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Humanae Vitae and Family Size—Should We Have a Big Family?

June 2, AD2014 42 Comments


This is the final column in a six-part series on Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s profound and heroic 1968 encyclical. The series’ introduction is here. The question of “responsible parenthood” as the Church defines it is taken up here. Questions about the unitive and procreative meanings of sex and why they should not be separated are discussed here. Questions of conscience are taken up here. How NFP and contraception are radically different is discussed here.

In this column, we will turn to the question of whether American Catholic spouses should aim for large families.


As we have seen, the Church does not teach that married couples have a moral obligation to produce as many children as they can. In our modern age, she encourages responsible parenthood. This can mean limiting family size using moral means.

Certainly in many places in the third world it is not hard to imagine couples who can have good reasons, grave reasons, to limit their family size. These reasons can include poverty, disease, lack of access to education, severely inadequate housing, obligations to already living family members, and so on.

However, the Church is also always on the side of generosity and fertility. After all, God did say, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gn 1:28). As the Vatican II Constitution Gaudium et Spes puts it, “Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents” (§50). Being prolife and optimistic, the Church views children as a great blessing to herself, the spouses, their families, their communities, and the world.


Are there good reasons for us to consider not smaller but larger families? The supposed reasons why people should not have children in third world countries do not exist in America, except in special cases. Do we face famines? Have no access to medical care? Live in shantytowns? Scrounge for clean water? Have no schools to educate our kids? No. Even poor Americans enjoy luxuries middle class people in developing countries dream of. So, except in individual cases, there are no negative general reasons Catholic couples could decide not to have large families, except that people might say nasty things about us.

And there are positive reasons Catholic couples could decide to try to have large families. The operative word here is try. Remember, it is never totally up to us: Our fertility and God also must say yes to each child.

Because of the opportunities that exist in America and the leadership that America enjoys around the world, our Catholic children have a lot to offer the world in the future. Our numerous Catholic children can have a disproportionately positive effect on the rest of the world through their optimism, competence, and sense of service—that is, if we have them and help them develop these qualities.

In addition, the surest way we Catholics can overcome the culture of death is by having children. People who are for life have children; those who embrace the culture of death do not. The pessimists will not pass on their views to the next generation, but we Catholics will transmit our own positive ones. By choosing to allow each of our marital acts to be open to life, which in the normal course of things means having children, we will also be witnesses to life against the culture of death.

In his 1947 landmark study Family and Civilization, American sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman persuasively argued that couples who marry, stay married, have children, and go through the hard work of supporting and educating them have been the backbone of every civilization which has ever existed. This is true even if other people don’t recognize what we are doing and if they call us irresponsible and a drag on society for having a bunch of kids. In reality, when the babies we have now grow up, they will be providing the services that people who refuse to have children will need.

To reiterate, this does not mean that Catholic couples have to have large families. It does not even mean that they will have large families if they want to.


But what are some of the benefits for us, Catholic spouses?

One benefit is the knowledge, as mentioned above, that we are providing a real service to society. In our generosity and self-sacrifice we have a better chance to produce children who will themselves be generous and sacrificing rather than seeing the world as the venue for their own self-gratification.

A second benefit of having a large family for us is that it will increase the likelihood that we will have children who will take care of us and love us when we are old. A terrible problem today, one which will only grow over time, is that children who suffered through their parents’ rejecting each other through divorce are now in turn rejecting their parents who are old and needy.

A third benefit of having a large family is the way it increases our own sense of what I’ll call “dependent creatureliness”. To be married and have only one or two children in a modern, affluent society is relatively easy. You can get a false sense of your own efficacy. But when you get out there beyond your comfort zone, maybe with the third or fourth child, you begin to realize how inadequate you are to the task. You realize how much you need the help of your spouse and extended family, schools, larger civic organizations and society, the Church and the sacraments, and especially God. As our family size grows and each child grows older, our sense of how much we must rely on God only increases, since the actual society in which we live does little to support the family.

Creaturely dependence is something which people in past ages understood. It is something which people in much of the developing world today still understand. But it is something we have lost in this country because of our artificial lifestyle. Blessed are those who know their need for God. Catholic spouses who are generous in having children know this in their bones.

So, if this pertains to you, why not talk with your spouse about one more child?

