Pope Francis raised more than a few eyebrows yesterday when he said, “Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits – but no.” Pope Francis asserted
that the church counsels “responsible parenthood” a phrase referenced in several Church documents, including Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio, and St. John Paul II’s Letter to Families.
Doubling down, Pope Francis went on to recount the story of a woman he knows who doctors said was risking her life by getting pregnant after seven caesarean births saying it was “irresponsible” to risk depriving her existing children of a mother by “tempting God” by intentionally entering into repeated high-risk pregnancies.
A few points.
1. He Didn’t Say Exactly What They Say He Said. Contrary to headlines, note that Pope Francis did not use the perjorative word, “breed.” Many people seem offended–more by what the press says the Pope said than by what the Pope actually said. So what’s new?
2. He isn’t saying anything new here. As I have argued in For Better…FOREVER and Holy Sex! The church is quite clear. Contrary to many people’s belief, the “default” in Catholic teaching is not to conception. It is to “responsible parenthood.” As moral theologian, Janet Smith notes, “Although bringing new life into existence is a great good, spouses are not…obligated to have as many children as they can.”
3. Who Decides “Responsible Parenthood? Some respondents I’ve read are especially offended that Pope Francis would call the woman who has chosen repeat high-risk pregnancies “irresponsible.” They correctly point to the fact that the Church gives parents the right to decide these matters for themselves. Even so, while the Church does say that parents must make this decision, the Church assumes it will be part of the decision. St Ignatius’ rules of proper discernment insist that discernment always requires consultation with the Church. Further, the Church offers guidelines that parents are obliged to follow in their discernment process. Specifically, in Gaudium et Spes #50 the Church writes,
Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted. They should realize that they are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love. Thus they will fulfill their task with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence toward God, will make decisions by common counsel and effort. Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God. But in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel. (emphasis mine)
As the highlighted portions of this text show, Pope Francis has the right, as the Universal Pastor of the Church to offer his informed opinion on what behaviors constitute responsible and irresponsible parenthood and parents have a responsibility to take his counsel seriously in their discernment.
4. Integral Procreation. In The Family and Human Procreation (2006) the Pontifical Council for the Family refers to the idea of “integral procreation” which I discuss in several of my books. Integral procreation refers to the idea that openness to life is not limited to procreation. Saying “yes” to life means committing to meeting the needs of every child we have–at every age and stage–to help them become the fully formed people of God that they are meant to be. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Families, “Fatherhood and motherhood represent a responsibility which is not simply physical but spiritual in nature; indeed, through these realities there passes the genealogy of the person, which has its eternal beginning in God and which must lead back to him.”
A mother and father who are open to procreation to the degree that they risk being unable to attend to the needs of the children they have are, in fact, not respecting the call to integral procreation or embracing the fullness of the Church’s teaching on openness to life. Their hearts may be in the right place, but–as Pope Francis notes–that doesn’t mean they aren’t coming to the wrong conclusion.
Incidentally, this is why I often take issue with parents who automatically assume that the return of fertility means its time to get pregnant again whether or not they are able to attend to their existing children’s attachment needs. Attachment is essential for good mental health as well as proper spiritual development. As Sirach 16:1-3 says, “Do not yearn for worthless children, or rejoice in wicked offspring. Even if they be many, do not rejoice in them if they do not have fear of the LORD. Do not count on long life for them, or have any hope for their future. For one can be better than a thousand; rather die childless than have impious children!”
Scripture and the teaching of the Church is clear. The call to being “open to life” is a call not just to have children but to only have the number of children you believe–through prayer, consultation, and sober consideration of your circumstances (as per GS #50)–you can adequately form as people of God.
5. But Don’t Just Take it From Me. In the wake of Pope Francis’ comments, a friend of mine who is a faithful Catholic mom of 11 pointed out, “I am not insulted by the Pope’s actual words. You need not only the financial ability, but the emotional ability (my husband and I call it ‘bandwidth’) to parent a large brood. It’s exhausting to do it well. And I have met far too many large (9 or more children) families where the children grow up and leave the Church OR swear they will NEVER have a large family because they never felt personally loved and acknowledged by mom and dad. This is a delicate topic. But we need to be able to love our kids and know them as individuals if we are to treat them as God sees us. THIS is what ‘responsible parenthood’ is.”
For more help discerning your family size, check out our books, Holy Sex! A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing Infallible Loving and For Better…FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage.