I've been thinking a lot, and reading what is available, about what it means for a Catholic to be a spouse but not a parent. I admit to thinking most about myself, as a wife-not-mother, but most of this will also apply to men like my husband, who is a husband but not a father.
There is a possibility that we will become parents someday, either biologically or through adoption. But right now, we have been married more than six years and have no offspring. We do not know when, or if ever, we will have children. So in the meantime, without giving up hope, we must deal with a reality we did not anticipate at the outset of our marriage, that of being married for a significant length of time without children.
Our vocation as spouses is lived differently in some ways from the way spouses who are also parents live. We have a tremendous amount of free time, compared to most of our friends who have been married for a similar length of time (most of whom have 2-4 children), and we get a lot more sleep. We can leave the house at a moment's notice. This is great when, for instance, a friend calls and says her car has broken down and she needs to take her child somewhere immediately. I can drop everything and go help. We don't have more disposable income because we don't make very much money, but some childless couples might be able to donate more money to charity, as well as time.
To some harried parents, this may seem on the surface like a blessing, but living it is difficult. For almost three years I was a housewife. I was at home all day, with nothing to do but look up recipes on the internet. There were no children to distract me from my own thoughts or keep me busy. I was tremendously depressed. Thankfully, I now have a job and plenty to do, and I'm much happier.
Speaking of my job, I've noticed something about all the staff at the Catholic school where I work. Many of the staff are in their 20s or early 30s and single, and three are women over 40 who are single. Of the married staff, there are six couples represented by one or both spouses on staff. Three of those couples are childless, two have one child each and struggled with infertility before finally being blessed with that single child (one is young enough to possibly have more, but the other couple are in their 50s now), and the other has two children (now grown up). So, basically, people with lots of kids either choose not to involve themselves in education, or the school just doesn't pay enough, so people move on when they have too many children to support on the school salary. From this standpoint, keeping this wonderful school running to educate the next generation of Catholics is a calling for those who have not been able to aid in actually giving birth to the next generation. Our schools used to be staffed by religious; in the absence of religious, the schools can be staffed by the single and the infertile.
One thing that anyone dealing with a long-term battle with infertility must face is the question of how far to go in the quest of having a child. Leaving aside the options which are immoral, we are left with various medical treatments aimed at treating infertility (medications, possibly surgery depending on the problem), and adoption. We said, at our wedding, that we were willing to accept children from God. This makes it sound like God is just going to hand you kids--and for most couples, He pretty much does. But some of us have to work a little, or a lot, harder to make a family. How far are we obliged to go? Does welcoming children mean that we must seek medical treatment or adoption as far as health, finances, and other circumstances allow?
I submit that it does not, but that many Catholics don't understand that, and may even be repulsed by the idea that we wouldn't do absolutely everything possible in order to become parents. But...is it possible that God does not call all married couples to be parents? Is it possible that it's not some violation of our vocation if we throw in the towel and say, "Enough! I have done enough, and if God wants to send us a child then he will send us a child, and we will not go out and seek any longer."
This means that there will be some couples who never have children. Yet, the Church has always taught that procreation is the main purpose of marriage--marriage has other functions, but this is the primary one. As Gaudium et spes puts it:
"While not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account, the true practice of conjugal love, and the whole meaning of the family life which results from it, have this aim: that the couple be ready with stout hearts to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior. . . .Married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate."
Where does this leave the childless? Have we, through a fluke of biology not discovered until after marriage, somehow failed in living out our vocation? No, of course not. I will give a fuller answer to this question next time.