Rabbits & Selfishness: Why Pope Francis is Being Perfectly Consistent

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?  

The Backstory

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:

  1. Children are just plain good. Married couples should have children (note the plural).
  2. 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.”


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Why Natural Family Planning is More Awesome Than You Think

Last week, an interesting and nearly-refreshing piece appeared on Gizmodo, talking about a great new app that helps women track their fertility without relying on synthetic birth control options.

I say “nearly refreshing” because the author, who concludes ultimately to stay on the pill instead of opting for the app, takes the all-too-common, overly-simplified route to the handling of fertility and ends up missing the mark on a lot of really simple aspects of non-chemical birth control.

To be sure, the fact that a secular, popular, and mainstream website like Gizmodo (and by extension, its siblings Gawker & Deadspin) are giving even a sniff to a natural form of fertility awareness is pretty awesome. I also really appreciated that the author gave such a good, hard look at the app’s research, and even tried it out for a little while as well.

Still, the reason I’m writing this is because not only is there SO much more to Natural Family Planning (NFP) that our doubly ignorant (they don’t know that they don’t know) society isn’t aware of, but that gap in knowledge is unfortunately filled with the mindset that NFP really means “the rhythm method” and that anyone who uses it is doing nothing more than leaving solely up to chance whether or not they get pregnant.

It’s like how the usual response from secular society to saying the Catholic Church is good usually goes like this: “Blah blah blah CRUSADES INQUISITION GALILEO!”

There’s just a lot more to the story than what’s generally understood about it.

The author started her article by saying, “I don’t need to tell you there’s no great birth control option right now.” I’ve rarely read an article where so early on I reacted like this:


I scoffed because, as Stephen Colbert would say, there’s only two ways to classify NFP in my book: Great method, or the GREATEST method.

Between the different programs (Sympto-Thermal, Billings Model, Creighton Model, etc.) that one could choose from, the real failure rate of tried and true methods of NFP–when correctly used–is far, far, less than the mentioned 25% failure rate, particularly because that statistic misleadingly lumps in those women who wanted to get pregnant with the ones who unintentionally achieved pregnancy. I should back up a little as well — no one appears to distinguish between which “natural method” is used, meaning the ones I mentioned above, which all contribute to a less-than-1% failure rate and a remarkably low divorce rate (between 2 and 5%), are categorized together with irresponsible and chance “natural methods” like withdrawal or nothing at all.

Not your great-grandmother’s NFP

NFP, believe it or not, isn’t as “old-school” as the author thinks it to be, either. The teacher of the NFP classes my wife and I took before our wedding, before saying anything else, said, “This is not the rhythm method. Comparing the rhythm method to what we’ll be teaching you is literally like comparing a horse and buggy to a brand new, four wheel drive pickup.”

Today’s NFP methods of fertility awareness take advantage of the multiple natural signs that a women’s body and cycle follow. For example, a woman on a 28-day cycle will only be fertile on about 6 of those days (give or take), and through NFP she (and ideally her spouse) learn to track bodily signs in order to pinpoint when those fertile days and infertile days take place.

NFP programs today typically track one or more of these three things:

  • Basal body temperature – A “resting” temperature that’s taken before doing anything–even talking to someone–first thing in the morning)
  • Cervical mucous – The consistency, amount, and sensation change from day to day and indicates a “fertile day” or “infertile day”, or whether or not conception is likely
  • Cervical signs – Depending on the day in a woman’s cycle, the cervix itself exhibits multiple signs that directly indicate a fertile or infertile day

Though it may seem complicated, tracking these things is really very simple. Sure, it may require discipline and intention, but no more than is required, for example, by taking a pill every day at the same time or stopping everything to put on a condom. In fact, in our classes, our teacher even showed us how they’re able to teach illiterate women in third-world nations how to properly and accurately use NFP–using diagrams related to natural processes of the earth as analogies.

What’s the coolest part about being able to track your cycle to the day? You can use it to conceive children. Not only that, but you usually hit the jackpot on the first try. Another one of my wife and I’s teachers has 6 kids, and she told us that each one of them was (first) planned, and (second) already growing in the first cycle she and her husband began trying. Some friends of my wife and I had a little girl last year, and they planned and could pinpoint the very day when their daughter was conceived thanks to NFP.

Since it’s possible today to track a woman’s cycle accurately using pen & paper, using an app as a supplement is definitely possible. Note the word “supplement”.

