In the News 2015

Pope Amuses and Insults With Remark on Parenting

Over the past two years, the world has become accustomed to Pope Francis’ folksy manner. Indeed, with his homespun anecdotes and off-the-cuff quips, the pope at times comes off more like a plainspoken uncle than the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

But with his latest choice of words — he said this week that Catholics should not feel compelled to breed “like rabbits” — the pope appears to have set a new standard for the papal vernacular, amusing to some and insulting to others.

Speaking to reporters Monday on a return flight from a weeklong pilgrimage to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, the pope made the remark about rabbits (“excuse the expression,” he added) and said Catholics should instead practice responsible parenthood, noting that various church-sanctioned options exist that do not defy the church’s ban on contraception.

The rabbit remark set the social media sphere aflame, mostly with delight. Photos of bunnies, and cartoons — not all publishable in a family newspaper — proliferated on Twitter. One user, Gabriel Sanchez, asked whether anyone knew “the official Eastern Orthodox position” on rabbits. “Has it developed or just been obscured over the decades?” he wrote.

Other users advised Catholics, “Hop to it.”

The Telegraph of Britain reported that German rabbit breeders were angered, accusing the pope of vilifying the species with spurious claims about its sex drive and saying he should have chosen his words more carefully.

In Italy, the pope invariably made front-page news; most newspaper editors found the rabbit reference hard to resist. One commentator for the Turin daily La Stampa rechristened the pope “Father Rabbit,” and archived the talk to posterity as the “Sermon of the Rabbit.”

But some Catholics were not amused, suggesting that Catholic doctrine was to blame for overly large Catholic families. A Twitter user named Rachel Penny, referring to birth control, said of the pope, “How does he propose women be responsible having fewer children if he refuses to support hormonal BC?” And Catholics for Choice, which opposes the church’s ban on contraception, said Francis’ remarks were “particularly troubling because of the Catholic hierarchy’s continued global war on birth control and reproductive choice.”

“Pope Francis needs to confess the sin he is guilty of — along with his brother bishops in the Catholic hierarchy — that of being a gatekeeper who stops people from making responsible decisions about sex,” the group said in a news release.

To make his point, Francis recalled a parishioner pregnant with her eighth child after seven cesarean sections. “Does she want to leave the seven as orphans?” the pope said. “This is to tempt God. I speak of responsible paternity.

“That woman might say, ‘No, I trust in God.’ But look, God gives you means to be responsible,” the pope added, chiding what he perceived as reckless behavior. Experts say three is the ideal number of children per family to maintain a population, he said.

The church condones natural family planning, which consists of periodic abstinence from sex when a woman is likely to be fertile.

The pope was responding to a journalist who had said that many Filipinos believed that the enormous poverty in the Philippines was due to overpopulation, and that many Filipinos disagreed with the church’s ban on contraception.

Citing his predecessor, the recently beatified Paul VI, whose 1968 encyclical expounded on the church’s opposition to contraception, Francis urged openness to life as a condition of marriage but said that did not mean that Christians had to “make children in series.”

But even explanations grounded in church doctrine left some people perplexed. One Twitter user, Richard Shaw, wondered, “What does this guy have against rabbits?”

This piece was originally published by the New York Times.

Catholics for Choice