The Church was out-hustled by Margaret Sanger and her progeny
When Margaret Sanger attempted to attack the Church’s opposition to contraception, she did so mainly through anecdotal evidence of the thousands of mothers suffering under the burden of too many children. She even went so far as to collect the stories of these women and bind them in a book called Motherhood in Bondage. Sanger thought that once a “need” for birth control was established, the shackles of fertility would be loosened and women everywhere would experience sexual liberation. She was successful because she was appealing to a true need—the need for responsible parenthood. What also enabled Sanger and the Birth Control League to spread the seeds of the sexual revolution so far and wide was that nearly every married couple is touched by this issue at some point in their marriage. In other words, Sanger was seemingly offering a solution to a real problem.
Although the Church was not silent on the issue, she was certainly out-hustled by Sanger and her progeny. By the time Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae in 1968, the question was already settled in most people’s minds, Catholics included. Lacking any “real world” context, members of the Church spent the next half century mostly silent about contraception. However, those who want to generously live out their marital life are waiting for a real solution to this real problem. And in this, the Church needs to break the silence and open the treasury of her teachings on marriage and parenthood.
Once the issue is framed properly, the need to exercise responsible parenthood becomes clear. The unbreakable link between marriage and children carries with it the commandment “to be fruitful and multiply” (c.f. Gen 1:28). A negative commandment like “you shall not kill” tells you to avoid certain actions that “kill” another person. It has an almost absolute certainty with it. But it is difficult to know when a positive command such as the one before us has been fulfilled. Confusion arises when we fail to make this distinction in our minds and treat a positive command in the same absolute sense that we treat a negative command.
Just as the responsible steward must obey the positive command to give alms, so too the responsible spouses must receive children. The obligation is attached to their state in life, but when and how many is largely a matter of circumstance. The vow to “to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church” makes no sense without an awareness of what responsible parenthood means. Ironic is not a strong enough word to describe the fact that most pre-Cana programs discuss practical ways to be responsible stewards but leave it to the spirit of the world to teach the engaged couple to exercise responsible parenthood. Planned Parenthood is only too happy to oblige.
The goal is not to create a casuistic trap but a set of principles by which the spouses can exercise both prudence and generosity. Obviously there is no perfect number of children, although the future St. John Paul II in Love and Responsibility argues that the “morally correct number” of children is at least three so that a communion of persons among the siblings is created. His point is that the exercise of responsible parenthood might in fact mean having more children and not just rules to limit family size.
It was during Sanger’s attack that Pope Pius XII articulated the principles governing responsible parenthood. In his 1951 Allocution to Midwives, Pius offered that “Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called ‘indications,’ may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life.” Guarding against superficial reasoning the Pope called for the exercise of “reasonable and just judgment.” The keyword is just. In discerning the exercise of responsible parenthood, parents must render to each member of the family his or her due. If the addition of another child will deprive one of those members, including the spouses themselves or any of the current children, what is their due, then the responsible thing to do is postpone pregnancy until that situation can be resolved. By taking the emphasis off of “serious” reasons, which always contains a high degree of subjectivity, and placing it upon “just” reasons, which can be objectively measured, the spouses are better equipped to make a decision. In the same address Pius XII spoke extensively on the proper ordering of values, which always keeps one aligned with justice.
In an age where “planned parenthood” has won out over “responsible parenthood” the Church can no longer afford to remain silent on this practical aspect of marriage. There is no room for sound bites about the breeding habits of rabbits. Instead, we need discussion of the principles by which couples might govern their married life while respecting the dignity of the family.