Large Catholic Families as Prophetic Signs

The American fertility rate in 2018 was 1.7. The birth rate was 11.96. The American fertility rate in 2019 was, again, 1.7; the birth rate rose slightly to 11.99. “Fertility rate” is the average number of children born to a woman during her child-bearing years, ages 15–44. “Birth rate” is the number of children born per 1000 people. These current numbers represent historic lows. The fertility rate numbers throughout first-world countries are similar — the U.K 1.8; Norway 1.72; Poland 1.4; Russia 1.8; all with equally low birth rates. (Pew Research)

There are many reasons for these historic lows, some obvious, others more subtle. Mary Rise Hasson, a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies trends in sexuality and fertility in America. She says, “The decline in fertility rates is the product of ‘radical’ cultural changes that promote self-centeredness as laudable, whereas children represent loss and burden — lost freedom, lost privacy, lost wages, lost opportunities to travel, even sex. The prevailing resistance to bearing children is best expressed as ‘my pleasure, my timing, my choice’!” (Excerpts from National Catholic Register)

Other factors leading to low fertility rates include the economic downturn and recession in the beginning of the twenty-first century, baby boomers delaying marriage, women pursuing careers that monopolize their time and energy, multiple forms of birth prevention readily available, including abortifacients and abortion. Added to these are high divorce rates and the consequent breakdown of family life, loss of faith and the sense of the sacred, radical secularism, as well as the expanding litany of current aberrations.

Fatima visionary Sr. Lucia told Cardinal Coffara, “The final battle between the Lord and the kingdom of Satan will be about marriage and family, because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue.” (New Oxford Review News, Feb 10, 2020) The “decisive issue,” the “final battle” — marriage and the family.

The oft-quoted G.K. Chesterton anticipated this final battle in the early years of the twentieth century. In The Wisdom of Mr. Chesterton, we hear him say, “The men and women who, for good reasons or bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons or bad, revolting against mankind.” Further, he says, “without the family we are helpless before the State.” In another context, explaining how just as the Church brought mankind out of the Dark Ages and barbarism, so, too, the family will be the defense against the neo-barbarism of the future, the new “dark ages” of which the current Culture of Death is but a harbinger.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Chesterton was not alone in warning about assaults on the sanctity of marriage and family life. Aldous Huxley’s distopic novel Brave New World, published in 1932, is a prophetic fantasy of a future world run by a scientific dictatorship. In this world all humans are produced by in vitro fertilization and brought through a gestation process in bottles lined with sow’s peritoneum, moving along at a prescribed pace on assembly lines, all the while being programmed to be members of specific castes. In this new world, all people are required to spend their time and energy either at work, being sexually promiscuous, or playing a vast array of mindless games. There are no families. The words “mother” and “father” are considered obscenities, “smutty” words that cause people to recoil in shock and disgust at hearing them. During an indoctrination session, one of the world’s controllers taught a group of students about families. “Home, home — a few small rooms, stiflingly over inhabited by a man, by a periodically teeming woman, by a rabble of boys and girls of all ages. No air, no space, an under sterilized prison of darkness, disease and smells.”

This is a world of empty relationships, endless pursuit of pleasure, drug-induced freedom from pain, anxiety and God, a world in which the aged (60 or so) are euthanized, cremated and their chemical remains recycled. Years later a New York Times book review of Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1958, said, “It is frightening to experience . . . to discover how much of his satirical prediction of a distant future became reality in so short a time,” just twenty-six years! As bizarre as Huxley’s “New World” seems, there is a disquieting awareness that much of what he anticipated (in the extreme) as the consequences of modern progress and scientific materialism has worked its way into our lives.

In 1938, Hillaire Belloc, one of the strongest Catholic apologists in the early twentieth century, echoed a “call to arms” in The Great Heresies in which he characterized the struggle to defend the Faith against a steady onslaught of anti-Christian forces as a “duel to the death.” In this struggle, “there can be no question of neutrality. The forces now opposed to the Faith design to destroy. The battle is hence forward engaged upon a definite line of cleavage, involving the survival or destruction of the Catholic Church. And all — not a portion — of its philosophy.” This “modern Attack” as Belloc called it, “advances relentlessly, like an animal, counting on strength alone!”

Certainly, this “animal” has been wreaking havoc on marriage and families, both Catholic and non-Catholic, over the past one hundred years. Some people have gone as far as to say, “Dogs are the new children,” describing a current trend in “family” life. What has God said about all of this? What does the Catholic Church have to say? Gen 1:27–28 teaches us: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’ . . .” (RSV). There is nothing vague or mysterious in God’s word; it is supremely clear and direct: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Church teaching is equally clear and direct. The Catechism of the Catholic Church #2201 says, “Marriage and the family are ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of children.” Further on, in #2373, it says, “Sacred Scripture and the Church’s traditional practice see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity.”

So many Church documents are rich, vibrant, life-giving. One of these is Gaudium et Spes, or Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. In §48, a section on marriage and family, we learn, “The Christian family springs from marriage, which is an image and a sharing in the partnership of love between Christ and the Church; it will show forth to all men Christ’s living presence in the world and the authentic nature of the Church by the love and generous fruitfulness of the spouses . . .” This is not some sanctimonious theorizing; it merely echoes Gen 1:28.

It continues in §50, which is even stronger. It says, “Without intending to underestimate the other ends of marriage, it must be said that true married love and the whole structure of family life which results from it is directed to disposing the spouses to cooperate valiantly with the love of the Creator and Savior, who through them will increase and enrich the family from day to day . . . Married couples should regard it as their proper mission to transmit human life. . . .” “Among the married couples who 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.”

It would be unrealistic to think the average Catholic man or woman spends much time in The Catechism of the Catholic Church or the documents of Vatican II. Where, then, and when, in justice, would they have been taught what Sacred Scripture and Church teaching say about marriage and family? CCD class? Catholic elementary or high school? College? Perhaps pre-Cana? Who would teach them? Catholic elementary schools have been closing steadily. In the 1960s, there were more than 5 million students in nearly 13,000 Catholic schools nationwide. In 2019, there were 1.8 million children in fewer than 6,300 Catholic schools nationwide. A common reason for so many closings is reduced enrollments; simply put, fewer Catholic children and fewer Catholic families.

There are very few orthodox Catholic colleges and universities in America where Sacred Scripture and Church teaching are at the core of the schools’ curricula. There are even fewer indications nationwide that things will improve, that clear instruction about God’s design for marriage and family will be ongoing and consistently available to the Catholic faithful.

Many modern people’s world views and values are taught by what St. John Paul II referred to as “conscience-forming mass media,” the culture carriers of our age. Many “family” T.V. shows, for example, offer images of family life that have absolutely nothing to do with God’s vision, plan and standards for marriage and family. They reinforce the “Dictatorship of Relativism,” the “anything goes,” “have it your way,” “do what ya wanna do” approach to life.

The current profound disorder in family life in America has deep roots. One of these roots is a broad-scale preference for fewer children or none at all. For example, in 1924, Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar composed “Tea for Two,” an innocuous love song with a memorable melody creating an idyllic picture of a man and woman dreaming of their life together as a married couple. It was not until 1950 that the song enjoyed wide popularity by way of the film Tea for Two, starring Doris Day and Gordon McCrea. It was a light, happy musical celebrating romance, love, marriage and family — Hollywood style.

The musical’s lyrics assumed marriage meant that of a man and woman, apparently open to life. The title song’s next to last stanza paints a picture of the ideal family again, Hollywood style:

“We will raise a family,

A boy for you,

A girl for me:

Can’t you see,

How happy we

Shall be.”

“Tea for Two” had delightfully, perhaps unwittingly, proposed a new model for family size — two children, preferably a boy and a girl.

The popularity of the song spread through a number of renditions by celebrity entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Tommy Dorsey. In the years following the screening of “Tea for Two,” very popular family T.V. shows such as “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Life of Riley” were quite “wholesome” with traditional stay-at-home moms, bread-winning dads and two or fewer children, reinforcing the “Tea for Two” model.

In the Jersey City, N.J. neighborhood where I grew up in the 1950s, all my friends on “my block” had either one sibling or none at all. The two-child family had become the socially acceptable norm; in fact, household sizes have steadily shrunk from 3.76 in 1940 to 3.14 by the end of the twentieth century. The decline continues, as does the transformation of American family life.

