Pope: Don’t Breed Like Rabbits. Or Use Birth Control.

Pope Francis continues his world tour and has issued a paradox from his private jet.

group of bunnies

Pope Francis continues his world tour by issuing a paradox from his private jet.

USA Today (“Pope: Catholics need not breed ‘like rabbits’“):

Pope Francis, after a visit to the largest Catholic nation in Asia, says Catholics may have a moral responsibility to limit the number of their children and need not reproduce “like rabbits.”

But the pope also reaffirmed the church’s ban on artificial means of birth control and said Catholics should practice “responsible parenting.”

His comments on the subject of birth control, made aboard the papal jet returning to Rome from the Philippines, were described as apparently unprecedented by the National Catholic Reporter, an independent news organization that follows the Vatican.

Francis said there are plenty of church-approved ways to regulate births. He also said no outside institution should impose its views on regulating family size, blasting what he called “ideological colonization” of the developing world.

The NCR report (“Francis lambasts international aid, suggests Catholics should limit children“) puts the remarks in their somewhat bizarre context:

Francis said Pope Paul VI, whose 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae outlined the contraceptive ban, was warning against a “Neo-Malthusianism, ” a reference to a theories that suggested in the 1960s and ’70s that exponential global population growth would lead to an irreversible world food crisis.

Citing the low rates of birth specifically in Italy and Spain, Francis said such Neo-Malthusianism “seeks to control humanity.”

At the same time, however, Francis made a statement that seems without precedent for a pope, suggesting that parents may have a responsibility to limit the number of their children, saying: “This does not signify that the Christian must make children in series.”

Telling the story of a woman he met in a parish in Rome several months ago who had given birth to seven children via Cesarean section and was pregnant with an eighth, Francis asked: “Does she want to leave the seven orphans?”

“This is to tempt God,” he said, adding later: “That is an irresponsibility.” Catholics, the pope said, should speak of “responsible parenthood.”

“How do we do this?” Francis asked. “With dialogue. Each person with his pastor seeks how to do that responsible parenthood.”

“God gives you methods to be responsible,” he continued. “Some think that — excuse the word — that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No.”

“This is clear and that is why in the church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors,” Francis said. Using the term for a practice that follows church law, he continued: “I know so many, many licit ways that have helped this.”

Francis was speaking about birth control in response to a question from a Filipino journalist. Use of contraception in the Philippines is a contentious issue, as the Philippine government only recently approved contraceptive access against forceful opposition from Catholic bishops.

The pope’s responses regarding birth control and ideological colonization were part of a wide-ranging conference that touched on a number of other subjects, including: Corruption in church structures, the place of women in church leadership, and global mistreatment of the poor that the pontiff said could be likened to a new form of “state-sponsored terrorism.”

Francis is in the uncomfortable position of being a celibate bachelor offering sexual guidance to married couples. Moreover, he seems to be counseling them to seek out their local celibate bachelor, who may be a kid out of divinity school.

Beyond the vagaries of Catholic teachings here, though, I’m befuddled by his rationale on limiting childbirth. Women shouldn’t have large numbers of children, lest they tempt God to make them orphans?! That’s just bizarre.

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, Religion
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    My mother tried most if not all of those “licit ways” of birth control, 8 pregnancies, 7 children (only 1 of which was planned), 6 of which survived to adulthood, and the first thing she did with each of her daughters was to take them to the Doc for birth control on the event of their first period. Of course, this was the 60s & 70s and unlike the local Pastor, Ma knew that telling her teenage daughters to save themselves for marriage was just whistling in the wind.

  2. al-Ameda says:

    But the pope also reaffirmed the church’s ban on artificial means of birth control and said Catholics should practice “responsible parenting.”

    His comments on the subject of birth control, made aboard the papal jet returning to Rome from the Philippines, were described as apparently unprecedented by the National Catholic Reporter, an independent news organization that follows the Vatican.

    Somewhere on the East Coast, Bill Donahue’s head is exploding.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    It’s religion. It’s not required to make sense.

  4. Pinky says:

    This isn’t unprecedented at all. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2366-2370):

    Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful….
    A particular aspect of this responsibility concerns the regulation of procreation. For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality….
    Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil.

  5. Franklin says:

    Women shouldn’t have large numbers of children, lest they tempt God to make them orphans?!

    I read this differently based on the context. Any childbirth is dangerous to the mother. But in particular, Caesarian sections are (obviously) a surgery, and no surgery is without risk. You basically multiply the risks here with multiple children – I think that’s what the Pope was talking about, not some idea that God would smite her for her productivity.

  6. Gustopher says:

    Telling the story of a woman he met in a parish in Rome several months ago who had given birth to seven children via Cesarean section and was pregnant with an eighth, Francis asked: “Does she want to leave the seven orphans?”

    “This is to tempt God,” he said, adding later: “That is an irresponsibility.” Catholics, the pope said, should speak of “responsible parenthood.”

    Either this is a translation error, a poor choice of words, an arcane use of the word tempt, or Pope Francis believes that God is a dick.

    Or is this just a corollary to the whole “the good Lord will provide” thing, where the good Lord will provide only if you are not arrogantly presuming that the good Lord will provide?

  7. Grumpy Realist says:

    Anyone who thinks that Natural Family Planning works hasn’t talked to that many women. A lot of us don’t have periods with the regularity that we can count on their system.

  8. Pinky says:

    @Gustopher: I assume it was the equivalent of the American expression “tempting fate”.

  9. Pinky says:

    @Grumpy Realist: It’s not just a calendar thing. It can be temperature, and mucous, and whatever else. I’ve known quite a few people who’ve had success with it.

  10. Phillip says:

    @Pinky: If by “success” you mean “avoided pregnancy entirely”, well, I’ve known exactly zero.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Grumpy Realist:

    A lot of us don’t have periods with the regularity that we can count on their system.

    But, ironically, periods tend to be spectacularly regular while on the birth control pill.

  12. Grewgills says:

    @James Joyner:
    I know more than a few people that use them for exactly that reason. That and they can choose to have only 3-4 periods a year.

  13. Andre Kenji says:

    Pope Francis is a Latin American pope, and in Latin America the Catholic Church, while still opposed to abortion, is not opposed to Birth Control. I don´t remember even very Conservative Catholics complaining about birth control here in Brazil(And the government distributes pills and condoms for free), with the exception of the Day After Pill.

  14. Franklin says:

    @Grumpy Realist: I have a beautiful baby daughter due to the rhythm method. (At one point my wife was pissed, but she’s come around …)

  15. grumpy realist says:

    @James Joyner: Um, there’s a reason for that…..or are you being ironic? (I assume that you know more about female biology than Mr. “Can’t-get-preggy-if-you’re-raped” Akins.)

  16. James Joyner says:

    @grumpy realist: No, I’m saying it’s ironic that the birth control pill, which the Catholic Church vehemently opposes, happens to regularize menstrual cycles—the thing necessary to make the rhythm method, which they strangely* endorse, viable.

    *I’ve never understood why the pill is wrong and premature withdrawal and the rhythm method are okay. Either it’s wrong to have sex for pleasure rather than for purposes of procreation or it’s not.

  17. al-Ameda says:

    @Gustopher:

    Either this is a translation error, a poor choice of words, an arcane use of the word tempt, or Pope Francis believes that God is a dick.

    to paraphrase Lewis Black, read the Old Testament, God was definitely a mean son of a bitch.

  18. Pinky says:

    @James Joyner: Premature withdrawl isn’t ok.

  19. stonetools says:

    @Pinky:

    The fact is that none of these methods work very well. The plain and simple of it is that if fertile women regularly have sex, they will get pregnant. That is the way God (or, if you like, nature) designed (or , if you like,evolved) it.
    The Pope’s solution is to plan families by intermittent periods of celibacy between spouses. ( He is implicitly conceding that “natural” methods of birth control don’t work.) This idea of intermittent celibacy has its own problems, of course, but it is a rational workaround.
    In any case, this is an argument the Church has lost. In virtually every society where artificial contraception is legal, most Catholic women use contraception without apology.They simply ignore Catholic teaching on this issue, even as they regularly attend Mass, contribute to the church, send their children to church schools, and even defend the church against its accusers.They just zero out this part of Catholic teaching as no longer worth paying attention to. And they should.

  20. Tony W says:

    @James Joyner:

    *I’ve never understood why the pill is wrong and premature withdrawal and the rhythm method are okay. Either it’s wrong to have sex for pleasure rather than for purposes of procreation or it’s not.

    Simple. Because that’s how religion operates. They set up rules that are just complicated enough, and irrational enough, that compliance without questioning is the only legitimate response.

    For example:
    * Catholic – You can go to heaven only if you don’t sin, but if you do sin (broadly defined) and you seek redemption through the church, then you get a hall pass, at the discretion of the priest.

    * Mormons wear special garments and historically avoid certain beverages.

    * Jewish men wear a yarmulke

    * Leviticus tells us to not eat animals with a cloven hoof or wear clothing of mixed fabrics.

    * Abraham essentially complying with instructions from “God” to go kill your son to prove his loyalty.

    I could go on and on….

    Religion is evil. Period.

  21. Pinky says:

    @stonetools: You’re missing the point of Natural Family Planning if you expect it to be foolproof. Natural Family Planning allows the couple to manage the spacing of their kids, but it’s not supposed to eliminate the possibility of conception.

    It makes sense if you start from the perspective that marriage has two purposes, unitive and procreative. Sex isn’t supposed to be one or the other. I should say, it’s supposed to be unitive and allow the possibility of procreation. An old couple having sex aren’t doing anything to prevent conception. A gay couple having sex are. A couple on the pill are. The guy who pulls out “in time” is doing something to prevent conception. A couple may prudently space out their lovemaking to reduce the likelihood of conception, and that’s fine. Note the word “prudent”. If a couple were to use NFP to avoid children altogether, or if they were spacing out their children in order to be able to afford jetskis, that would be a violation of the spirit of marriage.

    This is one of those things that you can call crazy, but you can’t call inconsistent.

  22. Monala says:

    @Pinky: I can’t see the difference between the old couple and the gay couple in your example. Both couples, as couples, can’t conceive from sex. Neither of them is using any sort of method to prevent pregnancy. What’s the difference? And if you say that one or both members of the gay couple could potentially conceive if they were with someone of the opposite gender (assuming, if it’s a lesbian couple, that they are still in their childbearing years), well, that’s true of male half (if he were to have sex with a younger woman) of the older couple as well. Again, what’s the difference?

  23. Pinky says:

    @Monala: Not really sure what you’re getting at there. Any non-PIV sex act is contrary to the possibility of conception. With the old couple, it’s still PIV, and they’re not doing anything to reduce the possibility of conception. It’s not about whether the guy could have children – this isn’t about a requirement to produce children. The virgin, priest, and widow/er aren’t doing anything wrong by not producing children.

    It’s back to the old Sinatra song, Love and Marriage. Don’t do one without the other. In this case, it’s love, marriage, sex, and openness to the possibility of producing children. Marriage is made for sex, and sex is made for love and reproduction. Marriage without those things is a misuse.

  24. @Pinky:

    Marriage is made for sex, and sex is made for love and reproduction. Marriage without those things is a misuse.

    This is a particular view and one need not accept the predicates here.

    For one thing, the word “made” has clear implications.

    Further, in this context, I find the definition laid out doesn’t really account for young infertile couples or for older couples. I do think that that is an inconsistency, actually.

    These kinds of arguments and definitions only work if one already accepts the other predicates of a given system (e.g., Catholicism). (Of course, this is true for almost all religious arguments as they are founded on faith and not derived from logic or empirics).

    Of course, as noted above, most Catholics themselves have rejected these arguments.

  25. Pinky says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    This is a particular view and one need not accept the predicates here.

    The basis of this article was, in my reading, that James perceived a contradiction within the Pope’s thinking. I haven’t argued that it’s impossible to disagree with the Catholic Church on this matter, only that the church’s thinking is consistent. In fact, I put it like this above: “This is one of those things that you can call crazy, but you can’t call inconsistent.” So all I’m trying to demonstrate is that…eh, I’m repeating myself now. You know what it is I’m trying to demonstrate.

    The inconsistency that you see is with regard to infertile couples. These things are rarely clear-cut. There are plenty of stories of couples who thought they were infertile, or had been told by doctors that they were infertile, having kids. But more importantly, let’s go back to the intent. A couple puts the matter in God’s hands by having sex without taking any action which artificially decreases the chance of conception. It’s impossible to have gay sex without taking any action which artificially decreases the chance of conception, because the act itself isn’t compatible with conception. You might as well be talking about grilling steaks without taking any action which artificially decreases the chance of conception. If you take intimate love and the possibility of conception (in Catholic circles, the “unitive and procreative aspects”) as the dual purposes of sex, and thus of marriage, then the act can’t morally be deliberately separated.

    I suppose you could argue that every couple would have to go through a fertility exam before each sex act, and be disallowed from it if they’re infertile. That would probably pass your standard of consistency, but it would be insane. The only practical way to resolve the question is to permit the man and woman to have sex within marriage.

  26. @Pinky: Fair enough in regards to the Pope and the internal logic of the position. I understand the Catholic position (although, obviously, I do not find it all that compelling).

  27. (I suppose my point would be that one has to accept any number of predicates for the the position to work).

  28. J-Dub says:

    Gonna need a few of these Pope Francis pull-and-pray towels:

    http://www.zazzle.com.au/el_papa_francisco_kitchen_towels-197423487183883262

  29. Monala says:

    @Pinky: While it is a valid point that a couple that thinks they’re infertile may not be, a post-menopausal woman is not getting pregnant, no matter how many times she has PIV sex with her husband. (Now, there have been a handful of post-menopausal women who have conceived via in vitro fertilization, but I believe the Catholic church disapproves of that as well…)

    So that makes the consistency, well, nonsense. PIV sex between an elderly couple doesn’t make them automatically “open to conception” simply by virtue of being PIV. They’re not going to conceive, period, and they know that. (Or does the Church think that Sarah type miracles still happen?) So if sex is only proper if it has the possibility of conception, then the older couple should stop having sex. And does the Catholic Church say that non-PIV sex between married couples is wrong? If not, why not? (Or maybe they say it’s only OK if it’s foreplay to PIV?) Because that falls into the same category of “non-procreative sex” that the gay or elderly couple is having.