Plato saw fertility as the expression sought by beauty, Proclus saw fertility as the metaphysical property of goodness, Aristotle saw it as the way in which all things strive to partake of the divine fullness of life. Ancient religions were characterized by cults, goddesses, rites, and offerings focused on fertility.
The central theme of wedding ceremonies was always fertility, begetting and bearing new life. Traditional initiation rites always centered around the new and mysterious power of generation—the body or girl became man or woman because they could now exercise paternity or maternity, in common with their elders in society. And always, there was seen to be something truly godlike, divine, in this power of procreation, because it reflected the power of creation hidden in the depths of nature or in the heart of the creative God. Just as man was called upon to exercise “providence” or foresight in imitation of God, so too he was called upon to participate in the work of creation.
This is what the pagans already perceived, groping in the shadows of a world without revelation, unenlightened by the splendor of the Christian truth that God lives a life of infinite fruitfulness in the relations of the Most Holy Trinity.
And how beautiful, in the Old Testament, was the attitude of Tobias and Sara! “We are the children of saints, and we must not be joined together like heathens that know not God . . . And now, Lord, thou knowest that not for fleshly lust do I take my sister to wife, but only for the love of posterity, in which Thy name may be blessed for ever and ever.” The great Blaise Pascal says in his Pensées that children are so much the good of marriage that married people who avoid them are worse than fornicators: “It is not the nuptial blessing which takes away the sin from procreation, but the desire to procreate children for God, which is only genuine in marriage. . . [T]he daughters of Lot, for example, who only wanted to have children, were purer without marriage than married people with no desire for children.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Aristotle’s Ethics, says that children are the common bond of the married. Indeed, even Baruch Spinoza, so much a modern that he asserted things in nature do not act for an end and that final causes are the product of our imagination, could not deny in his own Ethics that marriage is inherently bound up with children.
In Homo Viator, Gabriel Marcel keenly puts his finger on the contradiction at the heart of birth control: “The advocates of birth control claim more or less sincerely that it is out of pity for their possible descendents that they refuse to give them the chance of existence; but we cannot help noticing, all the same, that this pity which is bestowed at small cost, not upon living beings but upon an absence of being or nothingness, is found in conjunction with a suspiciously good opportunity for indulging the most cynical egoism, and can scarcely be separated from an impoverished philosophy which measures the value of life by the pleasures and conveniences it provides.”
When man can dominate his ability to have children and uses this dominion to prevent children from coming into existence, this abusive power already shows a divorce between his life (a parcel of particular desires, ambitions, anxieties, etc.) and the goodness of life itself, which is endlessly sharable. In other words, even if the man or woman presumably finds his or her own existence a good, being itself is not felt to be a simple good to be multiplied. Existence is either neutral or negative; one brings a child into the world calculating the net profits and losses.
Better health coupled with an unbounded desire to share God’s gifts of love and life should naturally have led, in modern times, to larger and healthier families than in the past. The fact that this has not happened indicates the dark side of the motivation behind the development of modern technology. Contraception means spiritual death, the death of the natural “love affair” with life.
If ever children are not the focus of a young man’s or young woman’s desires, both the individual and the society must be profoundly diseased. There has been an atrophying of the will to live; the most elemental love of all, love of being, has waned almost to the point of vanishing. Marcel also says: “The woman who is expecting a baby is literally inhabited by hope.” Could it not be true to say that those who avoid a baby at all costs, or get rid of a baby in the womb, are driven by a gnawing despair, inhabited by emptiness?
Life is the first and most basic good, the one prior to and foundational of all others. We are talking here about an unconscious, prevoluntary attitude: the love of life simply speaking, and the innate desire to share it, produce it, foster it.
The goodness of life is unquestioned save by those who kill themselves (and even such people believe they will be “better off” ending their lives than continuing in the misery or anguish they are feeling—in this way testifying that life would be worth living were it not for those circumstances, which they falsely judge to be unbearable or meaningless). It is clear that mankind as a whole feels a fundamental and unquestioned attachment to life, and if asked, would declare that life is the first and most basic of all good things, without which any other good would be impossible.
Thus, to reach a point where life itself is avoided like the plague or thrown away as though it meant nothing, was worth nothing, as though we ourselves had the right to decide when or if a life should be lived, and not only our own life but another’s life—to reach this point is already to have been torn from the value of life, divorced from one’s bond to the world, detached from the elementary love of being itself, and deceived into thinking that life is something over which we have final authority.
We ourselves would deny that fictitious right to anyone else if we had committed no crime; but we then allow ourselves to sit in a tyrannical court of judgment over the lives of human beings, of future men and women like ourselves, yet with this crucial difference: they have done absolutely nothing to deserve being cut off from existence. On the contrary, the hearts of true lovers are yearning for growth and life, and so too is the human child that proceeds naturally from their love.
In the battle over marriage, procreation, and the defense of life, we must realize that we are up against a combination of metaphysical nihilism and spiritual egoism vastly more powerful than any human army or political system—a demonic corruption of mind and heart, which sound education and the example of a life well lived can prevent from spreading, but which ultimately will refuse to be driven out except by prayer, fasting, and martyrdom.