This has been news for several days, so Catholics who are paying attention (and just about everyone else) is aware that during a press conference, from Manilla to Rome, the Holy Father made a reference to large families and that Catholics don’t have to “be like rabbits”.
This caused a firestorm, because some (many?) people interpreted this as leaning toward a change in Catholic teaching or discipline, many people found the reference to large families “being like rabbits” insulting (as did I, having eight children and a ninth on the way), the standard self-appointed papal press secretaries arguing over differences of “being like rabbits” and “breeding like rabbits” (hint to these folks, it’s insulting either way), and the very predictable support for large families from the Holy Father a couple of days later.
I held off responding for a couple of days for the situation to play itself out, especially waiting for the Holy Father to express support for large families. For one, I thought he would realize that his words could be, and were, interpreted in a negative way. Second, I sincerely believe Pope Francis does love large families. He has said so before.
For those who have not followed this, on the plane ride from Manilla to Rome, Pope Francis held a press conference as is his custom. One of the questions asked had to do with population and family size, in which the Holy Father stated the following (source here for transcript, emphasis mine)
Christoph Schmidt: Holy Father, first of all I would like to say: Thank you very much for all the impressive moments of this week. It is the first time I accompany you, and I would like to say thank you very much. My question: you have talked about the many children in the Philippines, about your joy because there are so many children, but according to some polls the majority of Filipinos think that the huge growth of Filipino population is one of the most important reasons for the enormous poverty in the country. A Filipino woman gives birth to an average of three children in her life, and the Catholic position concerning contraception seem to be one of the few question on which a big number of people in the Philippines do not agree with the Church. What do you think about that?
Pope Francis: I think the number of three children per family that you mentioned – it makes me suffer – I think it is the number experts say is important to keep the population going. Three per couple. When this decreases, the other extreme happens, like what is happening in Italy. I have heard, I do not know if it is true, that in 2024 there will be no money to pay pensioners because of the fall in population. Therefore, the key word, to give you an answer, and the one the Church uses all the time, and I do too, is responsible parenthood. How do we do this? With dialogue. Each person with his pastor seeks how to do carry out a responsible parenthood.
That example I mentioned shortly before about that woman who was expecting her eighth child and already had seven who were born with caesareans. That is a an irresponsibility That woman might say ‘no, I trust in God.’ But, look, God gives you means to be responsible. Some think that — excuse the language — that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood. This is clear and that is why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors, one can search; and I know so many ways that are licit and that have helped this. You did well to ask me this.
Another curious thing in relation to this is that for the most poor people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here too, but for them a child is a treasure. Some would say ‘God knows how to help me’ and perhaps some of them are not prudent, this is true. Responsible paternity, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.
I’d like to make a couple more comments on this.
First, again, I firmly believe that the Holy Father does support large families. Also, with so many people out there taking every opportunity to attack the Catholic Church, and the institution of the papacy, I try to be careful not to lend to that (though, I will not irrationally attack other people who offer respectful criticism of the Holy Father).
Second, the language was offensive, even if not meant to be. Below is part of an article written by Patricia Medina, a woman with six children, all delivered via c-sections, and her reaction to the Holy Father’s comments (follow the link for the whole thing):
I‘ve had good and responsible doctors. Doctors who assured me I could go on having children despite the number of C-sections. I even know mothers who have more than a dozen children via C-section. Anyway, I was blessed 6 times. Seven, if I count a pregnancy that did not went ahead.
Every day, I face the curiosity, the disrespect, the jokes, the whispers and the comments by many people who think that, just because I have six children, they have the right to give their opinion on what is so sacred to me. I have way too many anecdotes. I have been stopped on the street walk and asked if “I did not care about the environment”. I have been laughed at dozens of times when asked if I did not have a TV at home (BTW, no! We do not, Thank God!), if I knew what caused pregnancies, if I did not have a hobby. And all that spoken inconveniently, without modesty, in front of my small children! I have been called ignorant, irresponsible. I’ve had to give financial explanations to strangers. Our family is frequently looked with disdain. Once, a doctor discretely suggested that I abort my 3rd child because it was somehow “dangerous”. My husband is always asked if his six children are from “the same wife”! Once, when we were outside under a pouring rain and in need of a cab, many taxi drivers went past us making signs with their hands meaning we were too many people. Too many people…. Can heaven be too crowded?
Anyway, we have always endured the criticism with a few compliments here and there. The compliments that exalt my so-called courage were never our support for the sacrifice of having many children. People’s opinions, either good or bad, are irrelevant. Our focus, my husband’s and mine, was always Our Lord. It was always to do God’s will. And to do God’s will in what is the very purpose of matrimony: the procreation of children. Despite the antichristian society. Despite the cost. Despite the world! And now, I am afraid to say, despite the Pope!
