Eighth in a Series on Catholic Marriage and Parenthood
Fr. Thomas J. Gerrard
The Church teaches that children receive their bodies from their parents, but not their souls. Each soul is specially created by God and infused into the body at the moment of creation. God does His share at the will of the parents. He has so decreed it as part of His providence. Parents therefore share the dignity of parenthood with God. Hence, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews can say:
Moreover we have had fathers of our flesh for instructors, and we reverenced them: shall we not much more obey the Father of spirits and live?
There is a difference of opinion amongst Catholic theologians as to the precise time at which the soul is infused into the newly formed body. Some say that it is at the very moment of conception, whilst others, including St. Thomas, say not until some time after, when the body has been more perfectly formed. The first opinion is the more common. For all practical purposes in regard to marriage, it may be more profitably followed; for whether the soul comes at the moment of conception or later, the Church regards the new and independent life as existing from conception. If the new being has not got an intellectual soul, it is nevertheless ordained by God to receive one. All harm, therefore, which may be inflicted on the new being is harm inflicted on a human being, either directly or by anticipation. Likewise, all good done to the new life is good done to a human life, either directly or by anticipation.
The first duty of parents towards the unborn child is to recognize the sacredness of its life. One of the commonest features of race suicide which prevails today is the destruction of the unborn child. Artificial means are adopted in order to prevent conception which are not always successful. Then recourse is had to the crime of abortion. And the sad thing is that the opinion is spreading that such a destruction of child life is not a crime. Parents speak of it as if it were an ordinary way of being rid of an unpleasant inconvenience. Happily, the idea has not become prevalent in Catholic families. Nevertheless, Catholics need to be on their guard against the materialistic doctrine and its consequences. Let the truth be said plainly: All attempts to kill the unborn child are attempts to commit murder.
Again, the child unborn has the right to every care that it shall not be hurt by accident. What constitutes dangerous occupations or amusements must be decided in individual cases by the family doctor or an experienced mother. What is insisted on here is that there is a moral obligation on the part of the parents to do nothing which will directly injure the third person concerned. If anything, the child has an especial right to protection, on account of its inability to protect itself.
Perhaps more important still is the influence which parents exert on the soul of the unborn child. True, it has not received Baptism and is incapable, for the time being, of receiving the covenanted grace consequent on Baptism. But there can be no doubt that the heart and mind of the parents do exercise an influence, for good or for evil, on the unborn child. Perhaps it may be only in the natural order. But even so, this natural foundation is a preparation for the supernatural grace of Baptism. The supernatural grace will be all the more fruitful if it falls upon well prepared natural ground.
The science of education tends to throw back the time at which the formation of the child's mind begins. Formerly, the best teachers were reserved for the highest classes in our schools. Then it was seen that the lower classes were of equal importance. And so on the important day was pushed back; and now there are educationists who say that a child's training begins forty years before it is born. Doubtless there is some exaggeration in these sayings, yet there is enough truth in them to show that the parents, and chiefly the mother, do exercise an enormous influence on the children before they are born.
The use of alcohol by the parents is proved to predispose the child to alcohol. With regard to the mother, it were better that she should be a total abstainer, and particularly during the whole period of child-bearing. Only by medical advice is it wise to take any alcoholic stimulant whatever. The same advice holds good, too, for the period following on the birth of the child.
The dispositions of mind and heart also reproduce themselves. If the mother is cross, or depressed, or unhappy, during the time of childbearing, there is a likelihood of the child being tiresome. And conversely, if the mother is happy and contented, the child will probably be good and easy to nurse.
But whence comes this happy disposition in the mother? Almost entirely from the kindness and love of the husband. If he is careless about his home, or shows any marked distaste for the domestic inconveniences consequent upon the arrival of the newborn, his disposition will act upon his wife, and react upon his child. Hence, the duty lies with the husband of taking the burden of marriage in the truly Catholic spirit. He has been warned of the burden, and he has received a sufficient measure of grace to enable him to bear it. At least for the sake of his wife and child, he will correspond with that grace, and make himself a model husband and father.
The duty may be summed up in one word: sympathy. The opposite vice may likewise be named in one word: niggardliness. The coming of a child means extra expense, and the sooner the man settles his mind to this, the better for himself and his whole household. It is not his duty merely; it is his privilege. He, together with his wife, shares the honors of parenthood with God. He can do nothing better to make himself worthy of that honor, than by helping his helpmate to the full extent of his capacity.
It is not necessary for the future mother to know all about the possible dangers which may arise. Indeed, it is better that her mind should be occupied rather with the healthy and spiritual aspect of the situation. But dangers may happen which involve moral principles. Now, in order that the Catholic mother may act according to those principles it is well that she should be guided by a Catholic doctor. There are some doctors with materialistic views, who advise operations which are forbidden by the Church, and not only advise them in extreme cases but also in unnecessary cases. Owing to the strictness of the Church in forbidding certain operations, the practice of midwifery in Italy has made enormous progress. The doctors, knowing that they were forbidden to do these things, thought out ways of avoiding them; and thus, thanks to the decrees of the Church, hundreds of lives, both of mothers and of babes, have been saved from destruction.
