When modern society thinks of attacks that strike at the heart of marriage, the arguments typically center on same-sex “marriage” and divorce. However, there is another subtler phenomenon that is also taking place; the intentional decision to never have children. This occurrence is becoming more prevalent with each passing year as more articles and blogs are written defending the practice. Many people cite reasons of “freedom” without really knowing what that word really means.
An insightful blog by author Ana Henry begins to highlight some of the problems of intentionally childless marriages. One particularly troublesome outlook is that some married couples seem to equate pets with children. While there is nothing wrong with having a pet, these couples buy a pet and call it their “child” thinking they can share the same kind of love with the pet that is given to a child. This viewpoint shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what their responsibilities, as a married couple, are. Furthermore, it is a rejection of the responsibility to create of life that will grow in the image and likeness of God.
But deliberate childlessness is not a new phenomenon. It happened in ancient times as well. In fact, it was perceived to be such a problem within the early Roman Empire that the Emperor Augustus addressed it with 2 laws during his reign: the “Lex Julia de Maritandis Ordinibus” which was passed in 18 B.C. and the Lex Papia Poppaea which was passed in 9 A.D. Both of these laws penalized those who did not marry and also penalized those couples who remained childless. It also awarded those couple who did have large families. While this may seem heartless, especially for those who were unknowingly infertile at the time, the laws addressed a particular concern, namely that Romans were not keen on having many children. What one may find intriguing is the fact that Romans largely ignored the laws. Some have speculated about why Romans would have done this. There have been many theories, but it seems that the most likely culprit was the attitude regarding sex and autonomy. Simply, the ancient Romans viewed and practiced sex as if it were merely a means of deriving pleasure. While Augustus may have changed the law, he had little success in changing the cultural attitude. Part of the problem with the laws was that they placed an emphasis on having sons. Families received more money from the Roman government if they had a son. This, in turn, could have encouraged Romans to discard their daughters through infanticide. Unfortunately, some children were not seen as a gift.
This Roman attitude also shows something deeper. Marriage was not something that was always well respected. It was not uncommon for men to divorce their wives in order to remarry to gain either political or social status. Fundamentally, marriage was not seen as a permanent and sacred bond between husband and wife. Not unlike today. A recent poll has shown that many Catholics around the world disagree with the Church on the teaching of divorce and remarriage. Furthermore, a poll taken in 2008 asserted that 70% of all Americans believed that divorce is morally tolerable. It appears that many do not share the belief that marriage is to be a sacred lifelong covenant between husband and wife.
But what does this modern belief have to do with having children? First, it would seem there is a lack of understanding of what is expected within marriage. As defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Marriage and the family are ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of children” (no. 2201). But the question here is what is meant by the term “good”? Simply put, the good that is being mentioned here is God. Again, the Catechism gives insight to the answer when it states, “For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator’s eyes. And this love which God blesses is intended to be fruitful and to be realized in the common work of watching over creation: “And God blessed them, and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’”” (no. 1604).
In essence, God, who is love and who unfailingly loves by totally giving Himself as sacrifice to save humanity, made mankind to image this love. The sacrament of marriage reflects this total self-giving. As St. Augustine asserts, the cross is a marriage bed where Christ unites himself with his bride (Sermo Suppositus, 120). The husband and wife sacrifice themselves to become “one flesh”– just as the Trinity cannot be divided nor can the married couple for the remainder of their lives. Basically, the spouse’s life is no longer about himself or herself. The spouse becomes about the other. This is further exemplified when the couple totally give themselves bodily in order to be fruitful. When God makes mankind it is mentioned that He saw it as very good. Being made in the image and likeness of God, mankind is able to participate in the creative act with God through the conjugal act. By properly reflecting the Divine within the sacrament of marriage, the married couple help each other achieve ultimate goodness—God.
Intending to never have children is an affront to the sacrament of marriage since it is a rejection of the Divine mandate to be fruitful and multiply. Couples who believe that children limit their freedom do not have a proper understanding of their moral responsibilities. Again, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just” (no. 1733). True freedom rejects selfishness. The married couple who refuses to have children embraces selfishness; they embrace a rejection of the Divine image they were created in. By refusing to allow the gift of their total bodies the spouses cannot reflect the creative love of the Trinity.
Dogs, cats, and vacations will never be able to fill the responsibility of the married couple to always be open to procreation. Failure of this openness will end as Pope Francis stated in his June 2, 2014, homily, “In the end, this marriage will end in old age in solitude, with the bitterness of bad solitude.”
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