Bishops should stop worrying about decline and start encouraging couples to be open to life

The Duggar family on NBC News's Today show (Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via AP Images)

A friend who has 10 children (so she has a stake in the subject) has suggested that I blog about large families. My initial response was to think “Oh no, that’s so – er – Catholic”, meaning “how on earth is it relevant to today’s news?” Then I thought again: am I not a Catholic and is this not a Catholic blog site and are not large Catholic families more than relevant to any news item: whether it is about economics, marriage, children’s welfare, education, housing, pensions, feminism, crime and everything else – such families matter hugely.

My friend who suggested the blog directed me to the Duggar family of America, who are expecting baby number 20. A photo on their family blog shows a mass of children and young people, all holding guitars or violins. They look very happy and jolly and are clearly emulating Johann Sebastian Bach’s family, both in size and musical interest. Then this morning, an online magazine I subscribe to called Mercator had an item about the Allaire family of Quebec; proud father Georges has written a memoir about his and his wife Danielle’s family: Then There Were Ten; this was followed by a sequel: A Baker’s Dozen. He hasn’t yet written the third part as life is still unfolding. Their Christmas card is crammed with a sea of smiling faces.

I started to compile a list of the large families I know: it includes a valiant matriarch of 12 children from New York, who now has over 80 grandchildren, and who was once imprisoned in her 70s for taking part in a (peaceful) pro-life demonstration (the worst thing, she told me, was being strip-searched by the guards). It includes a lovely family from Birmingham with 14 children, including a son who is a seminarian and a daughter who is a nun; a wacky Mum from Wales, a convert who used to sport tattoos and an Apache hairstyle, and who has now nine children; a family in Oxford with 11, including twins and triplets; an elderly couple on the Borders, both converts, who have 12. I also know several “smaller” families with six, seven or eight children. None of them would say that life has been easy, but somehow they manage to exude a kind of stalwart sanity, generosity and humour that is forgotten in the endless debates about family size, helicopter parenting, working mothers and “can you have it all?”

It goes without saying that you do not have to be a Catholic to have a large family (though it helps). Fr Ian Hellyer, a former Anglican minister and now a member of the Ordinariate, who featured recently in the Catholic Herald, has 10 children. And it is not true, as those outside the Church sometimes think, that Catholics are “ordered” by the Pope to have as many children as possible. Yet it is also true that people often regret in later life not having had more children.

The Cure of Ars, about whom William Oddie blogged earlier this week, once made a typically robust remark to mothers to the effect that “When you die God will ask you about the children you refused to have.” (This is not an exact quote as the booklet it comes from, Thoughts of the Cure of Ars, which I keep in the glove compartment of my car, along with a rather nice pocket edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, was once half-eaten by one of my children when young). But it makes the point that we are often too afraid or too selfish to be open to life.

Memo to our bishops: stop staring at spreadsheets and managing decline; instead, why not be heroic – and preach and write pastorals about Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical? There must be a quote from the Cure of Ars about bishops – if only I could find it…