Pope Francis gave another one of his airplane press conferences on his return to Rome from Manila. And, once again, the words uttered by Pope Francis had the world listening and people of all sorts of perspectives taking his words out of the context in which he spoke them.
Some headlines, like the one in The Washington Post, Jan. 20, provocatively proclaimed: “Don’t breed ‘like rabbits’: Was Pope Francis breaking new ground on birth control?”
What exactly was the question asked of the Pope and what exactly did the Holy Father say? Was the pope discouraging large, Catholic families?
Reporter Christoph Schmidt posed this dilemma to the Holy Father: “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 questions on which a big number of people in the Philippines do not agree with the Church. What do you think about that?”
Part of the papal response was this: “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.”
Let’s analyze what the pope is saying. He’s not advocating birth control; he’s not calling for population control, as some have automatically claimed that he did. The Holy Father simply reminded us of the need for “responsible parenthood.” He reiterated what was stated in 1968 by Blessed Paul VI in “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”), who in fact used the exact term “responsible parenthood” and used the term in exactly the same manner as did our current Holy Father.
It is a bit unfortunate that the phrase “breed like rabbits” was used. No doubt the Holy Father meant this as a colloquial phrase, but of course, it is already being used to deride Catholics and the Church’s consistent teaching of the value of family life.
What the pope was really speaking about was not the size of families, but the obligation of parents, mothers and fathers, to care for their children in whatever state of life that the family finds itself.
Just like in the marriage of a husband and wife, the children born of that marriage are connected in sickness and health, in good times and bad. What the pope was speaking about was that parents, open to the will of God, expressing their love and desire for unity in the conjugal act, need to know when the proper time is in their lives to bring children into the world.
And that being parents entails that they must care for their children. They can discover this proper time through prayer, through dialogue and through getting to know each other’s bodies through natural family planning.
This week, when we as a nation voiced our protest that the most helpless among us are being slaughtered in the womb in the horror that is abortion, we have made known our conviction to our lawmakers that the right to life is sacred and essential.
We must not take our Holy Father’s words out of context, nor must we allow others to do so. The simple point made by Pope Francis was a consistent theme in the Church’s teaching: responsible parenthood.
And that’s all it was, “rabbit breeding” comment and all.