A few years ago Pope Francis made headlines by saying that Catholics did not have to ‘be like rabbits’.
“That example I mentioned shortly before about that woman who was expecting her eighth child and already had seven who were born with caesareans. That is a an irresponsibility That woman might say ‘no, I trust in God.’ But, look, God gives you means to be responsible. Some think that — excuse the language — that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood. This is clear and that is why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors, one can search; and I know so many ways that are licit and that have helped this.”
He was contradicting an idea present in some corners of Catholicism that good Catholic spouses should strive to have as many children as possible. Pope Francis pointed out that the correct approach here is responsible parenthood. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI said, “responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”
Catholics have argued about these “serious reasons” for some time and there are those who are inclined to interpret “serious reasons” in a very narrow, limiting way. But my question is this.
Is not love itself a serious reason? Here’s what I mean.
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul gave a commandment to husbands to love their wives as their own bodies. “He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church”. It is significant that this love of a husband for his wife manifests itself in care for the most basic needs of the body.
This love that concerns itself with bodies is not limited to spousal love either. It’s also demonstrated in the parable of the good Samaritan.
In that parable the Samaritan feeds and cares for the body of the man beaten by robbers and left for dead. He treats the man’s wounds, puts him up at an inn at his own expense, and makes sure he is given food and drink to bring his health back.
In doing so he fulfills the great commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself”.
Likewise, when Jesus defines how he will separate the just from the damned, it is also in terms of the care of bodies, for the ones that will depart into everlasting fire are those that did not feed the hungry, or clothe the naked, or give drink to those who thirst. But those that ministered to Jesus in the person of those who were hungry, thirsty, and naked will join him in the Kingdom.
The point is clear that in the Gospels love is first of all a concern for the physical well being of others and assisting them in their bodily needs.
This has an immediate bearing on the life of married couples. In an ideal world, like Eden before the Fall, childbearing would not have been a problem. The commandment to “go forth and multiply” would have never conflicted with the duty of Adam to love Eve “as his own body”.
But in the fallen world that we actually live in, duties sometime conflict. Having children, unfortunately, can be very rough on the physical and mental well being of women. Procreation is and will always be a fundamental good of marriage, but so is St. Paul’s command for husbands to love their wives. And caring for their bodies will sometimes mean that procreation must not happen.
Naturally that leads to the question of conflict resolution. Who would win in a fight, the good of procreation or the good of love?
“There is no question of opposing love to procreation nor yet of suggesting that procreation takes precedence over love, ” Pope John Paul II wrote in Love & Responsibility.
Indeed, it would be obscene if the good of procreation were to take precedence over love. This would subordinate persons to a good of nature and in the hierarchy of creation, persons should not be subject to sub-personal goods. Christian marriage is a sacrament of love. A procreative love to be sure, but still love. And the subordination of persons to a purely natural good would not be love at all.
The Pharisee knew that the “neighbor” was the one that showed mercy to the physical needs of the man beaten by robbers. Likewise, because of the hardship that pregnancy often entails on the bodily well-being of women, husbands can also fulfill the Great Commandment to love by responding mercifully to the corporal difficulties that procreation can create for their wives or their children, or the family as a whole (because in a way the whole family is ‘one flesh’).
Is that a serious enough reason? Well, to paraphrase St. Paul,
“If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. And if I have the gravest, rarest, and most life threatening reason in the whole universe for practicing NFP, but am without love, then I am nothing at all.”
If you’re motivated by that love that Paul commands spouses to have for each other, that love which is merciful, that love which cares for the other as oneself, how could that not be a serious reason? And if not motivated by that love, how could any reason be just?
In other words, a reason for responsible parenthood is “serious” not because of how grand or dramatic the situation is, considered purely objectively. But whether or not it is motivated interiorly by a love that manifests itself in care for the body – ‘as oneself’.
Sometimes you encounter the attitude that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”. Well, the Church obviously thinks spouses can have more than they can handle, otherwise NFP would not be legitimate or possible in those physical, psychological, economic, and social conditions that Pope Pius XII said arise “not rarely”.
This attitude that “God never gives us more than we can handle”, when applied to someone who is experiencing great difficulties, can become the opposite of love. It devolves into: “Suck it up baby, suffering is good for you, and if you die in childbirth, hey at least you got to Heaven right? I mean, think of all the SOULS that you brought to God!”
But “which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
God never gives us more than we can handle was the philosophy of the rich man who ignored the beggar Lazarus. That the rich man helped Lazarus to suffer and so indirectly helped him into Heaven was not counted as virtue for the rich man. On the contrary, the rich man wound up in Hell.
In the end, God is not going to count the number of babies you procreated for him or be impressed with how much suffering you allowed your spouse and your family to experience. He will simply recognize you as the one who did, or did not, show him mercy in the flesh of your spouse.