Revisiting the Rabbits

He said it. I wish he hadn’t said it, but he said it: “God gives you methods to be responsible. … Some think that—excuse the word—that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No.” Pope Francis’ unguarded line about an unnamed woman’s choice to carry her eighth child—despite obvious problems with her first seven taken via cesarean section—has been analyzed, condemned from the right, and celebrated from the left (personally, I have been using this as an opportunity to tell those I know, who have historically disagreed with the Magisterium, that here is your chance: Hey, p#&* off the Pope: Have a huge family!).

Francis made a mistake. His words were demeaning and rude. The line profits no one: it is neither educative nor insightful. Furthermore, what does our Francis teach the world about Catholic charity by likening a woman, who is already obviously burdened with her eighth baby, to a subhuman creature known for its carefree copulating?

At one level, of course, what Pope Francis was getting at was correct: a family’s sanctity and its number of children are not synonymous. We all know that Humanae Vitae §10 lays this out very clearly and that Pope Paul VI, even in the throes and rows of the 60s, kept the Church’s message intelligently alive with his humble admission that regarding:

…physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons, and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain, or an indefinite, period of time.

Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective, moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families, and human society.

From this, it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.

When I am asked to do marriage prep, the question about family size inevitably arises. My response is always to tell the young man and woman, “Have one too many.” That is, “Just when you think you’re done, and you’re ready to call it ‘quits,’ give God one more chance, knowing, then, that you have given him everything and have held back nothing. That last child will stand for you as an eternal sign of your youth, your love, and God’s undying fidelity.” That, however, is not what Francis said. He had no way of knowing how many children this woman, her husband, and God decided was the best amount for them.

What bothers me most of all is not this one line, but the fact that it seemed to come, not out of Catholic doctrine, of course, but out of Francis’ “gut” response to this situation. C.S. Lewis captured this concern when he has us imagine how spontaneity reveals best a man’s inner self: “… what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is. … Surely, what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar, you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding” (Mere Christianity IV.7).

That said, none of us can know the Holy Father’s soul, but I think he has already given us enough evidence that he is a holy and loving man. But he is also a man of his times and was trained as a priest and ordained in a world very different than the one in which we now live. When I look around at the solid young Catholics on so many college campuses these days, I see how different their world is than the one Jorge Mario Bergoglio knew at their age.

These young people today know what it is like to live in a post-Roe v. Wade world in which life is so easily discarded, and where sex really has nothing to do with children. There is a future pope who right now is a young man of a Catholic family somewhere on our globe: he might be one of eight kids, possibly home-schooled, he might attend Franciscan University or Thomas Aquinas College, sense a call toward priesthood, and so present himself to his local ordinary, and then, one day, be elevated to the See of Peter. He will receive a solid seminary training at Sacred Heart in Detroit, or Kenrick, here in Saint Louis, and know the best of our Catholic tradition, he loves Jesus, and is no stranger to the world.

When Humanae Vitae was published and promulgated in 1968 (Bergoglio was ordained in 1969), clerics simply did not have the knowledge required to preach sensitively and intelligently on the subject of responsible parenting, so many simply let the matter go. Their training in moral theology was admittedly dry and so casuistic, the theological and anthropological principles that provide Catholic ethics with its beauty were (for the most part) missing. The dry years hit, and then John Paul II manned the world’s stage as the Vicar of Christ, and we began to speak of a Culture of Life, a Theology of the Body, and Heroic Womanhood.

This tapestry of heroic virtue and indefatigable Catholicism is precisely what was missing from Francis’ recent gaffe. Yet, at every Mass, each of us prays for our Holy Father:

Remember, Lord, your Church, spread throughout the world,
and bring her to the fullness of charity,
together with Francis our Pope and N. our Bishop and all the clergy…

Even the best of us are still far from the fullness of charity. And so we pray.

Lent is now among us, a time to enter more deeply into prayer, the frailty of humanity through fasting, and Christ’s own sensitivity to others through almsgiving. As Pope, Francis is our visible head on earth; as Francis, he is our brother, still growing alongside us all into the fullness of Charity. Together we are on this pilgrimage, a journey which, for the next 40 days, will take us through the desert, but which will bring us one day to the eternal morning of Easter.

