Pope Francis is the center of a media storm (again!)  due to his comments on Catholic couples and parenthood. There has been considerable commentary so we include here some more thoughtful comments as well as the actual words he said.

What Pope Francis actually said

Full transcript: here

What I want to say about Paul VI is that it is true that openness to life is the condition of the sacrament of matrimony. A man cannot give the sacrament to the woman, and the woman gives it to him if they are not in agreement on this point to be open to life. To the point that it can be proven that this or the other did not get married with this intention of being open to life, the matrimony is null. It’s a cause of the annulment of the marriage, no? Openness to life, no…

This doesn’t mean that the Christian must make children “in series.” I met a woman some months ago in a parish who was pregnant with her eighth child, who had had seven C-sections. But does she want to leave the seven as orphans? This is to tempt God. I speak of responsible paternity. This is the way, a responsible paternity.

….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 keyword, 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 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 poorest 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.

Pope Francis and Catholic Rabbits–5 Points to Consider

Dr. Gregory Popcak – Full article: here

Pope Francis raised more than a few eyebrows yesterday when he said, “Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits – but no.”  Pope Francis asserted that the church counsels “responsible parenthood”  a phrase referenced in several Church documents, including Humanae VitaeFamiliaris Consortio, and St. John Paul II’s Letter to Families.

Doubling down, Pope Francis went on to recount the story of a woman he knows who doctors said was risking her life by getting pregnant after seven cesarean births saying it was “irresponsible” to risk depriving her existing children of a mother by “tempting God” by intentionally entering into repeated high-risk pregnancies.

A few points.

1.  He Didn’t Say Exactly What They Say He Said.  Contrary to headlines, note that Pope Francis did not use the pejorative word, “breed.”  Many people seem offended–more by what the press says the Pope said than by what the Pope actually said. So what’s new?

2.  He isn’t saying anything new here.  The church is quite clear.  Contrary to many people’s belief, the “default” in Catholic teaching is not to conception. It is to “responsible parenthood.”  As moral theologian, Janet Smith notes, “Although bringing new life into existence is a great good, spouses are not…obligated to have as many children as they can.”

3.  Who Decides “Responsible Parenthood?  Some respondents I’ve read are especially offended that Pope Francis would call the woman who has chosen repeat high-risk pregnancies “irresponsible.”  They correctly point to the fact that the Church gives parents the right to decide these matters for themselves.  Even so, while the Church does say that parents must make this decision, the Church assumes it will be part of the decision.  St Ignatius’ rules of proper discernment insist that discernment always requires consultation with the Church. Further, the Church offers guidelines that parents are obliged to follow in their discernment process.  …

4.  Integral Procreation.   In The Family and Human Procreation (2006) the Pontifical Council for the Family refers to the idea of “integral procreation”.  Integral procreation refers to the idea that openness to life is not limited to procreation.  Saying “yes” to life means committing to meeting the needs of every child we have–at every age and stage–to help them become the fully formed people of God that they are meant to be.  As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Families, “Fatherhood and motherhood represent a responsibility which is not simply physical but spiritual in nature; indeed, through these realities there passes the genealogy of the person, which has its eternal beginning in God and which must lead back to him.”

A mother and father who are open to procreation to the degree that they risk being unable to attend to the needs of the children they have are, in fact, not respecting the call to integral procreation or embracing the fullness of the Church’s teaching on openness to life.  Their hearts may be in the right place, but–as Pope Francis notes–that doesn’t mean they aren’t coming to the wrong conclusion.

Incidentally, this is why I often take issue with parents who automatically assume that the return of fertility means its time to get pregnant again whether or not they are able to attend to their existing children’s attachment needs. Attachment is essential for good mental health as well as proper spiritual development.

Scripture and the teaching of the Church is clear.  The call to being “open to life” is a call not just to have children but to only have the number of children you believe–through prayer, consultation, and sober consideration of your circumstances (as per GS #50)–you can adequately form as people of God.

5.  But Don’t Just Take it From Me.  In the wake of Pope Francis’ comments, a friend of mine who is a faithful Catholic mom of 11 pointed out, “I am not insulted by the Pope’s actual words. You need not only the financial ability, but the emotional ability (my husband and I call it ‘bandwidth’) to parent a large brood. It’s exhausting to do it well. And I have met far too many large (9 or more children) families where the children grow up and leave the Church OR swear they will NEVER have a large family because they never felt personally loved and acknowledged by mom and dad. This is a delicate topic. But we need to be able to love our kids and know them as individuals if we are to treat them as God sees us. THIS is what ‘responsible parenthood’ is.”


It’s hard not to take the Pope’s remarks about big families personally

Francis Philips – Full article: here

I confess that when I first heard on the news that Pope Francis, during an in-flight press conference on his way back to Rome from his journey to the Philippines, had stated that good Catholics are not required “to be like rabbits”, I groaned. What would the secular press do with this remark this time, I wondered? … Why do the media always have to misinterpret and distort what he says? And so on.

After all, we Catholics know that Church teaching on birth control, as prophetically stated by Blessed Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968 is not going to change. Further, we don’t want the teaching to change, however difficult it might sometimes be in practice. That’s why we are members of the Church: not to obey the Pope like robots, as people used to tactlessly suggest to me when they saw me out with my own large family in the past, but because – among other things – we believe that the ordinary magisterial teachings of the Church are the wise and beautiful teachings of Christ, her founder.

…But while 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. He cited the case of a woman who became pregnant for the eighth time after seven previous C-sections. “Does she want to leave seven orphans? That is tempting God” he commented.

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.

Finally, my brother has just walked into the room. When I told him what I was writing about and all my misgivings he challenged me: “No, I’m glad that the Pope has spoken. It might start public debate about the Church’s teaching. That’s a good thing.” We’ll see.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How can we marriage educators better promote Responsible Parenthood to the general Catholic population?
  2. Do you agree that “people can have large families from selfish motives, just as they can limit their families from selfish motives”?
  3. Is Pope Francis’ informal remarks like this (and many others) a help or a hindrance in spreading the Gospel?