There is nothing whatsoever wrong with what the pope said. In context (and even out of context, for those who understand Catholic teaching on this score), it is altogether sensible, orthodox, and defensible.
But if people are looking for heterodoxy (or “liberalism”) in the Holy Father’s utterances, assuredly they will “find” them. Folks seem to “see” whatever they want to see. The arts of logic and objective analysis (not to mention classical rhetoric) appear to be in very miserable, decrepit shape anymore.
As in all such controversies regarding Pope Francis, we must necessarily get as much context as we can. The importance of this cannot be emphasized enough. That is found in the complete transcript of the pope’s press conference on his flight from Manila: published in America (1-19-15; see also another online text from Catholic News Agency). I found it in five seconds on Google. Here are the key sections (blue highlighting my own):
On Paul VI: It’s true that openness to life is a condition for the sacrament of matrimony. A man cannot give the sacrament to the woman, and the woman cannot give it to him, if they are not in accord on this point of openness to life. If it can be proved that he or she married with the intention of not being Catholic (on this point) then the matrimony is null. (It is) a cause for the annulment of the marriage, no? Openness to life.
Paul VI had studied this with the commission for life, what to do to help many cases, many problems, no? The important problems that make for the love of life; the problems of every day—but many, many.
But there was something more. The refusal of Paul VI was not only about the personal problems, that he then tells the confessors to be merciful, to understand if this is true, and then (he tells them) “you can be merciful, more understanding.” He was looking at the Neo-Malthusianism that was underway worldwide. What do you call this Neo-Malthusianism? Less than one percent of birth rate in Italy. The same in Spain. That Neo-Malthusianism that seeks to control humanity on behalf of the powers (that be).
This does not mean that the Christian must make children in series. I rebuked a woman some months ago in a parish who was pregnant eight times, with seven C-sections (cesareans). “But do you want to leave seven orphans? That is to tempt God! (Paul VI) speaks of responsible parenthood. What I wanted to say was that Paul VI was not antiquated, close minded. No,(he was) a prophet again who with this (encyclical) told us to watch out for the Neo-Malthusianism that is coming. This is what I wanted to say.
[ . . . ]
Christoph Schmidt (CIC): How does the Church respond to the criticisms about its position on birth control given that the world population is growing so much. And to the criticism that the poverty in the Philippines is due to the fact that Filipino women have an average of 3 children each?
PF:I think the number of 3 (children) per family that you mentioned, it is the one experts say is important to keep the population going,. three per couple. When it goes below this, the other extreme happens, like what is happ[en]ing in Italy. I have heard, I do not know if it is true, that in 2024 there will be no money to pay pensioners (because of) the fall in population.
Therefore, to give you an answer, they key word is the one the Church always uses all the time and even I use it: it is responsible parenthood. how do we do this? With dialogue. Each person with his pastor seeks how to do that 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 an irresponsibility (That woman might say) ‘no but I trust in God’ But God gives you methods to be responsible. Some think that, excuse me if I use that word, 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, one can seek and I know so many, many ways out that are licit and that have helped this. You did well to ask me this.
Another thing in relation to this is that for the most poor people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here too but for them a child is a treasure. (Some would say) ‘God knows how to help me’ and perhaps some of them are not prudent, this is true. Responsible paternity but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother that see a treasure in every child.
It’s patently obvious what his reasoning is. But (to step back for a moment), when it comes to the issue of contraception and birth control (the two are not absolutely identical), there are several things that must be kept in mind, that are of the essence of the Catholic teaching:
1. Married couples are to be open to life, and not “anti-child.” A couple who decide to not have any children from the outset of a “marriage” make the ostensible “marriage” null and void, as the pope noted.
2. Artificial contraceptive methods are thus gravely sinful, because they attempt to unnaturally separate the procreative (childbearing) and unitive (pleasurable) functions of sexuality within marriage.
3. Natural Family Planning (NFP) is approved and encouraged by the Church because it is not (i.e., understood and practiced in the right way) “anti-child” and (by recourse to infertile periods and abstinence) does not separate the procreative and unitive functions.
4. NFP is a moral and permissible practice precisely because Catholics are allowed to space and limit children for appropriately serious reasons.
5. In other words, Catholic couples are not obliged or required to have an unlimited number of children, and to not make any efforts whatsoever to avoid having a child at a particular time and circumstance.
The problem is that the secular world (typically) only understands the “mechanics” and “difficult” elements of the Catholic prohibition of artificial contraception, and that in a superficial and “surfacey” way, and not the underlying worldview and philosophy. The world understands that Catholics are not supposed to use a condom or birth control pill, but they don’t understand why this is the case and why it is infinitely more than the Church (which the secular person pictures in his head as a bunch of old celibate, joyless men) merely seeking to make people miserable and to deny them pleasure, and being supposedly “anti-sex.”
