In defense of childlessness

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Typically, I’m a fan of Pope Francis. He wrote a powerful encyclical letter citing the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change and calling upon the international community to repent of environmental degradation and its negative impacts upon the poor.

But last week, the same pope claimed that the “denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity.”

This from a man who has taken a vow of celibacy!

Pope Francis is correct that lower birth rates are a factor in the population decline in certain Western countries. However, it is also true that there are far more people on our planet than ever before and that this population growth contributes to the environmental crisis. As our planet groans with the burden of billions of people, the world’s poorest suffer the worst effects of land, food and water shortages.

What’s more, the pope made an egregious overstep even to imply that a person’s humanity is tied to his or her ability to reproduce. I remember the early years of my marriage when my wife and I struggled with undiagnosed infertility. We had done nothing wrong. Yet, I felt like there was something wrong with me.

How could people unable to have children hear the pope’s words as anything other than inducing shame and guilt?

I also write on behalf of those who willingly choose not to have children. In 2014, Francis predicted that married couples who choose not to have children will experience “old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.”

Wait a minute — children are not responsible for the mental health of their parents! If you are lonely and bitter, merely having children will not solve your problems. In fact, you may make everyone’s life a little more miserable, including your own.

As the idea of celibate clergy asserts, adults can consciously devote their lives to holy purposes other than procreation. Just as an individual’s humanity should never be tied to that person’s ability to reproduce, the value of marriage should not be limited to merely raising children. A union of two consenting adults can generate all kinds of creativity, goodwill and love in the larger community.

I think of the practice of infant baptism in Protestant and Catholic churches. The entire congregation makes vows to the caregivers to support, nurture and love that child. Whether they have biological children or not, no one who makes these vows is childless. Everyone has the opportunity to willingly and joyfully assume the responsibilities of helping to guide and nurture younger generations.

I wish that Pope Francis, instead of making hurtful judgments, would follow his better lights of inclusion. For instance, during the very sermon in which he leveled these statements against the childless, he had a nun and a layman deliver translations of his remarks — a privilege that had been reserved for ordained priests.

Why could Francis not apply the same spirit of inclusion to the people who heard his remarks as he did to the people who shared them?

I had thought the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” was used to the point of being a cliché in our culture. But apparently, more religious leaders need to hear it.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”


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