I was reconciled to the Catholic Church in 2003; up until that point in time I had been a member of several different Protestant denominations. When my children were little, we were Baptist, and since Baptists only administer “believer’s baptism,” my husband and I had our infants “dedicated to the Lord.” As we and many other couples stood before the congregation, the pastor (Jerry Falwell) joked about how we young parents had all taken seriously the Lord’s command to “be fruitful and multiply!” While the congregation chuckled, I asked myself about that command – “be fruitful and multiply.” No one I knew took it seriously in the modern day and age. Obviously Dr. Falwell and the congregation of Thomas Road didn’t take it seriously. So I mentally wrote it off as one of those Old Testament mandates that are “not for us today.”
That indifference towards the concept of fruitfulness is the norm among Protestant Christians, just as it is among the non-Christian population. Fruitfulness is seen as an antiquated notion. It would seem that the majority of adults in the developed world nowadays have their hearts set on being rendered pharmaceutically or surgically sterile, and many are doing their darndest to impose this state on the denizens of the developing world as well. This contraceptive attitude does seem, though, to run contrary to God’s instructions to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28:
God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
And Adam and Eve weren’t the only ones who got “the Talk” from the Lord:
And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” “… As for you, be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.” Gen 9:1, 7
God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name.” Thus He called him Israel. God also said to him, “I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, And kings shall come forth from you.” Gen 35:10-11
Genesis certainly makes it sound as if fertility in marriage is something that God takes a real interest in; if that’s correct, then there’s a problem with the Protestant contraceptive mentality. The Catholic Church teaches that the marital act is to be open to life, even if a couple has already has their 2.5 children. The Church also, however, teaches that while marriage is very, very good, celibacy is better. So, does God want us to be fruitful and multiply, or not? Does the fertility issue pose a theological problem in regards to the Catholic insistence that St. Joseph, foster father of our Lord, never consummated his marriage with the Virgin Mary, who Catholics insist remained a virgin after the birth of Christ? After all, the Catholic Church insists on the one hand that Mary had no children other than Jesus, and yet that
By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory.
You can’t have it both ways! What was up with Joseph and Mary? Why didn’t they have sexual relations after the birth of Jesus if the command, “Be fruitful and multiply” is directed toward all married people?
We’ve looked at God’s command to Adam and Eve, to Noah and his sons, and to Jacob. God’s instructions to the patriarch Abraham, however, and God’s explanation of His plan for Abraham’s life and legacy, put the Catholic understanding of Genesis 1:28 in a new light:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed….” Gen 12:1-4
And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. Gen 15:5
Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. Gal 3:6-9
We see that God expected Abraham to be fruitful and multiply, and Abraham became a father. But God told Abraham that he would be fruitful in another way when He said, “In you all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” Because of his faith, the faith which led him to pack up and head off to a foreign land, Abraham became a spiritual father to all those who have faith. Abraham was therefore fruitful not only in a physical sense, but in a spiritual sense as well.
And it is spiritual fruitfulness that is emphasized in the New Testament; we can trace its importance through the Gospels. John the Baptist begins his ministry by assuring the scribes and Pharisees:
Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Jn 3:8-10
A pretty strong message delivered by the voice crying in the wilderness – be fruitful, or prepare to be cut down! Jesus certainly didn’t tone that message down:
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’ Mt 7: 19-23
I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. … Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. Jn 15:1-2, 4-6
And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.’ Lk 13:5-9
The message is crystal clear – zero tolerance for fruitless living. God commanded Adam and Eve to bear fruit in a physical sense. Jesus commands His disciples to bear fruit in a spiritual sense. What do these two have in common? Simply put, no one is placed on this earth to live for himself. If you call yourself a Christian, then your life is not your own. The sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes laborious, sometimes thankless job of bearing fruit is your calling. Jesus was quite outspoken about the necessity of fruit, underscoring its importance with a sobering miracle:
On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry. Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And His disciples were listening. … As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. Being reminded, Peter said to Him, “Rabbi, look, the fig tree which You cursed has withered.” Mk 11:12-14, 20-21
A hypoglycemic Jesus throwing a hissy fit? Think again. Even at that time of year, although it was not the season for figs, the fig tree should have had edible little knobs on it that appear before the actual figs grow. Jesus found none of these, and thus knew that no figs would be forthcoming, either. In a most memorable object lesson, Jesus cursed the fig tree because it bore no fruit, and it withered and died.
