The Personalist Project

Social sites this weekend were alive with links to a comment the Pope made in a recent interview.

“Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits – but no,” he said, adding the Church promoted “responsible parenthood”.

Some took offense, but I don't see why they should. The thing about rabbits is not so much that they have a lot of offspring, as that they're animals, not persons. They reproduce instinctively, without the freedom and responsibility that should characterize human sexuality.

As I read him, the Pope was making mild fun of two things:

  1. A secular caricature of Catholic teaching, according to which the prohibition on artificial birth control is all about the Church trying to grow its numbers, regardless of the wellbeing of women and families.
  2. A rigorist interpretation of Catholic teaching, not unknown in traditionalist circles, according to which NFP is only licit in grave circumstances (i.e. "dire straits"), and really committed Catholics will mostly avoid it, because it's holier to "let God decide" how many children we're going to have.

As someone whose been butting heads with Catholic providentialists for many years, I'm glad the Pope has made the point in such an eye-catching way.

Liberals aren't the only ones who think that the Church frowns on family planning; many faithful Catholics do too.

They don't realize that Humanae Vitae didn't just prohibit artificial birth control; it endorsed natural family planning. And it endorsed it not grudgingly and hesitantly, but warmly and sympathetically, as a good for marriage.

That's not to say it's necessarily wrong not to use it. It's perfectly possible to make a free and responsible choice to be open to as many children as God sends.

But it's also possible to be irresponsible in our "reproductive choices"—to fail to discern properly what is best for our marriage, for our spouse, for our children, for our society—to fail to make good use of the tools available by God's design out of selfishness or laziness or pride.

Too many Catholics still live and teach as if all the moral danger is on one side of this issue, viz., using NFP without sufficiently grave reasons. I'm glad the Pope has reminded us all that that's not true.

Comments (12)

Nancy Restuccia

#1, Jan 20, 2015 4:33pm

Lots of great stuff here, and I wholeheartedly agree the Holy Fatgher's intent was not to mock or belittle.  Certainly the rabbits thing does seem to play right into the hands of those who continually attack Catholics open to life; but my real problem was with the Holy Father going on to denigrate the woman as irresponsible who was about to have her 8th C-section.  Of course we don't know all the details and there may have been something in her attitude that the Pope detected and of which he was justly critical; the problem is that he seems not to understand that clarity is pre-eminently important (along with charity) in a world that wants to misunderstand, misconstrue and scandalize.  This just didn't happen with previous Popes; they were of course attacked, but they were attacked for what they really meant. With this HF we have to parse and excuse and interpret and frankly it's exhausting.  

Nancy Restuccia

#2, Jan 20, 2015 4:33pm

I also know of one dear sacrificial remarkable mom who has just had her 8th C-section- she is devastated by these remarks and that is definitely not what the Mom-under-siege needs these days.  This is what I would say to the Pope if he were my own son, so there is no lack of charity here; quite the contrary, I want his papacy to be as efficacious and fruitful as possible.  "If wisdom's ways you wisely seek,  Five things observe with care: to whom you speak, of whom you speak, and how, and when, and where." OK so I got it Ma Ingalls but it sounds pretty good to me... maybe reporters on a plane (snakes on a plane??) are not ones you want to just ad lib it with... candor by all means, but prudence also.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jan 20, 2015 4:54pm

Nancy, you are not alone. I have other friends—some of them women who have had many c-sections or friends who come from big families, who likewise feel hurt.

I understand how they feel. I only have 5 children, but I've lived in places where that's seen as a shocking number—a practically irresponsible number. I've been on the receiving end of some unkind remarks and looks. It's maddening, and discouraging and hurtful.

Even so, I think we have to take care not to take personally what obviously isn't meant to be taken personally. The Pope is addressing a widespread misconception that needed addressing.

He did not say, and clearly does not mean, that to have a lot of children is to be breeding like rabbits. He said and meant that being Catholic doesn't mean indiscriminate procreation. A prohibition on artificial birth control (which he just reaffirmed) is not a prohibition on family planning. We are called to responsbile parenthood.

Nancy Restuccia

#4, Jan 20, 2015 7:21pm

Again, no real probem with the rabbits thing, using the terms of the world to address the world; my issue is this Pope's lack of care in using this woman as an example. I felt it was ill-considered, and not just because it might be taken personally.  The Church has always wisely shied away from specific examples of what constitutes grave reasons to avoid pregnancy; I think the Pope would have been wiser to also avoid doing so.   Thanks for a thoughtful and well-written piece, as usual, Katie.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jan 21, 2015 6:41pm

Here is a comment from the friend of a facebook friend that instantly got covered in "likes". I

It's so important for us to realize how many of our fellow Catholics are laboring under a weight of false guilt.

