The case for large families

Is it better for a Catholic couple, other things being equal, to have a larger rather than a smaller family? Suppose we are giving advice to a newly-married couple: Should we encourage them to desire to have “as many children as God sends”?

We live in an age that, in some contexts at least, hates to make comparisons. We think that if we praise one alternative as better, we implicitly criticize the other alternative as worse. And we worry that, if we imply that something is worse, then we’ll appear “judgmental” or unsympathetic towards those who, either through their own choice or not, are in that less desirable situation.

I said that we do this only in some contexts -- usually moral contexts. We’re not shy to say that having more money, other things being equal, is more desirable than having less. Or that it is better not to smoke cigarettes than to smoke cigarettes.

But in any case, to say that one good is greater than another good does not imply that the latter is not good. Quite the contrary: large families could not be more desirable, unless small families were already desirable.

I repeat, then: Should we desire lots of children and make sacrifices to realize it? Yes, admittedly children are a gift from God, and, as with our pursuit of any other good, we may find ourselves constrained by necessities that we did not choose. But, prior to this, what should we earnestly hope for?

I wonder whether this question needs to be addressed before we engage in any discussion of artificial contraception. Suppose it’s better to have only two or three children. Then the argument against artificial contraception is uphill all the way. Couples will reasonably desire to have smaller families, and the Church, in ruling out artificial contraception, will seem to be setting up obstacles to this.

But suppose, in contrast, that it’s really better to have as many children as possible. Then the tables are turned. Artificial contraception now appears to be the misguided, shriveled up, and hurtful thing that it is. To choose fewer children, when you could have more, would be a self-inflicted harm. It would be like someone who irrationally ruined his health or dropped out of school.

So then, what is the case for large families? I’ll mention only a few, key considerations.

1. Large families require greater sacrifices.

It may seem strange to offer this as an argument in favor of large families. But this is actually the most fundamental reason, and therefore it should be placed first. The argument is simple: The purpose of life is to become holy; but holiness requires that a person make a complete “gift” of himself to God; however, generally we give ourselves to God by making sacrifices for others; a large family requires more sacrifices; thus, a large family offers greater opportunities to grow in holiness.

Add to this: there are obvious ways in which the parents of a large family are forced to grow in human virtues. Their household life will need to be well-organized. They must be careful with money. They will be far from developing a “consumerist” mentality.

Yes, of course, we all have freedom and can choose not to make the sacrifices that our duties require. Also, it must be admitted that sacrifices are difficult -- we often fail to do them well, or with much love. But “anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly,” as Chesterton once said.

2. Large families offer the possibility of greater joy.

This follows directly from the first reason. True happiness comes from giving ourselves to God without holding back. Sacrifice therefore, when it is free and generous, has its reward in genuine joy.

Add to this that if one child gives us joy, two give greater joy, and three even greater.... and so on.

Then consider also that the fellowship in a large family is that much richer. Each additional child multiplies the possibilities of friendship geometrically. In a family with two parents and a child, there are three ways that the family members can pair off. If there are two children, six ways. If three children, 10 ways. And so on. Each new child presents to everyone else a completely new viewpoint from which to see and appreciate life.

3. Large families provide more love for each child.

A common fallacy is that children are less loved in a large family, because the parents’ attention is more widely spread out. But this neglects the love that the children have for one another. A straightforward and heartfelt love often arises more spontaneously among siblings than between parents and children.

I could give many others arguments, but you see the point.

I have been suggesting that large families are better. But we Catholics would be doing well if we simply helped our culture to appreciate that large families are good.

When I go running at dawn on a cold winter morning along the Charles River, even those passers-by who would never join me at least appreciate the ideal that motivates me. Yet when I stroll through Harvard Square with five of my children, I encounter only incredulity and disdain.

But, needless to say, we Catholics can hardly be successful in leading others to see that large families are desirable, if we hardly act as though we believe this ourselves.

Michael Pakaluk is a professor of philosophy at Clark University who resides in Cambridge, Mass.