© 2014. Kevin Aldrich. All rights reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Kevin and his wife have seven children. He has a MA in English literature from San Francisco State University and is completing a MA in Theology with an emphasis on Sacred Scripture from Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

He is currently teaching English and theology in a Catholic high school in Central Illinois. He has an extensive background in teaching, school administration, character education, and curriculum development.

He also writes screenplays, TV pilots, novels, and non-fiction books and articles.

His weekly homiletic lectionary-based blog is Doctrinal Homily Outlines.

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  • guest

    How people experience parenting varies greatly. I have found that some people have much more difficulty raising children than others. Some children are much more difficult to raise than others. Raising two children was mostly difficult for me, even with a helpful spouse. The challenge is still there even now that they are adults. The parenting is never over; it just changes. Little children, little problems; big children big problems. For many reasons my spouse and I are very glad we did not have a third one. Large families are not for everyone. In fact, after many years of teaching, I believe most couples cannot cope well with more than 3 children. It is interesting to note that the last 3 popes before Pope Francis were one of three children.

  • Brian Mershon

    “As we have seen, the Church does not teach that married couples have a moral obligation to produce as many children as they can. In our modern age, she encourages responsible parenthood. This can mean limiting family size using moral means.”

    Absolutely NOT what the Church nor Christ teach. Nope. Nada. Never. Not in Humanae Vitae. “Grave” reasons to “space children” but never deliberately “limit family size.” THAT is NOT Church teaching nor the teaching of Christ.

    Try Casti Canubii and work your way back.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Brian, you can’t simply assert. You need to provide arguments and evidence. Sending people off to read some link is neither.

    • captcrisis

      Brian is more or less correct. HV does not mention limiting family size. It mentions only spacing of children.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      How do space children and not limit family size?

  • Mary

    What about Catholic schools adopting the “common core curriculum” for the sake of receiving money? This is tantamount to selling our children’s souls to the devil. Shame on all those bishops who have fallen for that bait!

    • Cynthia Millen

      I teach Common Core in my Catholic school (which, by the way, is affordable with grants, volunteering and other opportunities available), and it in no way has changed what I teach (English and Language Arts) but instead promotes more in depth teaching of subject matter. It is better than our former curriculum and gives us the freedom to choose books, readings, methods, etc. that work best for our students AND we weave our Catholic faith into everything we teach. Common Core is not the bogeyman that some people are claiming it to be.
      On another note, I agree that we can do a better job with religious education, and thankfully our principal and pastor are working on that actively. Because I remember pre-Vatican 2 Mass and catechism, I have a different viewpoint than my younger teachers, but we have many teachers whose faith is on fire and they are deeply dedicated to our Church. In short, there are many excellent teachers in our Catholic school who have taken a pay cut to be teacher-ministers.

      Great article—-we had five kids (2 sets of twins—big surprise!) who are now grown, and it is true: they know they are not the center of the universe and our household was a crazy, loving, messy joy!

  • Patti Maguire Armstrong

    I love seeing the lively discussion. I once thought having 4 babies was MORE than my share of contributing souls to the world. One vasectomy reversal later, we added 4 more children then adopted 2 more AIDS orphans from Kenya. It’s wrong to limit God or limit ourselves, to that we must plow ahead without prayer and discernment. This topic is so near and dear to my heart, I co-authored the book “Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families” in which the editor of this site, Stacy Trasancos shared her story. Again and again, the story is told how opening our life and marriage up to God, opens it up to life and opens our hearts to grow bigger. To learn more about the book go to:

  • Stephanie

    The problem is that it’s really expensive to send multiple children to Catholic schools. Most areas don’t have free Catholic schooling. So only the upper class with just a one or two kids can attend these schools. For a poorer family it would cost half their salary or more to send their kids to these schools, and richer families don’t want to give up their expensive lifestyle (house, car, vacations) that would be required to put more kids through school.

    Homeschooling also isn’t always an option. It requires one parent to stay at home to educate the kids and the cost of living is very high in many places, so the family needs both parents to work. For single, widowed and divorced parents, homeschooling is impossible. So single parents (unless they only have 1-2 kids and a high paying job) and low- to mid-income families are forced to send their kids to the secular/atheistic/agnostic public school system.

