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.