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? How much explaining away would Fr Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s hapless press secretary, have to do now, as he has done on so many occasions? Why couldn’t the Holy Father just have a quiet snooze on aeroplanes, rather than talk off the cuff as he is wont to do? 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. Indeed, Pope Francis praised Paul VI’s encyclical during the same press conference and reaffirmed the Church’s rejection of population control programmes as “ideological colonisation” – meaning that poor Third-World populations are constantly pressured by the rich West to control their fertility in ways that are contrary to their traditions and their human dignity.
But while I knew exactly what Pope Francis was actually saying, I still groaned. That unfortunate phrase – his own homely idiom, no doubt – was used by feminists with derision against Catholics during the long and heroic campaign in the 1980s of the courageous Victoria Gillick, the mother of ten children, to stop contraceptives being prescribed to under-age girls without parental consent. 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.
And for those who would like to know exactly what “responsible parenthood” entails without getting the wrong impression from the papal press conference, I would recommend The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by Simcha Fisher. It has chapters like “Prudence and generosity in public conversation”, “The worst possible system, except for all the others” and “What’s so natural about natural family planning?” It is wise, down to earth and hilarious at the same time – quite good for a book about sex.
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.