    With fewer children comes fewer vocations. Parents want to become grandparents someday so all children are encouraged to marry rather than become a priest or seek a religious vocation. Even if they’re not suited for marriage or would do well as a priest or religious, marriage is *THE* path for children from small families.

    Fewer vocations means the cost of education increases. Priests, nuns, and even single people can work off a low wage. But people who are married and/or have children need a higher salary to support their families. High salaries mean higher tuition which means it’s almost impossible for large families or anyone who’s not upper middle class to send their children to Catholic school.

  • Karyn

    Thanks for this article, as our family waits to receive blessing number six very soon, God willing. Having a large family has been very eye-opening to me, since I was an only child and not raised within the Church (or any religion for that matter). I would argue that being a mother to a larger family has been key to more spiritual growth and hopefully to my husband and children as well.

  • David

    Good article. Although I think we need to say this in fewer words, and not worry about misinterpretation.
    Catholics should have as many kids as they can handle. Period.
    Are there exceptions? Of course.
    Just like there are exceptions and qualifications to the fact that the Catholic Church is the gate of salvation.
    Nevertheless, it IS the gate of salvation. If you are in heaven, you went through that gate.
    I have 6 kids under 12 years, and I just want to comment on how Catholic schools are simply a joke. Even the solid ones are simply unsustainable. I make a middle class wage and these schools would cost HALF of my salary to send my kids there! I kid you not!! Could I get “scholarships” and trade volunteer time for a reduced rate? Sure. But that is not a sustainable model, and even the amount they would want me to pay is very high. So these good schools are simply for the wealthy upper class now. How American the Church in America has become.
    So we home school. The Church needs to wake up and abandon these failed schooling models and embrace the domestic church as the new model for schooling.

    • JTLiuzza

      “Just like there are exceptions and qualifications to the fact that the Catholic Church is the gate of salvation.”

      What would those be for my own education? Are you speaking of invincible ignorance? Any others?

      And I agree with you about Catholic schools being out of sync with Catholic teaching economically. By that I mean we are supposed to be open to life, which necessarily would result in large families for most. And, as you point out, it’s next to impossible to put 5, 6, or more kids through Catholic school unless you’re well off. Not to mention the catechesis at your normal Catholic school is weak at best and has been since the council.

      One problem is the fact that the “spirit of the council” effectively decimated many things, one of which was teaching orders of consecrated religious (the good sisters). They were numerous when I was in grade school just after the council. Most elementary schools in my diocese even had a convent on campus to house them. These same schools, if they still exist, now have to replace all these sisters with lay people, usually women. Much more expensive, driving up tuition. And since the “spirit of the council” also emptied the pews, there are less donations in the collection plate helping to support the parish school, once again driving up tuition.

    • Theresa

      Parents can get together and homeschool their children together in either homeschool co-ops or do what some families here have done–rent classrooms and hire part-time teachers, who are faithful to the Church’s teachings, to teach a Catholic homeschool curriculum. It requires some work and organizational skills, but the children can obtain a solid education that is authentically Catholic, and it can be done for a fraction of the cost of an education at a weak or heretical diocesan school.

    • JTLiuzza

      I think that is fabulous. There is such a group in my parish (which does not have a school). I also believe the entire movement is organized and driven by mothers. It to me is tangible manifestation of the truth that the heart and soul of the domestic church is woman and the seeds of faith are planted and nurtured primarily by women.

  • I just read your whole series and I think it was well done – easy to follow and clearly stated. Thank-you for that. At the risk of, as I saw it on another blog once being the “token infertility martyr” (not yours or any on CS, just another blog in the blogosphere), I wanted to chime in a bit. Not a criticism or a “woe is me”, just a reflection from the other side of things, to add to the discussion. My intent is not to malign you or seek pity for myself, truly :).

    In the first couple of posts you specifically spoke to Catholic fathers, and while I fully appreciate that this includes spiritual fatherhood, I think it is important to speak to Catholic men. Period. Whether single, priest, married, fertile, infertile, etc., if all Catholic men would embrace this beautiful teaching from (soon-to-be-blessed) Paul VI, well, I can only imagine the positive impacts! (Women aren’t off the hook, but since you seemed to be speaking to men, I thought I’d stick with that.)

