The Yoke of Nature and Human Vocation. When it comes to marriage and the having of children we experience these gifts, burdens, and yokes in ways few other aspects of human life impress with such obviousness. Although the common sense of our day tells us to wait, first, for marriage, and, second, for the begetting of children, until just the right moment in our education and our careers, nature’s yoke sets us to craving these things independent of our particular present condition. It encourages us to accept both as blessings, as gifts, that are given to us rather than as earned benefits to be used at our discretion or as contrivances mastered by and subject to our autonomous reason. While nothing properly human does not involve the direction of the intellect, human reason merely cooperates in the good natural journey of a man and woman to their union, and in the gift of children given to that union.
Anything that conceals the essential feature of these things as gifts disfigures them. Anything that turns them into events subject to our convenience or items subject to our use violates their goodness—it would be, in fact, a moral evil. Anything that suggests the human reason generates its own laws, is an end in itself, or a possession or tool to be used or dispensed with constitutes a prideful failure in self-knowledge and a misanthropic renunciation of our humanity.
But many persons recognize the natural gift of marriage and children. It may be precisely the unruly and unbearable grace of it all that awes them. In these mysterious and central aspects of human life, we know we are not our own masters anymore—and for that very reason we elect to restrict the number of times we render ourselves so vulnerable. We wish to serve others well, when we must, and not to, when we may. It is easy to believe we can afford to provide for one or two children; we are busy and distracted by many things, but the early years of a child’s life, in which one must attend most intensely to him, are few in number. With one or two children, those years will pass like a sweet, short stage, a tough but temporary job, in one’s life: a thing one does for a while, rather than a way one lives out one’s years.
Catholic tradition speaks of all persons as being ordained to a vocation. So do our vocational schools, one might reply. But by “vocation” that tradition does not refer to a career, a job, or the practice of a particular skill; it means rather one’s state in life. To repeat the words uttered just above, a vocation is the way one lives out one’s life in the world. Truth be told, there are only two vocations: that to married life, and that to religious life. One either lives out one’s life contributing to the order of creation, to the continuance and growth of the city of man that is ultimately ordered to God, or one lives out one’s life in stuttering anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Within the former of these vocations, Catholics believe that the having of children is not so much a thing that one does once, twice, or a few times, as it is a way one lives, a state rather than a job. Indeed, while we all have different gifts that suit us to this or that line of work, such incidental gifts are themselves of limited value in the scheme of our lives and are mere instruments of our calling to married or religious life.
Just as there are no solutions to the problem of life itself, as if one could stitch up this, that, and the other difficulty, and have thereby one’s life “solved,” primed to be lived out in empty felicity, so also there is no ready-to-hand closure to the life of the parent. While the yoke of our natures and the genius of our reason helps us determine how many children for which we can properly provide, when we cease to think of parenting as a job or episode, we recognize that we do not have to be perfectly equipped with time, money, or emotional freedom in order to have multiple children.
The having of children entails not the bringing to perfection of a particular project, but the condition of not only accepting great gifts but dwelling with them as the condition or calling of our lives. Thus, the Catholic vision of human life does not primarily differ from the common sense of our day regarding the number of children one should have, but the fundamental understanding of what marriage and children are—and what human life itself is. We tend to deform this understanding when we misconceive marriage or parenting as a job and when we misconceive our jobs or careers as vocations.
Human Reason’s Confrontation of Natural Evil. And yet, I have stated that Catholic teaching insists not only upon the intelligibility and orderliness of nature but the authentic and good role of human reason within that nature. If we are not to conceive of nature as an unruly flurry of growth unless it be tamed and mastered by our reason, we nonetheless are the true possessors of our reason and have a responsibility to use it in accordance with Truth. It might be better to say, rather, that we are the drivers of our reason who have a binding responsibility to see that it goes nowhere except according to the Truth that is its only real master. If it were otherwise, we would not have reason but only will, and we would have no way to account for the everyday fact that we can only believe as true what we really believe is true. Truth binds us at every turning of the stair.
And so, when a reasonable person sees young men and women marry and divorce; when he sees feels in his gut the great harm of illegitimacy to the single child and to society; when, further, he sees the spectacles of mass human poverty, of a world that seems to groan under the burden of feeding and clothing so many persons, even he who most instinctively adore the gift of children and would most readily submit his life to the vocation of parenting may be brought up short.
