Headlines again about the Pope saying something new. Or is it? Apparently, we learn from many media, we Catholics are no longer obliged to produce as many children as possible. Reality is, of course, somewhat different.
First, here is the relevant part of the answer that Pope Francis gave during the press conference on the flight back from Manila (full text here).
“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 a 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. 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.”
“God gives us means to be responsible”. That’s the important bit, and it reminds me of the joke of a man who refused to be saved from a house fire because he trusted in God coming to rescue him. Of course, he dies, and complains to God once he arrives through the pearly gates. “What do you mean?” God replies. “I sent you three fire crews to rescue you.”
We have responsibility and we must make use of our means to take on that responsibility. That is true for the house fire in the joke, and also for being parents. Responsible parenthood is not a new invention by Pope Francis, although he is very right in emphasising its importance. Pope Saint John Paul II spoke much about it, and Blessed Paul VI also addressed it in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. The latter writes, among other things:
“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” [N. 10]
In the end, responsible parenthood is a logical consequence of Catholic thought, from our nature as free human beings with our responsibility, a responsibility we have, not in the last place, for our children. Responsibility does not end at birth, but continues in the upbringing, education and eventually the children of our own children as well.
So, no, we should not be like rabbits, but like free and responsible human beings, free and responsible towards ourselves, towards God and towards our children.