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 The Blessings of a Large Family by Dr William May

The Role of the Large Family


Mark Alder

I have felt for over twenty years that the large family has played a very special part in catholic culture. It was not until 1987 that I heard about the experiences of certain people that motivated me to give the subject my concentrated attention. I was told about the experiences of an expectant mother who had a number of children.

Whilst in hospital I heard she was under considerable pressure to be sterilized, I found this hard to believe.

I had always assumed that this kind of pressure was only exerted on to those mothers who could not cope with existing children, not on ordinary healthy, coping women. I started to talk to different mothers and found that even mothers having their third baby in hospital had experienced similar pressures. It was through this contact with all sorts of mothers (and fathers too!) that I began to become aware of the very positive influence that large families have had on catholic culture.

Many years ago I happened to meet a nurse who worked in the Gynaecological department of a local hospital. I asked this nurse why there was such pressure placed on some mothers (who already had a number of children) to be sterilized. Without hesitation, the nurse replied that the reason for this pressure, was that the surgeons wanted the extra money they would be paid for performing the sterilization operations. MA 29th January 2010

I was very hesitant when first thinking of writing an article on large families. Having got two children myself, I asked myself what right had I to write on large families?  A friend (whose discernment I trusted) told me that it was most appropriate for me to write on the large family since I was more  likely to be objective.


It must be clearly stated that every family is special to God, regardless of its size. The Church should encourage the healthy development of families of all sizes. However, in recent years, there has been little heard of the role of the large Catholic family. Large families used to be a special part of the Catholic culture; in fact they were the pride and joy of the Church. There are many reasons in contemporary society why couples restrict the size of their families: economics, the ability of parents to cope with life, the lower priority given to the role of motherhood and also that many people are no longer seeking to be obedient to the will of God in their own lives. The role of motherhood is also under attack by the secular world and should be protected. One priest has said to me that a mother has an awesome role in co-operating with God in the task of creating new souls to populate heaven. Although it is less so today, there have always been catholic mothers who have courageously endeavoured to serve the will of God and the Church by not limiting the size of her family. In no way is one saying that this is the "Vocation" for every woman. I do feel however that the ideal of the large catholic family has every right to be proclaimed to the Catholic Church and by the Catholic Church. At the present time the media is full of detailed reports of different families with various types of problems. It is only right now to hear about the lives of healthy large Catholic families which can serve as good role models and be an inspiration to the rest of us.


The Church is now taking steps to "prepare" couples for marriage so in many situations some kind of formation is going on. In the past, the procreative aspect was emphasized and perhaps some couples had large families out of a feeling of fear or guilt. In the contemporary church other aspects have been emphasised; for example, "Responsible Parenthood", "Mutual Fulfilment in Marriage" and even the more peripheral "A Woman's Right to Work" The latter role has been taken on board so completely that mothers who wish to stay at home seem to be in the minority! Unfortunately however, the procreative aspect of marriage has become de-emphasised and in many cases is not even mentioned. The possibility that a couple might want to have many children is not clearly mentioned in marriage preparation courses. The Church's teaching on contraception has in no way changed. It is a natural consequence of this that Catholic couples following the teaching of the Church in married life will have large families or at least larger families than they would have had if they had conformed to the secular mentality. Sadly instead of the Church fully and completely welcoming such couples into the life of the Church there is a tendency for them in some places to be hardly tolerated. Obviously reactions to large families will vary with the parish and the parish priest. I know of a situation where a mother expecting her sixth child met with a certain amount of criticism and even abuse from so called friends and acquaintances, who felt the family was putting an unnecessary burden on the community by producing this extra child. I feel that this might well increase the resentment towards large families. I therefore feel that attention needs to be given now towards developing appropriate counselling expertise which will be able to support all members of a large family. It has been confirmed many times that mothers going into hospital for the birth of their babies face pressure if they have more than two or three children. Such mothers very much need supportive counselling. I know of a situation where the children from a large family have faced resentment from their neighbour's children. This is an area where counselling could be helpful and supportive for the children. One group which rarely gets any thought or attention are the older children in large families. In the ideal situation, such children have the continual joy of seeing their mother being pregnant and are only too happy to share their parents with an ever increasing number of children. As they get older they take on an increasing role in helping their parents look after the children. It is common sense to know that in a number of large families the ideal is not reached. The older children may feel neglected and jealous of their younger brothers and sisters. Such feelings of rejection if not properly dealt with can lead to deeper problems later on. Once again there is a clear indication for suitable counselling. It can therefore be seen that there will be a need for a lot of active support in addition to encouragement, if large families are to flourish once again in our culture.


When considering the size of a future family from a purely human viewpoint, there is a certain element of convenience -the extent to which the couple "like" children and want to make their family "complete". Within a theological context, the whole issue becomes so much deepened. The argument has been given in the past- "what a crushing responsibility for parents that they and only they make the decision which decides the existence or non-existence of human beings. Do not such couples have the obligation to have as many children as they can afford?" The contraceptive mentality has now deeply permeated society and any couple trying to live by or justify the above argument would be ridiculed.

