taught to stand up in opposition to these misconceptions of society, they will be blessed with the knowledge that their marriage and their children are instruments of cooperation with God, they can share the same insight that burst forth from Eve upon giving birth to the world’s first child, when she joyfully understood that God allowed her, despite her sins against him, to play a part with him in the creation of new, eternal life: “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Gen. 4:1).
1 John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 6. Hereafter all cites occur in the text as “FC.”
2 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-Q98, A1.
3 Aquinas, ST, I-Q92, A1. Although Aquinas argues in Article 2 of this same question that man and wife are united for domestic work, as well, this is clearly subordinate to the primary duty to generate new life.
4 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Donum vitae, II, 8. See also II, 5-6. This entire document discusses efforts to overcome infertility and concludes that those enhancements to fertility that do not interfere with the conjugal act as the sole basis for conception are morally allowed, while technologies which separate conception from the conjugal act are not moral.
5 Humanae Vitae allows for recourse to the non-fertile period when spouses agree to space births, but this must be for “grave reasons,” so is not intended to be a method to avoid the purpose of marriage.
6 Donum vitae, 4.
7 Gaudium et Spes, 48, 50.
8 Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 71.
9 Vatican II, Apostolicam Actuositatem, 11.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994).
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Instruction Donum Vitae. February 22, 1987.
John Paul II. Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. December 15, 1981.
Paul VI. Encyclical Letter Evangelii Nuntiandi. December 8, 1975.
Pius XI, Encyclical Letter Casti Connubii. December 31, 1930.
Vatican Council II. Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes. December 7, 1965.
Vatican Council II. Apostolicam Actuositatem. November 18, 1965.
Mr. Kenneth L. Davison, Jr., has a B.S. from the U.S. Air Force Academy and an M.A. from Oxford University (where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar). He is currently working towards a Master of Theological Studies from Ave Maria University in the Institute for Pastoral Theology. He lives in Livermore, California, with his wife and four children — who are eagerly awaiting the birth of the fifth.
Reprinted with permission from Homiletic and Pastoral Review. All rights reserved.