First, kudos for Erin of Bearing Blog for spurring me to reread the full transcript of the Pope’s recent in-flight remarks. He didn’t precisely say “Catholics shouldn’t be like rabbits” (and he never used the word “breed” at all). What happened was that the reporter asked him what he thought about the idea that so many in the Philippines are poor because of the Church’s ban on contraception. The Pope replied:
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.
So, yes, if you read the entire context, he wasn’t saying, “The Church thinks you shouldn’t be like rabbits.” He was saying, “Some people think the Church teaches this, but it doesn’t.” A subtle distinction, a fairly important one . . . and an unfortunately quotable phase that just screams to be misunderstood.
Francis Phillips of the Catholic Herald UK says pretty much what I thought when I read the stories about the Pope’s interivew: This is really nothing new, but yikes. Phillips:
[W]hile I knew exactly what Pope Francis was actually saying, I still groaned. … Those people who read and listen to the secular press and who already have their own prejudices against Church teaching, will remember and repeat the word “rabbits” like a mantra, while we Catholics will sigh and point out as patiently as possible that that the Church has always taught “responsible parenthood” – and indeed, the Pope mentioned this too, during that hour-long meeting with reporters on his flight home.
What the Holy Father implied was that “responsible parenthood” is what matters, not specific family size. This will be different in each family and with each couple; while the use of artificial contraceptives is intrinsically life-denying it can also be irresponsible to have children thoughtlessly, without regard to issues of health and family circumstances.
But the problem with these remarks, unless they are carefully developed and explained within the context of Catholic teaching, is that they might cause confusion, not only outside the Church but also inside, among faithful families. Yes – people can have large families from selfish motives, just as they can limit their families from selfish motives. But what about large Catholic families, struggling to do what is right in their circumstances and under the normal pressures and demands of family life? They might, wrongly, take the Pope’s remarks personally and worry that they are being profligate and irresponsible. They have taken the biblical words “Go forth and multiply” seriously, at great personal sacrifice. They have already, in our secular society, been dismissed as “breeding like rabbits”; the Pope’s remarks will seem to undermine them, however much this was not intended.
Yup. He wasn’t advocating contraception, and he wasn’t saying small families are better than big families. He said things that are true, but he said them in a way that gives ammunition to people who are sloppy thinkers, or who are unmotivated to find out what the Church really teaches, or who are looking for justification to hate the Pope. Which is just about everybody.
Look, this is our Pope. He’s kind of a blabbermouth, and sooner or later, he’s going to irritate just about everybody. And no, this isn’t the first time he’s said something that makes me go, “Oy.” All the more reason to pick your head up out of the constant stream of gabble in the media from time to time, take a deep breath, and focus on your own family and your own spiritual life, rather than diving headfirst into the outrage du jour. (And yes, that means you might end up reading my blog less. Go ahead, I can take it!)
Anyway, Phillips was nice enough to recommend my book as an antidote to some of the confusion over what the Church actually teaches about family size, and how to balance the seemingly contradictory ideas of responsibility and generosity. I do hope that it helps!
I guess if Catholics want the beautiful teaching of the Church to be better understood by a skeptical world, then it would behoove us to spend our energy, you know, using these dust-ups as an opportunity for sharing and explaining that teaching, rather than constantly bitching about the Pope.