However there are strong arguments that the declining birthrate in both this country and Europe is generating disastrous consequences. The contraceptive mentality is nearly as strong within the Catholic community as outside it — it is only in the method that the difference lies. During marriage preparation course there will certainly be some mention of the official teaching of the church but I have serious doubts whether the deeper aspects and responsibilities are mentioned. There is the problem of how to effectively introduce these into marriage formation. It is something that cannot be merely added to the syllabus of the teaching program for engaged couples. The reason for this is that an appreciation of these aspects of married life is experiential as well as moral and conceptual. A young Catholic couple, engaged or married, would be unlikely to develop a vocation to have a large family merely by receiving a concise teaching about it. If one considers the way in which young people learn about the religious life, one can gain considerable insight. Firstly, there may be some kind of introductory talk. The vocation would mainly be fostered by inviting the interested person to spend adequate time in the religious community to become permeated by the "atmosphere" of the religious life. In a similar way, somehow, young couples need to have contact with parents of large families so that this particular vocation an be given a reasonable chance to develop. This naturally leads to the importance of EXAMPLE. Catholic parents who have beautifully and willingly given of themselves in having many children have I feel a vital role in communicating this aspect to a young engaged or married couple. In times past, Catholic community life was much healthier and young couples would usually automatically come under the right influences. Now it may be necessary to create opportunities where these are not present and also to encourage and develop what is only marginally present. In other words I am suggesting that the "large family option" should be regarded as a vocation similar to that of the religious life and attention needs to be given as to how it might be developed and strengthened in the particular times in which we live. Strong positive influences are needed to counteract the peer pressure which is often negative. Sadly although the ideal place for developing the above mentioned aspects is the parish, in most cases this does not happen. In recent years there has been a considerable development of lay communities. It has been said to me that such communities are the best environment in which large families can develop bearing in mind the present state of society.


I mentioned earlier that families of all sizes are precious in the sight of God. It would be a great omission however if I failed to emphasise what is probably the highest and most virtuous path of all within the ordinary married state. There have always been certain catholic couples who have made a decision to leave it to God to decide how many children they should have. They have done this either for a certain period or for the whole of their married life. Such couples give to the rest of us a prophetic ideal which is desperately needed in the present world. I feel that parents of large families need to know how wonderful it is in the sight of God for them to have been so generous. Many would say that this is obvious; why bother to even mention it. Contact with parents of large families has helped to support my position. One mother of a very large family told me that only her husband had ever told her what a wonderful thing she had done. I knew parents of a large family in the early nineteen seventies who had eight children and were fully supportive of the ideal of a large family. I was quite shocked to speak to the mother fairly recently and found that her whole position had changed. Some of her children had experienced marriage and financial difficulties Faced with the reality of life in this increasingly materialistic world, the mother no longer seemed to advocate the large family as an ideal. In a way I feel that in a large family, the law of multiplication operates. When there is love, a sound faith, peace and security, then the amount of good can be very great and people even outside the family can benefit. When however these things are lacking then the large family can be a source of much greater negativity than a small family. I know a mother of a very large family who is heartbroken that all of her children lost the faith I feel that she feels a personal failure for this. Such a mother needs real support and affirmation that she has been generous and open to God's precious gift of life. She further needs to know that it is the materialism and godlessness of the world which may have robbed her children of their faith; not necessarily a failure of the childrens' upbringing.


Since first considering this subject, I have begun to wonder whether the opposite position may sometimes apply. There may be many situations where in fact parents of large families have a lot to contribute to small families. Things have become so complicated in our western society that we are perhaps moving fast towards a time when many large families need to awaken to the apostolate that God has given them, so that they can actively seek to spread many of their values and ideals to other families where these may be lacking. People often correctly say that the best means of influence is by example — what people do rather than what they say. However even a few minutes consideration of the powerful effect of the media and negative peer pressure would begin to make people aware that if our Catholic culture and moral value system are to survive, then we have all got to do more than what we are doing. Each of us needs to often pray to God that we will know and follow the particular apostolate that He has decided for us.

In this article I have tried to recapture the special beauty of the large family, which used to be a central part of Catholic life and now seems to be almost completely lost from it; to encourage those Catholic large families which still exist and which can provide a more wholesome influence on married couples than the peer pressure of today.

Feast of the Annunciation 1993.
Mark Alder.

(The author gratefully acknowledges assistance received, in preparation of this leaflet, from Tricia Alder, Christine Hudson, Pauline McAllister, Victoria Gillick.)

Recommended reading.

[1 and 2 may not be available now.]

1.The Life of Margaret, Queen of Scotland by Turgot. Available from Mr. David Moyes, 12 Cairn Grove, Crossford, Fife, Scotland KY12 8YD.

2. Leaflet on
St Margaret Queen of Scotland : Patroness of Mothers. Available from Hellyer Press, 8 Quarry Terrace, Horsforth, Leeds England LS18 4AT.

