Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Family Size, Social Development, Selfishness and Love

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 02, 2009

My wife teaches English to seniors at Seton School in Manassas, Virginia, and all the seniors are required to write regularly in a journal so that, by sheer frequency, they become more comfortable with writing. Recently, one budding literary talent wrote humorously of the reactions she gets from different people when they learn that she has nine brothers and sisters. These reactions typically run from disbelief through ill-disguised horror. They raise interesting questions about both our culture and ourselves.

 Caritas in Veritate on Family Size

Interestingly, Pope Benedict addresses family size in his most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. In fact, he identifies exceedingly small families as an obstacle to authentic human development. The relevant passage is worth quoting at length: 

Morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource. Populous nations have been able to emerge from poverty thanks not least to the size of their population and the talents of their people. On the other hand, formerly prosperous nations are presently passing through a phase of uncertainty and in some cases decline, precisely because of their falling birth rates; this has become a crucial problem for highly affluent societies. The decline in births, falling at times beneath the so-called “replacement level”, also puts a strain on social welfare systems, increases their cost, eats into savings and hence the financial resources needed for investment, reduces the availability of qualified labourers, and narrows the “brain pool” upon which nations can draw for their needs. Furthermore, smaller and at times miniscule families run the risk of impoverishing social relations, and failing to ensure effective forms of solidarity. These situations are symptomatic of scant confidence in the future and moral weariness. It is thus becoming a social and even economic necessity once more to hold up to future generations the beauty of marriage and the family, and the fact that these institutions correspond to the deepest needs and dignity of the person. In view of this, States are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society, and to assume responsibility for its economic and fiscal needs, while respecting its essentially relational character. (#44)

I think most readers will “get” the demographic argument, the argument that a wide-ranging dearth of births causes grave problems to the survival of not only a nation’s economy but of its culture as a whole. But at the center of the Pope’s clear articulation of this argument lies an especially valuable nugget: “Furthermore, smaller and at times miniscule families run the risk of impoverishing social relations, and failing to ensure effective forms of solidarity.” In our culture and in our particular time, this is a show-stopper.

Smaller and at Times Miniscule

One of the key principles in Catholic social thought is “solidarity”, which Benedict defines as the “concern of everyone for everyone.” Solidarity means the injection into all of our activities—including economic and market activities—of a spirit of gratuitousness and fraternity which immeasurably strengthens social bonds and fosters the kind of pervasive trust on which all successful social activity—again, including market activity—ultimately depends. The Pope is saying here that “smaller and at times miniscule families” frequently fail to engender the patterns of habitual solidarity which form the foundation of a successful social order.

Small and even miniscule families are not always lacking in this way, of course, because although larger families provide greater opportunities and impose greater demands for habitual solidarity, it is not ultimately these pressures which engender solidarity but rather the spiritual attitudes of the family members. The danger—the “risk”— to which the Pope refers primarily arises from the reason families are so often now “smaller and at times miniscule”: An emphasis on material rewards and personal desires which, by dominating the attitudes of the couples at the heart of potential family life, causes them to avoid the “burden” of children. We are, in a word, talking about selfishness, which necessarily prevents the development of effective forms of solidarity.

Looked at in another way, this is hardly surprising. Although large families can sometimes be dysfunctional, and some parents can decide to have children for selfish reasons (a few have even done so for the purpose of harvesting biologically similar organs), most people who have larger families do so for the same reason that God has a large family: They are animated by love and they wish to share this love more widely. In such cases solidarity flows naturally within the family as from a fountain, and it is very close to a truism that a society characterized by large families is going to be far more socially cohesive, formed as it is through established familial patterns of mutual help and support, than a society characterized by “smaller and at times miniscule families”.

What Constitutes a “Larger” Family?

This impetus of love is especially notable in a contraceptive society. Whatever may have been the case during periods in which children were an acceptable result of sexual activity, reproductive control is so pervasive in our culture that family size is now almost always the result of a series of decisions. Our social reality, then, is that the percentage of large families which are occasioned directly by a decision to share love is extremely high, very probably an all-time high. But this raises an inevitable question. Since we’re making decisions about family size, we need to understand what qualifies as a family that is not “smaller and at times miniscule”. Or, to use a parallel expression, how many children does it take to form larger and at times enormous families?

In Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that so beautifully outlined the procreative and unitive ends of marriage so that we could understand the immorality of artificial birth control, Paul VI also taught about responsible parenthood. The Pope began with the Second Vatican Council’s summation of earlier Catholic doctrine: “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, #50). “Education” in this sense should not be narrowly construed; it refers generally to the formation of children for their proper spiritual and natural ends. Thus the Church has always taught that parents are morally obliged to provide both material necessities and Christian education to their children.

It is this teaching, in fact, which describes the theoretical upper limit for family size, for it follows that it is morally irresponsible for any couple to have more children than they believe they can provide for both naturally and supernaturally. That is, parents are not to have a child if they cannot provide for its material needs and Christian education. This does indeed set an outer limit for responsible family size, but it is essential to observe three related points from the outset: First, there must be no false values at work, as if “material needs” includes a McMansion and all the latest possessions, or as if “Christian education” requires the most expensive schools and the cultural opportunities of extensive foreign travel. Second, the popular notion that the problems of the world are caused by there being too many people, with its corresponding pressure to reduce family size, must be recognized and rejected as both bogus and unworthy of man. Third, it should be obvious that the theoretical upper limit will vary widely from couple to couple, depending on a wide variety of factors, as we shall see.

Responsible Parenthood

Note, then, that responsible parenthood involves responsible decisions. Or as Paul VI put it: “Married love, therefore, requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood” (#10). Nowhere has the Church ever taught that parents must have as many children as nature’s biological processes will allow. The Church has always stressed the moral responsibility involved in the decision to conceive a child, and Humanae Vitae outlines the following areas of parental responsibility (#10):


  • Biological: “With regard to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means an awareness of, and respect for, their proper functions. In the procreative faculty the human mind discerns biological laws that apply to the human person.”
  • Emotional: “With regard to man's innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man's reason and will must exert control over them.”
  • Attendant Conditions: “With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”
  • Objective Moral Order: “Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.”

The Pope concludes:


From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out. (#10)

I have quoted Paul VI at length not so much to make an argument from authority, although that is not unimportant, but to demonstrate how much the Pope’s words correspond with exactly what we should conclude through any serious dispassionate consideration of the matter. Each couple must make responsible moral decisions concerning its ability to welcome a new child at any given time, and these decisions will be properly made in light of physical (e.g., medical), economic, psychological and social conditions. Not everyone has the same health, the same finances, the same mental and emotional strength, or the same social circumstances (relating to such things as family support, other responsibilities and demands on one's time, and even larger questions of social stability and war).


The correct disposition, to be sure, is always the disposition of generosity, the disposition of deeply desiring to share one’s love with another child, and to raise up new life to serve God and be happy with Him forever. We must never fail to recognize, in the first instance, what a great gift procreation is, through which we give glory to the Creator and cooperate with Him in conferring His goodness and joy on an ever-widening circle of beloved persons. There can be no question in our own time that, were this gift properly recognized, the average family size would be substantially larger than it is now. Yet when all is said and done, there is no magic number. No one can make these decisions for another, and there are countless other ways to serve as occasions of grace.

While selfishness is quite obviously a very great failing in our contemporary culture with respect to family size—and while this selfishness certainly puts the social order at risk through the deficiencies of “small and at times miniscule families”—it remains true that small and even childless families can be imposed upon parents either without choice or from responsible decisions under difficult conditions. Such families, insofar as they are not rooted in selfishness, can also make an immense contribution to the lives of their members and to the larger social order. In the end, neither God nor a healthy social order requires a family headcount. What both require is married couples who make conscientious moral decisions, each according to its own circumstances, to share their gift of love.


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Oct. 06, 2009 6:04 PM ET USA

    Your wisdom always appeals to my sense of logic. On this topic specifically, please accept my gratitude and agreement. I have no degree and have not written any books on this subject, but my 70 years of experience have convinced me of the tremendous life advantages of "belonging" to a large family. I have known so many more well-adjusted successful people in all walks of life who had many sibling, than those who have no siblings, or maybe just one. And they parent the best.