The wheels of the papal flight have barely touched down and already both liberals and conservatives are rushing to misinterpret Pope Francis’ latest press conference, referring in particular to his words regarding birth control.
The National Catholic Reporter mistakenly attempts to claim that Francis is promulgating that Catholics have a moral obligation to limit their family size and Damian Thompson says much the same thing, yet allegedly from a more conservative perspective (although he too implies that he disagrees with the Church’s teaching on contraception).
But perhaps the esteemed Dr Thompson might actually want to stop and think twice before attacking the Pope for saying things which could be misconstrued by the media and remember the media drubbing that Benedict XVI took for his Regensburg address, which is now proving to be more salient than ever, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacres. Also he might want to cast his mind back to how he rushed to reinterpret the former pontiff’s interview with Peter Seewald as being an indication that condoms were actually permissible in certain circumstances – an interpretation which respected Catholic scholars Jimmy Akin and Janet Smith were at pains to correct and which Damian himself later clarified, could have perhaps been hasty. And let’s not forgot the classic “Catholic teaching on homosexuality can, and I think will, evolve”. Given that evolution can never entail an 180 degree turn or contradict previous teachings, it’s difficult to see what it meant and arguably an irresponsible assertion from someone who would like to claim pole position as the UK’s leading Catholic journalist, in a newspaper which enjoyed an enormous national circulation.
The irony here is that Damian Thompson himself is guilty of the very thing which he claims that the press has a tendency to do – namely misinterpret papal utterings, to suit a particular agenda. In this case he runs with the hare and the hounds rather well, condemning Francis’ tendency to come out with what he calls “streams of consciousness” and stating that his remarks could be deemed to be insulting to Catholics with larger families, all of which will appease those who believe that Francis is the worst possible thing that could ever have happened to the Church since Pope Alexander VI. At the same time, he also throws a bone to the liberals with his implied disagreement with the Church’s ban on contraception and the alleged comparison of gender theory with the Hitler Youth. “He said what??”
Actually, it’s worth reading what Pope Francis had to say in full here, before chasing easy headlines. He talked about a number of worthwhile issues, including exploitation of the Third World and the poor and so perhaps we ought to be playing those up a bit more instead of buying into the boring obsession that the secular and media world has about Catholic teaching on contraception. We don’t permit it and are not likely to. Get over it.
But to address the great elephant in the room, there is absolutely nothing that Pope Francis said which could be deemed either to be in opposition to Church teaching and neither did he state that Catholics have a moral responsibility to limit the number of children they had.
I’ve wtritten about Catholics and family size before, here and here, and Francis re-affirmed the teaching of Humane Vitae, the prophetic vision of Blessed Paul VI and condemned what he called Neo-Malthusian population theories. Francis doesn’t have a photographic memory or all the facts and figures to hand, so he referred in general terms to the collapsed birth rates in Italy and Spain and the predicted demographic crisis which will see an increased elderly population combined with a dramatically reduced younger generation who will be unable to afford to support them.
What we saw on the flight was a straighforward defence of Catholic teaching on the family, which has always urged responsible parenthood, with the decision as to how many children a couple ought to have being a matter for personal discernment. The Catholic Church has never taught that Catholics ought to ‘breed like rabbits’, or that every single sexual encounter must result in a baby, simply that no sexual encounter ought to deliberately seek to exclude the possibility. The term ‘responsible parenthood’ is not new to Catholicism, Gaudium et Spes 50, outlines the various considerations involved:
“takes into consideration their own good and the good of their children already born or yet to come, an ability to read the signs of the times and of their own situation on the material and spiritual level, and finally, an estimation of the good of the family, of society, and of the Church.
Francis specifically mentioned that couples ought to seek the guidance of the Church who has experts, marriage groups, and not least priests if they have any doubts about family size, because the decision is a purely personal one based on a number of individual factors. The Church does not have any generic policy on family size, because she understands that we are all different. Couples are urged to be generous, but also advised to prayerfully discern what is right for their family, seeking spiritual counsel where necessary. Furthermore the decision not to have further children needs to be kept under regular review.
Admittedly ‘breeding like rabbits’, the phrase that many Catholics may have taken umbrage at is unhelpful. Francis likes to deal in colourful idioms and coming from a South American perspective, he likely does not appreciate the Western ostracism and prejudice which exists towards those who have larger families. Not only have I been subject to some deeply unpleasant and uncharitable trolling about my own family size (which isn’t what many Catholics would consider large) but I’ve also had to put up with some thoughtless and unkind remarks in real life. People genuinely believe that how many children you have is somehow their business and that they have a right to comment. It’s not helped by the popular media narratives about ‘scrounging’ large families on benefits, government plans to cap child benefit beyond 2 children, or politicians such as Caroline Lucas and Evan Harris who condemn those with large families as being selfish, due to the an imaginary impact on the planet and resources. The Pope doesn’t come from a culture where being an orthodox Catholic or having a large family means one is held up for ridicule on a daily basis.
