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Why do Catholics have big families?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 01, 2011

Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question.

If you have more than two or three children, I’m sure you’ve heard it—often posed by a complete stranger:

Oh, you have such a big family! Are you Catholics?

Although I am delighted that our faith is commonly associated with the love for human life, I still recoil at the notion that there is something odd, something sectarian, something strange—something that requires a special explanation--about the willingness to welcome a large number of children.

On her own blog this week, my lovely wife Leila responded to a question from a young woman who is not Catholic, and who wondered how she and her husband should tell friends and acquaintances that they are expecting their fourth (!) child. I won’t summarize her reply, nor do I think that I can improve on it; I encourage visitors to read it for themselves. But as I mulled over her response, I couldn’t resist adding my own perspective.

Catholicism doesn’t cause childbirth. I don’t propose to devote this short essay to a discussion of the birds and the bees, but suffice it to say that no woman ever became pregnant as the result of a papal decree.

Years ago, Leila and I watched helplessly as a couple told a stranger that they had many children because “the Pope encourages us to have large families.” We gulped. That couple—friends of ours, deeply in love with each other, wonderful parents of a happy family—had stepped directly into a trap. They had conveyed the impression that they had many children only because they were Catholics—as if they reproduced robotically, under orders from Rome.

Nonsense! Our friends had many children for the same reason that Leila and I have many children. They love one another, and the human body is designed so that when a man loves a woman, the birth of children will ordinarily ensue—unless the couple takes steps to prevent that natural result.

Yes, it’s true that the Catholic Church encourages parents to welcome children. But in giving that encouragement, the Church is only recommending that we do what nature intended. In much the same way, the Church might encourage Catholics to eat healthy foods; there is nothing sectarian about the call for a healthy diet.

And yes, it is true that the last several popes have written at length about the beauties of married life and of large families. But these pontiffs were responding to a sadly widespread lack of appreciation for what should be intuitively obvious to anyone, regardless of religious faith. This week Pope Benedict offered some moving reflections on the power of art and of sacred music. But if I listen to Bach tonight, it will not be because the Pope told me to do so, nor will anyone ask me whether I am listening to Bach because I am a Catholic. No, I will listen to Bach because I find his music beautiful; is any further explanation required?

So if I find my wife beautiful, and one thing leads to another… Why should I be required to explain? If you have an elementary understanding of biology, you know what happened; no recondite theological explanations are necessary. Shouldn’t the shoe be on the other foot? Shouldn’t the people who find it necessary to seek an explanation for a large family be expected to come up with some reason for their befuddlement?

We aren’t the people who should be required to explain ourselves. It is the people who deliberately frustrate the natural process who should be asked to give a good reason for their strange behavior. I suggest that Catholics—and all others who welcome God’s design for human reproduction—stop making explanations, and instead ask the nosy questioners to explain their apparent ignorance. Do they really not know why we have children?

If there’s anything ruder than inquiries into why one has so many children, it’s the insufferable question: “Are you going to stop now?” If the sort of people who ask that question were capable of feeling embarrassment, they should be brought up short by a quick reply:

“Stop what?”

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Show 12 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: richardols3892 - Sep. 06, 2011 11:13 AM ET USA

    Catholics have big families? Really? Where? My wife and I have five children, and not only has no one ever challenged us about it, but the Catholics I see at church have maybe two or three children, with sorry excuses for not having more. This is 2011, not 1961 and from my observation, the era of big Catholic families is gone.

  • Posted by: ForOthers8614 - Sep. 05, 2011 10:46 PM ET USA

    Comments my wife received: 1 child: "How cute!" 2 children: "A boy and a girl, you can stop now! 3 children: "Don't you know how that happens?" (One mother is quoted as loudly replying, "Yeah, and it was GREAT!") 4 children: people stopped speaking to us and just gave a glaring, "Don't-you-know-that-you-are-destroying-the-environment" type look. 5 children: People now just ignore us because we obviously resist good advice. When I go to the store, however, I get complemented on how "brave" I am.

