A strange Twitter exchange last week launched a conversation about the relationship between celibate vowed religious and pro-natalism.
In the recent HuffPost essay “Behold, the Millennial Nuns,” Eve Fairbanks chronicled the rising number of millennial women discerning vocations to the religious life—a trend that many Catholics find encouraging. But Lyman Stone, research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, seemed less than happy about this, tweeting: “It’s worth mentioning that not all forms of religiosity are pro-natal and that if there were in fact a wave of vows-taking among religious women the effect on birth rates would be massively negative.” His position seems to be that nuns are bad because they do not reproduce.
As a Lutheran, Stone doubtless has less exposure to celibate vowed religious than I have as a Catholic. But surely he has read the biblical commendations of celibacy as a higher calling than marriage, as when St. Paul tells the Corinthians that the one who marries does right, but the one who does not marry does better (1 Cor. 7)? Paul’s reasoning, that “this world in its present form is passing away,” remains true today: Christians understand that our highest loyalties are outside the temporal realm, and vowed religious wholeheartedly live out this eschatological reality.
There are at least three major ways that children and families benefit from people who pursue celibate religious life: from their work, their prayer, and their example. Does this mean that celibacy is, contra Stone, “pro-natal”? The answer depends on whether we treat pro-natalism as a mere question of arithmetic or as part of a Christian witness of hospitality for every young life God sends. As for me and my house, I know how we’ll answer.
The easiest way to illustrate how family life is bolstered by vowed religious is to point to how so many consecrated people serve the needy. There are whole religious congregations who conceive of their charism as intimately bound up with babies and birth. The Sisters of Life are a community of women religious centered in New York. When I asked them how they would characterize their mission, they said, “The Sisters of Life are Catholic religious Sisters who believe and witness to the truth that every person is good, necessary, and unrepeatable—a truth that is all too easily forgotten today. This is why we accompany women who find themselves struggling with a pregnancy, helping them to experience their own goodness and to move in freedom, not in fear.”
The Sisters of Life live out their witness by living with mothers and children, offering support and fellowship. At Holy Respite Mission in Manhattan, the Sisters told me:
We welcome pregnant women to live with us as our guests—through her pregnancy until about six months after the birth of the child. A typical day might include doctor’s visits, grocery shopping, assisting and advocating in the housing application process, and helping guests continue or return to school or work. It also includes the simple things like cooking and sharing a meal together, holding the babies, celebrating milestones and victories large and small. In many ways, we become a family—truly sisters to these women.
I can say from personal experience that volunteering with the Sisters of Life is inspiring: meeting their guests, holding babies, serving food. I believe my own vocation as a husband and father is spurred on by seeing how they live out theirs.
Vowed religious also bolster family life through their daily prayers on behalf of the whole body of believers. The idea that some Christians are called to a life with fewer conventional worldly ties and more time dedicated to prayer and contemplation goes back as far as the creeds Christians share. It was promulgated by Athanasius, the same man who so staunchly defended the Nicene Creed against heresy and who is venerated by Catholics, Orthodox, and Lutherans alike.
Who knows what greater depredations and disasters families and children would see without the perpetual intercession of vowed religious? I am grateful for nuns and friars praying for my family, and for my brotherhood with them in the Mystical Body of Christ. Every time a mother is up late to comfort an inconsolable baby and it seems the whole rest of the world is asleep, there are sisters keeping watch alongside her, praying in perpetual adoration and reminding us of God’s own steadfastness.
Finally, we all benefit from the example provided by religious sisters. Our world denigrates vulnerability and dependence, even to the point of discarding human beings deemed inconveniently needy. What a witness against this evil we have in vowed religious like the Sisters of Life and the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, who serve those dying of incurable cancer at no cost to them or their families. Both in their vows and in their acts of mercy, they embrace a radical dependence that our strength-surfeited society needs. To learn to make room for the radically dependent (babies, the disabled, all of us when we are old and sick) we could do worse than look to the humble leadership of the many sisters who embrace what the world throws away.
If a Christian wishes to claim the label “pro-natalist,” he has to be clear about what that means in the light of faith. It cannot mean merely attempting to maximize the world’s output of babies, as if Christians were only some substrain of utilitarian. A Christian pro-natalist should focus on championing the Kingdom of Life against the forces of spiritual darkness, and fostering a society hospitable to parenthood, children, and radical dependence. Whatever our denominational backgrounds, it is easy to observe how religious sisters contribute to a culture of life.
I’ll leave the final word to Sr. Bethany Madonna of the Sisters of Life:
When I was first discerning a religious vocation, I was afraid that sacrificing the possibility of an earthly spouse and children of my own would be experienced as a complete deprivation and void. Without the intimacy of marriage and the privilege of motherhood which I had always desired, I wasn’t sure if I could be totally fulfilled.
Now, after nine years in vows, I can say I have experienced nothing but promises fulfilled by Jesus, who has unfailingly satisfied my deepest longings for a love that was total, all-encompassing and forever. To be His bride, to mother every child as if it were my own of flesh and blood—is like living the promised hundredfold...
So rather than having my own husband and family on earth, my name and title, “Sister,” daily remind me that I have been brought into a much larger family, His family, and I can pour out my love on His children. It is more expansive than anything I could have ever asked for or imagined for myself.
We are able to welcome men, women, and children into our community life, anchored in the Lord, that they may be encouraged and refreshed to more fully, freely and joyfully live the gift they have received in their own vocation and call. In this way, we uphold one another.
Alexi Sargeant is a writer and culture critic who co-organizes the Aquinas Institute for Catholic life at Princeton University.