Pope Francis recently flip-flopped on his views of procreation, which have always been decidedly Catholic but added a new twist to the religion's stance on family planning. After saying in a press conference several weeks ago that Catholics should not breed "like rabbits," Francis scolded childless families this week, walking back on his comments that could have signified a small but key turning point for reproductive rights in Catholicism.
During his weekly address, which focused on the role of children in society, Francis warned that we have become a "greedy generation" that doesn't "surround itself with children." The pope chastised people for seeing children as "a weight, a risk," causing a "depressed society."
If a generous family of children is viewed as if it were a burden, there is something wrong! As the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI teaches, but having more children cannot be automatically viewed as an irresponsible choice. The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished!
Too long, didn't read: Yes, breed like rabbits. Do it for the Vatican.
His most recent statements, particularly the claim that having a large family is not "an irresponsible choice," is a complete spin from the Francis we knew last month. Then, Francis told reporters in an impromptu in-flight press conference following his trip to Asia that Catholics should practice "responsible parenthood."
The pontiff told a story about a woman he met who was pregnant with her eighth child; she delivered her previous seven children by cesarean section. Francis was alarmed that the woman would put herself through these medical risks, reportedly asking: "Does she want to leave the seven orphans?"
Francis also claimed in January that God gives people "methods to be responsible." He said that while some Catholics believe "that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits," that wasn't the case.
The pontiff, who's been confusing liberal and conservatives alike for his life-affirming views on gay Catholics and priests while also upholding traditionalist doctrine, seemed to make yet another unprecedented statement that incited a new conversation on reproductive rights. The Catholic Church has long looked down upon family planning, stating that married couples should be "open" to children each time they have sex. While the church does promote Natural Family Planning — an all-natural form of birth control — to help couples space out pregnancies, the church does not propose limiting the number of children and emphasizes that procreation is the crux of marriage.
Francis' previous comments raised the possibility of parents practicing "moral responsibility" with family planning, opening a dialogue on when it's right to have children and to not have children. It was a way for Catholics to discuss realistic parenthood, such as being unable to afford and provide for a large family.
His anecdote about the woman on her eighth pregnancy also showed concern for maternal health, and may have triggered a debate about how Catholics should handle health risks for pregnant women. Along with artificial contraception, the Catholic Church is against abortion in all cases, including when a woman's life is at risk, even though the church believes life should be protected at all costs. With Francis worrying about a woman dying during childbirth, leaving her seven children orphaned, he may have eventually showed more compassion for women who are dying during pregnancy and need a life-saving abortion.
But this latest backpedaling, which surely panders to conservative Catholics, again sets the Catholic Church back a few decades while also shaming childless couples in the process. There are many married Catholic couples out there who never had children, yet that doesn't rob their marriages of value or dignity.
Francis, too, needs to question why not every woman or man feels the need to be a mother or a father. Despite our biological functions, these roles are not a one-size-fit-all for every human being. Perhaps it would be more irresponsible for the Catholic Church to push parenthood on those who aren't ready, or were never called to it in the first place.
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