Can you have too many children?

The Duggars are expecting their 19th child. I have seen a number of Catholics commending the Duggars for their openness to life (I know, the Duggars are not Catholics but there are many Catholics who celebrate their example). But as their family continues to grow, my unease about their decision to have as many children as possible grows as well.

Obligatory disclaimer: I reject the claims (mostly from environmentalists) that large families are irresponsible and that children harm the earth. I believe that low birth rates in Europe and North America are hurting those societies. I also believe that other reasons given for small families, like the ability to provide financially, are exaggerated and focus too much on material concerns.

I have been trying to figure out what about the Duggars bothers me. Don’t they exemplify what the Catholic Church teaches?

The world says that we should have sex purely for its pleasurable aspect. But the Catholic Church teaches that sex is properly understood as being both unitive and procreative. In addition, the Church teaches that we should not be controlled by our base urges. Just because we feel the urge to have sex does not mean that we must submit to that urge. Engaging in sex purely for the pleasure rejects God’s purpose of sex between a husband and wife.

Now the Duggars have come to understand the unitive and creative aspects of sex that the Catholic Church teaches. They are open to life, so much so that they are producing as many children as is humanly possible. I have tried arguing with myself that they should be celebrated for rejecting the contraceptive culture and for embracing life.

Still the nagging feeling I had about the Duggars remained. Yes, they are open to life but it is obvious that there are consequences to that openness. Their decision to continually increase their family does have serious economic concerns. Before their 16th child, they exceeded their financial capabilities (even with their frugal and debt-free lifestyle) to the point that the TLC network and other companies stepped in to complete a new house for them. Now they are able to support their family with the income from their TV show. So they are self-sufficient.

But is their example really in accordance with Catholic teaching? I went to the USCCB to get more information.

Let them [husband and wife] thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. (GS, #50)

With regard to man’s innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man’s reason and will must exert control over them. (HV, #10)

Quotes taken from USCCB Responsible Parenthood (PDF)

Catholics should be aware that there is no teaching that requires us to unthinkingly procreate. In fact, the Catholic Church teaches responsibility for making these decisions. A “let the chips fall where they may” attitude is not taking responsibility. Producing as many children as biologically possible is not a teaching of the Catholic Church. Our bishops teach us that we do have control over our sexuality and we must exert control over our innate drives and emotions.

The Duggars have not yet discovered this aspect of sexuality.