Pope Francis Vs. the Bible: A History of the Debate Over Being Childless

In addition to faceless corporations, the pope thinks childless couples are selfish. But that is just one position in a multi-voiced Bible.

09.20.15 4:08 AM ET

Pope Francis is here, bearing a message of mercy and forgiveness for all. He cares about the poor, the unborn, those alienated by church, those “living in sin,” the elderly, immigrants, and the environment. But even for a man as compassionate and understanding as Francis, there are some vulnerable groups who not only slip through his net of mercy—they are actually targets of his criticism.

Beyond the obvious—faceless corporations, greed, capitalistic exploitation, and so on—there is another group that Francis thinks is selfish: childless couples. In fact, during his tenure Francis has directly described those who choose not to have children as “selfish” and as obsessed with material things. He regularly uses sterility as a pejorative metaphor and fruitfulness as the primary image for that which flourishes. In so doing, he appears unaware of how this language alienates those without children and empowers others to negatively judge them.

Even the socially powerful are affected by this kind of perspective. When she ran for Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel faced scrutiny from German media and the broader public merely for not having children. Her choice was interpreted as a calculated career move. Some questioned whether she was a good representative of womanhood, or even of humanity in general.

The history of disparaging childless women is lengthy and winding, incorporating antipathy toward feminism as well as the ample mythology of witchcraft. But a lot of the language of fruitfulness, certainly that employed by Pope Francis, has biblical roots. The first words God speaks to humans in the Bible, in Genesis 1, are the blessing “be fruitful and multiply.” The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are promised fruitfulness by God, and their sons (so often born, ironically, after struggles with infertility on the part of the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel), are seen as the fulfillment of God’s promise. From this perspective, the inability or unwillingness to procreate reads as either divine curse or disdain of God’s will. But this is not the only message about infertility that we can find in the Bible. In our book, Reconceiving Infertility, we argue that the Bible contains a variety of different messages on childlessness. Though it is frequently negative, it is also sometimes neutral, and occasionally even positive.

If fertility is a blessing, then infertility ought to be a curse—so goes the logic of Genesis 1 and the creation story. But the most famous infertile characters in the Bible—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and, in the New Testament, Elizabeth—are utterly blameless. They have done nothing to deserve their state. Indeed, these are some of the most beloved and admired women in the entire biblical story. Their barrenness is no curse, or punishment. It is, rather, simply the state in which they find themselves. They wish it were otherwise, to be sure, as many infertile women do (indeed, the only circumstance in which infertility is diagnosed is in the attempt to have a child). But they are not condemned for their state. The positive attitude toward having offspring does not mean that childlessness is a sin; it is value-neutral.

There are other places in the Bible where childlessness affords some practical advantages. The Apostle Paul rather famously tells the Corinthians that it is better not to marry, because wives and children are a significant distraction from the task of spreading the good news. To be sure, Paul was writing in the belief that the world was coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean that everything he said was wrong.

And there are places where the kind of parenting that is promoted in the New Testament is grounded not in biology but in duty and love. Take, for example, the relationship between Joseph and Jesus. Any student with a quick eye will ask: How can Jesus be both son of Joseph and Son of God? In modern parlance, Joseph is Jesus’ stepfather; but the Gospel of Matthew emphasizes that Joseph is Jesus’ genealogical connection to David, and the means by which others can claim that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah. The distinction between biological parenthood, legal parenthood, and simply being there is very much eroded. And it’s possible to have multiple fathers—biologial and adopted.

More importantly there are also some arenas—like heaven—in which infertility is actually something positive. In contemporary religious debates, religious leaders will often refer to creation as a model for how God intends us to live our lives (think the “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” placards). But perhaps we should instead look at the end of time and what the Bible has to say about God’s plan for all eternity.

The great prophet Isaiah looks to the (imminent, end-of-days) future as a time when it would be better to enter the new world infertile than with many offspring: “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!” To be sure, Isaiah foresees that in the end of days those who are infertile will become fruitful. But his views mean that in this present, on the theoretical cusp of the endtimes, it is better to be childless than to have offspring. Many early Jewish interpreters took Isaiah’s positive statements about infertility and went further: In their view, heaven was a place where there was no eating, no drinking, and no procreation at all. The infertile woman was the prototype: In the world to come, even the fertile would become barren.

The same idea is present in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus meets a woman with a pathological “flow of blood.” She clasps the hem of his garment and is “dried up” by his religious power. It’s tempting to think that she is restored to a natural fertile state, but ancient readers interpreted the miracle as Jesus making her barren. Why? Because they believed that everyone would be barren in heaven. The same idea might be at work in the Acts of the Apostles. When Philip meets the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, he does not feel the need to cure him of being a eunuch. This is in contrast with other diseases and medical conditions that are healed. Presumably barrenness and sterility simply do not need curing.

The good news is that the Bible, one of the primary ideological sources for discrimination against women, is in fact more complicated on the issue of infertility than it at first seems. While biological procreation is a perpetual blessing on God’s people, fertility is not always assumed to be the default human state. Certainly by the New Testament, the biblical “family” was less about biology than about a community drawn together by duty and responsibility. Informal adoption, mentorship as family, and concerns for others as a replacement for biological generation are the norm. In the end, and at the end of time, everyone will be transformed into barren members of the kingdom of God.

The idea that the infertile are being punished by God is only one position in a multi-voiced Bible. It is only when religious leaders unthinkingly condemn the childless as selfish that it truly becomes a curse.