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Callings and the Childfree Life

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I share Fr. Robert Barron’s concern about many of the attitudes on display in this Time magazine cover story on “the childfree life.” As Barron writes, much of the problem stems from the basic American attitude toward a life of “having it all.”

Thus, Barron observes, “Whereas in one phase of the feminist movement, ‘having it all’ meant that a woman should be able to both pursue a career and raise a family, now it apparently means a relationship and a career without the crushing encumbrance of annoying, expensive, and demanding children.”

I have written before about the significance of procreation. Having children is, in fact, of civilizational importance, and one of those matters, as Sam Gregg has recently argued, really worth pursuing. I explore the place of the family, marriage, and having kids in my recent book, and I contend:

Not everyone is called to have children themselves, of course. God has a plan for each individual, just as he has guidelines for how marriage and family are to be arranged. But as Christians within a larger society we are called collectively to promote the cause of life and flourishing.

Barron explores some of the reasons given for having or not having children, and with all things there are better and worse motivations for doing things. One of the central things that having children teaches you, writes Barron, is that “that our lives are not about us. Traditionally, having children was one of the primary means by which this shift in consciousness took place.” The reformer Martin Luther put it memorably when he said, “When a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child…God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling—not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.”

But as the life of Fr. Barron and so many others also shows, the implications of this realization can include leading a life of childlessness. For Roman Catholics, specifically religious vocations by definition preclude traditional familial life and procreation. Evangelicals have struggled to define the contexts in which there can be legitimate callings to singleness. As Rev. Mike Campbell shows, it is possible to turn marriage into an idol.

There is a valid distinction between things of the world and things of God, but a rigid sacred/secular dichotomy is highly problematic, at least in some forms. In light of this, my question is whether it might also be acceptable, or perhaps even praiseworthy, to remain childless, whether single or married, for laypersons, those who are, from a Roman Catholic perspective, living out secular callings. I think the Roman Catholic answer to this question is consistent, even if I am not entirely convinced.

But from the perspective of Protestants, might we postulate that it may be incumbent for some individuals living out their particular calling, say, for instance, as a business executive committed to glorifying God and serving him and others through his or her work, to remain childless? Might ‘secular’ callings, at least in some instances, demand childlessness in a way analogous to the demands required of religious vocations in Roman Catholic perspective?

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • GooZ

    Given the history of religion’s oppression of women (read the bible, koran, etc), it may be best if religious MEN like Ballor and Barron refrained from weighing in on women’s issues.

    • Elise Hilton

      How is having children primarily a woman’s issue? Fathers – at least good ones – are involved.

      Also, can you specifically cite where the Bible demonstrates and/or calls for the “oppression” of women? And please, define “oppression” as well.

    • Oppression? It seems to me that excluding from the conversation those voices of those with whom you disagree is the very definition of oppression.

    • Jump

      You’ll mislead yourself if you think that being male or female somehow gives or denies the ability to speak with authority on a claim. It does not. Claims are either true or false regardless of who is arguing for them. If you want to object, stick with the arguments.

  • Miriam

    I am child-free because my male partner of 7 years does not want children. He has always known that he didn’t want to have children. He is perfect, my life is good, and I am not going to ruin it by leaving him to search for a man who does want children. Though I had wanted to have children, I am 100% at peace with my decision. I have enough–I don’t need to have it all.

  • Joe B.

    Marriage is a huge and multifaceted relationship. A solid marriage will mutually meets each person’s needs: emotional, physical, sexual, financial, etc,etc, etc…. I’m really unclear on why people are obsessing about whether or not children are produced?

    How about this: We all mind our own business, live our own life, and leave everyone else alone!

    • I don’t think either Fr Barron or Jordan are “obsessing about whether or not children are produced [sic].” Rather they are gently but firmly reminding us of things which as a culture we are in danger of forgetting.

      One of the reasons we are, or should be, concerned about defending the connection between marriage and procreation is our responsibility to educate the next generation. More and more young people are being raised with the idea that children are an optional part of marriage. For the biblical tradition, this is simply not true. From Genesis on, children are seen as a blessing from not a lifestyle option.

      Finally, I see no biblical or patristic basis for a couple to remain childless as choice. It may be the case that God doesn’t grant them children but to decide not to have children? I’m not sure that this is a legitimate option for a married couple.

      • Joe B.

        I really enjoy this discussion! However, I’m a “lost cause” … :-)

        Basically, everyone has a different personality. I’m a guy, but I’m “hardwired” to be married. The first 29, ‘single years’ of my life were the coldest, loneliest, and most difficult. Close friends, religious involvement, volunteering, work, etc just cannot fill the void. I had a relationship hole that could only be satisfied by my wife. Now married, I can say having a companion and helpmate has made my life 1000 times more enjoyable! There have been rough patches, but the good days far out number the bad!

        I’m also hardwired “childfree.” I’m not comfortable with any aspect of children: The noise, the commotion, the lack of sleep, having to parent, guide, discipline, etc. There is absolutely no appeal to any part of raising a child from birth to age 25. My feelings were so strong on this that I got “fixed” in my mid 20’s.

        To me, it seems really cruel to tell people “if you want a spouse, you must accept any and all children that come along.” That’s like saying “I don’t care about your soul-crushing loneliness, if you want a companion you must also have kids: no matter how much you resent them.”

        I have the best of both worlds; a wonderful wife and no kids, ever. Ya’ll may object to this arrangement, but it’s working great for us! :-)

    • Joseph Sunde

      Is that really what marriage is about? I don’t presume you or anyone else to be fond of that whole “in sickness or in health” business, but isn’t a solid marriage at least partly defined by a sense of commitment, devotion, and sacrifice that transcends some abstract perception of the mutual meeting of needs?

      Jordan is simply asking a question about what impact particular vocational directions might have on our vocational orientations regarding the family. It would seem to me that if we define marriage as something beyond mere self-satisfaction (“mutually met needs”), some discussion of overarching spiritual and moral obligations — regarding vocation, sex, society, whatever — will somehow involve the question of children.

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  • Jump

    Brilliant reply, JohnE. Bullseye.

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