Tuesday, January 20, 2015

On the Interpretation and Misinterpretation of the Pope's Words.

Interpretation of the Pope's Words

Here we go again… the Pope had a news conference (HERE’S the transcript) and once again people took a soundbite out of context, with people either praising or condemning him for something he did not say

Fact of the day: The Pope did not use the term "breeding like rabbits" like the secular media (and some Catholic media) have twisted the actual quote into. What he said was:

"That example I mentioned shortly before about that woman who was expecting her eighth child and already had seven who were born with caesareans. That is a an irresponsibility That woman might say 'no, I trust in God.’ But, look, God gives you means to be responsible. Some think that -- excuse the language -- that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood. This is clear and that is why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors, one can search; and I know so many ways that are licit and that have helped this. You did well to ask me this.

Another curious thing in relation to this is that for the most poor people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here too, but for them a child is a treasure. Some would say 'God knows how to help me' and perhaps some of them are not prudent, this is true. Responsible paternity, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child."

In other words, one has to use prudence, which the Catechism defines as:

1806 Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.”65 “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.”66 Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle.67 It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.

The Church recognizes that, in certain circumstances, one may need to practice abstinence for the health of the mother, and not be presumptive that God will protect the individual mother from consequences. That makes sense when you think of it in the sense that things that are good by nature but can be misused when not discerned. For example, food is good but the person suffering from diabetes or obesity needs to determine when and what to eat. Such cases tend to be individualized. The person with a blood sugar reading of 120 does not need to take the same care as the person with the blood sugar level of 300, and we ought not to assume all circumstances are the same. The same applies to large families. Not all parents of large families are imprudent, and it would be wrong to interpret the words of the Pope as if that is what he was saying.

The Misinterpretation of the Pope’s Words

But that seems to be what people seem to be assuming.

The Pope, being so clear on his support for Blessed Paul VI and the encyclical Humanae Vitae, blocked the media from making his words sound as if he supported contraception. So instead, the distortion of his words is to make it seem as if the Pope supports small families. But in fact, the Pope did praise the parents of large families as generosity. So, such an interpretation cannot be supported.

Unfortunately, that misinterpretation is being applied to his words and some Catholics who have large families seem to be feeling hurt by the Pope as if he was responsible for this “small family” accusation. In other cases, I have heard of Catholic families being confronted by the (distorted) words of the Pope to accuse them of being imprudent—without any consideration as to whether the Pope’s actual words applied to their circumstances.

Because these are misinterpretations and not the Pope's point. He praised the generosity of large families in the same quote, so we know we can exclude any ZPG interpretations. But, at the same time, some people feel guilty if they have to practice periodic abstinence or undergo a hysterectomy out of medical necessity, and some societies favor large families without consideration of the health of the mother. Some families which need to make such considerations just do not consider consequences. 

As I see it, the Pope is speaking to these people, gently telling them that they have a right or, in some cases, an obligation to look to their health or financial situation. The point is, God is will not be judging couples on account of how many children they had in relation to how many children they potentially could have had. God will look at whether couples were open to life according to their circumstances. Some married couples will be able to be raise a large family in their circumstances. Others may be limited by factors of health or poverty. In doing so, the person is not permitted to use immoral means to achieve this end, for example contraception or abortion.

Finally, there seems to be a small group of Catholics who are criticizing the Pope because he did say that fertility at all costs is not the Catholic way. These are the ones who get alarmed by the fact that groups like the Muslims are having more children than Catholics and think the response is that every able bodied Catholic family needs to start cranking out eight or more kids and looks at anybody with fewer as suspected contracepting couples. This kind of mindset is to reduce the Catholic woman to an object in the way that feminist opponents (wrongly) accuse the Church herself of teaching. Yes, Catholic married couples are called to be open to life, and it is good to be generous if one can manage it. Yes, it is wrong that many Catholic couples do disobey Church teaching and use contraception and abortion. But these sinful acts do not take away from the fact that there can be legitimate reasons for a couple to practice periodic abstinence in their married life.


The misinterpretation of the Pope seems to be based on people’s conceptions of what their attitudes of large families are. Those who think small families are the norm are trying to portray the Pope’s words as being an indictment against large families. Those who favor (and/or have large families) feel as if the Pope is condemning them, and those who look at the success or failure of the Church through the raw numbers of Catholics feel the Pope is teaching error. But the key word here is misinterpretation.

The Pope is simply making clear that some people have the wrong idea on the Catholic concept of being open to life, forgetting that God doesn’t demand of us begetting children at all costs, and that some people do have a situation where the Church teaching does permit them to use periodic abstinence according to one of the approved methods to space births.

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