    And, on this last post, the one that drew me in, all I ask is that you please be cautious of phrases such as these: “In addition, the surest way we Catholics can overcome the culture of death is by having children. People who are for life have children; those who embrace the culture of death do not.” Again, not trying to be the “infertile martyr”, but trying to deepen our understanding and conversation. The way in which my marriage works to overcome the culture of death is directly through our infertility, through or lack of children. We could probably have at least 2 kids (more if we had multiples) if we were willing to follow the culture of death and pursue IVF and the like. These phrases are the type that lead some to look at my family of two, with 2 dogs and a cat, and assume we are contracepting and prefer animals to babies. Which could not be further from the truth. Ours is a quieter witness to life, but it is a witness all the same.

    Again, I’m truly commenting in charity, hoping to add to the conversation and not seeking pity or trying to discount what you’ve said. It is an excellent series and I thank you for writing it.

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  • Thomas Sharpe

    My wife and I are solidly middle class and have four children. I find it sadly ironic that if you obey what the Church Teaches and are prudently and prayerfully open to life your children will not attend a Catholic High School. CHS, another victim of the contraceptive mentality.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Why can’t they attend a Catholic high school? Are you anticipating that they won’t because the tuition will be too high?

    • Thomas Sharpe

      High tuition is one of the concerns, but not the least.

      Where I live in the Northeast, Catholic HS has become a high priced college prep-school that is pretty much Catholic in-name -only, pretty much restricted to upper middle class, with one or two children, who almost always… do not follow what the Church Teaches, and that is IF they happen to be Catholic. Tuition ranges from 12K to 16K per year, per child; that pays for great SAT scores, great Sports programs, and a watered down Faith.

      1- I can’t afford this.
      2- I do not want my children to be taught a watered down faith, where upper middle class, one or two children, and dissent are all things “catholic”.

      Does this surprise you?

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Sure. I’m not surprised that you see the school as having a problem with its Catholic identity. That is pretty common and I hope things are generally turning around. Maybe you could be part of this reform where you live.

      You should not assume you cannot afford the tuition. Most Catholic schools have policies that no Catholic student will be denied admission solely on ability to pay. This is why most have scholarships and financial aid programs. You might be pleasantly surprised.

    • Thomas Sharpe

      I’m really tired of people living in a kind of dream world where “every Catholic child” can afford to go to Catholic school. Even if I were to somehow get my children a “special” deal, what does that mean for countless other Catholic children who will only receive an 8th grade education in CCD in the year 2014. Next to Planned Parenthood centers, Catholic HS has become the number one advertisement center for a contraceptive mentality and materialism. If you don’t see this, you have some work to do.

    • Thomas Sharpe

      Interesting website

      “The problem is the Catholic laity’s lack of faith formation. This decades-old deficit has become grave today. The laity’s poor formation stands in the way of their ability to remain faithful in a hostile culture.”
      – Yes, I agree, and big part of the problem is that the overwhelming number of Catholics receive less than an 8th grade education in the Faith, before they go on to Bachelors and Masters degrees in Secular pursuits…. The whole structure of Catholic school needs an overhaul for the 21st century.

      “While there are many ways this formation ought to be given, I am convinced that the homily is the best opportunity pastors have to help the laity deepen their knowledge and practice of the Faith”

      – Yes, I agree again. But that’s not happening.. I have never “heard” a sermon on: contraception, abortifacients, fornication, embryonic stem cell research, cohabitation, divorce, same sex marriage….

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Thanks for checking that out.

      If you look on the bright side, we have dozens of really solid bishops now in the US who are going to do their best to turn things around.

    • Thomas Sharpe

      Thats great.
      And so the target date for when all Catholic children receive at least a high school education in the faith starts when? Sermons on contraceptive mentality and all attendant evils begin on?

    • Kevin Aldrich
    • Thomas Sharpe

      You are lucky to have a Bishop P.

      “When an unclean spirit leaves….. Then returns to an unoccupied house.. He goes and comes back with seven more demons wore than himself.”

      Until the evil of contraception is exorcised by solid homilies Everywhere, we’re really wasting time in treating the symptoms of the disease, not the cause, and houses do not contain Who they should.

