Breeding Like Rabbits? Procreation in the Medieval and Modern View

In the early Sixteenth Century, Henry VIII of England was a man with a very old and very normal problem: he wanted to change his woman. In the view of marriage common to the European nobility, the purpose of wives was to produce heirs and useful political alliances– not much better than the crude language of one of Thomas Kyd’s characters, “wives are made but to bed and feed.” Unfortunately, Henry’s first wife, who was really his only wife, had proved unable to produce any heirs. Since she had failed to serve her purpose, Henry tried to dismiss her and find a wife who could give him the heir he wanted. For him and his aristocratic brethren, this was the purpose of marriage: the production of children (and useful alliances). Since this was the overriding purpose of marriage, if a marriage failed to produce children, they tried to take this as sufficient reason to end the marriage.

The medieval Church, which supposedly thought the sole purpose of marriage was children might have been expected to agree with Henry and countless other similar nobles who also sought divorces for dynastic reasons. Yet, strangely, they did not, even when it was clearly in their political interest to do so. Hence, Pope Innocent III refused a divorce to King Phillip Augustus (II) of France, even thought Phillip was easily the most powerful monarch in early thirteenth-century Europe and Innocent was desperate for his support. As Henry VIII was refused his divorce, so was Phillip refused his.

This is of more than historical interest. It is often charged against the Catholic Church today that it considers the sole point of marriage to be children, hence contraception is forbidden and the Church expects people to, as the crude saying goes, “breed like rabbits.” While the modern world has moved on, the Church stays behind, convinced that the main purpose of marriage is to have as many children as possible.

Yet if this is so, it is strange that it be so. Strange that the same Church that is said to be obsessed with procreation still forbids divorce even if no children are possible. And it is strange too that the same Church forbids artificial reproductive technologies (though not natural ones), which are designed to increase the likelihood that a marriage produce children. Why should this be so, if it regards children as the sole point? Why should the medieval Church have forbidden childless couples to divorce if children were the key point of marriage?

There are two answers of course. The first is that it was never the Church that was obsessed with children, but the secular world. Pope Clement VII was not obsessed with children, but Henry VIII was: so obsessed, in fact, that he started his own church, declaring himself “supreme head of the Church in England” in order to give himself a divorce in an attempt to have the heirs he sought.

The second reason is this: the Church does not regard children as the main purpose of marriage. Rather, in the Middle Ages, as now, it saw the main purpose of marriage as the holiness of the spouses. Marriage was a sacrament, a physical sign of spiritual realities and channel of divine grace. In particular, marriage was as sign of the union between God, Jesus Christ, and His Church. Hence, while the purpose of marriage was not children, marriage was to be open to children; if either spouse was infertile, this was unfortunate, but it did not justify ending the marriage since its primary purpose, the sanctification of the spouses, remained. Hence, while a Catholic marriage will welcome children and not act actively against them, it will not be obsessed with them and may have many or few as circumstances allow.

The secular world, however, is obsessed with children either getting them (as was Henry VIII) through artificial means, or avoiding them through artificial means (whether contraception or abortion). This obsession reflects not a great love of children, but a great love of self, since the children become either tools of adult gratification or else obstacles to it. Where marriage can reflect no higher spiritual realities, people become their own gods and their own centers. If marriage cannot have a higher purpose, it must have a lower one. Fulton Sheen said that if love burns not upward in ascent, then it burns downward to destroy. The destruction falls on all society, the consequences evident in the world today.

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2 thoughts on “Breeding Like Rabbits? Procreation in the Medieval and Modern View

  1. Woman had some recourse too, though. If a woman claimed her man was important, he would be asked to prove his ability to “do the deed” in front of an audience. Often he was so nervous, it rendered him incapable, and a woman could then be granted a divorce.

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  2. I’d be a bit suspicious of that claim and curious for a reference. At most, it sounds like an unusual local custom. And can we imagine someone like Henry VIII falling victim to such a thing? Finally, at most, this would only apply to before the marriage was consummated. Once a marriage was consummated, subsequent impotency would not invalidate it.

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