Of rabbits, dogs and kitty-cats -- and Catholics and popes

Originally Appeared in : 9803-2/1/18

Pope Francis has an amazing rapport with the media, whose representatives respond positively to his warmth and informal style. As a result, the Holy Father appears regularly—almost daily—in news reports. The “Francis effect” has, for the most part, been very beneficial to the Catholic Church throughout the world. 


But, occasionally, media reports about the pope have turned out to be erroneous; at other times, they may have been correct, but have been repeated out of context, resulting in unnecessary confusion.


One example of an erroneous report circulated a few weeks ago. It was bandied about that Pope Francis, at a general audience in November, had “sought to comfort a distraught boy whose dog had died,” taking “the sort of pastoral approach he is famous for — telling the youngster not to worry, that he would one day see his pet in heaven. ‘Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures’,” the media quoted Francis as saying. Headlines around the globe blared, “Pope: All dogs go to heaven”; comics quickly added, “Francis: All cats go to hell.” It turns out that Pope Francis had said nothing about the souls of animals—canine, feline or otherwise— at the audience in question. The best the media could come up with as a “source” for their story was a distinction once made by Blessed Paul VI between the “irrational” souls of animals and the rational souls of human beings, who are created in the image and likeness of God.


An example of  “out-of-context” reporting was the attention paid to a remark made by the pope on his flight from the Philippines back to Rome that led to headlines around the world: “Pope: Good Catholics don’t have to breed like rabbits” — as if previous popes had taught otherwise! What Pope Francis said was much more complex: “Openness to life is a condition for the sacrament of marriage. Paul VI studied this; he looked at what could be done to help, so many cases, so many problems… important problems that affect family love. But there was something else.” Paul VI’s rejection of contraception in the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) was in opposition to “a universal neo-Malthusianism which was calling on world powers to control birth rates: births in Italy dropped to less than 1 percent and the same in Spain.” Pope Francis added, “Paul VI was a prophet.”


Having said this, Francis made it clear that the Church’s opposition to contraception “does not mean Christians must have one child after the other.” Here, the pope was, in fact, echoing another teaching of Paul VI.  A year before Humanae Vitae was issued, Pope Paul published an important encyclical, Populorum progressio (“On the Development of Peoples”, 1967), in which he reflected on the “population crisis” in the following terms: “It is true that too frequently an accelerated demographic increase adds its own difficulties to the problems of development: the size of the population increases more rapidly than available resources, and things are found to have reached apparently an impasse.” Blessed Paul VI frankly acknowledged that the “population boom” could have dire consequences. But he also warned, prophetically, of the great temptation “to check the demographic increase by means of radical measures.” 


The Catholic Church has always held, that “it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general” (Humanae Vitae). In other words, even when faced by a crisis, it is always necessary to choose licit means to achieve good ends. 


Pope Paul taught that “it is for the parents to decide, with full knowledge of the matter, on the number of their children, taking into account their responsibilities towards God, themselves, the children they have already brought into the world, and the community to which they belong.” The Church does not ignore, let alone deny the perils of unbridled population growth, but acknowledges the legitimacy and even the necessity of applying “human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator” (Humanae Vitae). Therefore parents have the right and the duty to take all these factors into account in determining the number of children they bring into the world, provided that they employ only moral means to achieve their ends.


In the same vein, Pope Francis stressed responsible parenthood, saying that each couple should work out how to exercise this with the help of their pastor… This is why there are marriage support groups in the Church with people who are experts on such issues. He added that there are “many acceptable solutions that have helped with this” — such as Natural Family Planning. 


With one headline-grabbing phrase — about “breeding like rabbits” — Pope Francis reiterated, to a world that had forgotten it, Blessed Paul VI’s assertion of the right and duty of parents to determine responsibly the size of their families, in the light of both reason and morality. 


(Reprinted from the February 5, 2015 issue of the Southern Cross.)


Father Douglas K. Clark is pastor of St. Matthew Church in Statesboro.

Go to top