Pope Francis is an incredibly personable man, and he loves to talk. I'd even say that he loves to gab, as if meeting great friends over coffee. His colloquialisms and off-the-cuff style are part of his charm, of course, and it's how he has enchanted most of the world, and certainly the press corps. But the press can also exploit the pope's friendly nature by picking headlines and editing stories in ways that don't quite capture the truth of things.
I have learned to go to the full transcript of those plane interviews (which are still just a translation of the original) to get some context when I see headlines like these:
First of all, he didn't even use the the word "breed", but you'd think that he did, wouldn't you? Here's what he said about rabbits:
"Some think that -- excuse the language -- that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood."
In other words: Pope Francis in 2015 is repeating the teaching of Pope St. John Paul the Great in 1984 (see "Responsible Parenthood") who is repeating the teaching of Pope Paul VI in 1968 (see Humanae Vitae).
And just like his predecessors, Pope Francis spoke these words of responsible parenthood within the overall context of condemning artificial contraception as a moral evil and promoting Natural Family Planning. I'm glad that most of the media reports did put that relevant fact in the body of their pieces, but gosh, if you don't get past the headlines, what would you think was the message?
And if you look above at the headline from Time, you get an even more distorted message: Pope Francis tells Catholics they SHOULDN'T be breeding like rabbits! To any normal human being, that would translate to something like: "Catholics, stop having big families! You should not be having lots and lots of kids!" Isn't that what you take away from the headline?
And yet, on the Feast of the Holy Family less than a month ago, Pope Francis spoke to an Italian association of large families about the importance of large families:
“In a world often marked by egoism, a large family is a school of solidarity and of mission that’s of benefit to the entire society."
Talk about controversy, the pope even went so far as to say:
“Every family is a cell of society, but large families are richer and more vital cells.”
So what could he have meant when he said that being a good Catholic does not require being "like rabbits"? He means the same thing that I and so many others have said a thousand times, but using slightly different words, namely:
No, the Catholic Church does not teach (as many believe!) that a woman must have as many babies as physically possible. No one is forcing women to become "breeders" like an animal (hey, like a rabbit!). We Catholics believe in responsible parenthood, which means prudence in deciding what is best for the spouses, their children already born, and the society in which they live. And that prudence can mean either having many children (generously welcoming a houseful!), or having fewer (and using only moral means to postpone pregnancy). Each couple is different, each family has different needs, and prayerful discernment is required.
And guess what else Pope Francis said immediately after he made the now-infamous "rabbit" comment? He said this:
"...for 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.... Responsible paternity, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child."
Oh, and did you hear what else he said on the same in-flight interview? Did you see all the headlines about the pope condemning "ideological colonization" (the West pushing its sex agenda on other vulnerable cultures as my dear friend Uju addressed so eloquently on this blog)? I didn't think so, so here you go:
Thank God for Catholic news sources!
**Update: The Pope is making headlines again today, this time praising large families. No doubt in response to the massive misunderstanding!
**Update #2: The Pope has apologized for his words causing "disorientation", and reiterating his love for large families. I hope we all already understand this!