Showing posts with label press conference. Show all posts
Showing posts with label press conference. Show all posts

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Brief Thoughts on Papal Gaffes and Non-Magisterial Statements

One thing to always keep in mind is the extent of Papal authority. By this I mean we neither downplay an actual authoritative statement of the Pope or elevate something which is merely a private opinion of the Pope. Popes can speak about the issues of the world where they are not theologically binding and were never intended to be seen as a teaching in the first place. There are many examples of this in recent times. For example, St. John Paul II and his Crossing the Threshold of Hope, or the unfortunate kissing of the Qur’an. Or Benedict XVI and his Jesus of Nazareth, the (unfortunate) comment about the “male Prostitute with AIDS” in Light of the World and his misunderstood Regensburg Lecture. And yes, Pope Francis and his brilliant The Name of God is Mercy, and his controversial news conferences and interviews. I could go back further and discuss the laws of the old Papal States or the Vatican policies with different nations through history. Some of those laws and policies are embarrassing when viewed today. But they weren’t magisterial teaching and an error there does not make the Pope a fraud or heretic.

I say again, whether these things are properly understood or misunderstood, they are not any part of the teaching authority of the Church, and must not be used to judge a Pope's fidelity to the Catholic faith, even if a he should commit a gaffe or carry out an unwise policy.

This isn’t a modern occurrence. We had a controversy back in the Middle Ages where the Pope of the time—John XXII [*] (reigned 1316 to 1334)—spoke in sermons on a theme he had written on prior to his election concerning the beatific vision.

John XXII(Pope John XXII)

In these sermons (and pre-Papal writings), John XXII described the beatific vision (seeing God) as something which would not happen until the final judgment. Until that time, people’s souls slept. This issue had not been formally defined as of this time, but a majority of theologians at the time held that the souls of the departed did see God after death. So this was a concern. Was the Pope teaching that that what was commonly held by Catholics was actually false?

The answer was, no. John XXII said he had not had any intention to formally teach on the subject and actually called on theologians to study the issue. The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its entry on John XXII, describes the affair this way:

In the last years of John’s pontificate there arose a dogmatic conflict about the Beatific Vision, which was brought on by himself, and which his enemies made use of to discredit him. Before his elevation to the Holy See, he had written a work on this question, in which he stated that the souls of the blessed departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment. After becoming pope, he advanced the same teaching in his sermons. In this he met with strong opposition, many theologians, who adhered to the usual opinion that the blessed departed did see God before the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, even calling his view heretical. A great commotion was aroused in the University of Paris when the General of the Minorites and a Dominican tried to disseminate there the pope’s view. Pope John wrote to King Philip IV on the matter (November, 1333), and emphasized the fact that, as long as the Holy See had not given a decision, the theologians enjoyed perfect freedom in this matter. In December, 1333, the theologians at Paris, after a consultation on the question, decided in favour of the doctrine that the souls of the blessed departed saw God immediately after death or after their complete purification; at the same time they pointed out that the pope had given no decision on this question but only advanced his personal opinion, and now petitioned the pope to confirm their decision. John appointed a commission at Avignon to study the writings of the Fathers, and to discuss further the disputed question. In a consistory held on 3 January, 1334, the pope explicitly declared that he had never meant to teach aught contrary to Holy Scripture or the rule of faith and in fact had not intended to give any decision whatever. Before his death he withdrew his former opinion, and declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed in heaven the Beatific Vision

So, the Pope was offering his private opinion and, when given good reason to abandon his opinion as not being true, rejected his former view in favor of one which fit better with Scripture and Tradition. The only people who tried to tar him as being heretical were those groups who were rebuked [†] (such as the “Spiritual Franciscans” or Fraticelli who held to a rigorous interpretation of the Rule of St. Francis) and wanted to discredit him. He was not a heretic, but some who want to discredit modern Popes cite him as an example of a “heretical Pope."

