When Marriage Intentionally Excludes Children

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.

happy-couple-1024x682But 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.”

Joe Kral has been involved in the pro-life movement since he has been in college.  His MA in Theology was completed at the University of St. Thomas where he specialized in bioethics.  From 1996-2003 he was the Legislative Director for Texas Right to Life.  During that time he was also a lobbyist for the Department of Medical Ethics at National Right to Life.  From 2004-2007 he consulted the Texas Catholic Conference on pro-life legislative initiatives.   In 2006 he was awarded the “Bishop’s Pro-Life Award for Civic Action” from the Respect Life Ministry in the Diocese of Dallas.  He currently serves as a voluntary legislative advisor to Texas Alliance for Life, is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, taught as an adjunct professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, teaches as a Forward Toward Christian Ministry instructor for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, is a member of the Knights of Columbus, and is doing doctoral studies at Harrison Middleton University where he is specializing in the ethical and legal theory of St. Thomas Aquinas. He has been married to his wife, Melissa, since 2004 and they have 2 children together. They attend St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Sugar Land.
Articles by Joe:

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    As you explain so well, there is something most unnatural in deliberately choosing childlessness. To receive the gift of life and to marry with no intention to be fruitful and multiply is pure selfishness. By its nature love is the desire to give generously and abundantly. It imitates the overflow of goodness that God’s love em bodies. Deliberate childlessness also interferes in the couple’s growing in mutual love. Fatherhood and motherhood bring out the best in men and women. They are a school of humility and teach men and women to live for others and empty themselves. It also teaches another profound lesson that is overlooked. The more the human heart gives and loves, the more love it receives to pour out. At age fifty or later, a person needs to honestly answer this question: How much have I contributed to another person’s life? How much have I loved? Sch an important, insightful article!

    • Joseph Kral

      Thank you Dr. Kalpakgian

  • SamBlaine

    I chose to remain childless, but I did not understand why. What I did know is that already at the age of 5, long before I knew about sex, I did not want to be a parent. I knew this to my core. I married but never had a child. Around the age of 55 I finally realized why I had this very strong feeling that I was not meant to parent. You see, my mother repeatedly told me I had ruined her previously childless life and that I was a constant embarrassment and disappointment to her. Somehow I had repressed this, not wanting to consciously know this for about 50 years. So, there are some of us who deliberately remained childless who were not wanting to have free sex and who were not motivated by our own selfishness.

    • Joseph Kral

      I know this is a hard subject. But one must remember that with each sacrament there is form and matter. In this case the vows the couple takes are the form (for purposes of this article the vow which states that the couple will accept children lovingly is most valid here) of the sacrament. The sexual act is the matter. A couple who intentionally is not open to the procreative process is violating the sacrament.

      • Stephen_Phelan

        It’s interesting that what Mr. Blaine wrote is more demonstrative of your argument than it is contradictory. And, he has a point, even if he doesn’t necessarily understand (and doesn’t appeal to) the sacramental validity or invalidity of his marriage.

        It does render a Catholic sacramental marriage invalid to enter into it intending not to have children. More precisely, this would not be a sacramental marriage at all.

        But a person who at a very young age is damaged by a miserable and broken parent, and whose will and heart are therefore damaged and unable to freely choose sacramental marriage, but nevertheless gets married somewhere (many priests I’ve heard only gloss over the key questions, or brush off incorrect answers), might have an interesting case. His or her ignorance may not be culpable, even if this ignorance does not validate the marriage. (True culpability isn’t our call to make, as it involves an interior judgment, which must be about the truth, and not just about how someone feels about it)

        The response to this person might then be something like: I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, and how that pain affected every decision you made, especially your marriage. But now you know. What will you do now? Begin by forgiving the parent, and talking to a faithful and knowledgeable priest about what can be done about your marriage?

        I don’t know. It just strikes me that Mr. Blaine’s story may be different from the modern selfish party “let’s share stuff until we don’t like each other” marriage. It doesn’t change the sacramental reality, but the pastoral response would be different. (and I’m not at all arguing for a Kasper-like suspension of doctrine to accommodate second marriages – just an opportunity to reach out to the person who wants to enter into the truth in love)

        • Joseph Kral

          I really appreciate that response. And I think it is very true that an impediment is very much at play here.

  • Really

    The views put forward here are based on several assumptions that are defective, First is that marriage is a sacrament. It isn’t and has only been invented as one since the middle ages. Second the views of Augustine on marriage are deficient as he was so damaged by his own promiscious life he saw sex as always a sinful experience and had no idea about maintaining a monogamous relationship . Third. In the Genesis story the reason for creating man and woman was so they would be companions and support each other. Children and procreation were add ons but not the essential reason for the initial relationship.
    History and culture show many reasons for marriage and often reflect the view that the woman was and is a tradeable commodity. The Christian Church went along with these views as many of the arranged marriages of the old era of kings and queens show.
    Currently there are different views around that actually allow people to enter into a supporting relationship without having to also take on the responsibility of children. They have good reasons for doing this as genetic disorders, mental illness and poverty may be reasons for their decisions. Perhaps their reasons should be respected and supported as they are not selfish.
    The Christian Church has not shown itself as a friend to women who have had children outside or inside of marriage. But it has always been judgemental of people who choose not to have children while remaining silent about their supposedly celibate monastic members who decide to stray and take advantage of sexual opportunities.
    In the end it is not your views or those of the Christian Church that should be dictating to people what has to happen in their relationship. These people have their own relationship with their God and your views are just a particular point of view amonst many.
    Lets hope the Christian Church will be more open to other viewpoints in the years ahead. Maybe the Catholic Church can learn something from other groups, other faiths and other cultures. Perhaps the Catholic Church doesn’t have a claim to know all there is about marriage. Let’s hope so.

  • gena
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