Children are gifts. In them, we respond to Moses’s urgent imperative: Choose life! (Deut. 30:19) Men and women have always brought children into the world. To be a parent is the most natural of things. It is fundamental to what it means to be human. Yet the birth of a child is also an extraordinary moment for parents, charged with transcendent meaning. In our children, we venture something beyond our control. Even for those who do not believe in God, having a child is an act of faith. As we welcome a child into the world, we project something of ourselves into an unknown future. Even in dire times—war, disease, famine—new life manifests hope.
Our creation as male and female allows us to participate in the life-giving power of God’s creation. “A man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). This one-flesh union has an intrinsic potential for new life. The central role of sexual union in the biblical account of our creation as male and female shows that our nature is pro-creative—not just in the biological sense of reproducing the species, but in a spiritual sense. Biblical humanism begins in fatherhood and motherhood. In committing ourselves to renewing and caring for the forward-flowing stream of life, we become more fully human. To have a child is to affirm that God’s creation is good. Like the stars above, “the mouths of babes and infants” chant the glory of God (Ps. 8:2).
God creates man and woman in his own image and blesses them: “Be fruitful and multiply.” The impulse toward conjugal union is instinctual. Sexual desire drives us toward the gift of children, as do powerful paternal and maternal impulses. At the same time, “Be fruitful and multiply” is a commandment. God appeals to our freedom. We must find the one whom we will love, enter into the permanent marital bond, and care for our progeny, raising them up as servants of the Lord.
The genealogies throughout the Bible testify to the transcendent significance of “begetting.” In the Old Testament, to be childless is to be threatened with a dead end. Life without children is the natural form of Sheol, the land of the dead that has no future. The barren Rachel says to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die” (Gen. 30:1). This is why couples who cannot have children often experience their infertility as a heavy burden. The Old Testament treats male impotence and female barrenness as causes of anguish and shame. By contrast, large families are a blessing from God.
The gospel is foreshadowed when God turns the curse of childlessness into the blessing of children. The matriarchs of the Old Testament—Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel—are barren until God gives them the power of life. To his covenant people, God promises that there will be “neither sterility nor barrenness among you” (Deut. 7:14). This promise of life anticipates our divine adoption in Christ. Even among unbelievers, the birth of a child can evoke the feeling that life has triumphed over death. To have a child is to have a future: “Children are a heritage from the Lord” (Ps. 127:3). From Abraham through Moses and David to their fulfillment in Christ, the promises of God are future-oriented, reaching forward through the generations. God’s covenant invades the future as we raise our children in the faith. “These words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart,” says the LORD God, “and you shall teach them diligently to your children” (Deut. 6:6–7).
Children compel us to serve a future we cannot control. They are free beings, independent agents who eventually will supersede us, living their own lives, not echoing ours. Having children thus involves a profound surrender, and children are often cause for anxiety. Parents want to educate their children and save up an inheritance, provisioning their progeny for the uncertainties of life. Of course, a wise person knows these efforts can come to naught: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Welcoming the gift of children requires trust in divine providence: “Let it be done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
The Old Testament casts the misuses of our procreative power in prostitution, adultery, and fornication as images of idolatry. The man who visits prostitutes wants to satisfy his sexual instinct without the obligations of marital union. In like manner, the idolater wants to discharge his natural desire to serve God while reserving for himself the power to live as he pleases. Like a discreet mistress who neither demands public recognition nor gives birth to children who make claims, dead idols charm with their convenient emptiness. As the Apostle Paul teaches, fallen humanity has exchanged the living God for dead idols (Rom. 1:23), and he links the lifelessness of idols with the sterility of homosexual relations (Rom. 1:26–27). Deliberately to refuse the gift of children implicates us in a turn away from the living God.
