Acton Institute Powerblog

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.

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