Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
As we welcome a new month, I hope and pray for all of you, that you continue to grow in faith, hope, and love, experiencing God’s mercy in your life and sharing with others the great gifts God has given to you. Many great saints have taught us that this is the only path to happiness in this life, and to the eternal joy of union with God in the next.
Two weeks ago, during his press conference, returning to Rome from his visit to the Philippines, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, said some things about “responsible parenthood” and family size that may have caused some distraction or confusion for some of you. I have received some emails and calls at the chancery about this, and I hope I can reassure you that the church’s teachings on this topic have not changed and will not change.
Many secular news sources quoted Pope Francis as saying, in response to one question, “I met a woman some months ago in a parish who was pregnant with her eighth child, after having seven caesarean births. Do you want to leave seven orphans? This is tempting God. We speak about responsible parenthood. This is the way, responsible parenthood.”
Taken on its own, this might seem to mean that having more than a few children is itself “irresponsible.” And of course, for the secular mind-set, “responsible parenthood” means extensive use of artificial contraception. Even though we know that artificial contraception is, in fact, rather irresponsible for spouses, since it leads to real harm to children – namely, divorce, abortion, and related ills – the world still forces on us the assumption that contracepting is the only reasonable way.
These same news sources, however, did not report the Holy Father’s words supporting the church’s teaching. In the very same answer, he also said, “What did I want to say about Paul VI? Openness to life is the condition of the Sacrament of Matrimony. A man cannot give the sacrament to the woman, and the woman give it to him, if they are not in agreement on this point, to be open to life.”
He also said, “Paul VI did not have an antiquated, closed mind. No, he was a prophet who, with this, told us to beware of Neo-Malthusianism, which is coming.”
The teachings of the church on contraception, so clearly explained by Blessed Paul VI in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” are therefore indispensable to what the church means by “responsible parenthood.” To be responsible as parents striving to love and follow Jesus Christ means to be open to life and faithful to your spouse, discerning and cooperating carefully with God in the number and spacing of the children he wants to give you. If we only listen to the secular media, we would have no idea that the Holy Father said and meant this!
In the same way, in response to another question, the secular media reported widely that Pope Francis said, “I believe that the number of three per family, which you mentioned, is important, according to the experts, for maintaining the population…. Some people believe that — pardon my language — in order to be good Catholics, we should be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood.”
Again, the secular media did not report the very next sentence the Holy Father said: “When it is below this level, you have the other extreme, as for example in Italy, where I have heard — I don’t know if it is true — that in 2024 there will be no money left to pay pensioners. Population decrease.” A few moments later, he also said, “For very poor people, a child is a treasure.”
So what Pope Francis actually meant was that, in general, three children per family is the minimum for a healthy society, not the maximum. (I hasten to add that this does not imply any condemnation of those who, while being open to God’s plan and open to life, might not be given three or more children. Pope Francis was speaking at the broadest level, not about any specific family or situation.)
The loud response of the many faithful Catholics who objected publicly to what the Pope was reported to have said earned a clarification at the following week’s Wednesday audience.
There, the Holy Father said, “Healthy families are essential to the life of a society. It gives consolation and hope to see so many large families that welcome children as a gift from God. They know that every child is a blessing. I have heard it said by some that families with many children and the birth of many children are among the causes of poverty. That opinion seems simplistic to me. I can say, we can all say, that the main cause of poverty is an economic system that has canceled the person from the centre and set money in its place; an economic system that excludes, always excludes: excludes children, the elderly, young people, the unemployed… and that creates the throw-away culture we live in. We are accustomed to seeing people discarded. This is the main cause of poverty, not large families.”
Both of these points are quite true. Large families are not the cause of poverty. Indeed, in general, people produce more wealth, goods, and ideas than they consume in the course of their life. This is why we can hope to leave wealth to our children, and why a healthy and stable society can grow over time, and why healthy and stable families are the single greatest key to that social and economic growth. This is also why we can strive to be “for others,” not just in a spiritual and moral sense, but also in a social, economic and political sense.
Likewise, Pope Francis is saying that when we are not “for others” in both these senses, we distort the good. We end up valuing other things more than God and neighbor, and thus we end up “discarding” other people, treating them more as means to our selfish ends, than as actual people. And as Blessed Pope Paul VI so “prophetically” pointed out in Humanae Vitae, the practice of artificial contraception is one of the main ways in which we slide into just that kind of indifference to our neighbor. For indeed, how can we possibly aspire to have a more loving attitude to those outside our family, than the way we treat those closest to us?
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, hold fast to your faith! Pope Francis has some important things to say. We need to be always cautious in how the secular press shares them.
Please don’t panic when you read something that doesn’t sound quite right! The world and the devil want us to be weak in faith, to fall into doubt and laxity, to behave even in our own homes as if we have no faith. Do not be led astray! “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). He will increase our faith, and shower us with grace and mercy, if we follow him with all our heart.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City