In all these years, and there goes 17 years of marriage, I have never heard the pearl the Bishop of Rome gave to the mothers of large families: rabbits! His Holiness was, and I say this with an aching heart, vulgar! Yes, vulgar! I would never dare to compare a catholic lady, wife and mother to an irrational animal. And a rabbit too! How would you think fathers would feel if compared to asses for working too much? Or poor people being called rats for not being dressed up? Or if people in a coma were called sloths? Shall I go on? The comparison is vulgar and denigrates the target of the criticism. It is disrespectful. It is, pure and simple, a lack of charity!
In addition, the Pope, he who should confirm our Faith, he who should support us, defend us, just threw mothers and fathers of large families to the lions!
It is reactions like the one above that I think made the Holy Father realize that he’d been careless with his words. Pope Francis has exercised a large part of his personal ministry through interviews and press conferences. Personally, I find this a bit dangerous, because such a medium allows for careless words and misinterpretations. As the Holy Father, Pope Francis is the leading religious figure in the world, the head of the one true religion. It may be a huge burden, but when the Holy Father stumbles with his words, it can do immense damage to the faithful. When writing encyclicals or reading from papal speeches, the words are checked and double-checked, and all the what-ifs are (hopefully) thought about, but in press conferences things can go very awry.
I wanted to write about one more article I ran across, because I think it demonstrates the confusion that is occurring concerning Catholics, “responsible parenthood”, and Natural Family Planning
At philstar.com, there is an article on the Holy Father’s comments on population and family size. It has to do with remarks made by Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, head of the Philippine bishops. I shall insert my comments in red.
Filipino bishop: Pope’s ‘rabbit’ remark misunderstood
MANILA, Philippines — The head of Philippine bishops on Wednesday issued a clarification of Pope Francis’ call for responsible parenting, slamming reports that he compared Catholics to rabbits.
“The Pope NEVER made the rather unseemly remark that Catholics breed like rabbits,” Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas said in a statement.
“What the Pope DID SAY was that some Catholics mistakenly believe that to be Catholic, we ought to breed like rabbits [and the implication still is that large families ARE breeding, or being, like rabbits] —and prior to using that simile, he knew that it was harsh and so said ‘excuse the expression’—but it was apt and it brought home the point,” Villegas, who is also president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, added.
Villegas encouraged readers to refer to the transcript of the interview of Pope Francis aboard the Philippine Airlines plane en route to Rome on Monday.
He explained that the Catholic Church, albeit against artificial contraceptives and abortion, has always taught parents and families about responsible parenthood [is His Excellency going to say with should ‘plan’ our families?].
“Births should be planned rationally by both parents [yes, that’s what he’s saying] who must always remain open to new life, but who must also take into consideration their physical, financial and emotional capacity to raise children,” Villegas said.
In commenting on the issue, the Roman Pontiff only corrected attitudes of some Catholics who say, “Come what may!’ [‘Come what may!’ is supposed to be the default position of Catholic parents!], the bishop said.
There is a bit more of the article. Be sure to read the whole thing.
Here’s the issue – Many Catholics can see where this is going. The “Come what may!” in reference to children is supposed to be the default position of a Catholic husband and wife. Using Natural Family Planning is the exception to the rule, to be used only for serious reasons, and if used with a ‘contraceptive mentality’, can be just as sinful (that is, mortally sinful) as artificial birth control. From catholic-pages.com (again, emphasis mine):
First, we should not labour under the misapprehension that NFP is always OK. Birth control is never OK if the direct purpose is to prevent birth. NFP is only OK when the couple have serious social, psychological, physical or financial reasons to avoid another pregnancy for the time being or indefinitely. In our zeal to try and wake the world up to the fact that modern NFP methods are as effective as the Pill, we’re promoting the idea that NFP in and of itself is unassailably good, the Catholic contraceptive. The truth is NFP can be used with exactly the same contraceptive mentality as birth control (it’s not as easy, but it’s very possible). Pope Paul VI makes it clear that the first question to ask is “Do we have grave reasons for avoiding a pregnancy at this time?” If the answer is “Yes”, then NFP and only NFP is a legitimate way to avoid pregnancy. If the answer is “No”, then even NFP may lead you into the same exclusion of God, lack of trust and faith in God and anti-life/anti-child mentality that birth control so often does. Using NFP should be an occasion of sadness for a couple that present difficulties preclude the joy of another child.
Sometimes, there are serious reasons for limiting family size, even to a relatively small family. In today’s world, within the global economy, there is a lot of poverty, and in some places lack of food or shelter. The Holy Father made this point.
But the default position must be to accept children, come as they may, as gifts from God.