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Bishops should stop worrying about decline and start encouraging couples to be open to life

People are often too afraid or too selfish to have larger families

By on Monday, 14 November 2011

The Duggar family on NBC News's Today show (Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via AP Images)

The Duggar family on NBC News's Today show (Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via AP Images)

A friend who has 10 children (so she has a stake in the subject) has suggested that I blog about large families. My initial response was to think “Oh no, that’s so – er – Catholic”, meaning “how on earth is it relevant to today’s news?” Then I thought again: am I not a Catholic and is this not a Catholic blog site and are not large Catholic families more than relevant to any news item: whether it is about economics, marriage, children’s welfare, education, housing, pensions, feminism, crime and everything else – such families matter hugely.

My friend who suggested the blog directed me to the Duggar family of America, who are expecting baby number 20. A photo on their family blog shows a mass of children and young people, all holding guitars or violins. They look very happy and jolly and are clearly emulating Johann Sebastian Bach’s family, both in size and musical interest. Then this morning, an online magazine I subscribe to called Mercator had an item about the Allaire family of Quebec; proud father Georges has written a memoir about his and his wife Danielle’s family: Then There Were Ten; this was followed by a sequel: A Baker’s Dozen. He hasn’t yet written the third part as life is still unfolding. Their Christmas card is crammed with a sea of smiling faces.

I started to compile a list of the large families I know: it includes a valiant matriarch of 12 children from New York, who now has over 80 grandchildren, and who was once imprisoned in her 70s for taking part in a (peaceful) pro-life demonstration (the worst thing, she told me, was being strip-searched by the guards). It includes a lovely family from Birmingham with 14 children, including a son who is a seminarian and a daughter who is a nun; a wacky Mum from Wales, a convert who used to sport tattoos and an Apache hairstyle, and who has now nine children; a family in Oxford with 11, including twins and triplets; an elderly couple on the Borders, both converts, who have 12. I also know several “smaller” families with six, seven or eight children. None of them would say that life has been easy, but somehow they manage to exude a kind of stalwart sanity, generosity and humour that is forgotten in the endless debates about family size, helicopter parenting, working mothers and “can you have it all?”

It goes without saying that you do not have to be a Catholic to have a large family (though it helps). Fr Ian Hellyer, a former Anglican minister and now a member of the Ordinariate, who featured recently in the Catholic Herald, has 10 children. And it is not true, as those outside the Church sometimes think, that Catholics are “ordered” by the Pope to have as many children as possible. Yet it is also true that people often regret in later life not having had more children.

The Cure of Ars, about whom William Oddie blogged earlier this week, once made a typically robust remark to mothers to the effect that “When you die God will ask you about the children you refused to have.” (This is not an exact quote as the booklet it comes from, Thoughts of the Cure of Ars, which I keep in the glove compartment of my car, along with a rather nice pocket edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, was once half-eaten by one of my children when young). But it makes the point that we are often too afraid or too selfish to be open to life.

Memo to our bishops: stop staring at spreadsheets and managing decline; instead, why not be heroic – and preach and write pastorals about Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical? There must be a quote from the Cure of Ars about bishops – if only I could find it…

  • ms Catholic state

    An Indian Parish has set up a fund to help families once they have produced their 5th child.  It is to encourage large families as the percentage of Catholics in the region are in decline due to birthcontrol.

    I think we should do this in the West.

  • ms Catholic state
  • Jack Regan

    Somebody said to me once that Catholics have always been awful at evangelisation because we have “always just conquered countries and then made people have lots of babies!”

    This statement is a bludgeon rather than a scalpel to be sure. It’s unsubtle and – yes – misses out a lot. But there is some truth in it.

    I am getting the impression that the Bishops really care right now about keeping congregations in the Church and reaching out to those who have fallen away. Both are vital.

    Families are also vital, of course, but the two are not in opposition. Both matter.

  • Maryam

    Perhaps the religion that has members with the biggest families is Islam. Would be wonderful to see Catholics as open to life.

  • maryp

    But isn’t that rather because of polygamy?

  • Parasum

    I would love to know how people are able to afford to bring up so many children. It could never happen in this country. Not with house-prices, gas, electricity, food, clothes, education, mortgages, medical care costing what they do. Not to mention job security, lack of. Well done them – but in this country, having umpteen children is a non-starter. It wasn’t – but it is now.  

    There is no good multiplying if the result is to produce a huge family one lacks the £££ – and all those other things – to look after properly. Since they are not encumbered by little details like that (do Popes pay death duties, mortgages, buy clothes for their ten children, have to fork out £££ on petrol to pay more £££ at Tesco’s ?) –  they have no idea, and can have no idea, what it is like to have to bring up the clans of sprogs they are so keen on insisting women have to bear. Requiring people to beget & to bear children is all very well, but what is Christian, or even humane, in requiring people to multiply if the resulting offspring can’t be looked after properly ?

    Writing won’t fill empty mouths, or enrich parents who can’t earn the cash they need to buy food and all the other things children need – especially if there are ten or so children to buy these things for. If they’re so keen for Catholics to have large families, let the bishops help out. (It’s very striking that the clergy are only too happy to burden the laity with duties & taboos that they themselves are exempted from – I wonder why this is.)

  • theroadmaster

    Practically all the nations of Western Europe, the Americas, Oceania, and in other areas of the World, whether developed or developing, are currently experiencing uniform falls of population below replacement levels.  Consequently this lack of confidence regarding the securing of the demographic futures of nations, has caused  heavy reliance on emigrant labour to make up the shortfalls and social security budgets which are creaking due to the financial pressures of  ever increasing numbers of people reaching pensionable age not being replaced quickly enough by younger people coming into the workforce.  Besides the economic and material costs, the shrinkage in the average size of families also has a negative effect on the holistic state of a country.  It tells us of a lack of trust on the part of couples in the Divine Providence of God and a selfish need to be in control of one’s reproductive functions;  Perhaps the bishops could issue their own working document on the prophetic nature of the content of Humanae Vitae, as proposed by Francis.

  • Oconnordamien

    If I may ride your shirt-tails here, I was hesitant to comment as a “non-breeder”.

    It strikes as greedy, selfish, arrogant and ignorant to be having that number of children. Even if the parents are wealthy, they are still consuming resources from others. If they are using an NHS or any public school system, responsible parents (and single people) are paying for their choices.

    Also don’t confuse being child-free with child hating. I dote on my nephew, I just don’t want a son. As simple as that. I like and am good with kids but like puppies, I know they are for life. 

  • Jacquelineparkes

    Shop at Aldi… Ten children doesn’t cost as much as you think. You have to heat a house anyway .. If you have a TV it’s more economical for 10 to watch .. Of course you hear the tired cliche ” have you got a TV?”… The large family can thrive..

  • WSquared

    …and what about all of the goodies these children from this large family will be paying for in the future?  Why do you see children and people in general as those who merely use up resources instead of their being resources themselves?

  • karlf

    The world is overpopulated with humans

  • Anonymous

    Indeed, the sin of seeing people as objects of economic value (or even objects full stop). We need to recpature that sheer joy and wonder and goodness of being.

    Two quotes from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson spring to mind, the memoirs of an elderly father to his young son who he will not live to see grow to adulthood:

    “… but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”

    “You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us. I hope you never have to long for a child as I did, but oh, what a splendid thing it has been that you came finally, and what a blessing to enjoy you now …”

  • ms Catholic state

    It isn’t because of polygamy Mary….because the birthrate is judged by the number of children per woman…not per man.  So a man might have fifty children….by fifty wives (let’s imagine).  That is still a very low birthrate as it is only 1 child per woman.

    Also…..I imagine polygamy creates an imbalance in society with many men unable to find a wife.

  • ms Catholic state

    As one elderly woman with 10 children herself says….’Just wait till they are working!!’.  She means there will be no shortage of money when they are all working.

  • ms Catholic state

    It is those who don’t contribute to the future by having children (who are not celibate) that are selfish.  Money and assets are worthless…unless there is a demand for them.  That demand comes only from growing populations…..not declining ones.

