“Careless talk costs lives,” warned the British wartime poster. As Pope Francis continues to speak candidly to the press — and getting into trouble for it — an increasing number of Catholics would like to see him heed the slogan.
His recent visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines was largely viewed as a success but tarnished by his off-the-cuff remarks that the media misconstrued — understandably to a great extent — as giving the green light to punching someone if they insult someone’s mother, and saying that Catholics shouldn’t breed “like rabbits.”
Read in context, both comments, given to reporters on the papal plane, appeal to human reason and are in accordance with Catholic Church teaching. The first advocated prudence when it comes to freedom of expression; the second called for responsible parenthood, a teaching clearly explained in Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae to which Francis referred.
Professor William Newton, a professor of theology at Franciscan University
in Steubenville and a father of five, argued the Pope’s theology on this is “spot on.” One cannot present the Church’s opposition to contraception, he told me, without also including its teaching that the transmission of human life needs to be handled responsibly and carried out “with care, thought, as well as generosity.”
He added it is “absolutely true that we should not breed like rabbits, meaning in an unthinking way” and that he wasn’t offended by the Pope’s language.
Moral philosophy professor and Opus Dei priest Fr. Robert Gahl of Rome’s Holy Cross University likewise backed up the Pope’s view. “No one ever has to engage in intercourse. We are all free,” Gahl said. “The Pope's point was that freedom entails using our reason to exercise control over our bodies including our sexuality.”
But the soundness of the teaching aside, ordinary Catholics in the pew are becoming uneasy with the lack of forethought in the Pope’s comments which can sound crass, vulgar, and inappropriate for the Vicar of Christ.
More seriously, they find it unconscionable that Francis doesn’t realize that today’s media, ever looking for a sound bite, will ignore the nuance and context of his comments.
After his latest comments, Catholics fear most people now think the Pope believes a violent reaction to a grave insult is understandable and possibly OK, and that he goes along with a common insult directed at Catholic mothers with large families: that they shouldn’t “breed like rabbits.” Most people also won’t bother to find out what the Pope really meant.
A further concern is that the Pope’s loose talk may be used to beat the church. The “rabbit” remark is “handing red meat to anti-Catholic wolves,” said Roger McCaffrey, publisher of Roman Catholic Books. Such insults usually come from complete strangers, he said, and “are intended to wound.”
Francis has form when it comes to such verbal banana skins, and they’re increasingly seen as his Achilles heel. He admitted on his Asia trip that recklessness is one of his personal shortcomings. Some noted the irony that, at the same press conference in which he made his “rabbits” comment, he said “freedom of expression must take into account the human reality and for this reason it must be prudent.”
Many see the Pope’s down-to-earth approach as a key factor in his global appeal, but others feel it’s weakening the papal edifice. One Catholic close to the Vatican, speaking to me on condition of anonymity, expressed his belief that if Francis had immediately followed Pope Pius XII and said these things, he would have been deposed. “It’s as if he’s become inured to secular thought,” he said. “He’s always trying to make the Church acceptable to the secular world rather than the other way around.”
The Pope’s self-confessed “unawareness” about how his candid comments will be received means he is probably oblivious to their risks and the negative effects.
One of his deputies said as much late last week when he revealed the Pope was “truly sorry” that his “rabbits” comment had “created such confusion.” Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, who administers the daily running of the Holy See, said the Pope was “a bit surprised” his words were not “fully contextualized.”
Francis’ off-the-cuff comments may bring welcome attention, but at what price? For a growing number of Catholics, they’re serving to weaken the church’s teaching and authority. If that’s true, the cost to pay may be more than in lives. They may ultimately cost souls.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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