David Vincent Meconi About David Vincent Meconi

David Meconi served as editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review from 2010 to 2022.


  1. Avatar Paul Rodden says:

    This is a useful piece. Thank you.

    I must admit that it’s comforting knowing I’m not the only one who might be impetuous, say stupid things because I’m trying to be funny, I’m nervous, or it’s the heat of the moment. But it’s also nice knowing our Holy Father is infallible but not impeccable. :)

    One of the things I find fascinating when I’m involved in any form of catechesis is when we get to Morals, or ‘Life in Christ’.

    Candidates/Catechumens, or even Catholic adults, suddenly become animated when it comes to morals. Dare I say it, but it’s as if one can see the ‘casuistic cogs’ in their brains waken up. How far…? How many…? Can I…if…? It’s a nightmare. Yet, when we were going through the Creed, they didn’t care if they were Modalists, Sabellians, Tritheists, or Nestorians. In fact, rarely is there a dispute or worry/concern over whether they’re a heretic or not, on any aspect of Part I of the Catechism. :)

    I’m wondering how much this is to do with the ‘modern turn’. Kant with his pure religion of ‘the starry skies above and the moral law within’, so morality is the only thing necessary or to worry about?

    When we get there, I always feel I’ve failed if this process begins because, I feel they’re saying in their heads ‘Now we’re getting to the important stuff’, but also, I might be wrong, but my hunch is, that it feels as they want me to make their ethical decisions for them. They want me to give a ruling, and this is verified by knowing other catechists, who’ve had catechumens/candidates going round to other catechists and priests trying to find one that says that ‘X is OK’, because then it will be.

    When this happens, it’s like a film has been playing in the background for a couple of hours, but they haven’t been watching or concentrating – or even dozing – but suddenly they wake up, and expect to understand the plot now it’s half-way through. In other words, they’ve missed ‘the Kerygma’, as Dr Thomas Richard put it in his comment on ‘Laying the Foundation for Forming Disciples in Our Parishes’, by Fr Albright. ‘All that theology stuff is boring’.

    To a lesser extent, but in a similar manner, it happens with Sacraments, except there it’s more superstitious. ‘Can I go to Mass 15 times in a day if I’m really having problems/I want my mum to get better, in case the other 14 times didn’t work properly as I might not have been ‘in the zone’ enough, blah, blah…?’

    Fr van Hove has written a great bit on Jansenism, and I wonder how much, our present is still haunted by that past – Scrupulosity and Superstition – or is it just our natural ‘Pelagian’ sensibility?

    Do other people have similar problems with dealing with this sort of thing in Catechesis? If so, how do you deal with it?

  2. Did you mean “Jorge” Maria Bergoglio? It says “Jose” in your article. (This has been corrected… thanks! -Managing Editor) It was good, but you also might add that large families are a lot of fun, even though they require sacrifice.

  3. HPR Site Admin HPR Site Admin says:

    A letter to the editor:

    ​Fr. Meconi,

    Thank you so much for speaking up for mothers! The incident of the woman with seven caesareans behind her touched me so deeply, and I confess that I was furious that Francis condemned her ‘folly’ and not her husband’s thoughtless demands! One of my friends who had eight children feared every delivery after the first, as they were all long-drawn-out and very painful, but at least her husband was there every time to hold her hand, and this bond held them together through many dark days, she told me. All deliveries carry an element of risk to mother and baby, and a couple has every right to make these decisions without ANYBODY commenting. Can you imagine how Francis exposed this woman to ‘I told you so’ in her extended circle?

    His early degrading of pro-life causes was also an act against family life, since we are fighting this every day. What actively Catholic parent relishes watching their children take to fornication, abortifacient pills, or making their lives difficult by having children too early, and we have to face and fight the school/companion/neighbours/media… our efforts to try to instil good living? It is a truly massively important part of family life. I could go on…..even ‘liberal’ commentators are beginning to yearn for the measured public utterances of Benedict!

    Thank you for all your prayers,
    ​A Reader from the United Kingdom

  4. Avatar William White says:

    As a physician, I often counsel families on parenting. I understand that NFP is allowable for serious reasons, but I have never heard that the Church teaches that NFP is ever obligatory, rather that this is always a prudential judgment that only the individual couple, well-informed and prayerful, can make. I know of many couples who have safely and reasonably chosen to remain open to life through many difficult births, caesareans, and into advanced years (late forties).
    My concern with the Holy Father is that, when he speaks off the cuff about issues in which he is not an expert, he weakens his authority in areas where he really does speak authoritatively.

