Good Catholics don’t need to breed "like rabbits", says Pope Francis. Speaking on board the papal plane returning from the Philippines, he also explained he recently rebuked a woman expecting her eighth child having already had seven caesareans.
These are startling and unprecedented statements from a Pope. They also seem like an attempt to soften church teaching on contraception.
Yet at the same time, the Pope has defended Humanae Vitae – Pope Paul VI’s encyclical that re-affirmed the ban on artificial methods of family planning - as prophetic.
“Paul VI was not antiquated, close minded. No, [he was] a prophet again who with this [encyclical] told us to watch out for the Neo-Malthusianism that is coming,” the Pope said.
The main point of the encyclical, Francis said, is the importance of couples of being “open to life” and being willing to have children. This must be done responsibly, he said, and stressed: “God gives you methods to be responsible. Some think that, excuse me if I use that word, that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits.”
Interestingly, the Pope does not specify which methods should be used, although it is assumed he is talking about natural family planning.
This is important because for many years debates in the Church have centred on the nature of the sexual act, stressing that intercourse must have a procreative element to it.
The Pope appears to be moving the discussion away from obsessing over the purpose of each and every sexual act to more general principles behind Humanae Vitae. Francis is not, however, in the business of being overly prescriptive over how the number of births is regulated.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, often dubbed the Pope’s theologian, put it this way to me when I interviewed him last year: “To promote a sense that to have children is a good thing, that is the primary thing. Then how to do it and how not to do it, that is a secondary question,” he said adding that natural methods can also have “artificial means”.
The Pope is in a difficult position. He cannot simply abrogate Humanae Vitae, but he knows artificial that contraception is widely used by many Catholics in the Western world. One of Francis’ favourite phrases is “reality is more important than ideas”. The reality is that for some time there has been a yawning gap between the Church’s official teaching on contraception and the lived experiences of married couples. This may be Francis’ attempt to bridge it.