As you can probably tell, this has to do with of of Francis’ more famous interviews, which revolved around the soundbite “Catholics shouldn’t be like rabbits.” This was on his famous plane interview on his return from the Philippines in 2015. Many Catholics were up-in-arms about this, since they considered it an insult to large Catholic families. Many also thought he had said that three is the “ideal number” of children Catholics should have — another insult to large families! Clearly for them Pope Francis was not on board with Catholic teaching about family life.
This interview, I think, is a particularly good test of the supreme importance of Rule no. 3: Context, context, context. The context is supplied by the nature of both the question the Pope was asked and the questioner, which are very important here.
Let’s start with reading the whole question and answer. The Vatican transcription and translation of the entire interview are here.
The question was asked by a German journalist, Christoph Schmidt:
You spoke of the great numbers of children in the Philippines, and about how happy you were that there are so many children. But according to several polls, the majority of Filipinos think that the enormous growth of the Filipino population is one of the most important reasons for the immense poverty in the country. In the Philippines, on average, one woman gives birth to more than three children in her lifetime, and the Catholic position regarding contraception appears to be one of the few questions on which a great number of people in the Philippines do not agree with the Church. What are your thoughts on that?
Pope Francis answered:
I believe that the number of three per family, which you mentioned, is important, according to the experts, for maintaining the population. Three per couple. When it is below this level, you have the other extreme, as for example in Italy, where I have heard — I don’t know if it is true — that in 2024 there will be no money left to pay pensioners. Population decrease. That is why the key phrase for responding is one which the Church constantly uses, as I do: it is “responsible parenthood”. How does this work? With dialogue. Each person with his or her pastor has to try to exercise this responsible parenthood. The example I mentioned just now, about the woman who was expecting her eighth child and already had seven caesarean births: this is a form of irresponsibility. [Some might say:] “No, I trust in God”. “But, look, God gives you the means, be responsible”.
Some people believe that — pardon my language — in order to be good Catholics, we should be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood. This is clear and it is the reason why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this area, there are pastors, and people are trying. And I know of any number of solutions which are licit and have helped for this. You did well to ask me this. Something else is curious, which does not have to do with this directly, but is in fact related. For very poor people, a child is a treasure. True enough, here too one needs to be prudent. But for them a child is a treasure. God knows how to help them. Maybe some are not prudent in this area, that is true. Responsible parenthood. But we also need to consider the generosity of those fathers and mothers who see in every child a treasure. (Source)
First, we should note who the questioner was and what was being asked. A German journalist, with an undoubtedly secular attitude, asks in no uncertain terms why Catholics insist on having so many children, contributing to the population explosion in the Philippines. He apparently thought that even three children are too many for a couple to have. He clearly had a hostile attitude toward the Church in general and its teaching on contraception in particular. Pope Francis needs to counter this attitude and correct the misunderstanding. That is the context. And it is exactly what he proceeds to do.
To begin with, the Pope counters his questioner’s assertion about more than three children being too many. He simply points out that three is the minimum number needed to maintain the population. He clearly is not saying that three is the idea number of children for a Catholic couple to have. Careful reading in context makes a world of difference. I recall one lady in Mark Shea’s combox who was ranting at length about the Pope’s disdain for more than three children. I linked to the complete text and begged her to read it, and — a miracle almost unheard of in comboxes — she changed her mind! She even copied my link and shared it with others.
The next thing to notice is that the Pope is careful to explain what “responsible parenthood” is. His example of a woman who had actually undergone seven Caesarean sections offended a number of Catholics with large families, for some reason. He is obviously not criticizing all large families, nor saying that it is “irresponsible to have eight children” as LifeSite claimed, but commenting on the need to be prudent when a woman has medical difficulties.
But the thing that caused the most chatter was the “rabbits” remark. Now notice how this fits in the context. The journalist has essentially thrown this “Catholics are like rabbits” slur at the Pope without actually using the words. And the Pope’s introduction? “Some people believe that — pardon my language — in order to be good Catholics, we should be like rabbits.” Who are the “some people”? Who usually uses this kind of language? Catholics? No, anti-Catholics. The Pope even begs pardon of his Catholic audience for the remark, because he knows it’s offensive to Catholics. And he makes it clear to the secular audience that he knows that they make this kind of remark. He then goes on to refute it by showing instead that Catholics believe in responsible parenthood and that thee are legitimate ways to limit the number of children you have. He also goes on to praise those who might be imprudent in some people’s eyes, but are still generous in having large families. All in all, a masterful defense of Catholic teaching. What exactly is LifeSite News complaining about again? And why? Well, the “why will have to wait to another time.