There will be those who misinterpret his remarks, but then Catholics ought to be used to widespread misreporting and misunderstanding of the faith. It’s disappointing if the Pope seems to be giving succour to our enemies, but then again, even ignorant (even if well-meaning) comments can be an opportunity to explain and evangelise.
Every bit as ignorant and irritating is when other Catholics try to make out that by only having 5 children, you aren’t being quite Catholic enough and mention great-aunt Cecelia who had twenty-two and was perfectly fine! Family size is a deeply personal matter and not for anyone else to pass comment upon – Catholic or not. In this day and age these enormous family sizes are simply not feasible for the vast majority of people. Speaking as someone who has a number of pregnancies over the past 6 years, I can verify to the enormous strain that these can place upon your physical, emotional, spiritual and material resources. Women are not expected to physically compromise themselves and their families by consecutive pregnancies.
Pope Francis was not saying that large families are ‘bad’ but advocating responsible, thoughtful and considered parenthood. You know as Catholics we ought to be aware that anything said or written down can be interpreted every and which way to suit a particular agenda – which is precisely why we have the Magisterium.
Yes we can berate him for being a little insensitive, but then again, to focus unduly on one specific comment, which in context was affirming Church teaching, is to ignore all the good stuff that he did say and in which he confirmed that he most certainly is a Catholic.
There are several natural and licit methods of avoiding pregnancy – this did not refer to artificial birth control. Likewise he was not advocating the woman with 7 previous cesarian sections should abort her baby, but stating that the decision to conceive again could reasonably be construed as irresponsible- who is he to judge?
Actually, he has a point. I had to see my consultant last week to plan the forthcoming birth of our child, my fourth section. The risks to my life and health posed by a future pregnancy were explained in no uncertain terms. I was strongly advised to have a sterilisation at the same time as having a c-section. I declined, hardly being in a position to claim ignorance of the Church’s teachings and the reasons behind them, but I guess this is the kind of situation to which the Pope was referring when he asked for mercy. It would be irresponsible for me to attempt a future pregnancy and risk leaving my 5 children as orphans or putting myself in a position where I could end up severely physically incapacitated.
Modern methods of NFA are highly effective but a woman who is told that she potentially risks her life by a future pregnancy, ought to be treated sensitively and compassionately by the Church, hence confessors need to tread a fine line between both pointing out the error of ocntraception while at the same time, understanding the difficult position in which a woman finds herself.
Once again Francis was speaking in the context of Catholic teaching and addressing the uncatechised who mistakenly do believe that Catholics have an absolute duty to keep on having children, even though to do so puts them under intolerable strain. Ever since my blog began I have been stating that this is absolutely not the case, my choice of phrase being even less delicate than his. “You don’t have to keep on having children until your uterus falls out”.
The dismay of larger families is understandable, ‘breeding like rabbits’ does little to bust the false stereotype and perhaps dehumanises those with big families, but he was referring to the act of unthinking reproduction, those who have huge numbers of children, not with any sense of joy, delight or wonderment but out of a sense of duty or because they feel they have no other option. What he said was decidedly female-friendly and as Fr Ed Tomlinson points out, Francis has a tendency to say one thing for the Catholic faithful, while at the same time understanding that secular liberal non-Catholics need an entirely different message.
But you know what we’re not ultra-montainists. An impromptu press gathering is not official Church teaching. Faithful Catholics know what the Church teaches and will continue to practice and propagate it. Given some of the post-synodal commentary we ought to be grateful that the Church’s teachings are being so publicly re-confirmed, and indeed to Francis himself for making sure that this topic of Catholics and contraception remains firmly in public consciousness. And as for speaking out strongly on gender theory – good on him! The way this is being imposed on students as irrefutable fact in universities and schools with those who dare to question the liberal consensus being penalised and closed-down, is totalitarian in nature.
I suspect most of those critiquing the pope for the rabbits comment would strongly agree and furthermore they’d find that if their large families were ever to meet Papa Francisco, they too would be greeted and welcomed with warmth, generosity along with heartfelt thanks for their generosity. If, as a heavily pregnant woman with 4 young children, I can accept these comments with grace and without taking gratuitious or vicarious offence, or use them as grounds to claim that families size should be limited, so should everyone else.