Francis and the reverse-rabbit

reversed rabbit

Perhaps his advisors had informed him that the rabbit comments had the unintended effect of upseting significant swathes of the faithful, or perhaps he had even read Joseph Shaw’s blog, but I suspect that many Catholics will have been mollifed by Francis’ General Audience this morning in which he extolled the virtues of large families in what could be termed a reverse-rabbit.

“It gives me consolation and hope to see so many large families that welcome children as a true gift from God,”

“I have heard it said that families with many children and the birth of many children are among the causes of poverty. It seems to me a simplistic opinion. I would say that the main cause of poverty is an economic system that has removed the person from the center and has placed there the god of money, an economic system that always excludes children, the elderly, the youth.”

So keep calm and make babies! But the whole affair raises some interesting points.

The example of the woman facing her eighth sections being repeatedly held up as an example of irresponsible parenting made uncomfortable reading. If the Catholic Church wishes to demonstrate her female-friendly credentials then the supreme pontiff criticising a woman for her reproductive choices, really isn’t the best way to go about it.

That was really the thing that made me baulk, because actually we do not know anything about this lady and pastoral sensitivity ought to dictate that delicate conversations of this nature ought to remain private. Admittedly we do not know the context of the exchange whether or not the lady was a visitor to Rome, or if she was seeking some advice or affirmation from the Pope, but to put it bluntly I would be none too chuffed if following a conversation with any cleric, they then used it as a preaching opportunity, holding me up as a negative example, in such a way that I would be bound to hear about it. Being held up as a paragon of irresponsible parenthood for attempting to follow Church teaching in front of the world’s media, isn’t the compassionate or merciful response which Francis so often urges.

The other problematic aspect of this particular lady is that we know nothing of her circumstances. As Tanya, from ‘larger family life’ noted some time ago, the number of sections each woman can have varies enormously and is entirely dependent on individual case history. There is no set number. Medics won’t advise this route, because all other things being equal, a cesarian section poses a greater risk to mother and child than a natural delivery and the more cesarians you have, so the risk of injury to the mother increases. Every section increases the amount of scar tissue that surgeons need to slice through, along with the risk of multiple adhesions whereby the internal organs stick together and with each section the risk of uncontrolled blood loss increases. The risk may only be slight, but it would be irresponsible and misleading to claim that all women can happily have 7 or 8 sections with no problem.

Actually what the case of the woman with 7 sections demonstrates is the wisdom inherent in Church teaching on responsible parenting and family planning. The Church does not specifically lay down a number of sections after which it is permissible to use permanent abstinence, because this will differ on a case by case basis. Some women would be advised to stop after one, others after 5 or 6. What we are called to do is discern what the Holy Spirit might be saying to us, taking individual circumstances into account.

So this woman could be amongst those who have excellent blood vessels, strong muscles and minimal scarring. She might well have made an informed decision to have another baby. Or perhaps she had an unplanned pregnancy, despite assiduous charting. Without a fuller knowledge, who are we to judge?

When Francis said he chided her, I can’t take too much umbrage, because charity must dictate that he did know the circumstances, although it’s not clear what he hoped to achieve by such a scolding – locking the stable door after the horse has bolted is the phrase that comes to mind.

When I announced my pregnancy on FaceBook a Catholic priest didn’t admonish but asked whether or not I wanted all these children and suggested that we ought to consider abstinence in the future. I didn’t take it awry but as a sign of paternal concern because obviously we do have a lot on our plates as a family. But were he to have held me up as a public example of irresponsible parenting, due to having lots of children close together, yes I would have been extremely peeved.

Whereas Dr Shaw thinks that Francis used an extreme example with which no-one could disagree, I am not so sure. Multiple sections are becoming the norm these days, there are whole internet forums devoted to the topic and when I gave birth to our fourth child, a lady in the bay opposite had delivered her seventh child by section. Aside from needing an emergency blood transfusion, she seemed none the worse for it.