The Bible also condemns the worship of nature gods who promise fertility. These nature gods offer themselves as servants of our desires, ready for manipulation and use through sacrifices and offerings. Technology updates these idols. Both contraception and artificial methods of enhancing fertility tempt us with the illusion that we can control the power of life, making what we wish out of the natural complementarity of male and female. This promise has a dark side. Some reproductive technologies require the “disposal” of unwanted embryos. Fetal testing tempts us to treat children in the womb as a herd to be culled. Children are aborted because they are “imperfect,” or for the purpose of sex selection.
The Old Testament emphasizes the obligation to be fruitful and multiply. Christianity celebrates the gift of children but also affirms singleness and the celibate life, whether temporary or permanent. This endorsement of the childless life has nothing to do with the sterility of the present age. The chaste single life does not refuse the gift of children for the sake of present pleasures or out of anxieties about a future we cannot control. Instead, it is affirmed as a first fruit of abundance in Christ. The joyful continence of the single person bears testimony to Christ’s conquest of sin and the fullness of life in him. The abundance of life in Christ, manifest in the joy of fellowship among the adopted children of God in the Church, shows that we can participate in the gift of children without bearing them. In Christ, all of us, married and single, can be spiritual fathers and mothers of the “little ones” beloved of God.
“By the mouth of babes and infants, thou hast founded a stronghold.” (Ps. 8:2)
One of the most shocking features of our time is the rise of intentional childlessness, backstopped by the evil of abortion. Fertility has declined sharply in developed countries. The replacement rate in advanced societies is 2.1 children per woman, which means that women need to bear, on average, slightly more than two children for a society to maintain a steady overall population. In Taiwan, the fertility rate is 1.13 per woman. In Japan, it is 1.42. In Thailand, it is 1.52. Most European countries fall well below the replacement rate of 2.1, as does the United States, which reached a new low of 1.7 in 2018.
Many factors contribute to this decline. Thanks in part to improvements in healthcare, leading to a decline in infant mortality, couples today need to bear fewer children in order to attain desired family sizes. Contraceptive technologies play a role, perhaps the largest, in the turn away from children. Their use reflects deliberate decisions to prevent fertility. This impulse is as old as humanity. When Onan foresaw that intercourse with his dead brother’s wife would produce a child not his own, “he spilled his semen on the ground” (Gen. 38:9). Men and women have always tried to control their fertility, sometimes for good reason, but often in order to serve their own projects and protect their interests.
The desire to limit procreation can be legitimate. The Catholic tradition of moral reflection insists that sexual intercourse must be objectively open to its intrinsic potential for new life. This means a prohibition of artificial means of contraception. But Catholics are not required to engage in every sexual act solely for the purpose of conceiving a child. On the contrary, Catholicism encourages married couples to exercise responsible parenthood, whether through abstinence or by avoiding sexual intercourse during periods when the woman is most fertile.
Many Protestant traditions do not agree with Catholic strictures against artificial birth control, seeing no basis for them in Scripture. However, as Evangelicals, we join Catholics in warning against the perils of a contraceptive mentality. This mentality severs the link between the sexual intimacy that rightly characterizes the marital bond and the procreative potential of sexual intercourse. There exists between our traditions a shared concern about the moral and cultural consequences of the widespread use of contraceptives. (See our 2006 statement, “That They May Have Life.”) Pope Paul VI was correct in his warning about the consequences of the contraceptive mentality in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. He foresaw that the widespread use of contraceptive technologies “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” Evangelical feminists had issued warnings about the effect of contraception on women nearly a century earlier. Catherine Booth-Clibborn, daughter of the founders of the Salvation Army and mother of ten children, lamented the effect of commercial society on families: “Modern nations have lost the sense of the worth of the child. Mothers delegate their responsibilities to others—the child is looked upon as an encumbrance, not to be personally borne.”
