April 9, 2012

Written by Fr. Adam Voisin, our Spiritual Father here at the Feminine Gift.  He writes from Rome, Italy, where he is studying Canon Law.

It is not uncommon for Generation X’ers like myself to look at our parents’ generation with a certain astonished disbelief when we hear of families that had 6, 10 or even more children.  How did they do it?  My own maternal grandparents had six children, and now my grandmother often says that she wished she could go back and have more.  My paternal grandparents, after having five children, adopted four more!  Today on the other hand, it seems altogether heroic for a family to have more than two children.

Somehow our culture has convinced us that when it comes to children, less is more.  A new child may even be seen as a drain on the family’s money, time, energy and ultimately, happiness.  It’s no wonder the modern world thinks that the Catholic Church  is totally out of touch when it teaches that, “children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to the welfare of their parents” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 50; see also a recent article I wrote on this).  The Church sees every new child as a blessing to the family, not a drain on its resources (CCC 2373).

As crazy as it sounds, the Church still believes that marriage  is for the procreation of children, as well the good of the spouses themselves (CCC 2366, 1652).  Most people don’t know many encyclicals of the Church, but if they recognize the name of one, it’s Humanae Vitae.  Written in 1968 by Pope Paul VI, it is often referred to as the “birth control encyclical”.  In it, the Pope repeated the two-millennium old teaching against artificial contraception that, until the 20th century, was consistently held by ALL Christians (not just Catholics) (cf. CCC 2370).  I highly, highly, recommend reading the document.  It is quite beautiful, as well as prophetic.  Its also happens to be short (should take 20-30 minutes).

The name Humanae Vitae comes from the first words of the first paragraph in the official Latin text, which begins, “Humanae vitae tradendae munus gravissimum…”.  Literally, “the most grave munus of transmitting human life…”. You’ll notice I left the word munus in the Latin.  The reason is that this word is essential for understanding what the Church means when it speaks about “responsible parenthood”.  Munus is one of those tricky words that doesn’t have   an exact translation in English.  Imagine a single word that means office, mission, task, duty, responsibility, service, gift and privilege.  A munus is a kind of privileged mission.  If we spoke Latin, we could use the word for the thing that the president wins on election night.  He wins a munus, that is, a privileged office to which is attached great dignity,   and which will entail a serious duty to fulfill his service to his constituents responsibly.

On the day of their wedding, the newly married couple also receives a mission (munus), that is, a “most grave mission” to transmit human life.  The whole first sentence of Humanae Vitae reads, “The transmission of human life is a most grave munus, in which the spouses freely and conscientiously render a service to God the Creator.  It has always been a source of great joy to them, even if sometimes accompanied by not a few difficulties and by hardship”.

On the day of their wedding, the priest asks the man and woman, “Jane and Tom, have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?”  And then, “Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?”  By responding “We have” and “We will” to these questions, the couple accepts their new mission to transmit human life.

The rest of Humanae Vitae then goes on to talk about how to live out this privileged mission to share in God’s creative work within marriage.  The Pope refers to this as “responsible parenthood”.  Many people breathe a sigh of relief when they hear that term.  They think the Pope means “responsible” in the same way they we use it when we talk about drinking or gambling responsibly.  Less is more, right?  Not so much.  I direct your attention to paragraph 10 of Humanae Vitae for what the Pope really means by “responsible parenthood”.  For our purposes, let me just quote one part: “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” (see also Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, par. 44).

Basically, responsible parenthood assumes that the husband and wife have as their default intention the willingness to have more children.  Why?  Because of the most serious munus that they accepted to do so on their wedding day.  HOWEVER, with regard to their physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, they may decide not to have additional children for either a certain or indefinite period of time, always with due regard for the moral precepts.  This is where natural family planning comes in.  It is a morally licit means for postponing pregnancy, and can be very effective, if used properly.

