The Pope and the Rabbits
In the plane returning from the Philippines, Pope Francis spoke about “responsible paternity.”
Pope Francis is hardly adept at ecclesiastical double-speak, skilfully manipulated by those eager not to say too much. The press conferences he has given to journalists during his trips have notably been the occasion for a few bewildering formulas that reveal his South American temperament. There were the women in the Church, compared to the strawberry on the cake; Europe’s lack of enthusiasm, assimilated to a tired-out grandmother; the punch he could give to any friend who insulted his mother, etc. These colorful expressions, used in a joking tone, have broken the traditional codes of pontifical communication, delighting the media and disconcerting members of the faithful who remain attached to a more solemn image of the papal function.
Indeed, some formulas, taken literally, could be offensive. That will surely be the case of the vocabulary the pope used to explain that Catholic couples are invited to practice “responsible paternity”(incidentally, today it might be better to speak of “responsible parenthood”): these households, he said, should not feel they are obliged to “mass-produce” children “like rabbits.”Parents of very large families (whether by choice or not) are not going to recognize themselves in this animal comparison, which the pope excused himself for making, by the way. Others, on the contrary, will be relieved by it.
Beyond the words — addressed to a broad audience, they are deliberately demonstrative — the pope recalled the two main teachings of the Catholic Church on procreation. The first is often caricatured and that caricature was what he was trying to show. He insisted on the importance of couples who are open to life, resisting a “Malthusian” mentality, particularly in very poor countries, where the authorities are tempted to “impose” a limitation on births. At the same time, he emphasized that parents have a right to decide the number of children they feel capable of receiving (he explicitly avoided the question of methods of control). Behind the shock value of the formula, what each couple should hear is a call for responsibility.