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Question 40: Must a graduate student risk his academic career to support his illegitimate son?

I am twenty-four years old and working on a doctorate in mathematics, which will take about another two years to finish. I have a teaching assistantship, which pays me barely enough to survive on. I met Louise, a woman my own age, at the Catholic students’ club on campus when we began our graduate work two years ago last September; she meant to get a master’s in education. Before long we considered ourselves engaged and were spending a lot of time together. We never quite had intercourse, but we would lie naked together fondling each other until we were both satisfied. We didn’t think what we were doing could result in pregnancy, and we got away with it for a long time, but Louise became pregnant eleven months ago.133

Though some of her friends and the doctor she went to urged her to get an abortion, neither of us even considered it. Louise wanted to get married as soon as possible. But I realized that my feelings for her had been changing even before she got pregnant, and that I should have broken off the relationship. However, though she had not gone on with her graduate work after the first year, she had remained here and gotten a job in order to be near me. I did not have the heart to break up and, frankly, was not really thinking clearly about it, because I still enjoyed sex with her. Confronted with her desire to get married, though, I felt sure it would be a mistake. Naturally, she was hurt and angry. We had been sharing a little apartment. She made me leave, and friends took me in.

Louise’s family lives three hundred miles away and is not well off. She cannot expect anything from them. Fortunately, her health insurance from the place where she works covered most of the cost of having the baby, and my parents loaned me some money to help out. I wanted Louise to give the baby up for adoption, and she said she would, but when he was born, she delayed going through with it. Now he is seven weeks old, and she says she cannot part with him.

I realize I have some responsibility to help Louise care for the baby. But how far do I have to go? When she did not put the baby up for adoption, my dad told me not to give her any more money. He said I should demand paternity tests and offered to cover legal expenses “to limit the damage as much as possible.” But I am sure the baby is mine, I want to do the right thing, and I do not want to waste money on lawyers. Louise will be putting the baby in day care and going back to work soon, and she will need at least four hundred a month more than her take-home pay to make ends meet. If I do not follow my dad’s advice, however, he will not lend me any more money. Thus, I have no way of coming up with what Louise needs unless I give up my teaching assistantship and get a full-time job. But my department chair has warned me that in that case my chances of completing my degree will be slim.


The questioner should be affirmed in his present will “to do the right thing.” If he has not already done so, he should be encouraged to repent his grave sins of unchastity and injustice, and to make restitution for the latter sin. The woman’s refusal to give up the baby for adoption does not negate or even limit the questioner’s paternal responsibility. He should embrace this responsibility wholeheartedly, and, if necessary, give up his graduate study and plans for the future. But he also should look for a more appealing, morally acceptable alternative. Even if he must give up his assistantship, he should try to complete his degree if he can.

The reply could be along the following lines:

In refraining from actually having intercourse, you and Louise no doubt meant to limit your misbehavior. But what you did was both foolishly risky and gravely sinful. You committed sins not only of unchastity but of injustice toward Louise. You continued to take advantage of her belief that you were committed to her when you no longer were prepared to marry her. I trust you have repented and confessed those and all your other sins.

Even if you have, the injustice you did to Louise, like any injustice that results in injury and alienation, requires you to make appropriate restitution: to do whatever you rightly can to make up to her for what you did to her, win her forgiveness, and so make peace with her (see LCL, 444–58). I suggest that, if you have not already done so, you frankly acknowledge to her that you wronged her, beg her forgiveness, especially for using her and continuing to lead her into sin even after your feelings for her had changed, and humbly ask her what you might rightly do, whether now or later, to mitigate and make up for the injury and suffering you inflicted on her.

If you have repented, done what you can to make peace with Louise, and otherwise amended your life, you once again have good reason to hope to be among those who one day will hear our Lord say: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25.34). What one does to vulnerable members of Jesus’ family—which surely includes the unborn—one does to Jesus himself (see Mt 25.40). In refusing to consider abortion, though Louise’s friends and doctor urged it, she and you both recognized that the human embryo or fetus should be regarded as a person, and fulfilled your first responsibility toward your son: You allowed him to live and be born. So, though in other respects Louise acted very differently from the Virgin Mary, she truly echoed Mary’s fiat. Moreover, though you, unlike Joseph, had been unchaste and unjust, you now are ready to accept the baby as your son, and desire to do the right thing by him. In this way, you mirror Joseph’s willingness to meet his responsibilities toward Jesus.

By contrast, in proposing that you seek “to limit the damage as much as possible,” your father seems to be advocating that irresponsibility toward children all too common among men who exploit women. It also is discouraging that he conditioned any further help on your following his bad advice. Nevertheless, for the good of Louise, your son, yourself, and your father, I think you should try to get him to change his mind. To that end, I suggest that you try to get Louise’s cooperation in acting on part of his advice: to obtain tests to confirm your paternity. For while you are sure you are the father and while babies sometimes are conceived without intercourse, your father’s reaction probably partly resulted from understandable skepticism. If so, meeting him part way and confirming your paternity might help persuade him to reconsider and provide the help you need.

