Discerning Openness to Children
Is right now a good time for us to have a child? How can we know God's will for us? What does it mean to discern and how do we do it? How often do we need to discern? How can we know if our reason for not having a child right now is sufficiently serious?
For spouses seeking to live God's beautiful plan for married love and sexuality these questions can be some of the most agonizing and difficult questions they will face in the fertile years of marriage.
What is Discernment?
Simply put, discernment is the process of making a decision with the help of God’s grace regarding God’s will and how His revelation applies in a specific circumstance. It is the soul’s conversation with God seeking the answer to the question: “God, what is your will for me?” In marriage, discernment also involves the conversation shared by the spouses, “seeking God’s will for us”.
The process of discernment begins with the initial question. Then one gathers any relevant information to help evaluate the circumstances of the question. The circumstances are then evaluated according to revelation and the principles of faith and morality. If the decision to act in a particular way is sinful then it is definitely not in accord with God’s will. If it is not sinful, and there are several choices one could make, then the decision becomes a matter of prudence.
Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it… With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.” (CCC 1806)
Practical Guidelines for Discernment
Spouses are given a great deal of latitude when it comes to acting responsibly in their decision making about having children. In the wedding rite spouses promised to "accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church." Following the guidelines for moral actions, spouses may discern what actions are definitely not in accord with God's will. From this certainty spouses are then able to make moral decisions and determine what is best for their family at any particular time or situation. These decisions often involve emotional difficulties and can even lead to conflict and division between spouses. Below you will find some practical guidelines to help in the discernment process. We recommend that you seek help from a trustworthy source to answer your questions about this issue like a priest, religious, or well-formed lay person. If you experience conflict in your marriage due to these questions we suggest that you consider a recommended Catholic counselor. You may contact the Family Life Office with your questions.
In an informative essay on discernment, Catholic author Dr. Peter Kreeft provides a list of five general principles for discernment of God's will, shown below.
Dr. Kreeft's Five Principles for Discernment of God's Will
. . . with what we know for sure. Judge the unknown by the known, the uncertain by the certain. Adam and Eve neglected that principle in Eden and ignored God's clear command and warning for the devil's promised pig in a poke.
Let your love of God educate your reason in discerning his will. Jesus teaches this principle in John 7:17 to the Pharisees. (Would that certain Scripture scholars today would heed it!) They were asking how they could interpret his words, and he gave them the first principle of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation): "If your will were to do the will of my Father, you would understand my teaching." The saints understand the Bible better than the theologians, because they understand its primary author, God, by loving him with their whole heart and their whole mind.
We should be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves," sharp as a fox in thought but loyal as a dog in will and deed. Soft-heartedness does not excuse soft-headedness, and hard-headedness does not excuse hard-heartedness. In our hearts we should be "bleeding-heart liberals" and in our heads "stuck-in-the-mud conservatives."
. . . by a kind of trigonometry. There are at least seven such signs: (1) Scripture, (2) church teaching, (3) human reason (which God created), (4) the appropriate situation, or circumstances (which he controls by his providence), (5) conscience, our innate sense of right and wrong, (6) our individual personal bent or desire or instincts, and (7) prayer. Test your choice by holding it up before God's face. If one of these seven voices says no, don't do it. If none say no, do it.
. . . especially the first three: love, joy, and peace. If we are angry and anxious and worried, loveless and joyless and peaceless, we have no right to say we are sure of being securely in God's will. Discernment itself should not be a stiff, brittle, anxious thing, but—since it too is part of God's will for our lives—loving and joyful and peace-filled, more like a game than a war, more like writing love letters than taking final exams.
10 Great Reasons to have Another Child
Scripture tells us that children are blessings from God. And so they are. But we live in a time when secular humanists have twisted the virtue of childbearing into the vice of overpopulation. Parents often need additional encouragement to accept additional “blessings.”
Here are ten great reasons to have another child. (Steven W. Mosher is president of the Population Research Institute.) www.pop.org
Have another child . . .
