Pope Francis jumped into the media spotlight recently, with attention-grabbing comments on patterns of procreation, saying that humans do not need to “be like rabbits,” but that “God gives you methods to be responsible.”
Francis pointed to “responsible parenthood” as the key to Catholic family life: Rather than having as many children as possible, couples should exercise prudence in their sexuality and consider some licit ways of managing pregnancies, according to Church teaching.
Francis’ comments ought to give pause to all of us living out vocations as husbands and wives. To be sure, our vows bind us to “accept children lovingly from God.” Francis’ advice, however, forces us to reconsider what form such acceptance should take. The Pope’s phrasing predictably found traction in some circles as a drastic modification to Church doctrine (often mistakenly referred to as “policy,” as though a meeting of the board of Catholic, Inc. could simply rewrite the item in question).
But a quick glance at the Church’s recent history shows us that the ideas behind Francis’ comments have been readily apparent for some time now.
In 1930, the same year that the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion offered limited support for artificial birth control, Pope Pius XI issued Casti Connubbii (Christian Marriage), which condemned such methods as “an offense to the law of God and of nature.” Pius cited St. Augustine favorably in the encyclical; however, on the saint’s argument against leaving one’s wife because of her sterility, the indissolubility of marriage took priority over the biological impossibility of conceiving children.
While Pius spoke at length about the responsibility of parents to raise their children in the faith, he also gestured to what Francis raised as a significant consideration for families: “No one can fail to see that children are incapable of providing wholly for themselves.” In other words, parents have an obligation to provide.
But it is Blessed Pope Paul VI that we can most easily turn to for historical precedent, just as Francis mentioned in his comments to the press — for it was Paul VI himself who used the exact phrase in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (Human Life) that has gotten so much attention: “Married love, therefore, requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood.”
And Paul made clear the entirely legitimate possibility of not “being like rabbits,” as Pope Francis said, teaching that responsible parenthood could involve avoiding conception “for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” due to reasons “physical, economic, psychological and social.”
Avoiding conception, then, represents a common thread running from Francis back to Pius XI (and further into history); however, an important component of such avoidance is the motivation and method behind it.
Do we avoid more children because we cannot legitimately provide for them? Or are we choosing greater material wealth?
Do we place artificial means between two people made in the image and likeness of God? Ultimately, our physical bodies do have the heavenly power to carry out the command of Genesis 1:28: to “be fruitful and increase in number.”
In an effort to remind Catholic families that we ought not treat the number of our children as an index of holiness, Francis simply reminded us that “increase” can take a variety of forms.
Michael Skaggs is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame.