Pope: ‘Responsible Parenthood’ Doesn’t Mean Birth Control

Aboard the papal plane back to Rome following his Philippines trip, Pope Francis affirms Humanae Vitae's teachings about the matter.

Pope Francis greets youth pilgrims in the Philippines on Jan. 18
Pope Francis greets youth pilgrims in the Philippines on Jan. 18 (photo: Alan Holdren/CNA)

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis backed Blessed Paul VI’s teaching against birth control and urged openness to life, but reminded couples that “responsible parenthood” does not require them “to be like rabbits” in order to be good Catholics.

“I believe that openness to life conditions the sacrament of matrimony. A man cannot give the sacrament to the woman, and the woman give it to him, if they are not in agreement on this point to be open to life,” Pope Francis said.

During a Jan. 19 press conference aboard Philippine Airlines flight PR 8010, two of 10 questions posed to Pope Francis referred to population growth and birth control.

Asked by a German journalist if the Church would open up to birth control as a means of population control and limiting poverty, he said that the openness to life of a married couple means “responsible parenthood.”

“The key word … and the one the Church always uses, and I do too, is ‘responsible parenthood.’ How do we do this? With dialogue,” said Pope Francis.

He said that churches have marriage groups, experts and pastors, adding, “I know so many ways out there that are licit and that have helped this.”

The Pope illustrated an example of “irresponsibility”: a pregnant woman he met recently, already with seven children, with each born by Caesarean section.

“Does she want to leave seven orphans?” he asked. “This is to tempt God.”

Her response could be, “No, I trust in God,” added Pope Francis.

“But God gives you methods to be responsible,” he continued. “Some think that, and excuse the word, in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits.”

“No, responsible parenthood,” he repeated emphatically.

Pope Francis’ words harken back to the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), in which Blessed Paul VI writes that it is “licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions” in order to space children for “serious motives,” such as physical or psychological health, among other factors.

The Church supports natural family planning — natural methods of spacing children that involve abstinence from sexual intercourse during a woman’s fertile period without the use of drugs, devices and surgical procedures. In this way, human sexuality and fertility are respected rather than suppressed.

In a separate question, the Pope said that in rejecting the use of birth control, Blessed Paul VI “gave us something more.”

“The refusal of Paul VI was not only to the personal problems … but he was watching the universal neo-Malthusianism that was in progress,” said the Holy Father.

He said this phenomenon today can be regognized in places like Spain and Italy, where the birth rate has plummeted to little more than one child per woman.

Pope Francis previously decried low birth rates in Italy during his Dec. 29 meeting with large families, calling on political and public leaders to offer support for parents with many children.

The drastically low birth rates are a sign of neo-Malthusianism, the Pope stressed to journalists on the plane, through which “powers have sought to control humanity.”

But this also “doesn’t mean that the Christians must make children serially,” he added.

“What I want to say was that Paul VI was not more antiquated, closed-minded. No, he was a prophet who said to watch out for the neo-Malthusianism that was coming,” he concluded.

During his trip to the Philippines, Pope Francis praised the words of Paul VI in supporting Church teaching on sexuality and openness to life.

Said Pope Francis, “He was a good pastor, and he warned his sheep about the wolves that were approaching, and from the heavens, he blesses us today.”