I think there is a lesson there to be learned. The Pope can make a gaffe just like any other Catholic. He can even say something in a non-teaching which is theologically dubious. But that’s not heresy. Canon Law gives us a good definition here:

can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.


 Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247.

The key words are obstinate and divine and Catholic faith. If the Pope commits a gaffe which might be interpreted by some as supporting error, the question is, does he obstinately hold to it? Or is he just being unclear and not intending what the people claim he means? It’s only when someone digs in their heels and refuses correction from the magisterium that he or she becomes a heretic.

So, why do I bring this up? Because some people are concerned about the current Pope and the fact that some of the things he says in his press conferences seem unclear without deeper study [§]. Some would actually accuse the Pope of being a heretic on account of that confusion (on the part of some) as to what he means. Other Catholics who want to be faithful feel unsure when presented with forceful arguments and begin to doubt.

That’s nothing new. The case of John XXII shows that gaffes do exist throughout history but those gaffes do not prove the existence of heretic popes. That’s not because every Pope was perfect or geniuses (they weren’t). It’s because we trust God to protect the Pope from teaching error in a matter involving our salvation. The Pope isn’t teaching in a binding manner in a press conference or a private book or the like and we should stop thinking that he is and stop accusing him of error.




[*] Not to be confused with St. John XXIII. The two popes lived reigned over 600 years apart.

[†] Does this sound familiar compared to today?

[§] Which few ever attempt. Most of his critics insist on what they call the “plain sense” of his words and label any deeper study as “attempting to explain away.” But keep in mind St. Peter warned the Church that St. Paul wrote on things not easy to understand which “the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16). So the “plain sense” is not always the true sense.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Problem With the Church is not the Pope. It's Us

19 You give your mouth free rein for evil; 

you yoke your tongue to deceit. 

20 You sit and speak against your brother, 

slandering your mother’s son. 

21 When you do these things should I be silent? 

Do you think that I am like you? 

I accuse you, I lay out the matter before your eyes. (Psalm 50:19-21)

So I started to see some Catholic blogs publish articles that take a different slant about the Pope. Now, instead of accusing the Pope of being heterodox, this tactic takes the truth that not everything the Pope says is an authoritative teaching and uses it to attack people defending the Pope as if they argued everything authoritative. They say that it’s OK to be upset by certain comments the Pope makes, and apologists shouldn’t be defending the Pope in those circumstances.

However, that is not the problem. The problem is that some authors use controversial phrases from press conferences to imply (or state outright) that the Pope is heterodox. Some do it subtly. Others come right out and say they think the Pope is not Catholic. But either way, they argue that the Church is worse off because Pope Francis is Pope. That’s different from saying “I like St. John Paul II better.” We’re not talking about a person who prefers the style of one Pope over another. We’re talking about a person who thinks Pope Francis is a menace and needs to be opposed.

That’s an important distinction. One can wish the Pope did not say or do a certain thing because of the confusion it caused without being a bad Catholic. For example, I recall two incidents during the pontificate of St. John Paul II which I find regrettable: the 1986 Assisi conference and the kissing of the Qur’an. I recall being unhappy with Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and his lifting the excommunications on the bishops of the SSPX and his ill-advised example of the “Gay male prostitute with AIDS” in the book interview Light of the World. These things caused scandal. But these things did not mean that these two Popes were heterodox. When foes of these Popes tried to accuse them of heresy, [1] that’s when those foes were in the wrong. These were simply examples of Popes being human and making mistakes in judgment that did not involve the teaching authority of the Church.

Likewise with Pope Francis. We’ve had cases where he said things that sounded confusing in soundbites, but turned out to be legitimate when read in context. We’ve also had a few instances where he confused Catholics who couldn’t figure out what point he was trying to make. Those things are unhelpful for the life of the faithful. Nobody denies that. What we do deny is the claim that these instances “prove” the Pope is heterodox.

I think the problem is that we have forgotten that the media was also scrutinizing the words and writings of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, constantly asking if an unfamiliar phrase meant a change in teaching. We have forgotten that these two pontiffs have also spoken about social justice, immigration and the environment (back then, they called it ecology), and spoke against the excesses of capitalism just as much as they spoke against communism.

