William M. Gardner on the Problem of Preaching About "Responsible Parenthood"
Preaching at a wedding ceremony can be a great opportunity to impart sound catechesis on the essence and purpose of marriage. The opportunity can also be quite challenging, for the assembly often includes some older folks who have tragically and irreversibly bought into the mentality of the sexual revolution, and some younger folks who view the mention of children as a damper on the joy and excitement of the occasion.
Therefore, it is helpful to find explicit reference to the procreation and education of children in the prayers of the wedding service. For Catholics, for example, one of the prefaces of the Ritual Mass for the Celebration of Marriage contains a reference to the "chaste and fruitful love of holy Matrimony." This preface prayer precisely highlights the divine design of beautifying the world with children.
An insert to one of the Eucharistic Prayers has also been provided for use in the wedding Mass, which includes an entreaty to the Lord on behalf of the newlyweds to "gladden them with your gift of the children they desire." What a great moment to call down upon the newly married bride and groom the blessing of children—that is, at the solemn moment of Consecration.
But wait a minute! Is it merely the children "they desire" that we wish the married couple to be blessed with? Are any children beyond that number to be considered superfluous? Have Christians always and everywhere been known for accepting only the children they desire? Or has Christianity flourished, rather, when and where children were generously accepted even beyond the couple's desire or expectation?
Traditional Christian teaching had for centuries proposed and implied a single supernatural purpose to marriage and conjugal relations—namely, the procreation of children. But among modern Christians, a widespread shift from the traditional view has occurred, in favor of an emphasis on "responsible parenthood," which effectively affirms increased human control over the arrival of children within marriage. I fear that this shift has been deleterious to the exercise of vigorous Christian preaching on marriage and family life.
According to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (1965), the exercise of "Christian responsibility" for parents
involves a consideration of their own good and the good of their children already born or yet to come, an ability to read the signs of the times and of their own situation on the material and spiritual level, and, finally, an estimation of the good of the family, of society, and of the Church. It is the married couple themselves who must in the last analysis arrive at these judgments before God. (#50)
In the same paragraph, mention is made of large families, but in a somewhat cautionary, apologetic tone: "Among married couples who thus fulfill their God-given mission, special mention should be made of those who, after prudent reflection and common decision, courageously undertake the proper upbringing of a large number of children."
William M. Gardner is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Peoria, Illinois.
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