On the other hand, some operations are both lawful and praiseworthy. The Cesarean operation, that by which the child, which cannot be born in the ordinary way, is taken from the abdomen of the mother, is one such. The question as to when it may or ought to be performed is a complicated one and hardly concerns the general public. When, however, it is raised by a doctor, Catholic or non-Catholic, a consultation with one's spiritual director is advisable.
The doctrine that the child is a separate and distinct human being, from the moment of conception, implies a grave responsibility in the cases of miscarriage. If the embryo which comes away is alive, yea, if it only live for a few moments, it has a right to Baptism. Many people feel a repugnance to this idea. Still, the truth must not be shirked. If the soul is there, it must have every chance of salvation, for it is of priceless value. There is no need for a particular examination as to whether the child is alive or not. The Sacrament is administered conditionally. On the one hand, the child may be dead. If this is certain, no Baptism may take place. On the other hand, it may be alive, yet capable of living only for a few moments. The time is too precious for detailed examination. Let the ceremony be performed as quickly as possible. The doctor, or the nurse, will take the whole being, the embryo with its covering, and put it in a basin of clean lukewarm water. The covering is then broken so that the liquid within flows out whilst clean water flows in. The embryo should then be moved about in the water whilst the person performing the ceremony says these words:
If thou canst be baptized, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
When there is danger of death of the child during the process of being born, it must be baptized conditionally. Either the nurse or the physician, but not the priest, must pour water (sterilized) on such part of the child as is apparent, though it be only the hand, saying at the same time the words with the condition above stated.
Where there is danger of death to the mother during childbirth, she should receive the last Sacraments. The conditions of danger are well known to the members of the medical profession, and so the doctor must be the guide. This danger is present in all cases where operations are needed. The principle wants emphasizing, however, that the Sacraments are for the sake of men, and not men for the Sacraments. It is much better to run the risk of administering the Sacraments when unnecessary, than to run the risk of missing them when necessary.
It may be well at this point to call attention to the special blessing which the Church is ready to give in the case of dangerous childbirth. She implores the Creator of all things, under the beautiful figure of supreme doctor and nurse. "Accept," she says, "the sacrifice of a broken heart of Thy servant so that, by the obstetric hand of Thy mercy, her offspring may come safely to light, and be preserved for holy regeneration."
Here again, the Church has foremost in her mind the higher welfare of the child. She has the tenderest care for the safety of body, but this safety of body must be directed to the safety of the spirit. When, therefore, a child has been brought to a happy and successful birth, the duty of its parents is to see that it is baptized as soon as possible. If the child is strong and healthy, it should be taken to church for this purpose within eight days. If the child is weak, and likely to take harm from the weather, then the priest is to be sent for. As long as it remains unbaptized, it is to some extent under the power of Satan, and all unnecessary delay on the part of the parents is a grave injustice to the child.
The churching of women is an act of thanksgiving to God for having been brought through a difficult crisis. It is also a blessing given by the Church. But it is not a Sacrament.
There is a widespread impression that bad luck comes to the woman who, going out for the first time after childbirth, does not take the opportunity of being churched. So ingrained is this idea that many women look upon churching as of far more importance than Baptism. Now the ceremony of churching is of no obligation whatever, whilst that of Baptism is. There can be no comparison between the two. It is a praiseworthy custom to go to church and render thanks to God as soon as possible, but nothing more than a custom. Provided the woman does not stay away out of contempt for the ceremony, but merely for considerations of health and convenience, she commits no sin. If, on the other hand, she goes as soon as she can, she obtains a blessing for herself and her family.
The law of nature demands that mothers should suckle their own children. The Church, in interpreting this law, does not make it binding under pain of mortal sin. If the mother be suffering from bad health, or if she have to attend to business or other grave duty, then the Church does not exact this duty under any pain whatever. But wherever a nurse is called in, the mother must see that she is of good health and morals.
Whilst allowing this liberty of substitute, the Church points to the law of nature as the more perfect ideal, and as tending more to the welfare of the child and the happiness of the family. Nay, she ennobles the law of nature by setting before the world that type of mother of whose Child it was said: "Blessed is the womb that bore thee and the breasts that gave thee suck." Any suggestion of substitution in this case is simply unthinkable. And if it were not beneath the dignity of such a mother to accept the full burden of her office, so it should not be beneath the dignity of the dames of a worldly society. It should rather be their glory to set the example to their poorer sisters. The poor nurse, who is taken away from her own child, has all the dignity and feelings of motherhood equally with the richest woman in the land.
Not on this point only, but on every other that pertains to the care of the child, born or unborn, the mother's mind is raised and her heart enkindled by the Catholic ideal. This ideal is realized in Mary, the Mother of God. The Protestant consciousness has never become reconciled to the title, and consequently has never learnt the lesson which it teaches to the whole Catholic motherhood. When the eternal God took flesh in the womb of the Virgin, and deigned to be the object of a mother's tender nursing, care, and affection, then was motherhood raised to its highest grade of splendor and magnificence, then was the law of nature made perfect by the law of grace. A real perfect Mother of flesh and blood was given to the mothers of the world to show them the glory of their state. She was instrumental to the forming of the Incarnate Christ; they are to be instrumental to the forming of the Mystic Christ.