[The Pope's] remarks [have] lightened a heavy burdenI have carried with me since we decided on no more children due to my cancer diagnosis and the implications to my life, an unborn child's life, the children I have (losing a mother who cannot receive treatment if pregnant) and a spouse left alone to rear children by himself. I want more children, selfishly, badly. It breaks my heart to know I will not have anymore. But I felt I had a responsibility to the children I have and to my husband to make the choice that has the (likely) best outcome for raising the family we have... His speaking on this has relieved me of much guilt for feeling I was not being good enough by making this difficult choice for our family.

She and the many like her need encouragement from the Church.


Nancy Restuccia

#6, Jan 21, 2015 7:45pm

Katie, I absolutely agree there has been a need to say something exactly for women like ths one you quote; I am a woman in a similar situation, facing more than one autoimmune disease that could put me out of commission permanently without caution.  My quibble is with using a specific example which can cause as much pain in some cases as it may relieve in others.  I don't doubt the benignity of the Holy Father's intent, and I often thank Heaven I am not in any such position myself due to foot in mouth disease, but when you're the Pope, you've got to be more careful. This just didn't happen with JPII or B16.  Of course, not everybody's strong suit is prudence... *raises hand*

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jan 21, 2015 7:55pm

Ack, Nancy! I hadn't meant that last comment to be a direct response to you. I should have made that clear. It was more a response to friends who have been commenting on facebook, including saying things like the Pope's comment was "disgusting" or a fiasco. I want more people to know how many Catholic couples are suffering in silence, either because they have misunderstood Church teaching, or because fellow Catholics are judging them unjustly.

As for your concern about that woman, I can see what you mean, but I sincerely doubt it was like that. I mean, I think it's perfectly likely that she felt helped and reassured, not judged by the Pope when he spoke with her.

If his experience of their interaction was entirely positive, then there would be nothing wrong with his referring to it when making a more general point. It's the sort of thing priests and public speakers and writers do all the time to make their meaning clearer.

Nancy Restuccia

#8, Jan 21, 2015 8:25pm

Thanks Katie- I wasn't at all hurt by what you said, I alway think you are measured and charitable and I knew what you meant. I feel I should clarify one thing: my concern isn't so much for the lady he made an example of, though without further information his words about her do seem a bit harsh. No, I meant the ladies from whom I'm hearing, also on Facebook, who are exactly or nearly exactly in this woman's position and are feeling the sting of his comments, and to many of whom these comments are being cast in their faces, by unkind family and acquaintances alike, as "proof," from the Pope no less, of their own irresponsibility. It's tough, because though you and I may take the time to carefully interpret the Holy Father's words and meanings, the world won't.

Nancy Restuccia

#9, Jan 21, 2015 8:26pm

And boy does it delight in using incautious phrasings as sticks to beat the faithful with.   I'm not saying the Holy Father is to blame for the world's disingenuousness, but that his high office demands he be aware of it and be more cunning when he speaks.  But yeah, I could wish folks could be more restrained in their commentary on both "sides" (I don't mean you, I think your tone is exemplary).  It's probably a result of the exhaustion we all feel at fighting the world all the blessed time.  

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Jan 22, 2015 9:59am

Personally, I like his mode of "incaution". I think it's doing a lot of great good, including by exposing the lack of love and faith on "my side" of the cultural divide in the Church. Those of us who have always been faithful to her teachings are (like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son) apt not to notice when our hearts are gradually becoming hard or proud or complacent.

Startling and/or challenging words from the Holy Father can (and should) prompt a fresh self-examination in us. I know I've been convicted more than once by him.

As for those ladies, I think this article by a Filipina woman, which I read last night hits the nail on the head. The Holy Father wasn't talking about them.

Nancy Restuccia

#11, Jan 22, 2015 11:15am

Great article, she makes some beautiful points, as do you.  I have nothing against candor, and I know the HF's heart is in the right place on Catholic teaching.  That being said, I do think candor and caution can go hand in hand.  He could convict those of us who need convicting without causing pain amongst lovely faithful non-hardened Catholic women (and men).  That's my thought; I know prudence is an unsexy virtue but I am coming to appreciate it more and more as I age, having so little of it myself by nature.  God bless you and your fine work, Katie, and thanks for a civil and enlightening discussion.  Can I ask your prayers as my 17 year old daughter Margaret and I head to Benedictine College today for a visit?  Have a great day-- Nancy

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Jan 22, 2015 11:30am

I've heard great things about Benedictine and have lots of friends with kids there. God bless that visit, and you too.

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