In Benedictus, daily excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI’s writings, the October 18 selection addresses this issue with what some might consider a radical, near-impossible solution. He says, “Since a consumer culture exists that wants to prevent us from living in accordance with the Creator’s plan, we must have the courage to create islands, oases and then great stretches of land of Catholic culture where the Creator’s design is lived out.”

Benedict’s vision is not an impossible dream. In fact, it is being lived out in a growing number of ecclesial movements in the Church, various “lay associations of the faithful” with ongoing formation, teaching, sharing of life and resources, encouragement, building networks of Christ-centered relationships, faithful to the magisterium of the Church. Each movement strives to become an island of faith, an oasis of Catholic culture, living in the world but not of it.

In The Day is Now Far Spent, Cardinal Robert Sarah’s penetrating assessment of the state of the Catholic Church today, he says, “The consumer society is a system by which all human beings seem to be fettered. I think we have to have the courage to perform prophetic acts.” Cardinal Sarah goes on to quote Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in The Ratzinger Report where he says, “It is time that the Christian reacquire the consciousness of belonging to a minority and of often being in opposition to what is obvious, plausible and natural for that mentality which the New Testament calls — and certainly not in a positive sense — ‘the spirit of the world.’ It is time to find again the courage of non-conformism, the capacity to oppose many of the trends of the surrounding culture.”

Cardinal Sarah calls for “prophetic acts.” Traditionally, prophetic acts have been signs of God’s presence, grace, mercy, power and anger, making known His divine counsels and will. Old Testament prophets were called by God and sent to challenge His unfaithful people to repent and return to faithfulness to Him and to their covenant. In most cases, the Lord does not call prophets to do something easy and simple. What is required of prophets is docility and fidelity. Some of the more dramatic examples of prophetic actions are found in the Books of Ezekiel and Hosea, in which only a radically obedient prophet would act out in plain view the Lord’s seemingly bizarre directions.

For example, after Ezekiel had obediently completed a series of demanding prophetic actions, the Lord said, “You must bake barley loaves over human excrement in their sight. Thus, the Israelites shall eat food unclean among the nations where I scatter them.” For the first time, Ezekiel balks. “Oh no, Lord God! Never have I been made unclean . . . never has any unclean meat entered my mouth.” The Lord replied, “Very well, I allow cow’s dung in place of human excrement; bake your bread on that.”

The Lord was thoroughly fed up with the infidelity of the Israelites of Ezekiel’s day as well as that of the prophet Hosea’s. He directs Hosea to marry Gomer, a harlot, a prostitute, symbol of Israel’s “harlotry.” She bears Hosea three children whom the Lord names, each name having symbolic significance related to a progressive order of severity of punishment for the House of Israel. Gomer proves to be unfaithful, returning to her old loves in the same way that the Israelites continue to worship their idols. Hosea divorces Gomer but realizes his love for her is so great that he will eventually forgive her infidelity if she will return to him. Hosea’s marriage to Gomer and her infidelity are an image of God’s covenant with unfaithful Israel, His turning His face away from His beloved, and His ultimate forgiveness and taking her back.

In the “final battle,” the “decisive issue” for marriage and family and ultimately for the future of mankind, Cardinal Sarah calls for Christian fortitude to “confront fearlessly the contemptuous laughter of the conformists, the media, and the so-called elites.” One of the clear prophetic signs that the battle will be won is a growing number of vibrant, large Catholic families, thoroughly counter-cultural. In a time of historically low fertility and birth rates, large families are not just anomalies but lived-out affirmations of Gen. 1:28 and Church teaching about marriage and family.

I count among my closest friends thirteen families with ten or more children and another thirty-five families with anywhere from five to nine children. These are friends with whom my wife Eileen and I, along with our eleven children, have shared life over the past forty-three years, people living Christ-centered lives, faithful to Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church. We are all members of one of the new ecclesial movements in the Church, a Catholic Covenant Community, a lay association of the faithful with roots in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. These families live in several towns in an affluent area of New Jersey and are active in a number of local parishes and ministries. The charisms of our community, The People of Hope, are prayer, family life, and evangelization. Jesus Christ is the center of the community’s life.