Contraceptive technologies can become tools for social engineering. This has happened in China in blatant ways. But it has also been encouraged throughout the developing world by Western governments and powerful NGOs. Since the rise of social Darwinist thought in the late nineteenth century, a eugenicist mindset has seized on contraceptives as a way to limit the growth of “undesirable” populations. In the first half of the twentieth century, “unfit” populations were sterilized. Discredited by Nazism, the eugenic imperative now operates under the sign of choice. Today, some urge the provision of free long-acting contraceptive implants for high-school-age girls as a “solution” to intergenerational poverty. Those with concerns about global warming and other ecological problems often call for what amounts to population-wide, long-term sterilization. As Evangelicals and Catholics, we agree that a society in which nearly all fertile women are, in one form or another, rendered infertile by contraceptive technologies, whether by their own choice or as a result of social pressure, reflects a profoundly disordered view of sex, children, human nature, and environmental responsibility. The gift of children does not run counter to our stewardship of the created order. Population control is not a legitimate means of care for creation.
We agree, as well, that abortion is an unmitigated evil. It destroys a human life and violates human dignity. Procedures that end the life of a child in the womb in the process of saving the life of the mother are permissible. Despite the claims of the abortion industry and Roe v. Wade, however, there are no situations in which the death of the child in the womb may be the sole purpose and direct intention. Abortion undertaken for the purpose of killing physically imperfect or potentially disabled children or children of the undesired sex is especially repugnant. We applaud the efforts of legislators to protect the unborn and support pregnant women and new mothers.
We agree that the gift of children is intrinsic to the good of marriage. But children are not the sole good of marriage. As St. Augustine recognized, the marital bond promotes the good of companionship and mutual love between a man and a woman. There is a war between the sexes, as it were (see Gen. 3:15), and the domestic society of marriage establishes peace and promotes concord between men and women. Thus, the Apostle Paul sees marriage as a sign of the great mystery of God’s offer of peace in Christ to his wayward, rebellious creatures. Because the gift of children is integral to the good of marriage, a couple cannot enter into marriage if they share a firm intention not to have children. Priests and pastors should not officiate at weddings of couples who express this intention. This does not mean that infertile individuals or women beyond the age of child-bearing cannot marry. The inability to have children is not the same as taking active measures to prevent their conception. The former is a physical condition; the latter is a moral choice.
The contraceptive mentality arises from an all-too-human desire for complete control over our lives. But our plans are not trustworthy guides to the fullness of life in Christ, for they are formulated by us, not by God. A child is not something we fabricate or produce. New life is not at our beck and call. Children are always gifts, even if the circumstances are difficult, even if the mother must endure the pain of giving her child up for adoption. Newborns suffering from birth defects are no less precious than those with bright prospects. Even the most genetically compromised child is a gift, which is why parents anguish over their newborn’s hard road in what may be a painful and short life. The bitterest tears are shed over the loss of the most precious gifts. It is a particular sign of the wickedness of our era that we kill the defective unborn in the womb, in a literal refusal of Jesus’s words: “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me” (Matt. 19:14).
Couples deprived of hoped-for children experience the pain of what is not possible. Their pain can tempt us to grasp for control over new life through technological interventions designed to provide parents with the “best” child possible. What magic and idolatry were to ancient peoples, technology is to us today: a means of exercising control over the world to make it become what we want it to be.
Our traditions judge some reproductive technologies differently. Catholics reject all methods that separate reproduction from the sexual act itself, such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. Not all Evangelicals share this view. Nevertheless, as Evangelicals and Catholics we agree that technologies that require discarding embryos are always wrong. They violate the sanctity of life. We also agree that the use of surrogate mothers to gestate children in the womb raises dire dangers of exploitation for both mother and child.
Infertility can be a heavy burden for couples. We do not gainsay the desire to have natural children—bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. We insist, nevertheless, that adoption offers a special grace. Adopted children are witnesses to the miracle of our adoption as sons and daughters of God. The overcoming of the genetic gulf between an adopted child and its mother and father is a natural sign of the power of God’s love to overcome the infinitely greater gulf between fallen creatures and their Creator. Adoption must be understood as a response in love to difficult situations in a fallen world. Adoptive parents receive a child into their family as a gift, and become a gift to the child in turn, repairing the rupture between the child and its natural mother and father. In this way, adoption echoes the story of salvation. In Christ, we are adopted as children of God.
