Having a large family is fine, but then taking care of those children is your responsibility. This is why the Church calls us to responsible parenthood.
"We have no wish at all to pass over in silence the difficulties, at times very great, which beset the lives of Christian married couples. For them, as indeed for every one of us, “the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life.” – Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae
Earlier this month, Richard Becker published an essay in Crisis on financial guru Dave Ramsey. The occasion for Becker’s article was a phone call to Ramsey’s radio show from Karen, a mother of seven whose family was struggling with out-of-control debt. Ramsey told her that getting family finances back under control is much more difficult when “you choose to have seven children.” “It’s not a criticism,” said Ramsey, “it’s just a mathematical fact.” He also said that the family’s size will inevitably “slow them down” as they battle to escape their debt. Nevertheless, he insisted that Karen and her husband work hard to get their money under control, and not use the size of their family as “an excuse” to be irresponsible. Becker’s response was respectful, orthodox and well-written. He presented himself and Ramsey as differing more in emphasis than in good will, and I’m sure Mr. Becker won’t mind if I for my part make a case for tipping the scale of emphasis back in Ramsey’s direction. Becker was “blunt” enough about his point: While Ramsey is “all the rage” among Christians, his advice is “not for childbearing Catholic couples who take the teaching of the Church seriously.”
As a young Catholic couple, my fiancée and I take Catholic teaching very seriously, which is precisely why we take Dave Ramsey’s advice. Since I proposed to Carey, she and I have looked for what good counsel we could find. We get the bedrock stuff from Catholic encyclicals. But when it comes to applying Catholic principles in the concrete world, Ramsey has been our greatest help. Why? Because Ramsey emphasizes an aspect of Catholic teaching that is severely under-emphasized in Catholic circles: A moral duty for couples to contribute to society instead of taking from it.
Gaudium et Spes emphasizes the integrity and value of marriages during the hard times when conception should be avoided. When the family finances are in disarray, a prudent concern for “the welfare of the children” demands “that the mutual love of the spouses be embodied in a rightly ordered manner.” At times like these, couples may decide to delay the conception of a child, despite their “often intense desire.” Casti Connubii praises this effort as “virtuous continence.” The same encyclical denounces the self-excusing claim by some couples that “they cannot on the one hand remain continent (practice NFP) nor on the other can they have children because of the difficulties whether on the part of the mother or on the part of family circumstances,” such as unmanageable family debt. In the eyes of the Church, you can’t have it both ways. Couples must decide whether “family circumstances” allow for another child. If not, then nothing will do but the “virtuous continence” of NFP.
Getting engaged doesn’t mean signing up for a honeymoon cruise away from the madding crowd of society. As much as Carey and I would like to simply bask in the glories of Catholic marriage, the task in front of us involves a lot of planning for the future—and planning isn’t fun. We can hardly wait to have a child (we’re already arguing and laughing over names!). But Humanae Vitae teaches us to weigh the “economic” and “social conditions” that might keep us from getting what we long for just as soon as we would like. If we shirk this marital responsibility—in defiance to the Church—then there will be a price to pay. And most importantly: we won’t be the only ones to pay it. According to Humanae Vitae, to treat our marriage imprudently would be to fail not just ourselves, but our family, Our Lord, and the common good of society.