Back then, it was easier to overlook the Papal statements on issues outside of the right to life and sexual morality. From an American perspective, we saw the statements  on these issues mostly as an indictment against our political opponents. Since the Popes spoke on the right to life and about sexual morality, we could point to the Papal statements in order to condemn our opponents—especially if those opponents were also Catholic (like Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro back in the 1980s). The problem was, we overlooked the fact that the Popes warned against other injustices as well. (For example, from what I recall, the encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis was dismissed as being out of touch or even anti-American).

In other words, we approved of the Popes when they said what we wanted to hear and we ignored or dismissed the Popes when we didn’t like what they had to say. Also, at this time, the media took the attitude of trying to portray the Popes as being “neanderthal” in their stand against “choice.” They seldom covered the other topics that the Popes taught on except to ask whether the Church was beginning to “liberalize.” Then midway through the pontificate of Benedict XVI, tactics began to change. The media began to report on Papal addresses and encyclicals by picking out the elements that seemed to mesh well with the desired political slant. His writings began to be promoted as anti-capitalistic and in favor of more government intervention. This tactic was solidly in place when Pope Francis was elected Pope. Even though his actual words did not support it, the media invented an image of a “liberal Pope” who was “overturning Tradition.” And many Catholics bought into the lie.

Another factor was the access to information. We forget that what we take for granted now was not as wide reaching during the reign of Benedict XVI and absent for much of the reign of St. John Paul II. Without the instant access to smartphones and the like with access almost anywhere, we did not have instant access to all the misinformation that now gets transmitted across the globe by a reporter who wants to be first with breaking news about the Pope “changing teaching.” A reporter had to get a copy and actually read the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (or get someone to read it for him) to report on it. Media reports on the documents were quickly followed by in depth Catholic analysis. Information didn’t move as swiftly, so there was more time to respond.

Now, instead of looking to theologians to help explain to people what could be misunderstood, now people think that they can read unofficial translations of quotes—often devoid of context—and understand the “plain sense” of the words. When someone tells them that the context does not justify this, the response is to charge the person of “explaining away” the words. In other words, people don’t want to be told they made a mistake about interpreting the words of the Pope or that they are doing wrong in how they apply them.

So I’d ask the reader to consider this. With all these factors in play, do you really think we can justly claim that the Pope is to blame? Or is it more likely that our own antics in speaking against him are creating far more chaos than anything he said? I’ll be honest. I think the answer is the second one.



[1] People today seem to forget that St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were bashed as being “modernists” when they took a stand that these critics disliked. It only changed for Benedict XVI after he issued the motu proprio about the extraordinary form of the Mass.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Calm Down and Discern the Truth

Tell me if this sounds familiar...

Pope Francis has a press conference on a plane trip. The religiously illiterate media, which generally disagrees with Catholic teaching, rushes to get a scoop on something he says and gets it wrong, reporting that the Church is changing her teaching. Catholics read this religiously illiterate news report and assume it is true. They either get excited or get angry over the news. The Catholic apologists begin researching the issue and discovers the media reports are garbage, providing information to the actual translations of the transcripts. The media and the excited Catholics ignore these and continue to repeat the misrepresentation. The angry Catholics claim that the apologists are blind Pope worshippers “explaining away” the actual words of the Pope. Repeat the next time the Pope makes a trip.

When it comes to the Catholic Church in the pontificate of Pope Francis, there are two vocal factions that tend to drown out everyone else. One faction is those people who desperately want the Church to change things from saying “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin.” The other side is convinced the Pope is a menace out to give the first faction everything they want. Basically both factions look at Vatican II. The faction that wants to change things thinks that Vatican II didn’t change enough and needs to go further. The faction that mistrusts the Pope thinks Vatican II has gone too far and needs to be rolled back.