We all wish to be reasonable, and if reason tells the Catholic Church one thing and everyone else another, then what would seem to be in question is not so much the reliability of reason but the facts we think we know. No one knows the poverty of the Indian slum or the wasting epidemics of disease in Africa better than the missions of the Catholic Church. Does it not see the great suffering brought about by a surfeit of humanity? Bodies crawling upon bodies?! Food divided and divided by meager fingers, more bone than flesh?
It does. And it stands as a sign of contradiction in saying that these lives are good, are good in themselves, and that the suffering and hunger and disease besetting them are evil, natural evils, to be combatted by any means that does not itself produce other and greater evils.
It told us that the desire to control fertility by technological means would not curb illegitimacy, reduce abortion, or strengthen the integrity of marriages. To the contrary, it foresaw the age of contraception as a regime of broken and lonely souls ever more inclined to covet sexual contact and yet to abhor its natural ends; an age of increased illegitimacy, disease, abortion, and divorce. And we have found to our cost that it spoke the truth.
The Church tells us that a people who, on the level of the individual family, misconceives its capacity to raise more than one or two children without robbing them of all the usual “advantages” is one that has probably mis-measured and misallocated the resources of the earth. It has misjudged the very nature of the world’s growing population as a sign of over-population. Such a people has, in fact, ignored every reasonable measurement that indicates that population has swelled, not because of too much fertility, but only in consequence of better rational means of combatting the evils of disease and hunger.
But, one asks, if we have found a way to fight, in some cases even to end, the hindrances of disease, do we not see that the incessant movement of Hobbes’s nature will take over once more? We have, as a matter of fact, to deny that any such movement has taken over. Demographic measurements indicate that we are more likely to face a graying of the world’s peoples than an unbearable fruitfulness of children. Moreover, demographers calculate that the world’s population will be significantly smaller by the end of this century than it was at the beginning of it. In a global sense, we cannot only afford but need more children.
Even so, should, in particular places, there be exceptions to this general rule, we must also recall that marriage is a vocation and children are a gift. We are called to marriage, we are given children; the language of mastery, ownership, or rights has no place here. Should particular circumstance require it, we may discover obligations to live not only chastely (as all persons must) but in celibacy. The reason has a native technology of its own more effective than disfiguring chemical contraceptives, and more in accord with the easy yoke of nature—and that is the virtue of temperance. Our age’s reliance on contraceptives as the solution to the problems of individual choice, social decline, and supposed overpopulation hardly indicates the proper use of reason to order our lives. Once again, it speaks of reason’s abdication. It has given up trying to restrain fertility by appealing to human beings as rational animals, and has elected instead to manipulate their bodies as if they were incorrigible automata.
“You yourself a sword will pierce . . .” These are the truths that the Catholic Church, when it dares to speak, proposes for our assent. The world is a created and intelligible good. We, the rational animals, are a part of that natural goodness. And, while our Hobbesian common sense encourages us to see in nature the specter of hideous, because endless, growth, reason may more justly note the intrinsically self-limiting character of all natures. Everything seeks its proper good. And yet, it is also the case that all natures engender in abundance. For the Good is always self-diffusive, but not purposelessly so. Like all good things, children come to us as gifts rather than as a bit of consumer merchandise or as a luxury item. Our raising of them is a way of life not a mere hobby, episode, or project among others.
If the material world is finite, its scarcity is not located where we tend to perceive it; rather our focus has in some ways become maladjusted due to our own failure to accept the ordered goodness of the world on the terms on which it gives itself.
Every one of these claims seems to fly in the face of the common sense of contemporary life, telling us that what we take for good is not authentically good, precisely because we have failed adequately to understand the purposive character of nature. We have, finally, failed in that understanding because we have refused to take on the full dignity and burden of our natures as rational animals: embodied creatures defined at once by our determined, limited bodily natures, and yet ordered to participate in the self-diffusive goodness of all that is, of all that God has made.
It would be a daunting summons to be a priest or a bishop under any circumstances. It must be terrifying to have these truths within oneself and to know that much of the world is unwilling to hear it and some of it will turn upon you with rage. But, in confused and angry days, it will be only he would can speak of the goodness of things—of the gifts of fruitfulness, reason, and life—who can truly claim to stand as a sign of contradiction.
When the aged Simeon called Jesus just such a sign to his mother Mary, he also told her that “you yourself a sword will pierce” (Luke 3:35). So will the Catholic Church, so often called, Holy Mother Church, be pierced in these days. But that is what she was born for. To suffer for the knowledge of the one Good and the redemption of its many goodnesses.