Here’s the tricky part, there are no hard and fast rules to determine what responsible parenthood means for every couple.  Every couple is different, and lives in different circumstances, and will therefore have the task of discerning for themselves when to have another child, or when not to.  That’s why they call it “responsible” parenthood.  The couple must take the matter to prayer, and consider the decision in light of their physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, always erring on the side of generosity and openness to new life.  However, if there are very serious reasons to postpone another child for a time, or indefinitely, then they may do so in good conscience.

There are many factors that could make having another child excessively difficult, such as poor physical or mental health, serious financial difficulty, stress in the family, etc.  Again, the determining criterion would be the gravity of the reason.  Since the munus to transmit life is very serious, so too the reason to postpone another child must also be very serious.  The seriousness of the reason is for the couple to decide before the Lord in prayer and according to their conscience.  Obviously, this means that it is very important to have a conscience that is properly formed according to God’s teaching as found in the Sacred Scriptures and in the teaching of the Church (for more on the formation of conscience, see CCC 1776-1794).

In the end, responsible does not mean “cautious”, “hesitant”, or “risk-averse”.  It means being entrusted with a munus for which one is responsible and accountable.  Being responsible means that one’s intellect is involved.  Being prudent means that one applies one’s intellect in a practical way to evaluate the concrete circumstances of one’s life and to correctly discern whether to have another child, or to postpone the decision to do so.  Charity, courage and generosity, as well as many other virtues are also involved.  In other words, responsible parenthood presupposes a life of virtue and a spiritual life.

What does all this talk about responsible parenthood and openness to life mean for those couples who have used, or are using, artificial contraception?  Does it mean that they have failed in their mission and that God and the Church have forgotten them?  Absolutely not!  Most people who use contraception don’t know the truth about marriage and the dignity of conjugal love.  Many have been lied to and told that they could use it in good conscience.  To these people, the Church says, “take heart and trust in the Lord”.  

Humanae Vitae reminds us that Christ came not to judge the world, but to save it, and that He was severe with sin, but patient and merciful to sinners (par. 28).  It also reminds Christian spouses that by the sacrament of marriage, they are able to receive the grace and strength to fulfill the mission that God entrusts to them (par. 25).  They must pray for this grace as well as “drink of the grace of charity from the eternal font of the Eucharist” (par. 25).  If they have sinned, they are encouraged to not lose heart and to come to the sacrament of reconciliation where God waits with open arms to meet them and extend to them His mercy, forgiveness and compassion.

**P.S.: To read about one couple’s struggle with this teaching, read this.  Actually, snoop around and you’ll find many awesome resources at that website (www.onemoresoul.com).

All photos from www.thegraphicsfairy.blogspot.com. 


  1. I love being Catholic for many, many reasons, but very close to the top of the list is that the Catholic Church is a teaching Church. We are not simply told that marriage is for the procreation of children and the good of the spouses, but we are given the whys and wherefores as well as the hows. I wish (more) priests, marriage prep teams and the media at large would learn and share correct Church teaching on important matters such as openness to life within marriage and contraception. Not only is the teaching itself beautiful, but so is the mercy and "grace of charity" we find in the Church.

    Thanks for this, Father Adam.

    1. I couldn't agree with you more! I love being Catholic as well. It's such a relief and a blessing to know that spouses, and indeed all people, by the grace of the sacraments, receive the grace and strength to fulfill the mission God has entrusted to them - and to never lose heart. Christ is always waiting to bring every one of us back to Him.


    2. THIS is what is needed to be heard from the pulpits today! Thank you!



What is a woman? What does it mean to be feminine? There is softness and hardness, compassion and ferocity. There is contentment and adventure, freedom and service. We're conundrums, especially to ourselves, but we all, in some way, possess beauty, creativity, intuition and love. We were made for love, and we are loved, cellulite and all. Here we aim to show every woman the richness and beauty of her own femininity and explore current issues relating to women in our world. We also wish to share our own experiences - exploring the joys and challenges of stay-at-home moms and single professionals and everyone in between. Welcome! So glad you're here!


Follow by Email


Popular Posts

Powered by Blogger.