They’re not the only factions. I don’t think they’re even the largest factions. But they are the loudest and tend to be the most influential on social media. Why? Because when things are stated forcefully, people tend to believe them. So the faction that wants impossible change leads people who agree with them to false hope, and the faction that dislike the Pope leads others to worry that perhaps there is something to their claims. People trying to be faithful Catholics see this fight and begin to wonder whether at least part of the problem is with how the Pope says things or whether he is truly faithful.

It’s a danger which affects Catholics who seek to be faithful to the Church by attacking their faith in the Church. Either they begin to doubt the mercy of the Church (if they’re swayed by those who think the Church should change her teaching) or begin to doubt that the Church is protected from teaching error (if they’re swayed by those who believe the Pope is a heretic). Once these concerns are established, they become the way in which these Catholics view what the Pope says. They tend to start trusting the reports of those who fall into one of these factions and stop reading the actual transcripts or documents.

We do not want to be under the sway of either faction because neither faction speaks the truth about the Church. To use Aristotle’s definition of truth (join in and say it with me boys and girls), To say of what is that it is, and to say of what is not that it is not, is to speak the truth. Since these groups say of what is that it is not, and say of what is not that it is, they do not speak the truth.

So, the next time the Pope appears to say something contrary to the teaching of the Church, the Catholic seeking to be faithful needs to ask a few questions.

  1. Did the Pope, in fact, say what the Media claims he said?
  2. Do I, in fact, properly understand what the Pope actually said?
  3. Do I, in fact, properly understand what the Church has taught in the past compared to what the Pope says today?
  4. Do I, in fact, properly understand that a freaking press conference is not an ex cathedra (or any other kind of) Papal teaching?
  5. Do I, in fact, make sure my political views and personal preferences are not prejudicing my assessment of what the Pope said?

Most of the time, the person who hopes or fears that the Church is changing teachings never considers the possibility of being mistaken. They assume they are correct and that the Church must be in the wrong, concluding that the Church must embrace what they hold to get out of error. In other words, such people trust in themselves more than in the Church God promised to protect. But that is precisely how we must not think!

Because we believe that God has promised to protect His Church, we can trust that the Pope will not invent some binding teaching which will contradict the previous teaching of the Church. We don’t believe the Pope won’t teach error because we believe that the Pope is flawless. We believe it because we believe that God protects His Church. Yes, we’ve had bad Popes in the past (and I reject the claim Pope Francis is one), but such Popes have never taught that evil is good nor that good is evil. They’ve simply not behaved like Popes. We’ve never had a heretical Pope. Even Pope John XXII (commonly cited by those questioning Papal authority) never taught error as Pope. He merely gave a regrettable homily. Yes, he had some wrong ideas about the Beatific vision, but he never intended those ideas to be considered Catholic teaching.

I think that if we honestly consider the list of questions above when we hope or fear that the Pope is “changing” Church teaching, I think we will find that we have to answer at least one of those questions with “No.” I believe that if we recognize that God watches over His Church and can answer the above five questions with “Yes,” we will not have a problem with hoping or fearing that the Pope is going to change Church teaching. We might wish he said things differently perhaps, but we won’t be misled by false hope or fear.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Quick Quips: "Wait, What?" Thoughts on Dubious Things I Have Seen Online


Once more it’s time for quick comments on topics where I don’t feel the need to publish a full blown article, but the topic irritates me enough to want to say something. This time, it’s involving some dubious (to put it charitably) things I have seen on the internet and what bothers me about them.

Papal Press Conferences

I’m not going to talk about THIS press conference. I want to say something about all the press conferences Pope has already done and will continue to do.

I’ll be honest. I would not mind at all if the Pope announced he was putting a moratorium on press conferences. But the reason I dread them has nothing to do with what the Pope says. I dread them because it is becoming more and more clear that we have a secular media which is either incompetent in doing research or willful in misrepresentation and we have a growing number of Catholics who are willing to assume that the reports from the secular media are accurate. Either they think the Pope is a political liberal and approve, or they think the Pope is a political liberal and disapprove. The problem is, neither group tries to start with the assumption that the Pope is speaking as a Catholic, and try to read his words through that assumption. They should.

