John Paul II, Family Size, and Christian Prudence

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Years ago, after attending a natural family planning class my husband and I had taught, one of the students called me to tell me why she wasn’t coming to the next class.  After a brief span of conversation that let me know she felt very intimate with God, she proceeded to inform me that the Lord had told her she could use artificial contraception.   

Inwardly, my jaw dropped.  She had certainly learned the correct church teaching in our class.  There was not much I could say, as she had already heard the truth, and had chosen to disregard it.

Months later, another lady who had finished our classes told my friend Mary that the Holy Spirit had told her that even natural family planning was wrong, and that you are required to have as many children as possible.  She was also convinced that the Lord wanted her to spread this message to everyone.  She knew more than the pope! Again, I was thunderstruck.  Reworking the wisdom of the Church and tossing christian prudence, she had come up with a different teaching, and later suffered some health problems from following this idea blindly. 

How did I know that both of these ladies were incorrect?  What each of these women had to say would be an example of God speaking against Himself, and that is impossibility.  They were listening to wishful thinking, another spirit, emotional turmoil, or some other source, but not to God.  The first woman had “the Lord” inducing her to sin, and the second believed the “Holy Spirit” was leading her to foolish zeal.   

The idea that we should have as many children as we are able is called providentialism. I in no way wish to put down couples who are having as many children as God sends them.  There are spouses who are doing this, but with discernment and justice for each other and their children. Certainly, some couples are being called to this degree of generosity.

However, if followed blindly without taking into account the future of the children a couple already has, the woman’s health, or other just reasons, providentialism can become a reckless lack of prudence.  Pope John Paul II was clear on this issue:

 “Unfortunately, Catholic thought is often misunderstood on this point [“responsible parenthood”], as if the Church supported an ideology of fertility at all costs, urging married couples to procreate indiscriminately and without thought for the future.”1  He went on to say that a couple cannot be motivated by “selfishness or carelessness, but by a prudent, conscious generosity that weighs the possibilities and circumstances, and especially gives priority to the welfare of the unborn child.

Therefore, when there is reason not to procreate, this choice is permissible and may even be necessary.  However, there remains the duty of carrying it out with criteria and methods that respect the total truth of the marital act in its unitive and procreative dimension, as wisely regulated by nature itself in its biological rhythms. One can comply with them and use them to their advantage, but they cannot be ‘violated’ by artificial interference.”2 

There are many good reasons why people may need to space babies.  Some persons are healthier than others.  Four children might be a bit on the selfish side for a couple in vibrant health who could easily handle more.  Three children could possibly be a stretch for a couple where one or both have serious health issues, and are nearing the end of their resources to cope. Another family may be dealing with children with special needs who require much more attention than usual.  I am making no judgments here as to how many children you have, but don’t forget that God is part of the equation. 

Lastly, in prayerfully cooperating with God on family size, getting some good spiritual direction from someone (such as a wise priest) who knows your circumstances, abilities, and limitations can help spouses guard against imprudence or selfishness.  

1,2  John Paul II, “Parents are God’s Co-workers”, Sunday Angelus meditation, 17 July 1994, L’Osservatore Romano, 20 July 1994, weekly English edition 1

(© 2009 Kathleen Woodman)


About Author

Kathleen Woodman is a wife and mother of six girls, a grandmother, a veteran home educator, and an artist. She also promotes theology of the body, and has a B.S. in Business Administration.

  • Great article! And thank you for not using the phrase “preventing pregnancy” in conjunction with NFP even once!

    In Christ,

  • I think if I were married, I’d err on the side of providentialism. How many kids is enough? Well, what with sets of twins, foster kids, and adoptees, is 50 too many for one household? 🙂

    The most famous providentialist in the country is the Octomom. I happened to catch a few minutes of her with Oprah a few weeks ago (I admit it, I sometimes watch the end of Oprah’s show while I’m waiting for my evening local newscast to come on). As I watched her interact with Oprah and the others on the set, the word that came to mind was “disturbed.” Everything about her situation says the same: her unmarried condition, the artificial pregnancies, her lack of material support before having the babies, and so on.

    She has little in common with a Catholic couple who want to responsibly have as many children as God wants to give them. What’s needed is the faithful witness of Catholics who choose life in order to overcome the culture of death, one baby at a time.

  • Thank you so much for this article. Each family has to pray to do what is right for them (while being in keeping with Church teaching), and no one should judge the size of another person’s family.

    • Kathleen Woodman

      Thanks, it’s true that sometimes people who have large families without a lot of difficulty fail to understand that another couple with a smaller family is doing the best they can with what they have, and may even be more virtuous.
      For example, a couple with 4 children standing next to a couple with just one child may look more generous. However, what you may not know is that the couple with the one child has had 6 miscarriages and a great deal of suffering.

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