      This goes for sodomitic unions as well as abortion. People who pray outside abortion clinics (I have) are like people who protest the burning of children alive, but never quite get to what causing the fire.

    • Jennifer Hartline

      Perhaps. But I have to pipe in here and say that tuition has become nearly impossible to afford for multiple children, and that is something that must change. The Church cannot expect Catholic parents to send their four or five or six kids to Catholic schools when the tuition bills are sky-high. I don’t know exactly how to resolve the issue, but it must be resolved.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Jennifer, one place this problem has apparently been resolved is the diocese of Wichita, where there is no tuition for Catholic students. I think it is due to the schools being supported by the entire Catholic community using a stewardship model.

    • Jennifer Hartline

      Brilliant! Now let’s make it nation-wide. People in the pews do indeed have to realize that they need to invest in schools. I heard of one bishop somewhere who told the diocese that his mission was two things only: schools and vocations. They go together. (Duh!)

    • Also the state of Arizona, because taxpayers can “reroute” their tax dollars to pay for Catholic school. Not 100% sure on how it works, but my son’s godparents (who are not rich) have been able to send 6 of their kids to Catholic school (so far, they have 7) that way.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      If you really want it I your pastor and parochial school will work with you to make it possible. A Catholic school can make exceptions to any policy for a good reason.

    • Unfortunately, even if my 5 kids got a total break on tuition because I’m a divorced mother & b/c of my financial situation, they still could not attend a Catholic school because there is no way I could meet the volunteer requirements & still have time to do all the things that need to be done on my days off. Working 40 hours/week, I have only 3 days to clean, do laundry & shop for groceries, to name just a few. That does not allow for the many, many hours of volunteer time required by every Catholic school I’ve ever had any contact with.

    • Elizabeth Jarzombek

      Did they tell you that if you didn’t volunteer you wouldn’t be able to receive the scholarship? That’s a shame. It’s not like that at my daughter’s school. Sure they want you to volunteer but they understand extenuating circumstances.

    • FranklinWasRight

      I’ve lived in areas where the expensive schools were Catholic in name only and offered little to no financial assistance. Even if they did, we don’t qualify. My husband makes more than most people, but we have 7 children, so tuition was out of our reach.

      We homeschooled.

      Now we live in an area where the schools are more affordable, but the faith is still watered down as are the academics.

    • Elizabeth Jarzombek

      “Does this surprise you?” Not at all, especially on the “left” coast. We have some pretty orthodox schools here in San Antonio. But guess what? They’re new, both under 15 years old.

    • Thomas Sharpe

      Thanks. No it doesn’t surprise me, but I am sick and tired of it.
      I was just thinking today about pulling up stakes in MA and moving to TX.

    • Thomas Sharpe

      Forgot to say.. Go Spurs! Beat the Heat! we are really rooting for you in Celtics country.

    • Elizabeth Jarzombek

      Sorry it took so long to respond. Make the move! You would be more than welcome. And it would be a VERY warm one…literally. But then you’d watch the news stories about winter in the north and be very grateful. And thanks for supporting our Spurs. The title was well deserved and long overdue.

    • James

      I live in the South. Catholic High Schools are few and far between and Catholic elementary schools are too expensive for Catholics who obey what the Church teaches.

      There simply aren’t enough Catholics to support them. The population of my state and diocese is only 4% Catholic.

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  • Therese

    Interesting timing of your article. We are attending the college graduation of our sixth child this week-end. All of them put themselves through higher education (loans, scholarships, jobs) and continued to get advanced degrees: lawyers, MBA, Pharm. D.
    But this morning I was reflecting on their “lack of worldliness” in comparison to their peers. They TRULY understand that they are not the center of the universe – even those who are struggling with their Catholic faith at the moment.
    They can tell the difference between “needs” and “wants.” That makes them flexible, adjustable, problem-solving survivors. They fight with each other – and they come to each other’s aid whenever the need arises. They are not alone in the world.
    They are all productive, tax-paying members of society who know they have to pay back their own school loans. They are great employees who know how to serve.
    Four of them are married and we count 7 grandchildren so far.
    Can we count on them to help us in our old age? I believe we can.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Yes! I focused on what was in it for the parents, but as St. John Paul II said, sometimes the best thing you can give your child is another brother or sister.