Every time this has happened, the content shows he said nothing against Church teaching, but people believe the falsehood instead. Personally I think the media needs remedial courses in logic and ethics, while Catholics could stand to relearn the teaching on rash judgment.

The Supreme Court Brouhaha

After the death of Antonin Scalia, a huge debate emerged over the issue of whether Obama, being a lame duck president with less than a year before his successor takes over, should be able to nominate a new Justice or whether we should wait until 2017. Both sides are accusing the other of hypocrisy and both sides are citing the precedents of previous partisan behavior. A number of internet claims have led to people doing research and discovering all sorts of curious historic facts in attempts to debunk the other side. Because I try to make this blog about the Catholic position and not my own personal views (to avoid leading somebody into thinking my personal views are the Church view), I don’t intend to make this an article advocating one side or the other. Rather, I hope to consider what a just approach to this instance should look like.

Catholics have a right to be concerned about the state of religious freedom when it comes to the Obama administration and the decisions of the Courts. Both have come out in favor of things we believe are intrinsically evil (evil always, regardless of circumstances or motive) and have tended to be hostile towards our oppositions on the grounds that we cannot do what we believe to be wrong. So, when a President with a record of hostility towards the Catholic Church intends to nominate a Justice for the Supreme Court, Catholics are not wrong to ask what kind of nominee is intended and what position he holds on these issues. If we find that the nominee holds views which we find offensive, we have a right to oppose that nomination, and those with the responsibility to consider the nomination have the responsibility to reject it.

That being said, we have to do this in a just manner. I think that the current presentation of “We should wait until the next president is inaugurated before nominating a new justice” is problematic. It gives the impression of acting out of partisan motives—the approach of “I won’t support any nominee that comes from this guy!”

It doesn’t help that both parties would adopt the opposite position if their circumstances were reversed.

The Devil Hates Latin?

So, I saw an article claiming that the Devil "hates Latin" because it is the language of the universal Church. I had two thoughts...

  1. The Eastern Rites might have something to say about the “language of the universal Church” bit...
  2. Latin was also the language of the Roman Empire which sought to destroy Christianity.

I suspect what was the actual case was that an exorcist found Latin more effective because translations into other languages were not as good (not being an exorcist, I cannot say). But to turn the language itself into something holy is kind of bizarre.  Let's not turn Latin into some sort of magical incantation like they do in the TV show Supernatural where some guy can play a recording of a Latin exorcism and expel demons.

Besides, does one really want to say that the Devil would prefer “Faith of Our Fathers” sung in English over this?

(How to drive a Latin Mass enthusiast insane?)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

TFTD: It's Time For Catholics to Stop Rashly Judging the Pope

Facepalm Catholics

After the outrage and the Je suis un lapin Catholique (according to Google Translate, “I am a rabbit Catholic,” a supposed protest against what was actually a misquote of the Pope) posts, we have confirmation. Those who were offended at the Pope’s words got it wrong. In the article, "Pope Francis surprised by misunderstanding of his words on family :: Catholic News Agency (CNA),” we see that the Pope in no way meant to speak against large families.

Before I saw the actual transcripts, I was pretty sure I knew what it meant when I first saw what we now know was a media misquote. The transcripts confirm it. But that didn’t stop some Catholics from being angry at the Pope. Once again, people said that the Pope was to blame for speaking unclearly. Others believed the misquote was a condemnation of large families.

I have to say, I am tired of seeing this story repeated ever since his election to the Papacy. Every time there is a “shocking" story, it turns out that that the Pope was misquoted. The transcripts show that the media has taken their soundbites out of context, or misattributed what someone else said to him or misunderstood what he was even talking about. Yet every time I see some Catholics get up in arms and blame the Pope, disturbing the peace of those Catholics who want to trust but don’t know what to make of all the outrage. In some cases, this behavior could be considered Rash Judgment, condemned in the Catechism. The Catechism in paragraph 2478, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola, warns us:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

But in many comboxes and in blogs, we are seeing that some Catholics aren’t ready to give a favorable interpretation to the Pope’s words. They don’t seek to ask him how he understands his words. They assume he is wrong and even if that were true (it isn’t) then fail to correct in love. Instead we get people treating the Pope like some idiot uncle or a heretic out to change Church teaching.

