The notion that women are rabbitlike “breeders” who should produce as many children as possible is harmful and false—as is the common assumption that this idea originated in Christian circles. In fact, it has secular origins in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

In the France of King Louis XIV (1638–1715), wrongheaded statistics suggesting a rapid population decline terrified the government. As a countermeasure the crown began programs that paid prizes and pensions for extra large families. A woman should, so the economists of the time said, have as many children as possible so that the country would gain more workers who could contribute to its financial wellbeing. The more births a country had, the more it could expand its influence.

Enlighteners like Rousseau had made it clear that one brought children into this world for the sake of the “nation.” A mother’s duty was first and foremost to the country and not to her spouse or her offspring; the delivery and upbringing of her children was an act of national importance. Motherhood became nationalized. Leslie Tuttle has told this story in her book Conceiving the Old Regime on whose cover one can see a mythological figure with a birthing cannon out of which babies are shot. It is in this context that the degrading image of women as “breeders” has its origin.

Although France was a Catholic state, the Church seems to have been relatively indifferent to the agenda of population growth. After all, many Catholic women practiced family planning by decreasing female fertility through nursing. This trend was emphasized by Catholic Enlighteners like Josefa Amar, who rejected the notion of wet-nursing, that is of giving one’s children to a nurse who could breastfeed them, in order to become yet again fertile for conceiving the next child. By encouraging women to breastfeed their own children, Catholic Enlighteners encouraged natural family planning.

In other Catholic countries, the population growth agenda was also seen critically. Most of all the German bishoprics, which were sovereign territories, did not seem to worry about a loss of population. In fact, Franz Bob (d. 1812), a professor in Freiburg was able to prove with statistics that there was no decline in the population and that the state’s hysteria was irrational. Population growth, as the states desired it, was in his eyes dangerous not only for the economy but also for the value of family life. Bob’s works have been completely forgotten—among historians, economists, and theologians.

The Catholic Church after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) encouraged couples to have children, but it always despised the secular population growth agenda. It did so because, as a seventeenth-century Jesuit said, “marriage not only gives heaven a husband and wife . . . it makes them trees of life in the center of the earthly paradise of the church, producing fruits worthy of the eyes, hands, and mouth of God.”

Rather than encouraging couples to have as many children as possible, the eighteenth-century Church taught spouses to leave such things to God, to practice occasional abstinence, and to celebrate anniversaries with common prayer; through each of these practices, the Church encouraged growth in intimacy and companionship.

Ulrich L. Lehner is professor of religious history and theology at Marquette University and the author of the forthcoming book The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten Story of a Global Movement (Oxford).

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