The thing that I think Francis was touching on, is that there is a lot of shaming which goes on within Catholic communities, as well as outside of them, in terms of family size. I’ve had the examples of women who have had 7 cesarian sections and been totally fine thrown at me more times than you could mention, in an attempt to justify why I am being a wimp, stopping after child number 5. Equally, as I said in my previous blog, I’ve had people tell me albeit sympathetically, that they have had 12, or refer to their Great Auntie Bernadette who had a similar number. When I limped into the Easter vigil Mass in April 2011, 3 hours after being discharged from hospital, still bearing the gauze and tape from the recently removed cannula, proudly clutching my 4 day old baby, people peered at the bundle, saw a glimpse of pink and said “oh well, never mind, you can start trying again soon” while I wept into the cardboard candle holder. A similar scenario happened with baby number 4 and again this time, no sooner does someone learn that you are pregnant or the sex of your unborn child, then the questions and opinions start pouring forth about whether or not you ought to have another.

This isn’t confined to Catholic congregations: family, friends, mums at the school gate believe they need to proffer an unsolicited opinion on whether or not your womb should be occupied for another time, and often in extremely hurtful terms. I had to bite my tongue when a school secretary impertinently joked that we ought to buy a TV and said amusingly “oh you do know there’s a special pill you can take to stop that” on spying bump number 3 or was it 4 – they all seem to merge into one! Or when a dad jocularly said “oh you’re churning them out” and then a mother said “but I saw you on TV defending it. At least you scrub up well”. Aaaaargh!

I guess people do this because it’s part of the rich tapestry of life, communities are always interested in their neighbours’ affairs and feel they have a right to helpfully comment.

But the fact that some Catholic church-goers do feel the need to shame or play child top-trumps with each other, the more children one has being a sign of devoutness, piety or attempting to claim a better place in the hierarchy, shows that there was an element of truth in what Francis says. I don’t know whether or not as Joseph Shaw claims, he was attempting to wrong-foot those who attack the Church (and I am in agreement with some of what Dr Shaw says on this) but it is clear that dutifully having children out of a misplaced sense of obligation, because you think that is what Catholics ‘do’ is not acting as full co-operators with God, nor is it likely to engender a healthy spiritual life, but rather foster a sense of resentment and disillusionment.

Having multiple children to validate your personal identity or prove self-worth may not be as serious or even as widespread as the contraceptive mentality, but it still exists as a problem. The temptation to judge other people on a smaller family size can prove particularly hurtful for those who would have liked to have had more, but have been prevented from doing so, from circumstances beyond their control. Equally there are those who regard large families with a mixture of pity and irritation.

The other issue highlighted by ‘rabbit-gate’ is whether or not responsible parenthood is relatively new, only coming in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and perhaps that the Church ought to stick to her centuries old doctrine that couples ought to have as many children as possible unless there are sufficiently ‘grave and serious’ reasons not to do so.

Grave and serious is relative – one person’s serious is another’s trivial, which is why couples are left to discern for themselves, this really is a case of ‘who are we to judge?’ Furthermore the Church has been addressing the issue of contraception and population control since it first came to the fore in the nineteenth century. Casti Connubii issued in  1930 may not have been as detailed as Humanae Vitae or Gaudium et Spes but it did nonetheless spell out that parents’ rights to reproduce, carried accompanying responsibilities, such as education. Prior to that, the Roman Penitentiary and the Holy Office repeatedly outlined that contraception was impermissible and suggested periods of abstinence instead.

Contraception has been addressed by the Church from the outset of it being suggested as desirable public policy in the nineteenth century and the Church has always accepted that some couples may need to avoid children.

Humanae Vitae and Gaudium et Spes were not wrong, or misguided but addressed the fact that widespread, seemingly effective contraceptive methods were becoming commonplace and proposed how Catholics could respond to the challenges of the sexual revolution while remaining true to the Magisterium. Catherine of Sienna’s parents may well have had 26 children, but times were very different then, as was child mortality. More is known now about how the human reproductive system actually functions. While it’s extremely noble to die in childbirth, whether or not one ought to be encouraged to actively pursue this path in the course of sanctity, is another matter entirely. Most confessors would probably suggest not, especially if there are multiple existing children. As we now know how the the reproductive system functions, even more so than in the ’60s and have developed highly effective systems of fertility monitoring (though modern medicine must do more to investigate causes of infertility as opposed to circumnavigate them via IVF), we ought then to use this knowledge as a God-given gift to with which He has armed us to counter contraception.

Jesus might well have chided the woman who had seven sections, but He is the only one who is allowed to do this. What rabbit-gate has demonstrated is that there is still an inordinate amount of ignorance and unpleasant judgementalism occurring both inside and outside of Catholic circles, all of which has stemmed from decades of non-existent catechesis.