It’s time for Catholics to treat the Pope with the love and respect he deserves as the Holy Father. It’s time for them to consider that the media got it wrong, not that the Pope. It’s time to get the facts first before blaming him. If we were to trust God more in His promise to protect the Church and put less trust in the media to report the Pope accurately, I think we would find we were less alarmed about the state of the Church.

Pope Francis faith in God

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Let's Look at Things Differently...


If I had a dollar for every time a Catholic with a blog wrote that the Pope is to blame for speaking unclearly when he is misinterpreted or if a Catholic with a blog accused him of handling things badly, I probably wouldn’t need to worry about how my retirement accounts are faring. It’s a popular meme, and it seems to give people an escape route where they might otherwise have to outright accuse the Pope of error (and I’d rake in even more money if I included those blogs who do accuse the Pope of error). It’s kind of annoying actually. If it was that easy for any Pope to explain Church teaching in such a way that no person from any time or culture could misunderstand it, then there’d quite frankly be no need for us Catholics who work with apologetics.

What people seem to forget is all the differing experiences that make us look at things in different ways: Nationality, language, ethnicity, gender, education, social class, religion, political views, etc. Each one of these is a case where people can look at things differently than the speaker, and if we forget that these differences exist, then we will misunderstand the people we listen to.

In addition to these, we have the problems when people don’t want to hear the teaching of the Church. Some political liberals don’t want to hear the Church teaching on sexual morality. Some political conservatives don’t want to hear the Church teaching on social justice. The result is to bend the words of the Church to either make it appear the person is obeying when he or she is not OR to bend the words of the Church in such a way that the person can justify disobedience.

CH Own WordsCalvin’s misinterpretation is deliberate, and is not the teacher’s fault

Finally, we have the case where even people of good will do not have a proper knowledge of the topic being discussed and give the wrong meaning to terms that can have more than one meaning (we call these equivocal words—open to more than one interpretation).

So when you consider the differences of each individual, their knowledge of the topic and whether the individual has good will in interpreting the words of the Pope, you suddenly get any number of ways where the problem can be with the listener, and not the speaker.

Let’s look further now. Let’s look at the post hoc fallacy now. That’s the fallacy which asserts that because A happened and then B happened, A must have caused B. Thus we see the Pope getting blamed every time a Catholic wrongly cites the Pope’s “who am I to judge?” comment. If the Pope didn’t say that, then people wouldn’t be thinking the teaching needed to be changed. But that’s nonsense. It overlooks the possibility of such people already favoring a heterodox view on homosexuality. The same thing happened with the extraordinary synod on the family. When certain Catholics came out calling for a change in Church teaching on divorce and remarriage, the Pope and the synod was blamed, but nobody considered the possibility that the Catholics holding these positions were doing so before the synod even occurred.

Or how about the Affirming the Consequent fallacy. That works as follows:

  • If the Pope speaks unclearly, then people will misunderstand him. (If A then B)
  • People misunderstand him (B)
  • Therefore the Pope speaks unclearly (Therefore A).
The problem is, just because “If A then B” is true (and it isn’t always so), the existence of condition B does not mean that condition A exists. People could misunderstand him if he spoke clearly in Latin while the audience did not understand that language.

So, in addition to the cases of each individual, their knowledge of the topic and whether or not they are interpreting things with good will, we now have to consider the possibility of being misled by a logical error.

So the next time the Pope says something and the media decides to play with it, then let’s look at things differently. Let’s not assume any miscommunication must be the fault of the Pope or there wouldn’t be any misunderstandings. There are any number of reasons this could be a false assertion.

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.