Reverberations Continue From Pope’s ‘Rabbits’ Remark

Critics say it’s open to interpretation as an insult to large families, but supporters stress the context of a strong papal affirmation of Church teaching against contraception.

Pope Francis speaks with journalists aboard the plane from Manila to Rome on Jan. 19.
Pope Francis speaks with journalists aboard the plane from Manila to Rome on Jan. 19. (photo: Alan Holdren/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has sparked more than a little controversy by commenting on the papal plane returning from Manila that, in order to be good Catholic parents, it is not necessary to “be like rabbits.”

His remarks were made in response to a question from German journalist Christoph Schmidt, who wanted to know the Pope’s thoughts on the Church’s ban on artificial contraception in the face of global population growth.

The Holy Father referred to his earlier comments at the airborne press conference, in which he answered another German journalist, Jan Christoph Kitzler, also on the issue of contraception. The Pope said, “I met a woman some months ago in a parish who was pregnant with her eighth child, who had had seven C-sections. But does she want to leave the seven as orphans? This is to tempt God. I speak of responsible paternity. This is the way: a responsible paternity.”

Responding to Schmidt, the Pope said: “[That woman might say], ‘No, but I trust in God.’ But God gives you methods to be responsible. Some think that, excuse me if I use that word, 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 seek [out], and I know so many, many ways that are licit and that have helped this.”

The Pope’s comments provoked anger among many parents of large Catholic families, who are occasionally disparaged in public. Among the insults are frequent accusations that they are “breeding like rabbits.”


Parents of Large Families

Former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, a Catholic father of seven, said, “It’s sometimes very difficult to listen to the Pope and some of the things he says off the cuff, and this is one of them.”

He questioned whether the Pope’s words reflected openness to life, which is “a core value of the faith and of the Catholic Church.” He said he did not know “what the Pope was referring to” and felt he was perhaps “speaking to people in the Third World.” But Santorum stressed that, “in most of the Catholic world,” with the notable exception of Europe, where birth rates have long been declining, the problem is certainly not procreation.

Santorum later expanded on his comments, telling Newsmax TV Jan. 23: “I don’t have a problem with the Pope when he talks about the doctrine of the Church. … The issue is what the media will do with some phrases that are out there.”

Priscilla McCaffrey, a Catholic American who has nine siblings — one of whom has had seven C-sections and eight children — expressed her dismay at the Pope’s comments. She stressed that her mother left 100 descendants, all of whom were “grateful for her generosity.” She also said she was glad her parents “never heard a pastor or pope say what is only heard from vulgar and mean sections of society.”  

Concerned that the Pope’s words will give pause to large families facing challenges in raising their children, she said: “We are left to wonder whose side Pope Francis is on.” The world mocks large families already, she added, “and now the Pope?”


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But Opus Dei Father Robert Gahl, professor of moral philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, welcomed the Pope’s remarks.

“Francis was very careful when referring to ‘rabbits’ and even apologized in advance to make sure that no one would be offended,” he said. “No one ever has to engage in intercourse. We are all free. The Pope’s point was that freedom entails using our reason to exercise control over our bodies, including our sexuality.” 

Father Gahl added, “Love depends upon freedom. While we ought to always rely upon God’s providence, it can be rash to run an excessive risk. While confiding in God, we should act responsibly.”

Although she felt the transcript of the Pope’s remarks was a “little muddled,” perhaps due to language difficulties, Joan Clements, a senior teacher of the Billings Ovulation Method of natural family planning, said she was “delighted” that the Pope had “come out publicly” to reiterate the Church’s teaching that “openness to life is intrinsic to marriage and that contraception is illicit.”

She said it was “entirely appropriate, given that he was asked the question in terms of population growth, that he referred to responsible parenthood.” Unlike artificial contraception, she said the Billings method entirely accords with Church teaching and allows couples not only to regulate their fertility but also to enhance communication, cooperation and caring between the spouses.

Father Gahl also welcomed the controversy the Pope’s comments have caused. “Over a billion are waiting for his next pithy statement, while knowing that it will provoke thought, prick the conscience and maybe cause conversion,” he said. “People love Francis for his quick wit, folksy authenticity and eloquent neologisms.”


‘Inevitable Downside’

He noted “an inevitable downside to all the attention and picturesque metaphors” and how, when summaries of his conversations make it sound as though he compared mothers to rabbits, “then confusion ensues, and some would prefer him to stick to ex cathedra pronouncements.”

But he also pointed out that dissenters from the Church were upset by the Pope’s comments because they were hoping he would grant a dispensation from the Church’s ban on contraception to the mother who had experienced seven difficult deliveries.

“The Pope cannot dispense with the moral law,” he said. “Mercy is of a piece with justice, truth and human dignity. What he can do is offer guidance to deal with a difficult situation.”

He stressed that Francis “contrasted copulating rabbits with marital love to explain the need for families [to have children] based on the unconditional and responsible love between husband and wife.” In doing so, Father Gahl said Francis is “promoting the generosity of openness to new life. He knows that children require sacrifice and that such sacrifice is rewarding.”

By relying on the teachings of Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II, Father Gahl said, Francis “encourages couples to use their freedom responsibly, to love with respect for one another and to exercise control through natural family planning when serious reasons require doing so.”

And noting that Francis often reminds the faithful of a throwaway culture that includes killing the unborn and demographic collapse, Father Gahl said the Pope “has the long view of generational change and the promotion of human dignity.”

But critics say the nuances and theological background that contextualize the Pope’s off-the-cuff comments will be lost on average people, especially if they are not Catholic. Not only that, they say the words will be used against them.

Priscilla McCaffrey’s husband, Roger, publisher of Roman Catholic Books, is concerned the comment will be used derogatively against mothers, “this time in supermarket lines and malls and rec centers, one mother at a time.” He also believes the remark “is handing red meat to anti-Catholic wolves.”


‘Every Child Is a Blessing’

The Pope tried to defuse the strong reaction to his “rabbits” comment by saying at his Jan. 21 weekly general audience that “every child is a blessing” and that having many children is not a cause of poverty, but, rather, poverty is due to “an economic system that has removed the person from its center.”

“We have grown used to seeing people being discarded,” Francis said Jan. 21. “This is the main cause of poverty, not families.”

Those comments affirm what the Holy Father told Italy’s Association of Large Families on Dec. 28, 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,” Francis said. “Every family is a cell of society, but large families are richer and more vital cells.”

The Pope later reportedly apologized for the effect his comments had caused. Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, sostituto at the Secretariat of State, said the Pope was “truly sorry” his remarks had “created such confusion", especially to large families. The archbishop told Avvenire the Pope was “a bit surprised” his words were not “fully contextualized” with respect to Humanae Vitae and the encyclical's teaching on responsible parenthood.


Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.