And of course every time objections are voiced, it is noted that many Catholics dissent from Catholic teaching (as if that is relevant to anything). Lots of people can’t, e.g., control their tongues from gossip and calumny, either, but does it follow that the Bible doesn’t teach that we all should do so?
Now, because the world poorly understands the rationale of the sinfulness of contraception (that all Christians agreed with until 1930, when Protestants and later the Orthodox started chipping away at the traditional teaching), the world (and Christians who think in the same manner) caricatures Catholic teaching as “obliged or required to have an unlimited number of children, and to not make any efforts whatsoever to avoid having a child” (#5 above).
The latter is what the pope was referencing in his remarks about “rabbits.” This is a function of rhetoric or polemics, as part of argumentation. He was not attacking orthodox Catholic teaching on contraception in the slightest. He was, rather, sharply attacking the world’s caricature of Catholic teaching, as supposedly requiring large numbers of children. Secular thinking has little subtlety or sense, and the hostility to Catholicism often reduces it downright cluelessness and rank stupidity.
Not being able to comprehend moderation and sense in matters of childbearing, the world (i.e., “world-system” or kosmos in Greek, in biblical usage), can only grasp two extremes:
1) no children or very few (the anti-child / contraceptive mentality), or
2) unlimited children and no planning whatsoever.
Thus, when any Catholic who knows what he is talking about explains the Church’s view on contraception, he or she necessarily has to delve into this latter miscomprehension as well. That is precisely what the pope was doing above.
I understood it immediately because it is exactly what I myself have been doing, lo these past 24 years since I became a Catholic. Indeed, contraception was the very first issue concerning which I changed my mind, even before I was fully convinced of Catholicism. I don’t think any lay apologist has defended Catholic teaching on contraception any more than I have, for this reason. And I have often noted (in my defenses and explanations) the extreme caricature of Catholicism supposedly requiring ten or twelve children of every couple.
Thus, my own case can be seen as a very minor analogy to the pope’s: being totally in favor of the Church’s teaching on contraception, while at the same time explaining that the teaching also includes family planning, understood in the proper, “pro-life” / “pro-child” way. I can easily produce several past statements of mine that are along the lines of what the pope said, in his references to “rabbits.” Here are three examples out of many such:
I think the crux of the matter is the nature of sufficient cause to avoid further children, and the limitations on the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” I don’t think it is a sin to intelligently, thoughtfully plan, in the matter of children. That is a matter of stewardship, just as in any related matter of care of that which God has entrusted to us. We are stewards of our children, as well as of our gifts and abilities and money and possessions and responsibilities, or our time. Hence, Pope Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae (16):
. . . the Church is the first to praise and recommend the intervention of intelligence in a function which so closely associates the rational creature with his Creator; but she affirms that this must be done with respect for the order established by God.
Paul VI goes on, in this passage, to explain the Catholic rationale for such Catholic planning and NFP:
If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier.
The Church is coherent with herself when she considers recourse to the infecund periods to be licit, while at the same time condemning, as being always illicit, the use of means directly contrary to fecundation, even if such use is inspired by reasons which may appear honest and serious. In reality, there are essential differences between the two cases; in the former, the married couple make legitimate use of a natural disposition; in the latter, they impede the development of natural processes. It is true that, in the one and the other case, the married couple are concordant in the positive will of avoiding children for plausible reasons, seeking the certainty that offspring will not arrive; but it is also true that only in the former case are they able to renounce the use of marriage in the fecund periods when, for just motives, procreation is not desirable, while making use of it during infecund periods to manifest their affection and to safeguard their mutual fidelity. By so doing, they give proof of a truly and integrally honest love.
I think a related factor is the matter of heroic virtue. No woman is required to go to extraordinary lengths to have children, simply because she and her husband are commanded to multiply. There comes a point where it becomes “excessive” to some extent (in some cases, even to the point of morbidity). For example, if a woman has good medical reason to believe that she has, say, a 90% chance to miscarry (perhaps if she has had five in a row and has very weak ovaries and/or uterus), should she try to become pregnant, anyway? I say no, and I think it is very clearly no. It is a reasonable and moral determination to make, that the risks are too great. We make such choices all the time in life.
It is not “anti-child” at all to come to such a conclusion. It is pro-woman. It is pro-reasonable expectation of failure and success.