The author ultimately decided against using the app (aside from the fact that she never went off the pill to test it 100%) because the extremely high statistics seemed, to her, a little too good to be true when banking on just her temperature to prevent a pregnancy. Frankly, I don’t blame her, because when it comes to fertility awareness, using technology to replace your own knowledge of your own body is the worst way to go. Ironic, isn’t it?

That brings me to the last section of this little NFP ditty (get it?).

NFP is good for everyone

To move away for a minute from the fertility tracking reasons to use NFP, when my wife and I took our NFP classes, we were blown away by the benefits a non-chemical method brings back to the woman, as well as to the couple. The first among those is that a woman gets her body back, so to speak. Without a mountain of artificial hormones coursing through her body, a woman using NFP is finally allowing all of her body’s natural processes to work as they were intended to work.

Our teacher mentioned this in our first class, that it’s baffling we find it okay to purposefully cause one bodily system (the reproductive system) to work counter to its intent, but we’d never in a million years do that intentionally to literally any other system (say, our digestive system or the ability to smell or hear or taste). With NFP, a woman (and ideally her spouse) work with her natural cycle instead of thwarting it.

Source: 1Flesh.org

True women’s reproductive health means taking care of one’s body by getting to know it better and better as it exists on its own, not by taking a pill to (apparently) magically make all the “problems” go away–like the ability to conceive a child. Instead of instant gratification found through artificial contraception, the delayed gratification of using NFP helps a woman become more in tune with herself, with her spouse (now or in the future, if she’s not married), and ultimately with God, who created our bodies to operate in a specific way.

When used in the context of marriage, NFP can be incredibly beneficial to a couple’s relationship, and even to their individual growth as a husband or as a wife. Having the possibility of procreating every time a couple comes together in the marital act helps both people grow in responsibility–to each other and to their family, whether they have 5 children or no children. It also requires them to discern the act itself, and thus grow in discipline with how they conduct themselves and how they view each other.

It’s substantially more difficult to view the person to whom you’ve committed your life as a whole person when they’re using artificial birth control, and it’s substantially easier when using NFP. The opposite is also true: It’s easier to see your spouse as the object of your gratification with artificial birth control, while that desire is substantially frustrated with NFP.

Honestly, NFP (with or without an app) is even good for your kids (present or future). It helps you to become better parents by reminding (and maybe sometimes even teaching) you the following things:

  • There is such a thing as right and wrong
  • Discipline is good.
  • Using others, especially those closest to you, to gratify your own desires is bad
  • Decisions have consequences. Those consequences can be good or bad, depending on your decision.
  • Serving another person by seeing them as a son or daughter of God is good for your soul, and helps you get to Heaven
  • Delaying immediate gratification by enduring a little discomfort will always result in a greater gratification later, especially when it’s done for those around you

What Now?

If you think NFP might be worth looking into for you, you’d be right (even if you’re not married, or even if you aren’t dating anyone yet!).

There are NFP teachers and programs literally all over the country and the globe, so you can possibly start by calling your local Catholic Church and asking about NFP classes, or checking out national organizations like the Couple to Couple League.

Some hospitals also do classes, like the one here in Spokane (which is awesome, by the way).

NFP, with a concerted, honest effort, can really change your life, change your perceptions (or misperceptions) you thought you knew, and can truly make you healthier and happier.


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#AskaCatholic – How Authoritative are the Creeds and Councils to Catholics?

NOTE: This column is hosted by and has been updated from it’s original at Spokane Faith & Values. It has graciously been given permission for reposting at MtnCatholic.com.

Q. I was reading the canons of the Synod of Laodicea (363 A.D.) and was particularly stuck on these three:

Canon 29

Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.

Canon 37

It is not lawful to receive portions sent from the feasts of Jews or heretics, nor to feast together with them.

Canon 38

It is not lawful to receive unleavened bread from the Jews, nor to be partakers of their impiety.

How authoritative are the Creeds & Councils to Catholics? What do you do with their contradictions and condemnations?

A. The word “synod” (pronounced SIN-udd), at least when used with regard to Catholicism, is defined as, “A general term for ecclesiastical gatherings under hierarchical authority, for the discussion and decision of matters relating to faith, morals, or discipline,” (Catholic Encylopedia, Vol. 14). The words “synod” and “council” are generally understood to be synonymous.

To quote the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Councils are, then, from their nature, a common effort of the Church, or part of the Church, for self-preservation and self-defence. They appear at her very origin, in the time of the Apostles at Jerusalem, and throughout her whole history whenever faith or morals or discipline are seriously threatened. Although their object is always the same, the circumstances under which they meet impart to them a great variety.

