While reasserting that Catholic couples should be open to life, Pope Francis also said they should practice “responsible parenthood,” not just having all the children they can.
“Some think,” the Pope said, “that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood!”
These words came in response to a journalist’s question aboard the flight from the Philippines back to Rome on Monday. It followed up on the Pope’s words in Manila where he reaffirmed Catholic teaching on the immorality of contraception, praising Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical letter “Humanae Vitae” on the regulation of birth.
“This does not mean that the Christian must make children in series,” Francis said. Referring to his own pastoral experience, the Pope said that several months ago, he “rebuked a woman” who was pregnant for the eighth time, after seven births by cesarean section. “But do you want to leave seven orphans? That is to tempt God!” he told her.
He called this an example of “irresponsibility.” That woman might say, “No, but I trust in God,” Francis continued. “But God gives you methods to be responsible.”
The Pope reiterated Catholic teaching that “openness to life is a condition for the sacrament of matrimony,” noting that there is no sacrament of marriage if the husband and wife “are not in accord on this point of openness to life.” He noted, in fact, that if it can be proved that either spouse married with the intention of preventing children, “the matrimony is null.”
Francis called his predecessor Paul VI “a prophet” because he was able to see “the Neo-Malthusianism that is coming,” referring to forced population-control programs.
In this regard, Francis also made reference to the phenomenon of declining populations in Europe. “Less than one percent birth rate in Italy,” he said. “The same in Spain. That Neo-Malthusianism that seeks to control humanity on behalf of the powers (that be).”
A reporter asked the Pope how the Church responds to criticisms about its position on birth control, given the growth in the world population and the theory that poverty in the Philippines is due to Filipino women having an average of three children each.
The Pope responded that according to experts, three children per family are necessary “to keep the population going.” When it goes below this, he said, “the other extreme happens, like what is happening in Italy.” Francis also said he had heard that by 2024, “there will be no money to pay pensioners” because of the population decline.
The Pope said that the answer is “responsible parenthood,” referring to the regulation of birth by natural family planning, involving periodic abstinence during the woman’s fertile times. He said that the practice of family planning also involves dialogue. “Each person with his pastor seeks how to live that responsible parenthood.”
Francis noted that “in the church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors,” and he said there are “many, many ways out that are licit.”
The Pope also pointed out that “for the poorest people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here, too, but for them a child is a treasure,” he said, praising “the generosity of that father and mother that see a treasure in every child.”
The Pope’s week-long trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, where he celebrated Mass before seven million faithful, was the seventh international trip of his pontificate.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.