None of these couples set out with a specific number of children in mind, nor did Eileen and I. However, if couples take to heart the consistent Church teaching that every marriage act must be open to life, and if they marry at a younger age than is the current trend (if at all), as a rule they stand a good chance of bearing a fairly large number of children. Most of my friends with ten or more children married in their twenties.

Raising large families in the midst of an anti-life secular culture requires deep faith, docility, trust in the Lord, fortitude, active, positive peer spiritual and practical support. It takes great perseverance, ongoing prayer, endless self-sacrifice, physical emotional and spiritual endurance, but then, so does raising “a boy for you, a girl for me.” Indeed, raising a family is hard work; raising a large, truly Catholic family today is even harder work. None of these couples with large families set out to be a prophetic sign to a “culture of death,” yet that is precisely what they are.

My friends with large families are among the happiest, most stable people I have ever known. The divorce rate among these families is zero, as is the suicide rate among both adults and children. Most notable are the heroic, incredibly strong women, offering their whole lives for the fulfillment of God’s plan for families: “Be fruitful and multiply.” These are the type of women we would have found at the foot of Jesus’ cross, steadfast, deeply compassionate, utterly faithful. Many of these women are college graduates, some from “elite” Ivy League schools, who might easily have pursued professional careers but have chosen the more fulfilling “career” of full-time wives and mothers, with untold numbers of diaper changes, endless loads of laundry done, babies nursed in the middle of the night, meals prepared, lunch boxes filled month after month, homework monitored, lullabies sung, stories read, wounds both physical and emotional carefully cared for, as well as helping teenagers navigate the many challenges of adolescence. Add to all these ongoing duties planning celebrations of birthdays, baptismal days, graduations, First Communions, Confirmations, and ultimately weddings, with all of these topped off by a lively sense of humor.

These are remarkable, very wholesome, godly women, not infrequently misunderstood by extended family members, old friends and townspeople who cannot imagine how they will “ever be able to afford college tuitions for all those children,” rather than wonder how they can pass on the Faith and raise their children for Heaven.

In every case in these large families, the husbands are the primary “bread winners” while their wives care for the home front and when necessary work part-time as nurses, teachers, or secretaries to make ends meet. Many of the these men are college-educated, a good number with advanced degrees. These include doctors, engineers, business executives, computer specialists, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and mechanics; in short, men functioning fully in the world but not of it. These fathers are dedicated to the Lord, the Church and their families, making time with them a top priority while holding down demanding, time-consuming jobs, with regular family meals together and making sure their families pray together. They do little kid things with the little kids and bigger kid things with older kids, all the while working hard at teaching by word and example what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The family vehicle for most of these families is a ten or twelve-passenger van which clearly stands out in a suburban culture of compact cars and small to mid-size SUVs. By the grace of God these families own homes, generally large enough to fit everyone in. Children usually share bedrooms with siblings and often wear “hand-me-down” clothes of older brothers, sisters and even friends. All children have chores, contributing to the life of the family. Older children help care for younger siblings — reading to them, helping with homework, changing diapers of infants, feeding toddlers, folding laundry, mowing lawns. Younger children often inherit special toys and games, bicycles, scooters, skate boards, ice skates and “broken in” athletic equipment. If all their friends’ lives are similar, it really doesn’t matter where their “stuff” comes from. For these children, family life is a joy-filled life of sharing, participating, serving, knowing they are unconditionally loved.

There are more than enough signs to indicate that what Sr. Lucia called “the final battle” for marriage and family has already commenced. In the midst of the battle, raising a large Catholic family is a prophetic act — a sign pointing to the enduring truth of God’s word in the beginning, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Many of the grown children of these large families are in the midst of raising large families of their own. In other words, the response to Gen. 1:28 has been transgenerational.

Who is the “audience” for this particular type of prophetic action? In 1 Cor 14:22, St Paul says, “prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.” It is not meant to be evangelistic. Rather, as Ezekiel, Hosea, and many other Old Testament prophets’ audience was the House of Israel or Judah — the believers — so, too, large Catholic families are a prophetic sign to the Church, to Catholic “believers” as both a challenge and an encouragement to approach marriage and family as God has ordained and as the Church has consistently taught.