3. National Association of Catholic Families (NACF) http://www.catholic-family.org/

First written in 1987
Revised (MA Associates) Version: 1993.
This version: 16th June 2010

Copyright © Mark Alder 2010


By William E. May,

Senior Fellow, Culture of Life Foundation,

Emeritus Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology, Pontifical John

Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The

Catholic University of America

Alder’s thoughtful and provocative article, first written in 1987, revised in 1993 and again in June 2010 and posted on his Christendom-awake.org website, invites comment. In it he early on writes: “It must be clearly stated that every family is special to God, regardless of its size. The Church should encourage the healthy development of families of all sizes. However, in recent years, there has been little heard of the role of the large Catholic family. Large families used to be a special part of the Catholic culture; in fact they were the pride and joy of the Church.” He then notes some of the reasons in contemporary society why couples restrict the size of their families—economics, the lower priority given women who choose to stay home with their young children rather than work in the outside world, etc.

Contemporary socio-economic conditions militating against large families

These reasons are surely operative. In fact, today many no longer look on children as a blessing but more as a burden—and Alder thinks that even in the Church marriage preparation, while condemning contraception, no longer emphasizes the value of a large family but instead stresses “responsible parenthood,” “mutual fulfillment in marriage,” and even the more peripheral “woman’s right to work.” Unfortunately, that is the mindset of some who work in the area of marriage preparation—but it is definitely a wrongheaded way to prepare couples for the beauty of marriage, the gift of children, and the blessings of a large family.

I know that contemporary economic and social conditions make it much harder for couples to have large families than they were at the time I and my wife married in 1957. At that time I was making only 90 dollars a week, but my wife stopped working as a pediatric nurse instructor at Marquette University and St. Joseph’s hospital in Milwaukee Wi because we were able to buy a small house for 7500.00 and three years later, after a third child made it necessary for us to have a bigger house, we were able to buy a good sized one for 21000 and by that time my income had risen to about 125.00 a week. We had six children from 1958-1968, but even at that time I was shocked when my wife and I were frequently looked at as if were troglodytes of some kind when we went grocery shopping with all the kids in tow. Irritated by our behavior, several upraided us for polluting the planet with too many children, endangering civilization by bulding a population bomb that was sure to burst within a short time and plunge the world into the most horrible of crises. And today that is, unfortunately, still the case.

We moved from Milwaukee to the Washington DC area in 1969, shortly after I received my doctorate in philosophy, and had to pay 42000 for a four bedroom home in a Maryland suburb, but this was not too exorbitant given the salary I was then paid as an editor of a Catholic publishing Company. We had our seventh and last baby in 1971, after my editorial job had ended and, after some months out of work, I began an academic career at a much lower salary at The Catholic University of America. But we were fortunate, for during the 70s inflation hit the nation like a tornado and home prices skyrocketed from the mid 70s until the early years of the new millennium. Today in the Washington area, and in most large urban centers home prices-- although deflating now because of new economic conditions (accompanied by unemployment and the threat of losing one’s job)--a couple can usually buy a decent home only if both mother and father are working outside the home. Thus it is much harder for young  couples today—like our own children, to have numerous progeny. There are serious reasons or grave causes why they can rightly use natural planning knowledge or awareness of their own fertility in order to avoid pregnancy by practicing periodic continence: there is a time to embrace and a time not to embrace.

Children are a blessing and we need more of them!

But all of this in no way changes the truth. Children are a great blessing from God, his gift that crowns marriage and the marital act, and a large family is a great blessing not only for the individual family but also for the entire society: local, national, international, global. The population bomb is a myth, a scare tactic, and a hoax. The problem today is a worldwide birth dearth, greatly advanced in the so-called “developed world” of Western Europe and North America and beginning to take root in “undeveloped” and/or “developing” nations of Africa and South America. For this I advise readers to consult the magnificent studies of such demographers as Stephen Mosher (see his 2008 masterpiece, Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits) and sociologists such as W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia who in several studies uses data provided by current economists, sociologists, and demographers to show that Popes Paul VI and John Paul II saw more clearly the need we humans have for numerous children to ensure economic growth and development and new ways of providing food etc. than did doomsayers like Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome.

Children are a blessing, not a curse or a burden. We were blessed with seven wonderful children, 4 boys and 3 girls, all now adults with six married and with 15  beautiful grandchildren already, and they love one another deeply and keep united as a family although they live separated by miles, from Edinburgh Scotland to NY, to Washington DC, to Seattle WA.

A splendid book on the blessings of a large family was written by a good friend of mine, Eugene Diamond, M.D., a pediatrician. He and his wife Rosemary were blessed with 13 children, one of whom, Sheila, was a student of mine at the John Paul II Institute. Dr. Diamond’s book, which I described as a “gem” in reviewing it, is The Large Family: A Challenge and a Blessing, published by Ignatius Press in 1996. It is well worth reading.

John Paul II, while championing a woman’s right to work outside the home—“There is no doubt that the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women fully justifies women's access to public functions” (Familiaris consortio, 23)--insisted that “the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions. Furthermore, these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined, if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human” (ibid).

Copyright © William E May 2010

This version: 28th June 2010


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 The Blessings of a Large Family by Dr William May