As Evangelicals and Catholics, we reject the theological and spiritual distortions that too often contribute to a disordered view of the gift of children, even in our churches. An exclusive focus on romantic love, sometimes expressed in theological terms, can give the impression that marriage is about nothing other than the intense feelings that bind together the husband and wife. In this scenario, children too easily seem a threat to the couple’s blissful companionship and economic well-being. New life and the responsibilities of parenthood sober us up, saving us from the temptation to think of the love Christ calls us to express solely in terms of our feelings. We recognize as well the dangers of a worldly mentality that lavishes resources on children, sending them to all the right schools so that the parents can bask in the achievements of their progeny. This can happen in religious families as well as non-religious ones. Whether our families are large or small, we must avoid paternal and maternal works-righteousness.
“Train up a child in the way he should go.” (Prov. 22:6)
We have a duty to care for children, who are made in the image and likeness of God. They are vulnerable and need our protection, a protection that has often been lacking. As Catholics and Evangelicals, we grieve over the wrongs done to children, especially the sexual crimes perpetrated by church leaders. We regret our failures to sustain a culture that welcomes children as gifts. We repent of our blindness to the suffering of children. We feel the words of Jesus as a judgment: “It would be better for a man if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:2).
Children need more than protecting; they also require education—not just intellectual and professional training, but moral instruction and spiritual discipline. Children often experience wonder, reflecting a natural religious sense. This needs to be encouraged and directed toward revealed truths. We fail our children if we do not introduce them to regular worship of God in the beauty of holiness and proclaim to them the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The duties of care, education, and religious formation fall upon a child’s parents first and foremost. As John Calvin observes, “Unless men regard their children as the gift of God, they are careless and reluctant in providing their support, just as on the other hand this knowledge contributes in a very eminent degree to encourage them in bringing up their offspring.” The relationship of parents to children is fundamental. The commandment to honor your father and mother establishes parents as God’s viceroys: “Children obey your parents in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1). In this role parents have a duty to care for and nurture their children: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
Throughout the modern era, the secular state has coveted control of children. Society properly intervenes in cases of physical neglect and abuse. We must resist, however, when the secular state claims to serve the emotional and moral interests of children at the expense of parental wishes. We have a duty to protect the rights of parents to discharge their responsibilities in ways they believe accord with the moral and spiritual needs of their children. Parental rights belong to everyone, not just our fellow Christians.
The churches must have the liberty to educate and catechize. We insist that children belong to God, as gifts held in trust by their parents. They are not state property. The secular state has a legitimate interest in the schooling of children. But the churches alone have the authority to establish theological standards for the household of God, and these standards include moral principles. Christianity is a way of life, not a set of abstract doctrines. The state’s expectations for the education of children must respect the churches’ higher loyalty, making reasonable accommodations when the religious and moral education of children clashes with the state’s efforts to form the rising generation. We are committed to forming children as faithful citizens—but “faithful” first, and “citizens” second.
Marriage, the union of a man and a woman, is essential for the good of children. Marriage promotes the good of companionship between the sexes, and thereby trains children to relate to the opposite sex in cooperative, loving ways. In the domestic household, children learn what it means to promote a common good rather than merely a private, personal good. In the context of marriage, children see what it means to care and be cared for. They learn the virtue of fidelity. The stable family rooted in the companionship of a father and mother is the school of virtue.
Family life is never perfect. The segregation of the generations isolates children from the wisdom of the past. New technologies can atomize families. The modern economy is often unfriendly to them. Divorce breaks them apart. Out-of-wedlock births and single motherhood are on the rise.
We insist that these and other realities can be addressed with grace and compassion without compromising the biblical understanding of sex and marriage. A false ideology of “inclusion” ignores or downplays the biblical witness. It does a disservice to children, normalizing the dysfunctions that so often harm them. All the faithful, including children, must be called to the full dignity of their humanity and guided toward the blessings of a sexual and marital life ordered by biblical norms. Broken families need our support, not our indulgence or the velvet disdain of low expectations.
