Peter Kwasniewski

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Why marriages made deliberately childless are ultimately selfish and unstable

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

September 26, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Several centuries before Christ, Aristotle had observed in his work Nicomachean Ethics: “Children seem to be a bond of union. Hence sterile couples separate more readily, for children are a common good of both parties; and what is common maintains friendship.” In the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas commented as follows on this passage: 

Next, he [Aristotle] indicates a means of making this friendship [of marriage] strong. He remarks that children seem to be a cause of a stable and lasting union. Hence, sterile couples who fail to have children are separated more readily. In fact, divorce was granted in former times because of sterility. And the reason for this is that children are a common good of both husband and wife whose union exists for the sake of children. But what is common continues and preserves friendship which also consists in sharing (communicatio), as has been pointed out.

A moral philosopher who was well acquainted with both Aristotle and Aquinas, Pope John Paul II seemed to have just this thought in mind when he wrote in his Letter to Families:​

In the newborn child is realized the common good of the family. Just as the common good of spouses is fulfilled in conjugal love, ever ready to give and receive new life, so too the common good of the family is fulfilled through that same spousal love, as embodied in the newborn child.

Even the Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677)—a hard-core modern who asserted that things in nature do not act for an end and that final causes are the products of our fantasy—could not deny in his Ethics that marriage is inherently bound up with children. It was as if the facts themselves compelled his assent:

As concerning marriage, it is certain that this is in harmony with reason, if the desire for physical union be not engendered solely by bodily beauty, but also by the desire to beget children and to train them up wisely; and moreover, if the love of both, to wit, of the man and of the woman, is not caused by bodily beauty only, but also by freedom of soul.

We are thus not completely unprepared for the rather sharp observation of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) in his Pensées that children are so much the good of marriage that married people who avoid them selfishly are worse than fornicators:

It is not the nuptial blessing [of the Church] which takes away the sin from procreation, but the desire to procreate children for God, which is only genuine in marriage . . . The daughters of Lot, for example, who only wanted to have children, were purer without marriage than married people who have no desire for children.

What is the problem with such a lack of desire? What does it tell us? We could begin with the probing remarks of Gabriel Marcel, who in his work Homo Viator descries the contradiction of contraception:

The advocates of birth control claim more or less sincerely that it is out of pity for their possible descendents that they refuse to give them the chance of existence; but we cannot help noticing, all the same, that this pity which is bestowed at small cost, not upon living beings but upon an absence of being or nothingness, is found in conjunction with a suspiciously good opportunity for indulging the most cynical egoism, and can scarcely be separated from an impoverished philosophy which measures the value of life by the pleasures and conveniences it provides.

What Marcel is pointing to is the inherent selfishness of wanting to “keep marriage just for the two of us.” This is contrary to its very nature as a good thing, since good things are meant to be shared, spread out, multiplied, and perpetuated. If we do not want to multiply the loaves and fishes that God has given us a natural power to multiply, we are starving ourselves and others. If we do not seek a living image of our love, by which it can transcend itself and demand still more love, we are purposefully throwing up a barrier to the maturation of friendship, the increase of virtues, the growth of our humanity. In short, it is self-crippling, self-enclosing, self-imploding. It is all about me, a little about you inasmuch as you serve my perceived needs, and nothing about anyone else. No wonder Aristotle and Aquinas think such a relationship unstable and ready to break apart.

Granted, this description would only apply in full to those who are in the grip of an extreme anti-family mentality, of which, sadly, there seem to be an increasing number in the contemporary Western world. But it is the nadir, the limit case, of a trend of thinking and feeling that fails to see or refuses to see how spousal love is literally “embodied in the newborn child.”

The wisdom of the Catholic Church is far different from the folly of the world. Her teaching inspires, challenges, and consoles. In his encyclical Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI voices this wisdom:

God wishes men to be born not only that they should live and fill the earth, but much more that they may be worshippers of God, that they may know Him and love Him and finally enjoy Him for ever in heaven; and this end, since man is raised by God in a marvelous way to the supernatural order, surpasses all that eye hath seen, and ear heard, and all that hath entered into the heart of man. From which it is easily seen how great a gift of divine goodness and how remarkable a fruit of marriage are children born by the omnipotent power of God through the cooperation of those bound in wedlock. 

What a privileged way of sharing the greatest of goods—to baptize sons and daughters, bring them up in the fear and love of the Lord, and set them on their way to eternal life with Him and the whole company of the blessed—and to do so as a couple, as a family!

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College in California and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the Choir and Schola. He now works as a freelance author, public speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published five books: Wisdom’s Apprentice (CUA Press, 2007)On Love and Charity (CUA Press, 2008)Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church (Angelico Press, 2014); and most recently, Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages (Angelico Press, 2017)Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has also been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a board member and scholar of The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church.