This does not mean that every Catholic couple can or must bring forth a large number of children. The number of children does not determine holiness; our fidelity to God the Creator and our openness to his will and to our graced abilities, however, do. As such, fidelity to God’s word and Church teaching should guide both the unitive and procreative functions of marital intimacy. Many factors influence the desire and ability to regulate the number of children a couple will have. In Humanae Vitae §10, Pope Paul VI set forth a reasoned approach to responsible parenthood: “With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, conscious parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously elect to accept many children. Those are also to be considered responsible, who, for serious reasons and with due respect for moral precepts, decide not to have another child for either a certain or indefinite period of time.”

Marriage and family — “the decisive issue,” “the final battle.” Who will engage the enemy? Who will lead the way? Who will vigorously defend God’s plan for marriage and family and teach it authentically? Only the Catholic Church can do this, and it will do it through expanding oases of Catholic culture and islands of Faith, through new, vibrant ecclesial movements. It will do it through Catholic couples radically committed to the Truth, radically in love with Jesus Christ, open to life, unafraid to resist the anti-God juggernaut intent on trampling all that is sacred. The lines are drawn; it is clearly decision time. This is a great Catholic moment.

Raising a large Catholic family is heroic. Catholic couples are called to be counter-cultural, to resist the powerful secular undertow, to be open to life, to give glory to God.

Near the end of The Day is Now Far Spent, Cardinal Sarah exhorts married couples:

It takes a lot of fortitude to be a father or the mother of a family nowadays. It takes true magnanimity, that virtue which drives us to do great things, in order to embark on the adventure of a Christian family. I want to tell all Christian parents that they are the glory of the Church of the twenty-first century: your witness is sometimes a daily martyrdom. You must confront the precariousness and the uncertainty of tomorrow. But your mission is great! You bear the hope of the world and of the Church! The smiles and the joy of your children are your most beautiful reward! Stand firm! Cling to the faith! By your fidelity to Christ’s teaching about the married couple and the family, by your signs of everyday love, you are sowing seeds of hope. Soon the harvest will spring up.

Bob Filoramo About Bob Filoramo

Bob Filoramo is a father of 11 children, recently retired after over fifty years of teaching and administration in both public and private high schools as well as in college. He is a coordinator emeritus of a private association of the lay faithful, and a daily communicant and lector in his parish. Bob enjoys hiking, gardening, and woodworking, and Eucharistic adoration as often as he can.

Comments

  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Bob,
    As the oldest of a Catholic Family of 14, I relate to much of what you describe as life with many siblings. Many of my friends are from big families. There are moments of great joy and deep sadness in the lives of people who grew up in big families. Some have found faith in Christ and continued their journey of life in the Catholic Church, many have not. I wonder if some of the conditions of life and faith you describe are a result of a big family or a result of other factors not available to all.

    I think of the many families who live in neighbourhoods where a majority of fathers are in prison. I think of families where a parent or sometimes both parents are ill, unable to provide for children. I think of families unable to remain together because of floods, fire, storms, think New Orleans tonight 8/30/21. Think the indigenous people whose children were taken from them and forced to reject their culture in Catholic Schools. Think of the families of refugees around the world who cannot find a home to raise their children.

    Would it be good to open wider the conditions that make good family life impossible? Would it be good for our Catholic communities to be more open to the sinners, to those in need, to those with no hope? What if we broadened our definition of family to mean fraternity among all members of the human family?

    “In the vision of Pope Francis, fraternity – being brothers and sisters – has a transcendental value and a programmatic character. If you “pass by,” taking it for granted, or if you use the term lightly, almost as if saying “brothers and sisters” were enough to avoid the temptations of indifference, bureaucracy or authoritarianism, it means that fraternity’s wealth and ability to generate positive dynamics have not yet matured sufficiently.” “Pope Francis and Fraternity”, Diego Fares, SJ

  2. Avatar Don campbell says:

    The evil one continues to masquerade as “ourselves” and so the trend of selfishness continues and grows and is glorified by the culture of more comfort, more money, more things and more and more pleasure. The best remedy for defeating selfishness is to live for another and in marriage it is “the other” in making the thousands upon thousands of decisions we make every day. For the couples with large families the cure of selfishness is constant and all present. Have you ever heard people say they regret coming from a large family or I wish I didn’t have brothers and sisters? Why? Because true joy is always the imitation of our designed being for everlasting joy and heaven is a large family gathering.

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