Those who do practice periodic or permanent abstinence ought not to feel ashamed or fear the judgement of others,  but if they state they have no plans for another baby for a few years or ever again, they need to set an example and be clear about why this is the case as well as why they reject contraception.

If more regular church-goers knew precisely what the Church teaches and why, we’d have less reliance on impromptu papal pronouncements and far less judgementalism towards others, whatever the size of their families. Perhaps that’s what all of us need to work on instead of fostering a sense of righteous defensiveness about our own situations – myself included.

13 thoughts on “Francis and the reverse-rabbit

  1. Looking at the broader context of what Pope Francis was saying on the plane, it seems like what he was criticizing was her presumption, not her pregnancy. Notably, he criticizing her for “tempting God”, not for having an eighth child. I assume he knew more about her health situation that he did not share.

    In the second remark, he was responding to a question about population and poverty in the Phillipines.

    His response is that many Catholics are not properly informed of Church teaching or of licit methods to prevent pregnancy. He elaborates that many poor people value children, which is good, but are not always prudent about it. This is a defense of the principles elaborated in Humanae Vitae and Casti Connubii against the reporters implication that contraception is necessary for the Phillipines.

  2. Joseph Shaw’s bling opens with “…The Pope’s remarks on contraception on the aeroplane…”

    What remarks on contraception, for God’s sake?

    I use the term with consideration but in exasperation. What this seems to be is another manifestation of certain tendencies that claim to be Catholic actually seeking to undermine the papacy. They don’t like Pope Francis – okay, we get it. Let us not take them seriously any more.

  3. THE

    “He said he chided her…”

    Not to the boys
    Who do their own schtick.
    Not to the girls
    Who call themselves Rick.

    Not to the men
    Who cut off heads quick.
    Not to the Extra
    Ministers’ clique.

    Not to the gals
    On their buses so slick.
    Not to the spouses –
    Find new lips to lick.

    Not to the Prelates
    Preaching heresy thick.
    Not to the kinky
    In lust for a kick.

    But give me the mother
    With child number eight –
    She, I’ll chastise,
    She, I’ll berate,

    Then brag to reporters
    How I admonish sins great –
    A mother and child,

    1. To long-skirts, all I can do is repeat what I aid earlier.

      “another manifestation of certain tendencies that claim to be Catholic actually seeking to undermine the papacy. They don’t like Pope Francis – okay, we get it. Let us not take them seriously any more.”

  4. I love the look on my friends faces when they say “so another one would pretty much ruin your life right now right?” and i reply “meh… what ever. We have one… we don’t have one…. i’m pretty easy going about it really!”

  5. As a rabit in good standing, I would like to point out that no rabit has ever said “Don’t be like Catholics.” And the next time you get on a plane, Holy Father, I suggest you resist the urge to zizz your paws with enthusiasm in a rabit-like manner and pick up a microphone. Have a good sleep instead.

  6. @waywardson23 & Ruari McCallion

    You dear people give me hope for the Church. Too many people are taken in by a lot of sources that aren’t from God and they aren’t reading what the Pope said closely or applying a healthy does of reason.

  7. I agree, if I were the woman who Pope Francis was chiding I would be more than slightly peeved and that is putting it very politely. The fact is that following the Church’s teaching makes it rather difficult to practise responsible parenting. That is why it is so contentious.

    My husband and I use NFP. Although we are still physically fertile we have decided that we are too old to have more children responsibly. In response to your penultimate paragraph, I feel no duty to tell others about my contraceptive choices. This would be being righteously defensive – which you recommend against in your final paragraph?

    Anyway as abortion, adoption, vasectomy and artifical contraception are off the table, we basically hardly ever have sex. If that isn’t deliberately denying life I don’t know what is, plus it has the further disadvantage of weakening our marital bond.

    For a woman (perhaps not this particular woman who the Pope was referring to, but they do exist) facing her eighth pregnancy not out of choice, but out of following the Church’s teaching and trying to avoid pregnancy by licit means which have failed, hearing his comments must make her, err, vexed.