Parents are given the incredible opportunity to assist God in the creation of an immortal soul. As the late Cardinal Mindszenty said, even the angels have not been given such a grace.
“The most important person on earth is a mother. She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral. She need not. She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral — a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby’s body.... Even the angels have not been given such a grace! What is more glorious than this — to be a mother.” —Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty
There is no joy like the joy of welcoming another child into your life. You will marvel anew at how perfectly formed your little one is, and over how quickly you will fall head over heels in love with him. You will be enchanted with every tiny aspect of her appearance. The color of her hair, the shape of her nose, and the winsomeness of her smile will occasion endless happy debates about from which side of the family (yours, of course) she got that adorable trait.
For those who marry and have families, children are the primary means God uses to help them grow in holiness and virtue. Children teach their parents patience, perseverance, charity, and humility. They give their parents the opportunity to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. They come into the world naked, and we clothe them; hungry and we feed them. Thirsty, and we give them drink. All of the things that we are required to do for the “least of these our brothers,” we do first and foremost for our own children. St. Catherine of Siena once had a vision in which God took her to a roomful of crosses and told her to pick one. St. Catherine went to the largest, heaviest cross in the room and would have chosen it. But God told her that it was not for her: That was reserved for the parents of large families.
“Mary gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:7).
When Mother Teresa of Calcutta was asked by a young mother about the best way to proceed with pro-life work, she responded emphatically, “Have a big family. That is the best way to end abortion!”
How this works is not difficult to understand. As children become more rare due to contraception, sterilization and abortion, whole segments of society become less and less familiar with the sense of joy and hope that only babies and children can give. In this climate, contraception and abortion feed on themselves, as the increasingly selfish few further reduce their number.
By having another child, you demonstrate once again to the world that children are God’s greatest gifts. “Children build up the life of the family and society,” as Pope John Paul II has said. “The child becomes a gift to its brothers and sisters, parents and entire family. Its entire life becomes a gift for the very people who were givers of life and who cannot help but feel its presence, its sharing in their life and its contribution to the common good and to the community of the family.”
Children who have siblings learn early to share. They learn to take turns and to put the needs of others before their own. The bond formed between brothers and sisters is lifelong, and stronger than the bond between the closest friends.
“How good it is, how pleasant, where the brothers dwell as one!” (Psalm 133:1-2).
Boys who have sisters learn the dignity of women. They learn to treat other girls and women with respect, as they consider how they would like their own sisters to be treated. Girls who have brothers learn the complementarity of men and women, both fashioned in the image and likeness of God.
“Love begins by taking care of the closest ones — the ones at home.” —Mother Teresa
People who have children don’t have to rely upon strangers to care for them in their old age. Children also become the parents of your grandchildren. Grandchildren bring joy, happiness, and laughter, while still allowing you to get a good night’s sleep!
Humans are blessed with the gifts of an intellect and free will. It is human ingenuity that discovers creative solutions to the problems which confront us. People without children should remember that it will be someone else’s child who will become the doctor that performs their life-saving operations. Someone else’s child will become the firefighter that saves their house. Someone else’s child will become the railroad engineer.
“How can there be too many children? That’s like saying there are too many flowers.” —Mother Teresa
Families with children are fuel to the economy, purchasing houses and cars and college educations. Without young people to enter the workforce, social security systems fail. Without children to attend school, teachers are jobless. Many industries, from fast food restaurants to toy stores, obviously rely heavily upon business from and for children to stay in business. But ultimately the whole economy does.
“Like a fruitful vine your wife within your home, Like olive plants your children around your table. Just so will they be blessed who fear the Lord” (Psalm 128: 3-4).
Anyone who has traveled from coast to coast in the United States and seen the vast empty spaces should know that America is not overpopulated. In fact, the entire population of the world could live in the state of Texas, in single-family dwellings with front and back yards.
Fertility rates are falling everywhere. The world’s population will never again double. If current trends continue, world population will peak by the middle of this century and then begin demographic free-fall. Our long-term problem is not too many children, but too few children. Having another child will help offset the coming population implosion.
