Pope Francis is all over the news again. In his latest foray, he
on the responsibility of parents to manage the number of children they produce:
Telling the story of a woman he met in a parish in Rome several months ago who had given birth to seven children via cesarean section and was pregnant with an eighth, Francis asked: 'Does she want to leave the seven orphans?'
'This is to tempt God,' he said, adding later: 'That is an irresponsibility.' Catholics, the pope said, should speak of 'responsible parenthood.'
'God gives you methods to be responsible,' he continued. 'Some think that — excuse the word — that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No.' "
Whoa! A pope talking about the responsibility of parents to manage their reproductive systems! But he did so without relaxing the means by which Catholics can licitly space births. As late as last March, he claimed that
, the 1968 encyclical that condemned all forms of artificial birth control, was "prophetic." Yet he seemed to be backing away from the absolutist cliff that has so attracted his predecessors:
“The issue is not changing the doctrine, but going deeper and making sure that pastoral action takes into account that which is possible for people to do."
It's hard to know what to make of this mishmash of mixed signals. Parents need to be responsible (new). They must use God's methods of BC (old). We must account for what is possible (pastoral).
At the very least, Pope Francis is backing Catholics away from the position that parents are sinners when they want to limit the size of their families. And, given that most Catholics in Western countries have somewhat fewer than 10 kids these days, that makes for lots of sinners! That, like several other issues in the arsenal of conservative Catholics, has been used to justify judgements on which of the faithful were faithful enough. Francis wants us to consider human beings as just that, and to abandon the finger-pointing and exclusionary habit of the self-righteous.
Can Francis pull off this balancing act? Is there really a position that allows rule-idolizing Catholics to be faithful to Church teaching AND non-judgmental to those who can't follow the rules? I personally don't think there's enough room on that high-wire platform. But by introducing the idea that parents can licitly have a voice in managing their family size (as opposed to allowing "God" to determine their rate of procreation) he may begin to swing the conversation around a bit. By having the Church consider what is possible for real and ordinary people to do, he may have subverted the absolutist, near-impossible and silly idea that couples must focus their energies on the calendar, the quality of mucus and fluctuations in body temperature. And maybe that leaves more energy that can be expended on joy, love, partnership and the quality of their relationships.