There’s no way around it: bearing fruit seems to be quite a big deal in the Kingdom of God.
And so, we must be about the business of bearing fruit. Our culture, however, encourages the opposite. Ours is a consumer culture. We are taught to seek to be served and entertained. Christians have to swim against a very strong current, both in our nature and our society, to be obedient to the Lord’s command to bear fruit, because the process of bearing fruit throws a serious monkey wrench into the gears of the consumer lifestyle. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; all of these require active cultivation, which means less time for me, in more ways than one. Less time for me is really the point of the fruit – less me, more Jesus. Pretty awkward if you’ve already got plans for the weekend.
We see the same factors at play when we examine people’s reasons for not having children – offspring eat up one’s time, money and energy – not to mention the banana pudding that I was saving just for me. Children simply aren’t what I want to do with my life. I won’t have as much for me if I have to share. My free time, my career choices, my discretionary income – all these will be limited. I know what I’ll be doing for the foreseeable future – changing diapers and tying shoes and packing lunches and wiping snotty little noses, when I could be water-skiing and auditioning for plays! Life will simply be much easier if I remain childless, or if I at least keep my fertility from getting out of hand, so that there’s some kind of life left for me at the end of the neonatal tunnel….
I believe Protestants simply haven’t thought their fertility through. They love God, and many of them are willing to go to the ends of the earth to win souls for Christ, yet they are reluctant to bring souls to Him through marriage and childbearing.
God wishes men to be born not only that they should live and fill the earth, but much more that they may be worshippers of God, that they may know Him and love Him and finally enjoy Him for ever in heaven; and this end, since man is raised by God in a marvelous way to the supernatural order, surpasses all that eye hath seen, and ear heard, and all that hath entered into the heart of man. From which it is easily seen how great a gift of divine goodness and how remarkable a fruit of marriage are children born by the omnipotent power of God through the cooperation of those bound in wedlock.
If the joy of eternal life with God is really all that, why would Christians be reluctant to bring more souls into this world? If we really believe that unimaginable indeed are the delights of God’s fellowship, why hesitate to make those delights possible for more human beings? And greater still, not only are our children potential heirs with Christ, Pope Pius XI reminds us in Casti Connubii, but as such they are also members of Christ’s body, His bride – and she, too, is called to be fruitful!
But Christian parents must also understand that they are destined not only to propagate and preserve the human race on earth, indeed not only to educate any kind of worshippers of the true God, but children who are to become members of the Church of Christ, to raise up fellow-citizens of the Saints, and members of God’s household, that the worshippers of God and Our Savior may daily increase.
Married couples are called upon to imitate Christ and His spouse, the Church. As He works through her, He is fruitful to the end of the age as countless children of God are born through the waters of baptism. Married couples bring their children to God and His Church, and those children are called to grow up to bring others into the fold. Biological children and spiritual children – both are evidence of fruitfulness, the fruitfulness enjoined upon us by God. St. Joseph, though he never attempted to father children in his marriage to Jesus’ mother, is therefore rightly considered by Catholics to be the “Pillar of families.” He was a chaste spouse to the Blessed Virgin, and a holy foster father to Jesus. In guarding the virginity of the spotless Mother of God, Joseph forfeited his opportunity to bear physical offspring, and in so doing became a spiritual father to all those who come to Christ. When you behold the Catholic Church, you are contemplating the fruitfulness of St. Joseph and of all the saints.
So, yes, the command “be fruitful and multiply” is still very much in force, and applies to all, implying physical fruitfulness (for those who can – not all are blessed by God with children) and spiritual fruitfulness, i.e., personal holiness which leads by God’s grace to the generation of spiritual offspring. This is the “abundant life” which we have been promised. In God’s kingdom, where the blind shall see and the lame shall walk, not even eunuchs have an excuse for sterility, for there are, as Jesus told us, “those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Those “eunuchs,” too, are called to be fruitful and multiply, adding to the population of the Kingdom. When that census is taken, St. Joseph will be counted as a father to one and all.
On the memorial of St. Joseph, most chaste spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Deo omnis gloria!