VATICAN CITY (RNS) Less than a month after saying Catholics don’t have to multiply “like rabbits,” Pope Francis on Wednesday (Feb. 11) once again praised big families, telling a gathering in St. Peter’s Square that having more children is not “an irresponsible choice.”
He also said that opting not to have children at all is “a selfish choice.”
A society that “views children above all as a worry, a burden, a risk, is a depressed society,” Francis said.
Citing European countries where the fertility rate is especially low, the pope said “they are depressed societies because they don’t want children. They don’t have children. The birth rate doesn’t even reach 1 percent.”
He once again praised the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, that reiterated the ban against artificial contraception while enjoining Catholics to practice “responsible parenthood” by spacing out births as necessary.
Francis added, however, that having more children “cannot automatically become an irresponsible choice.”
“Not to have children is a selfish choice,” he said. “Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished!”
During an in-flight news conference on his return to Rome from the Philippines last month, Francis was asked about his strong defense of traditional families during his visit and he answered by again urging parents to have children and not to heed those who say that overpopulation is the source of the world’s problems.
But the pope also said that Christians should not be “irresponsible” by making children “in series.” He added that it’s a myth “that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits.”
His words immediately prompted a furious debate over whether Francis was revising the church’s teaching on birth control — he wasn’t — while many conservative Catholics fretted that his penchant for making impromptu remarks had once again clouded an issue that should be crystal clear.
At his general audience in the Vatican two days later, Francis tried to recalibrate his remarks, praising big families for “welcoming children as a true gift of God,” words that seemed aimed at clarifying his views.
Francis has frequently used his public audience in St. Peter’s Square as a venue to focus on the importance of the family.
In his talk, Francis repeatedly praised children as “the joy of family and society” and the key to humanity’s future. As he often does, he departed from his prepared text to speak off the cuff, at one point noting that he was one of five children growing up in Argentina, and that when his mother was asked which was her favorite child she would compare them to her five fingers.
“If you hit this one it hurts me, if you hit that one, it hurts me,” he recalled his mother saying. “All of them are mine. All of them are different, like the fingers on a hand.”
Francis also spoke of pregnant women at the weekly audiences who seek his blessing for the child in their womb, and “how beautiful it is, when I pass among you and I see the dads and moms who lift up their children to be blessed.”
“This is a quasi-divine gesture! Thank you for doing it!” he said.
The pope’s comments on childbearing and selfishness might spark some commentary, but they are not likely to produce as many headlines as his improvised comments the previous week when he seemed to signal that it was OK for parents to spank their children.
“One time, I heard a father say, ‘At times I have to hit my children a bit, but never in the face so as not to humiliate them,’” the pope said. “That’s great,” Francis continued. “He had a sense of dignity. He should punish, do the right thing, and then move on.”