It’s been the epitome of “lather, rinse, repeat” over the last (almost) two years. Pope Francis gives an interview somewhere, somebody reports what they think they hear, then the Catholics are all like…
And all the people hoping the Church is changing something are all:
And THEN, somebody finally reads what he actually said, and in the proper context, and they make this face:
It’s happened again recently, and the reality is no different. What’s the big deal this time?
Just a few weeks ago, Pope Francis gave an interview to reporters aboard the papal plane on his way back from a trip to the Philippines. The particular line that got Catholics all aflutter was this:
Some think that — excuse the language — that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood.
Boy, did that cause a stir.
“Another off the cuff remark gone wrong!” people exclaimed.
“What was the pope thinking?!” more chimed in.
Families of every size, but particularly large Catholic ones, were all in a dither once the media got hold of that line. That a pope would seem to deride parents with lots of kids, if it was true, was truly offensive.
The pope clarified, but many thought the damage was done. The dust eventually settled, and the media moved on.
Then, in his most recent Wednesday General Audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope said something that appeared to be just the opposite:
The choice to not have children is selfish.
This time, it was everyone else who got upset. A gander at the comment section at the National Catholic Reporter’s story would show the “liberal Catholics'” perspective, for one.
But seriously, the Pope gets on us about too many kids, then turns around and says that not having them is selfish? What gives?!
The Real Story
A lot gives, really. Let’s look at the rest of those quotes in context.
On the plane to Rome from Manila, before and after the dreaded “rabbits” comment, the pope said this in addressing the issues of too many vs. too few children:
The key word … is responsible parenthood. How do we do this? With dialogue. Each person with his pastor seeks how to do carry out a responsible parenthood. That example I mentioned shortly before about that woman who was expecting her eighth child and already had seven who were born with caesareans. That is a an irresponsibility. That woman might say ‘no, I trust in God.’ But, look, 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. This is clear and that is why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors … that are licit and that have helped this.
Now on to last week’s General Audience, here’s the full context of Pope Francis’ remarks on that day:
A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society … If a generous family of children is viewed as if it were a burden, there is something wrong! As the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI teaches, having more children cannot be automatically viewed as an irresponsible choice. The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished!
Pope Francis is trying to make essentially the same point in both instances, and it boils down to two themes:
- Children are just plain good. Married couples should have children (note the plural).
- God gave us brains for a reason, so being responsible in childbearing is on us.
The whole of the Christian life is about giving to others in love, just as Christ gave his life for us on the Cross. Couples do this by giving themselves fully to their spouses in marriage, then later by giving their unified parenthood wholly to each one of their children. And in all of this, if the married life should be our vocation, we glorify God just as He called us to do.
But, though that formula is simple, our pope points out something that can slip by us if we’re not careful — there’s not a number of children that will complete your married vocation by default. Some may be called to have 9, others may be called to have 2, while still others might never be able to conceive, and are called instead to adopt. Pope Francis is keen in advising us to seek the counsel of our spiritual leaders, then to pray with and for each other in order to determine what that answer is for us. He is also keen to imply that the answers to that discernment might just be in front of our faces.
There is such a thing as irresponsibility in parenthood, but, as the pope notes, having more children is not necessarily an irresponsible action. The irresponsible thing, therefore, may be not having children. There’s a balance to be had and a nuance to be considered, but it can all be settled and discerned through one thing: a robust prayer life.
As the late Fr. Benedict Groeschel once wrote, “Don’t blame God if you walk off the end of the dock.”