by Deacon Jim Russell
So, how do y’all like that Associated Press headline?
In case you might have missed it, Pope Francis’ recent return flight from his visit to the Philippines featured an in-flight press conference in which he was asked (according to a widely published translation):
A Filipino woman gives birth to an average of three children in her life, and the Catholic position concerning contraception seem to be one of the few questions on which a big number of people in the Philippines do not agree with the Church. What do you think about that?
This is Pope Francis’ reply:
I think the number of three children per family that you mentioned — it makes me suffer- I think it is the number experts say is important to keep the population going. Three per couple. When this decreases, the other extreme happens, like what is happening 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, the key word, to give you an answer, and the one the Church uses all the time, and I do too, is responsible parenthood. How do we do this? With dialogue. Each person with his pastor seeks how to carry out 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, I trust in God.’ But, look, God gives you means to be responsible. Some think that — excuse the language — that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. [NOTE: he never says “breed” here!] 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 search; and I know so many ways that are licit and that have helped this. You did well to ask me this.
Purveyors of media hype, start your engines! As if to prove Pope Francis’ assertion that some observers of the Catholic Church actually think that Catholic couples are all supposed to “be like rabbits”—as in, have as many children as is humanly possible—worldwide reports made it sound like no one ever in the history of the Church had ever before thought of this notion of “responsible parenthood”!
Well, let’s just say that the secular surprise factor is about fifty years too late! That’s if your point of reference is the Second Vatican Council’s clearly stated teaching on “responsible parenthood” (see Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 50). But even fifty years is too recent when one traces the rise of contraception alongside the emergence of the art and science of “natural family planning” from its roots in the 1920s all the way to our contemporary 21st-Century approaches to it.
Suffice it to say that we Catholics have always embraced an authentically “responsible” approach to parenthood. We’ve never been taught otherwise by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. We’ve been very blessed to have understood that there is no imperative, as the Holy Father indicates, for parents to have as many babies as time allows (!). Rather, non-Catholic observers have, forever it seems, misunderstood the Church’s long-held (and still-held) emphasis on children as the “supreme gift” of marriage.
The truth is that the Catholic Church holds that the objective “primary purpose” of Matrimony is the “procreation and education of children.” While this isn’t the only “end” or “purpose” of marriage, it’s considered “primary” precisely because the “stable union” of the married couple functions as the fundamental cell of society, in which we realize God’s primordial command to “be fruitful and multiply.” God’s plan for us as married couples is to be utterly open to the transmission of human life (that means babies!). Pope Paul VI, in the very first sentence of his 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” calls this a most serious “mission” for the married couple.
Being utterly open to transmitting life, though, does not necessarily mean being relentlessly in pursuit of it! Married couples sometimes have tangible and just reasons for postponing pregnancy. Indeed, it’s this “old-school” reference to the primary end of “procreation and education” of children that makes it perfectly clear that parents often need to balance those two aspects of the primary end—being able to raise (educate) our born children alongside our openness to transmitting new life (procreate) in the “now” of married life.
It is this kind of discernment that Pope Francis has in mind when he picks up the phrase “responsible parenthood” from the teaching documents of the Church. Even so, the Holy Father also says something much less widely reported but vitally important about the abundant blessing of every child born into the family:
Another curious thing in relation to this is that 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. 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 who see a treasure in every child.
So it’s clear that Pope Francis speaks from the heart of the Church on “responsible parenthood” and on the beautiful blessing of children. Had the secular media been on the ball both fifty years ago and on the plane to Rome this week, we’d all be breathing—and “breeding”—a little easier.