Is it permissible to criticize a pope? Can it be good, just, and even imperative to do so? In the nearly two years that Pope Francis has occupied the Chair of Peter, he has been criticized a great deal. The vast majority of it has been unjust and lacking in charity to put it lightly. There have been no real controversies to speak of, but there have been a great deal of circuses. The media has taken much delight in twisting his words to fit their narrative of the Church and the world, and have attributed words to him that he didn’t even say. The Pope, however, is a man like any other man. He makes mistakes. He may be infallible (narrowly understood), but he most certainly is not impeccable let alone without imperfections. Keeping in mind that the benefit of the doubt should always be given and all things must of course be done in charity, popes need to be criticized. Good and just criticism is necessary for their learning and growth just as it is for anyone else. The latest circus surrounding Pope Francis is over a phrase he used during an in-flight press conference from Manilla to Rome on Monday, January 19. During this press conference he said that Catholic couples need not “be like rabbits”. The circus like any good circus has many acts. This particular one includes those saying that Pope Francis is opening a door for approving contraception and that he was insensitive for using the word “rabbits”. As usual there is a host of people who have rallied to explain what Pope Francis really said and/or what he really meant. Against those who would twist his words to say that he was perhaps opening the way for contraception or that large families are irresponsible let the rally continue. Here I am not concerned with misrepresentation or interpretations. I think that in this instance a valid criticism can be made of the Pope, and since this issue is so public I think it warrants openly criticizing.
Pope Francis was asked about “enormous” population growth contributing to “intense” poverty in the Philippines. What the reporter was really trying to do was challenge the Church’s teaching on the use of contraception, and justify its use by pointing to over-population and poverty. The reporter connected “enormous” population growth with the average Filipino woman having more than three children and ending his question by saying, “the Catholic position regarding contraception appears to be one of the few questions on which a great number of people in the Philippines do not agree with the Church.” Here is Pope Francis’s answer in full:
I believe that the number of three per family, which you mentioned, is important, according to the experts, for maintaining the population. Three per couple. When it is below this level, you have the other extreme, as for example in Italy, where I have heard — I don’t know if it is true — that in 2024 there will be no money left to pay pensioners. Population decrease. That is why the key phrase for responding is one which the Church constantly uses, as I do: it is “responsible parenthood”. How does this work? With dialogue. Each person with his or her pastor has to try to exercise this responsible parenthood.
The example I mentioned just now, about the woman who was expecting her eighth child and already had seven caesarean births: this is a form of irresponsibility. [Some might say:] “No, I trust in God”. “But, look, God gives you the means, be responsible”. Some people believe that — pardon my language — in order to be good Catholics, we should be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood. This is clear and it is the reason why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this area, there are pastors, and people are trying. And I know of any number of solutions which are licit and have helped for this. You did well to ask me this. Something else is curious, which does not have to do with this directly, but is in fact related. For very poor people, a child is a treasure. True enough, here too one needs to be prudent. But for them a child is a treasure. God knows how to help them. Maybe some are not prudent in this area, that is true. Responsible parenthood. But we also need to consider the generosity of those fathers and mothers who see in every child a treasure.
First, I like that Pope Francis pointed out the great problems of decreasing populations in the West. This is of course directly caused by the proliferate use of contraceptives, but he unfortunately did not make this clear. I also like that he affirmed the treasure children are and the love given them in families which are poor and/or large. Are there exceptions to this? Of course, but for every loveless poor family I’ll show you at least one that is rich. In other words, economic status does not determine how much parents love their children.
Unfortunately, the Pope’s answer does leave a lot of room for genuine misunderstanding that is not just a twisting of his words by the media. The simple fact of the matter is that the issue of contraception was part of the question and he never says anything about contraception. On average three children per couple is important “for maintaining the population;” people must exercise responsible parenthood (he never says what this is); couples need not “be like rabbits” in order to be good Catholics (he asked pardon for his language before using the word “rabbits”); and he says that he “knows[s] of any number of solutions which are licit” (he doesn’t say what any of those solutions are). In all of this he never says anything about contraception, NFP, or various economic structures that place undue burdens on society, especially on the poor and those with large families. In regards to this question though, who is the Pope’s audience? The world. The problem is that those who are not faithful Catholics will not have the proper context for understanding his words. Need not be like rabbits? Must exercise responsible parenthood? Lots of licit solutions? He didn’t say anything about contraception? Maybe contraception is one of those licit solutions. “There are marriage groups, there are experts in this area, there are pastors”? There are lots of marriage groups operating in Catholic parishes that promote contraception; there are also lots of experts and pastors who do this too. There are a great many Catholic couples who with their pastor arrived at contraception as a good solution. But what of those marriage groups, experts, and pastors? Do the Pope’s words continue to plainly contradict their own thoughts on contraception? They do not. While their thoughts on contraception have not been affirmed either, it is understandable if they interpret the Pope’s words as the papacy finally starting to come around to their position.
Concerning his use of the word “rabbits” many people have taken offense and many have accused him of being insensitive. I do not believe that the Pope was being insensitive (he certainly did not intend this). But I do think he was being thoughtless. First he knew that the word was not a good word – he asked pardon for his language. His saying this puts an undue burden on many parents who do have large families and have endured a lot of pressure from family and friends, as well as just plain mean remarks from strangers. These remarks have come from people at the grocery store to fellow parishioners the see at church on Sunday. I know a young woman, faithful and devout, whose parents have been putting pressure on her to use contraception because of the frequency of her conceiving children. I don’t they will go to her and say how beautiful the generosity of her and her husband is. I can, however, see them saying, “You know, Pope Francis said that you don’t need to be like a rabbit to be a good Catholic.” The simple fact of the matter is the Pope was not thinking of the thousands and thousands of good, faithful Catholics who have been ridiculed because of the size of their family.
Finally, there are any number of speeches that Pope Francis has given to various groups that have had audiences with him at the Vatican and during his journeys that are clearer on issues of responsible parenthood and contraception. Consistency is important though. If he was not going to give a clearer answer he could have made reference to previous speeches where he has already spoken of this. Sometimes the Pope seems to still be in a process of adjusting to speaking to a world audience rather than just an Argentine. In this case it means that the lack of a fuller statement and reference to rabbits, which is a negative expression of large families (and he used it in a negative way), predictably leaves many people scratching their heads.