Someone is getting lost in all this talk about Francis and rabbits

I have many thoughts about Pope Francis’ comments about family size, birth control, and rabbits, made yesterday during an interview with reporters as the Holy Father returned to Rome from his trip to the Philippines. But a couple things in particular stick out now that the virtual ink has begun to flow and Francis’ words are being taken apart and reassembled all over the Internet to fit various agendas and narratives.

It is true that the Pope’s comments have been (predictably) mangled in much of the media coverage of them. He didn’t use the word “breed”; he didn’t say that having three children “is about right.” My mantra after one of these papal interviews is usually: read what he actually said. Many times the shock (and, in some quarters, horror) stirred by sensational headlines dissipates when folks read what he actually said.

While the headlines are misleading in this case, I think many Catholics still are justified in their concern about Francis’ comments.

Start with the rabbits. Matthew Schmitz over at First Things has a good explanation of why the Holy Father’s use of the term is unfortunate, even if the context is a defense of Church teaching:

I fear that as a result of Pope Francis’ comment, and counter to his intention, an old anti-Catholic slur…is about to be revived with a new vigor. If so, one lesson will be that there must be responsibility in how we speak as well as in how we love.

I think it is worth noting that even the Pope seemed to think the rabbits reference was, at least, somewhat indelicate; he asks his audience to “excuse his language” before using the term.

But the rabbit thing is actually not the most objectionable part of what the Holy Father said, in my opinion. One critical element of Francis’ comments has been lost in much of the commentary I’ve read: the woman the Pope decided to hold up as an example of irresponsible parenting.

This woman is missing completely from the Vatican Information Service summary of Francis’ comments. The “rabbits” crack, which did make the cut at VIS, is a reference to an age-old anti-Catholic slur, appropriated in this context to promote licit means of limiting family size; the pregnant mother of eight is an actual person, out there in the real world somewhere, who, according to some translations, was “rebuked” by the Pope for getting knocked up again and then used to illustrate what “being like rabbits” presumably looks like.

(As an aside: if Francis did, in fact, “rebuke” this woman, one wonders what pastoral goal he thought would be well-served by telling the already-pregnant mother that she was being irresponsible by having another baby.)

Pope Francis mentions her twice in the interview; I think it is worth it to read those parts again (this is from the Catholic News Agency transcript):

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. …

Each person with his pastor seeks how to do carry out a responsible parenthood. 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 an irresponsibility. That woman might say ‘no, I trust in God.’ But, look, God gives you means to be responsible.

It is, of course, possible that when he determined this woman was being “irresponsible,” the Holy Father was aware of her reproductive history, her family-planning methods, her reasons for having a large family, and her doctor’s opinion of those seven c-sections and her eighth pregnancy. If he did not have this information, his comments begin to look a lot like something many Catholic mothers have to suffer regardless of the number of children they have: uninformed criticism and shaming about the size of their families.

If a Catholic woman is perceived as not having a large enough family, she can face speculation about whether or not she’s using contraception or whether her reasons for limiting the size of her family are sufficiently “grave.” If she’s perceived as having too large a family, she might be called a “breeder,” or get asked if she and her husband have a TV, or, yes, be compared to a rabbit.

This kind of judgmentalism is a real problem in Catholic circles, both “traditional” and “progressive.” It is spiritually dangerous to the people who dish it out (I can say this from personal experience) and can be devastating to women on the receiving end of it (I can also say this from personal experience).

I fear that hearing the Pope make such a harsh statement, apparently based on very little information—and make it to an airplane full of reporters—will only encourage the kind of gossipy judgmentalism that is so toxic to Catholic communities.

Catholic women—together with their husbands—have an obligation to form their consciences in accord with Church teaching and to make prudential decisions about the number and spacing of their children. But each of us—including the Pope—needs to resist the temptation to look at the externals of a woman’s situation and jump to conclusions about how and why she got there. Who are we to judge?

About Catherine Harmon 567 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.