The Impoverished Response

Léon Augustin Lhermitte – Paying the Harvesters
Léon Augustin Lhermitte, Paying the Harvesters

Modern ideologies of fertility share a common attribute: They objectify people at large and commodify them in the particular. Despite the interesting questions economists raise, I have heard that Malthus’s object was never to stump for population control but to toss cold water on philosophies of infinite human betterment. To improve human life through improvements in planning and technology was, reasoned Malthus, ultimately futile. Population growth would inevitably maintain human want at a certain level or cause it to fluctuate in boom/bust cycles. Modernity has chosen the second route; more stable or static cultures choose the first and may be better for it in terms of maintaining culture, though certainly not in avoiding human misery. There are many ways to interpret the economic reality of unlimited wants with limited resources.

Children, in the eyes of the modern world, are either a severe inconvenience or a sought-after luxury–rather like pets. Commodified, children become the products of manufacture through in vitro fertilization and genetic screening–or else, as the accidental or unsatisfactory result of sexual encounters they are prevented and removed. In these ways, children and the activities of childbearing are subjected to the capitalist industrial system. The innate worth of a child is replaced by its market value. The perceived economic burden of an anonymous class of unwanted third-world children, or the economic expense of medically conceiving a ‘wanted’ child in the affluent West. The child in either case becomes either an investment or a liability.

Thus sexuality and its fruits, like everything else, have been reduced to commodities and subjected to the war of man against nature. With a high view of the human person that comes from the incarnation of our Lord Jesus, Christianity stands in necessary opposition to this reduction. But some Christians, while resisting the abortionists or population controllers, commit a similar error by turning human reproduction into an instrument for cultural warfare. The fundamentalist “Quiverfull” movement transforms children into missiles with a misappropriated Biblical metaphor.

“Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.” (Psalm 27:3-5)

Isolating one verse out of the Old Testament is never a good way to establish a Christian lifestyle. “Quiverfull” desacralizes Christian marriage by replacing the true vocation of motherhood and fatherhood with a passion for numerical growth. Christian parents are called to beget, baptize, and bring up their children. To limit the marriage vision to the begetting, or to rank it above the other aspects of the family vocation, is to make the marriage less than Christian.

Faith and reason are united, not opposed, in a Christian understanding of all vocations, including motherhood and fatherhood. At the same time, it is not a question of whether a couple “feels called” to raise children or not. This is the end to which marriage is directed; it is not to be set aside in favor of some other perceived “calling,” however noble. Marriage is more than the mere combination of two individuals with their careers, properties, and dreams. It is the institution which unites two persons within a covenant relationship to which God and their children are parties. There may be childless married couples, but marriage itself does not exist without reference to children. Children are always potentially if not actually present.

So far, the “Quiverfull” movement would attempt to agree. Children, they would say, are a primary purpose for which marriage exists. Yet, because they do not understand the sacramental significance of marriage, they descend into a false hierarchical view. The woman is reduced somewhat to her function of bearing children, who are reduced to instruments in a culture war. One might suppose that the one who gains from this is the man, for whose use these are intended. However, the man’s role is debased too, somewhat. Instead of being a more complete image of the servant-king, he is at best a warrior on campaign. For him, family must be employed, not enjoyed.

“Quiverfull” values, its proponents claim, the gift of children. Who would want to receive fewer gifts than God intends to give? This is the central rhetorical question of Charles Provan in The Bible and Birth Control, a seminal pamphlet for the “Quiverfull” movement. This reasoning again reduces children to numerical quantities. “Quiverfull” is all about gift-maximization. This reasoning, though, is a product of the modern age, with its short-sighted conception of unlimited growth, endless expansion, and purely hypothetical limits on natural and temporal resources. Parents live not in this imaginary plane of magical growth, but in the real, God-given world of limits. These constraints may include economic straitness, biological weakness, and finite time. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI frankly acknowledges these limits even as he calls Christian parents to approach God’s gift of children with an open hand of generosity and faith and to eschew a contraceptive mentality. The idea of the human person as a “gift” is all-encompassing and not limited to the actual begetting of children. Marriage partners are given in love to one another and to their children, as an image of God’s love and essential character. The marriage act is the sacrament of this giving, in which all parties to the marriage are present: God in creating and calling; the husband and wife in acting and loving; the children, as potential heirs of these gifts. On a wider plane, the gift-economy of the kingdom of God differs in obvious ways with the economics of the world–and serves, indeed, to bring light and sweetness to secular life.

This view of married sexuality as given and giving is as alien to the cultural militancy of “Quiverfull” as it is to the economic reductionism of the modern world. It presupposes the existence of the kingdom of God under the present and victorious reign of Jesus Christ in glory. “All things come of thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee,” reads the offertory in the Book of Common Prayer. The vocation of Christian marriage is to bring, with the open and generous hand, new souls into that kingdom. For that reason the bearing of children cannot be removed from the concept of marriage without fatal harm; nor may baptizing and raising these children as Christians be neglected. The wise and gentle raising of children as Christians is impossible to reconcile with the militancy of “Quiverfull” as with the the economic calculus of liberal capitalism.

A word on another point. “Quiverfull” proponents enjoy rhetorical appeals to “what if” suppositions. What if Susanna Wesley had stopped at twelve kids? What if Jesus had never been born? These questions might chasten us not to reject the gift of children, but they constitute no sound argument against family planning. God’s will is above and not contingent upon ours, and potential children are not at all the same thing as actual children. Christianity recommends a generous attitude toward the future gifts of God, but this is not the same thing as the jealous honor and care due all actual human beings. “Quiverfull” confuses this important distinction between potential children and actual children, while it also obscures the sovereignty of God. We may attempt to thwart the sovereign will of God–we will not succeed and only reap sorrow for ourselves–but God’s purposes are not at all hampered if a couple has only five children instead of ten. The five are actual, the ten only imaginary, and not equal claimants on our love. The “Quiverfull” movement represents an immoderate, imprudent, and insufficient reaction to the crisis of the modern family.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

3 thoughts on “The Impoverished Response”

  1. In about five or seven years I might have heard one mention of Quiverfull families, and in the variety and range of people I meet all the time, I have never knowingly met a member of such a family. It sounds strange. I can’t imagine being a child in such a family. But I do know what it’s like to be brought up as part of an experiment, as we all do, for family life has been based on experiment since the Homestead Act. I find it ironic how the individuals most achingly searching for authenticity and crying out against commodification are the ones most devoted to the concept of children as entitlement, as project and property of parents (really of mothers). I think their pain is real and their search is sincere but their problem is largely the result of their philosophy. As for what drives these Quiverfull folk, I would have to meet a few to find out. Good post.

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