What if the tests confirm your paternity, as you are sure they will, and your father still refuses to change his position?

You may feel frustrated and even resent the baby, but you must keep in mind that he is completely innocent and is your son. Though different in important ways, a man’s failure to support his child and a woman’s killing hers are alike in at least one crucial respect: Fathers no more have a right to abandon children by nonsupport than mothers have a right to get rid of them by abortion. Moreover, since your actual relationship to your son, grounded in your own free choice, is the source of your responsibility to support him, Louise’s abandonment of the plan to give him up for adoption in no way nullifies or even reduces your obligation to him.

Still, if you really believe that adoption would be best for your son—as I think it probably would—you should try once more to persuade Louise to give him up. Assure her that, whatever she decides, you will fulfill your responsibilities toward him. Admit that neither you nor anyone else can know for certain that adoption would be in his best interests. But point out that he is likely to be well cared for and properly educated by a married couple who would adopt him and cherish him as their own and that she perhaps can have no greater love for him than to surrender him, painful as that would be, to such a couple. By now, too, she probably has experienced some of the hardships of caring for a small baby. If so, you might gently remind her of them and point out that children make even greater demands as they grow up, especially during adolescence.

If Louise continues to reject adoption, do not try to evade your duty to meet your son’s needs, and you should recognize that this duty extends beyond paying the money that you could be legally compelled to pay. More than that may be needed; and you also must do what you can to give him a father’s love, guidance, and personal help.134 Indeed, insofar as you can, you must see to it that the child is brought up well in every respect. Consequently, if necessary, you must give up your graduate studies and plans for the future, and seek permanent, full-time employment. In doing that, you perhaps can take advantage of the graduate work you already have completed—for example, by teaching mathematics in high school.

Before giving up your graduate studies, however, you should try to find a better alternative. Perhaps Louise and you could solve the immediate problem by cooperating in caring for your baby. You might be able to study and care for him simultaneously—at her apartment or elsewhere—during much of the time he otherwise would be in day care as well as some time on weekends, and your friends and hers might help out when neither of you can care for him. This arrangement not only would save money and allow you to keep your assistantship but, very likely, would assure better care than paid providers would give. For a baby needs the personal love and tender care that hired hands are unlikely to give, since, even if they take on the work with an upright attitude, their attention and affection generally are dispersed, and they naturally try to avoid becoming fully attached to a child from whom they expect to part.

No doubt, cooperation would be difficult at first, but two things seem to point to the likelihood of success: Louise and you have shown some good character traits, and you both loved your baby enough to let him be born. Moreover, while it was right for you not to marry Louise when you felt sure marriage would be a mistake and you should not marry her now merely to assuage your guilt feelings or to solve the problem of caring for the baby, the experience of cooperating in caring for your son might well lead to a renewal of your relationship in a chaste and more mature form, and eventually this might lead both of you to discern that, after all, you are called to marry each other. You ought to be open-minded about this possibility, for if you and Louise became convinced that marriage to each other is your vocation and fully committed yourselves to it, you could reasonably hope for a good and happy marriage.

If you and she cannot cooperate in caring for your baby, perhaps you can borrow the necessary money from someone other than your father, finish your degree, get a job, repay the loan, and eventually provide Louise and your son with the more adequate help they will need. Or, perhaps, you might both keep your assistantship and get another part-time job, earning enough to meet all your responsibilties.

Finally, even if you must give up your assistantship and get a full-time job, you should not let the department chair’s warning discourage you from doing your best to complete your degree. His advice, probably influenced by the department’s interest in having you continue in your assistantship, may well be too pessimistic. Of course, many entry-level, full-time, teaching positions and other jobs that take far more than forty hours per week of one’s time are likely to be incompatible with completing a doctoral degree. However, you might be able to find less time-consuming employment which, nevertheless, would put your education to use and pay enough to balance your budget. In that case, you will have a good chance of completing your degree—perhaps not in two years but in three or four—if you focus your time and energy on that objective. Though you must fulfill other duties, including those toward yourself, you can cut out optional activities, such as most entertainment and social life, and discipline yourself to avoid idleness, resist distractions, and use every minute as fully as possible. For example, give up unnecessary reading; seldom or never watch television; use the time while you are getting cleaned up or walking from here to there to pray and plan your work; study while you eat, during breaks at work, while riding public transportation, and so on.

While such sacrifices and self-discipline will be hard, you will be capable of them if you keep your purposes in mind and pray for the grace you need. Besides, following an austere lifestyle for a few years will be good for your character and will serve as appropriate, ongoing penance for the sins that led to your present problem (see CCC, 2015; LCL, 190–96, 217–18).

133. Sexual behavior short of intercourse can lead to pregnancy if any of the man’s semen is deposited within the woman’s labia.

134. A good summary of a father’s responsibilities: Clayton C. Barbeau, Father of the Family: A Christian Perspective, rev. by Mitch Finley (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1990). A cogent psychological argument showing the need for fathers to fulfill their responsibilities: David Popenoe, Life without Father (New York: The Free Press, 1996).