Monday, October 3, 2011

By request

A reader (OK, my niece!) wanted an online version of a column that appeared in Catholic Insight in 2008. There was a version at the, but the doofus who transcribed it filled it with typos. (Yes, Virginia, there IS a difference between "rive" and "strive".)

A real Catholic family  (first appeared in the July, 2008 issue of Catholic Insight)

Although we are a minority, many Catholic couples strive to live in obedience to Humanae vitae. Some of us have a dozen children; some have none. When you have a big family, it’s nice to find safe haven in the sub-culture of the traditional Catholic world (places like homeschooling events, chastity rallies, pro-life conferences, etc.). Families who are somewhere in the middle (say, three or four children), sometimes feel at home nowhere. In secular society, they feel obliged to apologize for having so many children. In some Catholic circles, they feel they must apologize for having so few.

“Humanae vitae Catholics” should not hastily judge others based merely on family size, but sometimes we do. Not only are we possessed of sinful human nature, but having endured scorn for our beliefs (“You don’t use birth control! Are you insane?”), we can fall almost imperceptibly into feeling justified in judging others. I once knew of a Catholic mother of a large (and, may I add, horribly behaved) bunch of children. She frequently boasted, “Now this is what a REAL Catholic family looks like!” No, madam, this is partly what prompted people to embrace contraception in the first place.

I know that faithful Catholics with small families feel judged, because they have told me so. I cannot tell you how often I have been talking with someone (or a married couple) and–quite unexpectedly—they launch into an explanation of why they have fewer children than I do. This information is unwanted, unsolicited, and frankly, embarrassing. Church teaching states that couples must have “grave reasons” for limiting or postponing births. I am not on the Grave Reasons Committee; there is no Grave Reasons Committee (though I know a few people who wish there was one, and would like to be President). It is up to the couple to discern, with God’s grace, when and how many children to have.

What matters is not the size of the house, but that it is built on the solid foundation of faith in Christ. The total number of rooms matters less than whether or not the front door is always left open for the Lord. I once read a heart-wrenching testimony by a Catholic couple who had no living children, but had endured the physical and spiritual pain of eleven miscarriages. To the world, they were “childless,” but in reality, they were far more ‘open to life’ than most people I know (including myself). It takes special courage (and deep faith) to embrace that kind of suffering. This is what a real Catholic family looks like. One wonders if they ever had to endure the judgement of fellow “faithful” Catholics who saw only their externally childless state, and leaped to the conclusion that they selfishly chose to suppress their fertility.

It is wonderful and admirable to desire a large family, but ultimately, it ought to be the Lord who decides on the final number. It’s an insult to your existing children to say, “Our family isn’t yet complete,” and an insult to the Author of Life to claim that it is. We ought to desire every blessing that the Lord has in store for us. Every child ought to be welcomed for his/her own sake, and cherished as if he or she is the last child God will ever give us, for sooner or later, this will prove to be the case. When people (rudely) ask us how many children we are going to have, our answer ought to be (charitably): “All of them.”

I know beautiful, faith-filled Humanae vitae families who have only one, two or three children. They were open to more, but God had other plans for them--sometimes plans that involved terrible crosses: miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, the death of a newborn, sudden infertility, cancer or other serious health problems. I also know people with numerous children who have said, “If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have had so many.” My heart weeps. Which one(s) would you have chosen to eliminate? Could you face that child and tell him so?  

Please do not judge others based on the size of their families. The pursuit of sanctity is not a numbers game. A certain Mrs. Wojtyla had only two children who survived childhood, and only one lived beyond his young adult years. Judging from the way her only surviving son Karol turned out, we can assume they led a very holy family life, despite having had so few children.

What matters is obedience to Christ and his Church, and yes, that includes Humanae vitae. What matters most are faith, hope and love, lived out in our homes and in the world. That is what a real Catholic family looks like.  

Copyright 2008 Mariette Ulrich and Catholic Insight

BONUS! Hate mail. Just in case anyone is interested. (He accuses me of siding with the Winnipeg Statement---OUCH!) It appeared in the October, 2008 issue of Catholic Insight.

Sept. 7, 2008:
John Barlow
362 Danforth
Toronto, Ont.

To The Editor,

I would like to submit a letter for your magazine which is in regards to an article in the last issue called "a real Catholic family" by Mariette Ulrich.

Mariette Ulrich argues that we should not judge parents by the number of children they choose to have. Yet her article seems an apology for the "three or four children" size family - a family that she decries "sometimes feel at home nowhere" in regards to what the church and secular society might demand.

While it is not always prudent to judge others it remains a hard fact that very few so-called "Humanae vitae Catholics" have large families today. 50 years ago, when it was arguably less convenient for practicing Catholics to have large families, it was not uncommon for parents to have up to 10 or more children. Many of these "horribly behaved" children - to quote Ulrich - grew up to become holy priests and nuns. They are all but the last vestiges of Catholicism today.

Ulrich conveniently ignores this issue by alluding to exceptional cases (which were no less valid 50 years ago) and by suggesting that there are no authorities on what constitutes "grave reasons" for not having children. Ulrich then appoints individual couples as sole arbiters of such decisions holding up to ridicule those who attempt to give objective dimensions to "grave reasons" calling them "president" wannabe's of the "Grave Reasons Committee". Ulrich's line of reasoning here is not substantially different than that given by the Canadian Bishops when they defended the use of contraceptives in the Winnipeg Statement.

This subjectivist thinking was somewhat foreign to the average "pre-Humanae vitae Catholic" who seemed to possess, in their more pronounced poverty, a more profound sense of their true religious obligation in regards to having children. They did not, for example, see every inconvenience as a serious burden to having children. Unlike today, there was no real need for any "Grave Reasons Committee." Perhaps this is something our Bishops might want to look into. The fate of Catholicism might hang in the balance.

J. Barlow

My response to Mr. Barlow (published in the same issue):

I am glad that Mr. Barlow used the word "choose" in his opening sentence. My column was not meant to defend Catholic couples who choose (often for trivial reasons) to have smaller families. I was principally defending couples who (for reasons beyond their control) cannot have large families, even though they would like to.

They should not be made to feel that they are somehow "less Catholic" than couples with large families. I by no means implied that the children of all large families are horribly behaved: I was illustrating the hypocrisy of one individual's simplistic reasoning --shared by not a few self-righteous Catholics, that big family=good; small family=bad.

I also did not suggest that there are no objective criteria by which to judge grave reasons: they exist in church teaching. I merely pointed out that the arbiters are indeed the couple (with a properly-formed Catholic conscience) and not interfering busybodies who (without fully knowing a couple's circumstances) suggest 'it's time to have another baby.'  (Yes, I know people who do this.)

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Barlow in that our entire culture, secular and Catholic, ought to be more open to life. It is indeed problematic (not only for the church, but for human civilization) that so few couples choose to have large families. However, I believe this problem will be rectified by better teaching from the pulpit (and by fostering a culture of life) than by hasty and ill-informed judgement of others. I believe I pointed out in the conclusion of my column that every Catholic (including the Canadian bishops) must be guided by Humane vitae.


  1. This is one of the best things I have ever read on this topic. May I please reproduce it on my blog, and/or may I send it along to a much larger group blog that I write for?

  2. Thanks very much, Daria. I would be honoured. In the true spirit of the Gospel of Life, reproduce as much as you wish. :)