The child that you and your spouse have been generous in accepting from God was created to return to Him, after a life of love, service, and obedience on earth, to spend eternity with God in heaven.
What is a serious reason?
How can spouses know if something is sufficiently serious?
The most official description of this criteria from the teaching authority of the Church comes from Humane Vitae # 16
“Certainly, there may be serious reasons [iustae causae/just cause] for spacing offspring; these may be based on the physical or psychological condition of the spouses or on external factors. The Church teaches that [in such cases] it is morally permissible [for spouses] to calculate [their fertility by observing the] natural rhythms inherent in the generative faculties and to reserve marital intercourse for infertile times. Thus spouses are able to plan their families without violating the moral teachings set forth above.”
Serious reasons include the health of the spouses (both physical and psychological) and external factors such as economic hardship, social upheaval (war, unstable living conditions, migration). If the well-being of the family and the new child is under serious threat this can also constitute a serious reason.
There are two very important things to remember when considering this question.
First, the decision to postpone openness to achieving pregnancy is a decision to be made on a more or less monthly basis. The woman’s natural fertility cycle allows the spouses to decide each month the proper answer to this question. Granted there may be circumstances in which the serious reason to postpone is long lasting or persistent, however the question remains one that is open to discussion, prayer and discernment on a regular and perhaps even monthly basis.
Second, the decision to abstain (or not) rests in the free will of the spouses deciding together with mutual respect. This is an area where the spouses alone (taking advantage of good counsel from trusted sources) have the competency to discern God’s will in their particular circumstances. It is not for outsiders to judge the decision made by the spouses (so long as they are not using contraceptive practices) whether they have one child or many more. It is wise to remember that many couples (about 10%) experience infertility and many others have one or more miscarriages during the course of their married life (meaning some families have more children then you can see in the pew on Sunday). This does not mean that objective criteria for determining the morality of this decision are to be discarded. In fact, spouses are obligated to form their conscience through education and reflection and to seek guidance from a priest or another well informed and trustworthy person who will help guide their decision making. However, at the end of the day, these decisions are the responsibility of the spouses and they should never allow another (even well intentioned) person to make these decisions for them.
Why doesn’t the Church just give us a list?
If the answer above still seems too vague then perhaps you will find comfort knowing that you are not alone. Many people have expressed the desire for a neat and tidy list of circumstances that would constitute a serious (or just) reason to seek to avoid pregnancy.
In her book, The Sinners Guide to Natural Family Planning, Simcha Fisher has an entire chapter devoted to this question. She asks:
“Why not just make a list: on the right, good reasons for postponing a pregnancy; on the left, bad reasons?” (p. 17)
She then quotes the guidelines provided in Humane Vitae #16 already cited above and from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) #2368.
“For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness, but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood…”
She then writes:
“But we’re still left with those adjectives: well grounded, serious, just. What does that mean? Why doesn’t the Church give some specific examples of what qualifies as a just reason? Well, one problem is that my just reason is not necessarily the same as your just reason.” (p. 18)
Next she outlines several scenarios where the family situation may fit the criteria for just cause (serious reasons) to exist. For the example of the question of money there are four families with very different situations who all have the same current level of income. All four families in the scenario could objectively fit the category of “severe economic instability” yet not all of them are in a scenario where they would obviously fit this category because of the specifics of their situation. Not all of them would necessarily find their situation “severe” or “serious” and would remain free to make a choice to abstain during fertile days provided they “make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness” (CCC 2368).
I must agree with Mrs. Fischer’s conclusion:
"if the Church ever did give a specific, objective list of legitimate reasons for avoiding or achieving pregnancy, it would cause more confusion, not less. People with good reasons to postpone pregnancy would doubt themselves, and people with no good reason would find loopholes. People would judge each other even more than they already do, and it would distract from the soul’s conversation with God.” (p. 21)
Made For Life
Marriage welcomes the “supreme gift” of the child. The USCCB created a video series and website to provide clear teaching on the gift of children and the irreplaceable role of the mother and father.
We recommend The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning for a funny and faithful approach to navigating NFP use.