Within the Church, there are many kinds of synods/councils, and to illustrate those it’s important to first briefly outline the organizational structure of Catholicism.


How the Church is organized

Within the Catholic Church, at the bottom level are parishes, or individual churches. Parishes make up adiocese, and clusters of dioceses make up ecclesiastical provinces (think: counties in relation to states). Above that, each nation’s provinces are grouped together to form the country’s conference of bishops.

A bishop oversees an individual diocese, and a metropolitan archbishop, typically the presiding bishop of the archdiocese in the area, oversees an ecclesiastical province. An archdiocese is more or less just a diocese that’s in a metropolitan area (Denver, Los Angeles, New York, etc.), and for all intents and purposes, the majority of day-to-day operations are conducted within each diocese, rather than in the ecclesiastical province.

Where synods and councils come in

Each one of these distinctive bodies are able to hold synods for the purpose of discussing and deciding “matters relating to faith, morals, or discipline.” Some are held according to what’s best for the faithful in a given time period and/or a specific location, and some to define points to which the faithful are bound to believe from there on out.

The types of synods range from the smallest (diocesan council) to the largest (“General Council” or “Ecumenical Council”), and there are seven different types of synods in all. The Second Vatican Council, for example, falls under the category of an “Ecumenical” or “General” council, meaning all of the world’s bishops were gathered to discuss matters pertaining to the universal church.

Ecumenical councils, of which there have been 21 in the history of the church, are the only kind of council whose decrees “bind all Christians.” All others exist to foster discussion and provide guidance on a regional level, but their decrees aren’t seen as infallible or binding on the whole church.

The Synod (or Council) of Laodicea, held in the 4th Century, appears to have been the equivalent of a “provincial synod”, meaning basically that the bishops in the region surrounding Laodicea were gathered to provide guidance to the faithful under their care.

The church allows for enough freedom of preference, outside of doctrine and dogma, that bishops are able to run their dioceses, in large part, how they see fit. The same holds true for regions and provinces of bishops as well. Any contradictions or problems in faith, morals, or discipline that come to light from a lesser synod or council would be corrected by the highest level within the church — namely the pope or the offices within the church he directly oversees.

The canons

In this particular instance, the bishops in the Synod of Laodicea seemingly spoke most commonly on “judaizing”, more specifically, that Christians were forbidden from judaizing if they were to remain in communion with the church. So now we ask, what is judaizing?

Judaizers were a Christian sect in the early church who believed that Gentiles must convert to Judaism in order to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Judaizing amounted to following the Old Testament customs of the Mosaic Law instead of the teachings of Christ, effectively walking backward in faith to follow Mosaic custom. Ignoring the fact that Christ’s death brought about a new covenant — literally a “New Testament” — and the fulfillment of the Jewish faith, thus making salvation a matter of faith instead of a matter of following Jewish law, would naturally be rejected by the church Christ founded.

Though these canons in particular were meant for a specific time period and place and thus weren’t binding on the whole church. However, anything decreed by an Ecumenical Council is in fact binding on a Catholic Christian if they wish to stay in full communion with the church.

Just like the pope has a special charism of infallibility, so too does the universal church when Her bishops gather at an ecumenical council and define a dogma of the faith. In fact, this teaching goes all the way back to the first few centuries of the Church. Pope Leo the Great, who reigned as pope from 440 to 461 A.D., once wrote, “whoso resists the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon cannot be numbered among Catholics,” and followed it later in the document by noting that the councils’ dogmatic decrees were framed “instrumente Spiritu Sancto” or “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

Thus, to answer your question, a Catholic is bound by dogmas infallibly proclaimed in Ecumenical Councils, and are encouraged to follow direction given in lesser councils by bishops overseeing the place in which they live. Some bishops—don’t misunderstand, it’s been some; not most, not all—have been known to teach error from time to time, so when a perceived contradiction arises, the person should go to the “next level up,” so to speak, and consult with a higher council to see if there exists more clarity on the subject. The same would apply to condemnations. As always though, it is good to first bring concerns about the teachings of the church to prayer or even to seek out spiritual direction from a trusted priest or Catholic layman/woman.

The Scripture references for this practice of the universal church include, but aren’t limited to the following:

  • “But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth . . .” (John 16:13)
  • “Behold I am with you [teaching] all days even to the consummation of the world” (Matthew 28:20),
  • “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it [i.e. the Church]” (Matthew 16:18)


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