Has the Church succumbed to an anti-family culture?

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Prince George (Photo: CNS)

Having blogged about large families on Friday (inspired, naturally, by the birth of Prince George of Cambridge) I have decided I am on a bit of a roll. A friend who has ten children – she says she was influenced by the example of Victoria Gillick who also has ten children – has sent me an article from Christian Order in the edition of May 2013. I am not generally a great fan of Christian Order which seems to me always too negative about the Church, but I did read this article with some interest. Written by Christopher Gawley, it is titled “Heroic Parenthood” and I think it does deserve some consideration.
Gawley’s thesis is that the Church, without intending to, has succumbed to the secular anti-family, contraceptive culture surrounding it.

This is because although the Church deplores the contraceptive, small family bias of modern society, it does not present the true message of Catholic teaching, especially as it is contained in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The Church tells Catholics to follow the path of natural family planning (NFP) or natural family fertility awareness – but without stressing that it should only be followed for grave reasons. In other words, if NFP is viewed merely as the “natural” alternative to artificial contraception it is, as its critics often point out, simply contraception by other means. The fact that it is also ecologically friendly is beside the point.

This, Gawley contends, is why Church teaching has failed in this area. Few Catholics understand the Church’s proper teaching on marriage and openness to life; even fewer follow it; and the result is that Catholic families tend to look and behave just like their secular counterparts. With rare exceptions, they are not the sign of contradiction that they ought to be. I think there is a lot of truth in Gawley’s argument; even if I rather feebly challenge him with “We can’t all be heroes”, the answer comes back, “That is precisely what Catholic families are called to be.”

There are indeed grave reasons for limiting the size of one’s family; mental or physical illness or incapacity, severe poverty, the violence or alcoholism of a spouse and so on; but I think it is also likely that couples persuade themselves of problems that require them to limit their families when, with generosity and trust, they could be surmounted. Gawley believes that only heroic parenthood and the decision to embrace a large family will renew the Church from within and influence the surrounding culture for the better. Indeed, he says the world “will be converted” by such families – in the same way that the world is transformed by the witness of saintly lives.

In his postscript to his article, Gawley writes: “While it would be virtually unthinkable that a diocesan marriage preparation programme might say something as follows, we can still dream: For you young Catholic people who are marrying on your 20s, you can expect, God willing and absent a physical impairment or grave reason, to have a home filled with many children. You should mentally, physically and spiritually prepare for seven, eight, nine or more children, given your ages.

“You should be prepared to accept the hardships that come with having a large family for two important reasons: children please Our Lord and your co-operation with the Lord in bringing forth new souls will in turn please our God who will bring you many graces. Second: having a large family will help you be saved; it will re-focus your attention from the material attachments that are both rampant today and hazardous to your eternal destination.

“Your many children will help you to become better and holier people and will stand as a contradiction to a world that has forgot how to live the abundant life. You, and your large faithful families, will turn the tide against the scoffers and misanthropes who would revile God’s creation and man’s place in it. We cannot promise you it will be easy because it won’t, but if you persevere in prayer and virtue, you will overcome, with God’s grace…Have life and have it abundantly – have children.”

Having typed out this daunting statement – rather a far-off diocesan dream, as its author indicates – I find its message unassailable. It reminds me that we Catholics are not called to be ordinary, Mr and Mrs Average, heads-below-the-parapet types. We are called to be saints.