    And “tempting God”? What does that mean? How does the Pope think married people should not tempt God? By never having sex? Isn’t the whole point of NFP that we can allow God to create life through us if He so chooses? How is it irresponsible to follow Church teaching by trying to avoid pregnancy using NFP, but God does decide to bestow on you your eighth child? Is it not God who is being irresponsible if the eighth pregnancy is just too much for the woman’s body to cope with?

    Many people don’t ‘pursue the goal’ of dying in childbirth, but end up doing this through a lack of options available to them to avoid pregnancy. For this, the Church has direct responsibility.

    1. I don’t see why women in this situation shouldn’t have their tubes tied. A woman can take the pill for headaches, but can’t get this operation done for health reasons? I find this health/medicine area of Catholicism and contraception difficult to understand. Of course, the operation doesn’t always work, but if you’re prepared to take on the risks involved in NFP, aren’t you prepared for that even smaller likelihood? And what do you do if you’ve had a couple of sections and you’re still quite young? Just hardly ever have sex until you hit the menopause? Perhaps that is what you’re meant to do? Not trying to be controversial here, just asking the questions most women must be thinking.

      1. It’s a valid comment Joy. Re tubal ligation, this is something that I have had explained to me in quite a lot of depth by midwives and surgeons during this pregnancy as I have been strongly urged to consider it.

        Just on a practical note – the chances of failure rate when it is carried out at the same time as a c-section are higher, because as you’ll know, post-birth everything shrinks and shifts as the uterus contracts back to its usual size during the 6 weeks post-partem. One of the reasons I decline d the option, just on a purely physical level is because having had 3 sections already, I find the procedure extremely traumatic and would prefer to keep the time on the table and surgery to a minimum. It’s all dependent on whether or not the surgeons are able to find the fallopian tubes in any event and I’d rather they concentrated on stitching me back up together as quickly as possible so I can then attend to the baby.

        Of course the other option is to have a separate surgery 6 weeks post-birth but again with scarring etc, this can also prove hazardous.

        NFP isn’t inherently more risky than contraception and various experts will tell you that provided you exclusively breastfeed on demand, your natural fertility will not return for at least six months. To be honest this is not something I have found to be the case, I have exclusively breastfed all my children (no bottles, no dummies) on demand and not introduced weaning until 8 months, but nonetheless my full fertility has returned 3 months post-partem.

        From the perspective of a Catholic woman, then yes, it probably does mean periods of abstinence or only sticking to the last few days of the month when you can be absolutely sure that you have ovulated (ovulation kits can prove helpful in this respect though they are expensive), if there are extremely good reasons why you can’t have any more children. It is a big sacrifice, but of course we are asked to unite our sufferings and burdens to those of Christ and it is imperative that your husband is also on board.

        I wouldn’t advocate Catholic women ought to be sterilised if they have had a number of sections, but to be honest (and risking the wrath of various quarters here) neither would I seek to go finger-pointing and I think we have to trust in God’s mercy here. That said, I wouldn’t be sterilised, because I know precisely what the teaching of the Church is, why it exists, I accept it and therefore don’t have the excuse that many women have who are completely oblivious to what the Church says.

        If a woman is married to a non-Catholic man and not having sex will put an immense strain on her marriage and having more children is likely to kill her, then she is admittedly in an extremely difficult situation. I know of one such woman who was sterilised after 4 children for medical reasons and then went on to adopt 2 young boys with a number of learning disabilities who had been abandoned by their drug-addict mother, while her remaining children were still young. I don’t think anyone could argue that she wasn’t open to life.

  8. As a general point I think if a woman would be put at significant risk by getting pregnant, then having treatment to make her infertile is not being sterilised as such. Her body is no longer physically able to safely bring a baby into the world so she is not making herself any less open to life by making it impossible for her to become pregnant. In fact you could argue she is making herself MORE open to life by reducing the risks to herself and any unborn baby. If this is the point the Pope was trying to make he should be more direct about it.

    NFP for us has been effective (so far, and God willing will continue to be), but that is because we are lucky that I have very regular cycles but even so we have to be very strict about abstaining. It’s really not much fun AT ALL, and I dread the onset of menopause as that makes charting harder and so will increase my likelihood of conceiving just when we REALLY couldn’t take on another child. I think it is highly unrealistic to expect NFP to be widely used as a reliable contraceptive for most couples.

    I just cannot understand the Church’s position on this. Unfortunately as a committed Catholic my conscience doesn’t allow me to go against it though.

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