  • Posted by: JIZ - Sep. 04, 2011 8:08 AM ET USA

    Please remember and pray for spouses who would love to have children but carry the cross of infertility, not through any contraceptive action on their part, but through the mysterious Providence of God.

  • Posted by: kmbold - Sep. 03, 2011 6:02 PM ET USA

    When our second daughter was born, thoughtless people, including strangers, asked if we would keep trying for a boy. Sometimes I'd just smile and let them ponder their inane question, or I would respond: "We never 'try' for either but want the one who is given us." Once a woman on an elevator counted our by-now five beautiful girls and harrumphed in disdain: "Oh, my! Five!" So she could count. I asked if we disgusted her. She was flustered, poor thing. (Loved our CAV.)

  • Posted by: MWPapabear8555 - Sep. 03, 2011 3:40 PM ET USA

    ."… When they look at me & shake their head, I prove it by showing the picture of the child in Ethiopia we sponsor. Finally, on the lighter side, I borrowed this from when I was stationed in Utah: What do you call a Chevy Suburban? CAV - Catholic Assault Vehicle. We can - and should - fight rudeness with nonchalance and good humor.

  • Posted by: MWPapabear8555 - Sep. 03, 2011 3:30 PM ET USA

    We’ve 5. At 40 we were changing 2 sets of diapers. People looked at us like we had a screw loose. But God is truly generous with his mercy & gifts. The patience is better when you are older, & the frustration dissipates faster; we enjoy parenthood even more. We stop most comments, now holding my grandson, by saying, "this is why we are here: to know, love & serve God, discern his will for us, teach our children the same - to pass that on to their children. Wish we’d been able to have more."…

  • Posted by: rlloret6216 - Sep. 03, 2011 2:22 PM ET USA

    Folks asked us "What were you thinking?" or "How did this happen?" My husband and I just turned to each other with googly eyes, turned on that dopey "aw gosh" smile, and then looked back at them and shrugged "We were just being married ... an' stuff."

  • Posted by: edwillneff3195 - Sep. 03, 2011 7:56 AM ET USA

    What an excellent exactly correct essay! When we go to Mass and I see an entire row taken up by one family it is one of the few things in my world that gives me hope for the future...I think of a young Republican Congressman from Wisconsin, Sean Duffy, who I admire...He's, I think, the youngest of a family of 10 (I might be wrong about the exact number but you get the point)...Thank a Merciful God and thank parents who love each other and who love life...

  • Posted by: tasha1996 - Sep. 02, 2011 10:08 PM ET USA

    When my husband and I visited the Czech Republic with our six children in a tow a man at the town square said that when a family has four or more children it's either Catholic or Gypsy:). What about Muslims and Mormons? And Protestants before the Lambeth Conference in 1930 when they started to accept birth control? And people in the Bible? Our children will pay your social security, Sir or Madam!

  • Posted by: till8774 - Sep. 02, 2011 6:30 PM ET USA

    My son who has 3 children has gotten the "Are you done yet?" question and he replies, "Heck no! You can't take over the world with just 3 kids!"

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Sep. 02, 2011 12:58 AM ET USA

    We have three children, yet people often asked my wife and I, "Are you guys done now?" I'd respond, "I don't know. Only God knows for sure. I guess we'll just see what happens." While they were trying to process that, I'd add, "Actually, the first pregnancy was the most difficult one for me. After that, each one got easier."

  • Posted by: garedawg - Sep. 01, 2011 11:23 PM ET USA

    Good points. Still, go easy on the Protestants. I used to be one, and I was completely clueless about the wrongness of contraception. I was SO clueless, that I just accepted it upon becoming Catholic, because that's what the Church teaches. I didn't start understanding it until about several months after my reception into the Church. So, please go easy on them.

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