(Critique of the “Quiverfull” and “Divine Family Planning” Positions on Childbirth (That Oppose Catholic Natural Family Planning), 9-20-08)
The Catholic Church does not teach that one must have ten or 15 children. Couples are to take into consideration relevant factors, such as physical health, psychological, and financial aspects. But one must be open to life . . . (Dialogue on Contraception and Natural Family Planning, 5-16-06)
Couples do not need to have 10 kids to be good Catholics, as there are permissible reasons to limit the numbers (financial, emotional, and physical). (Dialogue on the Ethical Distinction Between Artificial Contraception and Natural Family Planning, 2-16-01)
Compare, then, what I wrote, with what the pope said. I contend that we intended the same meaning:
1) Dave #1 (2-16-01): “Couples do not need to have 10 kids to be good Catholics . . .”
2) Dave #2 (5-16-06): “The Catholic Church does not teach that one must have ten or 15 children.”
3) Dave #3 (9-20-08): “No woman is required to go to extraordinary lengths to have children, simply because she and her husband are commanded to multiply.”
4) Pope Francis #1: “This does not mean that the Christian must make children in series.” [my italics]
5) Pope Francis #2: “. . . that woman who was expecting her eighth (child) and already had seven who were born with caesareans. That is an irresponsibility (That woman might say) ‘no but I trust in God’ But God gives you methods to be responsible.”
6) Pope Francis #3: “Some think that, excuse me if I use that word, that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood!”
Note that the phrase “responsible parenthood” is nothing new, either. As Pope Francis alluded to, Blessed Pope Paul VI repeatedly used it in Humanae Vitae:
In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth.
Responsible parenthood also and above all implies a more profound relationship to the objective moral order established by God, of which a right conscience is the faithful interpreter. The responsible exercise of parenthood implies, therefore, that husband and wife recognize fully their own duties towards God, towards themselves, towards the family and towards society, in a correct hierarchy of values. (section 10)
I am not in the least bit opposed to either 1) large families, or 2) the Catholic prohibition of artificial contraception. But I made the remarks above, because they oppose the secular or otherwise contra-Catholic caricature of what we supposedly teach.
The same thing is true of the Holy Father. Once again, this controversy is “much ado about nothing”.
Matthew Schmitz, writing at First Things, stated:
The Church has never taught that Catholics are to have as many children as possible. They can use abstinence, including the selective abstinence of “Natural Family Planning,” to limit the number of children they bear. Yet such nuance is bound to be lost on the Pope’s secular audience.
Thus far, we agree. But he goes on to blame the pope for using terminology that will likely be misunderstood by the media and secular world. He continues:
Defenses of Pope Francis’s most controversial statements usually take the form, No, of course this is not counter to church teaching. If so, we can always be glad of the fact, but that is a rather low bar by which to judge any statement. Questions of prudence, relevance, and helpfulness must also be weighed.
. . . one lesson will be that there must be responsibility in how we speak as well as in how we love.
I strongly disagree with that. Catholics will always be misunderstood, no matter how carefully we use language. I say that we ought to say what is true and oppose what is untrue and let the chips fall where they may. If we become overly concerned with image and perception, then we are playing the world’s game. The Catholic goal and responsibility is to speak truth. The pope spoke truth. If it is misunderstood, it is. Those who are supposed to understand it, in God’s grace, will do so. Those who won’t (out of God’s graces and will) will not. It’s always been that way and always will be.
Jesus and St. Paul spoke (or wrote) a lot about this sort of thing:
Matthew 11:25-26 (RSV) At that time Jesus declared, “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes;  yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.”
Matthew 13:10-16 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.  For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.  With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: `You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive.  For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’  But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.”
Romans 1:21-22 for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
1 Corinthians 2:10-16 God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.  For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.  Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.  And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.  The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.  The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.  “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
Ephesians 4:18-19 they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart;  they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness.
The world and the legions of Christians who think more like the world than like Christ and historic Christians, don’t comprehend these things, not because Pope Francis or anyone else has not made them clear enough, but because it doesn’t want to hear them, and willfully disobeys Christian, Catholic, biblical truths (most of the time because they are difficult to follow, and never more than in matters of sexuality). It’s not fundamentally a matter of “botched PR / presentation” but of a hostile will.
Schmitz — and all those who have carped on and on these past two years about the pope’s supposedly “unfortunate” language — analyze this incident based on the former approach, whereas I look at it from the latter perspective. Christians will always be misunderstood and hated. Jesus was accused of being possessed by demons, for heaven’s sake (did He screw up in His presentation and choice of words, too?).
Yet we are foolish enough to expect that our popes will not also be pilloried and misunderstood from those in certain quarters? Granted, the pope may slip up and not say things as best he could at times, but so do we all. That’s not the crux of the issue. The primary problem remains one of folks not wanting to hear and follow his message.