Pope Francis, on his way home from his visit to the Philippines this week, raised eyebrows when he said that Catholics don’t have to have so many children: “Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits, but no.”
While his off-the-cuff comments may have garnered chuckles from some people, many others are offended and point to the Church’s central role in denying women access to birth control.
Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said the comments were anything but amusing.
“There’s no doubt that bunnies are furry, cuddly, and comedic. When you start talking about it, it’s sort of hilarious. But Catholics the world over have had to suffer discrimination and prejudice because of the idea that we can’t control our fertility,” O’Brien said in an interview with Rewire. “I think that the Pope’s remarks were offensive. I don’t think he says them with malice. I think the problem for Pope Francis is that he has a blind spot in relation to women.
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The Pope’s comments were said in reference to a woman he had met on the trip who has had seven cesarean sections and is now risking her life to have an eighth child. The Pope called this an example of “irresponsibility” and said that though the woman might argue that she had trusted in God, she’d be wrong.
“But God gives you methods to be responsible,” he said.
O’Brien said he was upset by the accusatory nature of those remarks: “To have Pope Francis pointing a finger as if to say that women are feckless and irresponsible is awful,” O’Brien said. “How dare he talk about this woman like that. Women have had to carry a huge burden in the Catholic Church because of an intransigent hierarchy that has waged war on contraception. Women have died.”
The Pope essentially suggested that this woman had had too many children. He went on to say that three children was the ideal number to demonstrate responsible parenting because it assured re-population.
O’Brien found these comments disrespectful of women and couples “who in good conscience are deciding how many children they should have.”
O’Brien and others noted that the Pope’s comments are particularly disturbing given that he was leaving the Philippines, a country that has used the Church’s doctrine against birth control to significantly restrict access to family planning, especially for poor women.
Emily Rauhala, a correspondent for TIME, has been following the politics of birth control in the Philippines for many years. She wrote:
The Philippines’ Catholic hierarchy has fought long and hard to restrict access to prophylactics. Over the past few decades, as most countries embraced family planning, the Philippines has moved in the opposite direction, discouraging the use of contraception and prohibiting abortion under any circumstance. They cast condom use as anti-Catholic and anti-Filipino, insisting that couples ought to use “natural methods.”
In fact, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has successfully fought a bill to help poor women access contraception. Even after the bill passed, the Church continued to fight it by involving the courts and challenging the law’s constitutionality.
Still, Pope Francis was confident that Catholics could control the number of children they have while sticking to the rules of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which prohibits use of any modern methods of contraception.
“This is why there are marriage support groups in the Church with people who are experts on such issues. And there are pastors and I know that there are many acceptable solutions that have helped with this,” he said.
Presumably the Pope was pointing to natural family planning, which requires tracking a woman’s cycle and remaining abstinent on her most fertile days. O’Brien thinks this is ridiculous.
“Everyone knows that natural family planning is a phenomenal failure,” he said, pointing out that Catholic women with options choose anything else.
In fact, 99 percent of Catholic women in the United States have used modern methods of contraception. Perhaps so that they didn’t have to breed like bunnies.