For progressives – really, for anyone who is on a first-name basis with the 21st century – it’s been a rough ride so far with Pope Francis. There was initial giddiness about stories concerning his carrying his own luggage and paying his own hotel bill. (Had we really set the bar so low that paying your own hotel bill was seen as a tectonic change in matters ecclesial?) Later, there were more tangible indicators of Francis’ departure from both the style and the substance of his predecessors. Other Popes had critiqued capitalism, but Francis did so in conspicuously sharper terms, sharp enough, in fact, to set many of the junkyard dogs of Fox News and right-wing talk radio baying for fresh meat. And his famous remark about the “heaven-worthiness” of LGBTQ people and even atheists at least flirted with the outermost boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy. Such were the “ups”. Among the “downs” is the Pope’s recent blanket statement, conspicuously devoid of nuance and qualification, that couples who choose not to have children are selfish. Such are the consequences whenever anyone, Pope or layperson or heretic or atheist, follows an ideology, any ideology, to its lemmings-over-the-cliff extreme. So let’s pause, take a step or two back from pristine ideological fidelity, and examine the issue from a strictly rational standpoint.
Two principles are too obvious to require justification (I phrase the following argument in terms of marriage, because those are the terms the Pope used … if you prefer more theologically neutral terminology like “partnered”, please feel free):
(1) Not every single person should be married: some people are simply better off remaining single, better off for their own sakes and better off for the sake of anyone they might marry
(2) Not every married couple is competent to parent children, because at least one of the partners is, and perhaps both are, unsuited temperamentally or emotionally to be a parent
Now, the Christian church has historically been quite open to (1). In fact, remaining single has usually been honored as a genuine vocation. Jesus was single. St. Paul was single. Of course, such a calling, in terms of orthodox Christian moral teaching, necessarily entailed celibacy. But the vocation itself was seen as valid and praiseworthy.
But in the transition from condition (1) to condition (2), the wheels begin to come off the theological and philosophical bus, especially -- though certainly not exclusively -- in terms of Catholic theology. The Pope’s evaluation of (what amounts to) the incipient moral turpitude of childless – others prefer the term “child-free” – couples exemplifies this prejudice. Again, there was no qualification or nuance, no “ifs” or “ands” or “buts,” in the Pope’s quoted statement. So what are we to conclude from the Pope’s as-stated assessment?
In particular, if it is categorically and without qualification the case that people who get married should, in all circumstances and conditions, have children, or at least be open to the possibility of such, how are we to deal with situations in which people get married without being parentally competent – not for reasons of incipient psychopathology or criminality or abusive tendencies, but just for benign reasons of temperament and psychology? Is there some kind of Magic Conjugal Whiffle Dust that God sprinkles on the couple that, after the last “I do” is said, supernaturally zorches the couple, “transubstantiating” them, as it were, from rank incompetence into good prospective parents? If the answer is “Probably not,” then there are 2 responses:
(2.1) People who do not want children should not get married
Denying the sanctity of married love – as even an old reprobate like me considers it – to people based on their professed lack of procreative urge at least flirts with contradicting Catholic doctrine, since the Church teaches that the purpose of marriage is twofold: (a) promoting the “unitive” relationship between the parties to the marriage, and (b) the begetting of children. Privileging (b) over (a) basically at least skirts the edge of turning marriage into a de facto “baby-making” machine. In fact, in the absence of at least incipient parental competence, (b) may even work against (a). Giving so much as lip-service to this possible response would be difficult for even a Pope, especially this Pope with his welcome emphasis on human compassion, to justify. Ditto most non-Catholic, or even non-Christian, religious leaders.
(2.2) Counseling, for one or both partners, to resolve an animus against parenthood and the raising of children
This is really a throw of the dice. I say that for two reasons. First, this response assumes that such an animus can be resolved, period. If it cannot, i.e., if, for whatever reason, there is no prospect that the resolve to remain childless can be transformed into an openness to children, then the couple will either adopt a policy of celibacy, or they may have children they do not want and cannot parent competently. Either would be a tragedy. Secondly, this response would, at least at some point and for some time, amount to using the couple’s religious faith – say, their desire to be “good Catholics” – to provide an incentive for a bogus conversion, even if unintentionally. Fidelity to one’s religious faith and remaining in God’s good graces would together constitute a powerful, almost irresistible, incentive to fake it. Indeed, there is an uncomfortable degree of similarity between “re-programming” one’s attitude toward parenthood and “re-programming” one’s sexual orientation in “gay conversion”. Both are about equally questionable, morally, in terms of respecting the integrity of the person(s).
In the second paragraph of this post, I referred to two principles I considered so obvious as to require no demonstration. It’s apparent now that there is actually a third: the welfare of the child(ren). The “children-at-all-costs” policy of, not only the Catholic Church, but of many non-Catholic strands of Christianity basically places children at risk by forcing prospective parents to make a Hobson’s choice: either do not marry, remain celibate within marriage, or have children you have no inclination or aptitude for parenting. The first two alternatives are Catch-22s for the couple; the third, arguably the worst of the three, for the children of such unions. Of course, one alternative is artificial contraception. But that is a non-starter for Catholics who want to respect the teaching of their Church. Of course, there is also the alternative of natural family planning (NFP), but – speaking of throwing the dice – NFP is the ultimate gamble: if it fails, a child will be born to a couple who, by hypothesis, do not want children because they do not have the requisite skill-set for raising them. Hey! What could possibly go wrong with that?
A couple of closing remarks. First, I have never been a parent. I think that is probably apparent. But I have been a child, and I know first-hand what it is like to grow up in a home where neither parent, despite the best of intentions, was competent to raise a child. By any rational estimate, my parents should never have had children. At age 65, I am still in recovery. It is morally reprehensible to put anyone in a position where they have the awesome responsibility of fostering another human being into maturity when, in fact, they have no aptitude for doing so. (Reflect on the fact that parenthood is the only field of human endeavor in which the expression of the mere desire is tacitly taken by society as conclusive evidence of competence. If someone told you that they had a lifelong desire to be a neurosurgeon, would you on that basis alone infer that they were competent to operate on your brain?) It is even more reprehensible to leverage that person’s religious devotion such that they are pressured into overruling their own reason and incorrigible better judgment in order to accept that role. Secondly, I have elsewhere referred to the tendency – what I regard as the eminently healthy tendency – of human beings to deviate from strict consistency with their own avowed ideology when it becomes evident that such consistency would be destructive to themselves and / or to others. If there is an area where human beings, especially religious human beings, have a vital interest in being “therapeutically inconsistent,” it is vis a vis the issue of child-bearing and –rearing. Maybe Pope Francis is right. Maybe couples who choose to be childless are indeed being selfish and narcissistic. Maybe so.
But I solemnly assure you of this: there are much worse things.
James R. Cowles