    Declining populations are an economic curse.  Someone should tell our political masters.  Though I suppose they know already….but are reversing the population contraction with mass immigration. 

  • ms Catholic state

    Correction….those who don’t contribute to the future….by NOT having children.

  • Anonymous

    “a convert who used to sport tattoos and an Apache hairstyle” I certainly think that disfiguring our bodies with tattoos is indeed very un Christian behaviour, and it worries me how prevelent this has become in recent years. Although I can’t see anything wrong in a hairstyle (do you mean ‘mohican’ Francis?) whatever style it is, a this does no actual physical damage.
    I would be interested to hear other views on the topic of how we should care for our bodies. For example; is it an wrong to let ourselves become fat or unfit? 

  • Laurence England

    It isn’t. It is overpopulated by the mean-spirited.

  • Poppy Tupper

    It sounds as if she had the tattoos before she became a Christian. So I’m not quite sure what point you are making.

  • Cassandra

    Really ! ms Catholic state. Some of us are not allowed by nature to have any children.I would not make such general statements.

  • Anonymous

    @ Damo O C.
                          Whilst of course the opposite is the case. Humankind needs constant renewal, if everyone was like you, we would die out within a generation.

  • Anonymous

    He did have the tattoos before converting, and Francis implies that tattoos are an un Christian way to treat one’s body, to which I agree. However, I see nothing wrong in any particular hairstyle.
    I also questioned whether it is un Christian to treat one’s body badly through over eating, lack of excercise, piercings etc.

  • Poppy Tupper

    It is a betrayal of your marriage vows to get fat or have a stupid haircut, since the promise is “With my body I thee honour”.

  • karlf

    indeed! Mean spirited humans

  • Anonymous

    Can’t we honour with bigger bodies and UNUSUAL haircuts?

  • James H


    spread the word…

  • Anonymous

    James H – that’s one opinion on overpopulation. Have you heard any others?

  • mike cliffson

    It’s simple, if hard,  duckie :Trust god.
    If he’ll look after us he’ll look after anyone. It’s called omnipotence
    We’ve got eleven we’re apalling sinners, and never gone hungry- tho we’ve lost two homes, I ve been knocked down a few times on my own doorstep, we’ve had electriciity, phones water cut off and been reconnected quite quickly ..
    very little state help, with strings – kids have never gone hungry, unclothed or unsheltered.

    I appreciate that gaia saving utterly evil ends  cafod collections and treehugging liturgy may be safer

  • karlf

    You sound like an open minded sort of chap!

  • Randall E. Winn

    So a non-disfiguring tatoo would be o.k.?

  • Randall E. Winn

    If you’re good at math, figure out how many people will be on our earth in 10 generations if everyone has 10 kids.
    If you’re really good at math, figure out how many generations it will take for the weight of such a population to exceed that of our planet.
    A New Earth indeed!

  • Anonymous

    Such as a really tiny one???

  • Randall E. Winn

    Or a cute little rose, or a butterfly?

  • Anonymous

    Only if it is temporary, surely?

  • BedtimeLiveTwofour

    Dear Francis,


    I work for TV production company called Twofour and we’re
    currently developing a show about the different issues parents face when they
    are putting their kids to bed. We’ve got some of the best sleep experts in the
    UK to offer them professional advice which we’re hoping will help them and
    other families across the UK.


    I have been asked to try and locate large families with
    loads of children to appear on the show. I read your article in the Catholic
    Herald from last year about how bishops should be more open to life and in it
    you mentioned how you know several families with lots of children. I was wondering
    if there was any way you could put me in touch with any of them?


    It doesn’t matter if they don’t have any specific problems
    with bedtime themselves as we want to use examples of large families who have a
    great routine to offer inspiration to those families who are having problems
    with just a few.


    Sorry to email you out of the blue.


    All the best


    Josh Allott     


  • The Catholic Herald

    Dear Mr Josh Allott,

    I have asked several large families to respond to your request to appear on your show to discuss bedtime routines. I do hope you will get replies from some of them!

    Let me know if you don’t and I’ll try again.

    Best wishes – (Mrs) Francis Phillips