Children have a right to know their parents. Women who give up their children for adoption can face special circumstances that justify anonymity. But this is never the case for sperm and egg donors, who act voluntarily, often for pay. We urge the passage of laws that remove the veil of anonymity from those who contribute their genetic material to artificial means of reproduction. A healthy society encourages knowledge of one’s parents. This knowledge humanizes us. It is important for fulfilling the commandment to honor our mothers and fathers.
All of us are responsible for the care and education of children. “Indeed,” asked Martin Luther, “for what purpose do we older folks exist, other than to care for, instruct, and bring up the young?” Communal responsibility starts with our churches. As Evangelicals and Catholics, we differ in our approaches to the baptism of children, but we agree that church fellowship is ordered to bringing children under the admonition and into the nurture of the Lord. We are united in our desire that our churches support families and care for children, materially and spiritually. This is especially important today, when families are fragile and often broken. Christ took the children brought to him into his arms and blessed them. All Christians are called to parental responsibility, even if they are childless or their children are grown. Parents are the primary catechists and caregivers of their children, but it falls on the community of the faithful to encourage and provision parents for this task, and in difficult situations to stand in their place.
The political community has an obligation to assist parents in their duty to care for their children. In so doing, it must act in accord with the principle of subsidiarity, not usurping the proper roles of parents, churches, and communities, and when necessary, providing encouragement and resources so that those bodies’ responsibilities may be discharged. We call for due consideration of charter schools, scholarships, tax-credit schemes, and other policies to empower parents to educate their children in accordance with their convictions. We urge legislation to restore the public moral foundations for stable and healthy family life.
As Evangelicals and Catholics, we agree that the government—from the municipal level to the federal—should address the economic needs of families in a post-industrial, globalized economy. Careful thought should be given to policies that move us toward an economy in which one wage earner can support a thriving household. Workplace policies should be “family friendly.” There must be well-considered provisions for those in the workplace who have parental responsibilities, especially mothers. We urge Christian employers to experiment with new approaches tailored to biblical norms of family life.
Repairing the moral foundations of family life begins within the household of faith. Our churches must preach a message of restraint on consumerist desires. Even the best family-oriented policies will be defeated by an appetite for luxuries that are misconceived as “necessities.” Little can be accomplished if mothers and fathers are captive to an all-consuming careerism. Too often we allow the world to define our lives as work-oriented rather than family-oriented. If we are to honor the gift of children, then our churches must warn against the idol of success. In the Ten Commandments, God gives us the roadmap to happiness. There is no commandment to be wealthy, famous, or powerful.
“Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:14)
How a society treats children is a vital sign of its health. Do we desire them? Welcome them? Do we honor parents and champion their vocations as the primary caregivers, teachers, and mentors of children? Are the basic institutions of our society, including corporations and other places of employment, properly attentive to the care of children and the flourishing of family life? Are government policies oriented to the wellbeing of children? Do our churches support marriage? Are we clear and persistent in our proclamation of the Bible’s sexual norms affirming the fruitfulness of the conjugal union and the joy and responsibilities of family life?
For Evangelicals and Catholics, these questions are near to our hearts. We pray that our churches and societies will see children as the gifts they are, without which we have no future.
Members of Evangelicals and Catholics Together
Bruce Riley Ashford
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Nashotah House Theological Seminary
Regent University School of Divinity
Eduardo J. Echeverria
Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit
Joel C. Elowsky
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO
St. John’s Seminary (Boston)
Beeson Divinity School
Thomas G. Guarino
Seton Hall University
James F. Keating
Peter J. Leithart
Bishop James Massa
Diocese of Brooklyn
Gerald R. McDermott
Beeson Divinity School
Jessica M. Murdoch
Mercy Health Care
R. R. Reno
Laura A. Smit
Colson Center for Christian Worldview
Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Ethics and Public Policy Center
Robert Louis Wilken
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Evangelicals and Catholics Together is an ecumenical group founded in 1994 by Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson.