I’m taking a brief detour from my post series on birth control to address the recent comments made by our Holy Father.
Drifting down the aisle at Sam’s Club, my brood and I were busy absorbing all the sights as we awaited our pizza. Having just persuaded the seven of them (the baby was in the cart) to leave the books behind, we were absent-mindedly milling about when a man halted our parade. The stranger (an apparent nursery rhyme aficionado) began reciting, “There was an old lady who lived in a shoe, had so many children she didn’t know what to do” Seeing as my children were quite well-behaved (thankfully they generally are in public), I was baffled as to the reason for this unwarranted serenade.
Pope Francis’ recent rabbit comment has been splashed across the headlines. There are accusations, questions, criticisms and explanations. Admittedly, as a mama of a big brood who has endured more than a couple of comments (plus the aforementioned serenade) and as a teacher of Natural Family Planning with boots on the ground in the ministry, his comments touched a nerve. I cannot claim to know his motivations on the matter, but I am going to offer some balance to the statements he made.
On his trip home from Manila, Pope Francis stated,
“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.”
Certainly, his choice of the term rabbit must have been a simple oversight, but it still was one that could be called unsettling. Although it is probably more disturbing to families who’ve already experienced the judgment and ridicule of a society that equates a child to a burden or an environmental hazard. He is correct that not all couples are obliged to produce as many children as they are physically able to; however, that also does not mean that God is not calling some couples to total surrender.
Consider Pope Francis’ prior comments shared on the Feast of the Holy Family. “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. Every family is a cell of society, but large families are richer and more vital cells.” These words seem to provide a counterbalance to the notion that responsible parenthood means simply that less children should be received.
Pope Francis also pointed the faithful toward the guidance of “experts” in this matter which reminded me of an instruction I’d come across during adoration some months ago. At the time I sprawled the comments in the back of my pocket calendar because they seemed necessary for me to keep close at hand. The book was Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence by Fr. Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure and here’s his expert opinion:
“If you are the father or mother of a family, you ought to conform your will to God’s with regard to the number or sex of the children He pleases to give you. When men were animated by the spirit of faith they regarded a large family as a gift of God and a blessing from heaven and considered God more than themselves as the father of their children.” He went on to say, “Never be afraid of relying too much on Him, but rather seek always to increase your trust more and more, for this is the most pleasing homage you can pay Him and it will be the measure of the graces you will receive. Little or much will be given you according as you have expected little or much.”
If Pope Francis issues us in the direction of our pastors as experts in the matter, there could be a difference in the direction we receive. The pope warned a mother, who was expecting her eighth child to be delivered by cesearean section, that she was tempting God, but Fr. Saint-Jure seems to instruct that we should never be afraid to rely too much on God. That leaves room for one to wonder what exactly makes someone an expert in guiding a couple in their family planning.
As an NFP teacher, I concur that there are licit means of postponing a child, but we must be clear that licit does not mean required. When we began teaching NFP a decade ago, we encouraged couples to prayerfully discern each cycle whether or not they had a serious reason to postpone a pregnancy. Later, the word serious was changed to a just reason
(the change being attributed to a better translation) and now we have discarded both of those terms and replaced them with responsible parenthood.
I think the argument could be made in either direction as to whether in our age/culture the words (serious, just, responsible parenthood) bear the same weight and express the same meaning. But the more important point is that couples need to ask God (continually) to align their will with His, not the other way around. Fr. Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure says,
“He (God) promises solemnly to give them not only life everlasting but a hundredfold all things they deny themselves to please Him in this life (Matt 19:24). He further promises to ease the burden of His cross so as to lighten it; for He not only says that His yoke is sweet but adds that His burden is light (Matt 11:30). If then we do not experience the sweetness of Christ’s yoke not the lightness of the burden of the cross, it must be because we have not yet made the denial of our will and completely given up own human outlook so as to consider things in the light of faith.
Interestingly, Pope Francis said, “Another curious thing in relation to this is that for the 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.” He seems to acknowledge that some, but clearly not all, recognize a child as a treasure and he mentions the generosity of parents who see children as a treasure.
Of course, we should acknowledge the audiences he was considering when these comments were made. Because an impoverished, third world parent, who has no means of providing for a child’s basic needs, is not at all the same as the parent, who lives in a modern subdivision and eats five meals a day. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to use a broad brush in applying this idea of what exactly is responsible parenthood. Additionally, there is a real danger in one group discerning what is best for another (thinking of China’s one-child policy).
Clearly, his comments could use a bit more clarification, but I suppose it is a good that he has once again spurred a conversation about what the Church actually teaches. The large family is not by default more faithful, but neither is the small family automatically more responsible. There are licit means for planning a family, but there can be illicit intentions for doing so. We must all learn to listen. Not to the noisy banter of the media or even of those who might wish to serenade us with their opinions, we must listen to the small voice Who knows what is truly best for us, His children.
“It is very different from the serenity of spirit to be found in parents who are surrounded by a rich abundance of young lives. The joy that comes from the plentiful blessings of God breaks out in a thousand different ways and there is no fear that it will end. The brows of these fathers and mothers may be burdened with cares, but there is never a trace of that inner shadow that betrays anxiety of conscience or fear of an irreparable return to loneliness, Their youth never seems to fade away, as long as the sweet fragrance of a crib remains in the home, as long as the walls of the house echo to the silvery voices of children and grandchildren.
“Their heavy labors multiplied many times over, their redoubled sacrifices and their renunciation of costly amusements are generously rewarded even here below by the inexhaustible treasury of affection and tender hopes that dwell in their hearts without ever tiring them or bothering them.” Pope Pius XII