  5. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Father Meconi, thank you for this clear explanation of an unguarded moment .Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God with a mind and will to choose a moral good or a sin or indifferently. Those men and women with the Sacrament of Matrimony making an intention with the Holy Spirit and with the Traditional teachings of the Catholic Church and Humanae Vitae are the persons who decide on the birth of children.

  6. Avatar bill bannon says:

    . Put the speaker, Francis in this case, in his immediate context. He saw in the Phillipines one of the places on earth that has street waifs and a pronounced child sex trafficing record relative to most countries on earth based on that street waif problem ( some Phillipine street waifs have homes…many do not ). He I suspect was angry at what he saw and that anger later on the plane transferred to this question. East Timor and Brazil have the same problem and they are heavily Catholic also….Brazil not as much as decades ago but it is still the largest Catholic population. The Amish have many children per family but no street waifs…ditto for the Hutterites and Hasidim. Pope Francis might be trying to sort out all these diverse problems but I do know he talked with street children that week since there was a photo of him with them. One or several could have told him of their being alienated from their parents and that could have fed into his interview comments on rabbits. He is a talker and a talker will make mistakes that go public quickly…a mess as he calls it. Previous Popes had more reticence but who lnows what they really thought about this topic. John Paul II and Paul VI and Benedict were all from smaller families than Francis was and his wasn’t huge.

  7. Thanks Fr. Meconi, you said what needed to be said

  8. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    To still be an enigma at this point in his papacy is not encouraging. ‘Agonizing’ publicly over the well known moral tragedies of the day is not good leadership — it is unnerving to those that support the teachings of the Magisterium and are speaking out to defend them and teach within them. That the recent Synod that was ” redirected” in its final week and final report only served to enforce the impression that the “redirection” may not have been in keeping with his expectation of the end result. The coming Family Conference, his addresses to Congress, and the final Synod meeting will be very telling in understanding where he is coming from and where he is trying to lead. There is no question that the Holy Spirit is in charge but, as has happened with troubled Popes in the past, His time frame is sometimes measured in decades or centuries. We have had an extraordinary run of clarity in our moral teachings on the issues of the day with the last three Popes. It would be disastrous to have it squandered on a counterproductive reordering of priorities, direction and doctrine. The broad issues of ‘Life’ are what is tearing apart the Church today. Alleviating the conditions of the poor is important but they “….will always be with you.”

  9. Avatar Paul Rodden says:

    Thinking on this article more, I’ve remembered how shocked I was some time ago by the increased gratuitous or unnecessary sexual references or mocking of Catholic things made by people like Chris Stefanick and Mark Hart in some of the latest Franciscan Conferences videos on YouTube in order to get a cheap laugh from the young people. As if it’s like drugs, you need to push the envelope to get the same response.

    In one video, for example (Ascension Press’ ‘Teen Timeline’ DVD Course as well as at an FUS conference talk) Mark Hart takes the ‘p#&*’ out of prayer and the bible, by suddenly appearing to get serious; makes the sign of the cross; reads one of the sections with lots of tribal names, but slips in ‘the Gigabites’ and ‘Mosquitobites’; and then closes his eyes and says a fake prayer, thanking God for his incomprehensible and meaningless word, while the camera zooms in on all the kids taking it very seriously with their eyes closed. What?
    He then goes on to make mild but sexual ‘creation/procreation’ one-liners, including animals, trying to be funny, whilst the young people giggle nervously. Girls infatuated, boys, hero worshipping.

    OK. Neither is pope, or even likely to be, but this ‘edutainment’ approach by FUS I find more troubling than ‘rabbits’, and is probably having more impact on the impressionable young minds at those conferences, no?

    Remember Christopher West? Borderline filth at times, I felt, irrespective of the concerns of Smith, Eden, Hildebrand, et al.

    But some of my ‘charismatic traditionalist’ buddies have told me to shut up on this matter, presumably because ‘it works’, and they don’t want anything negative said against Pope Scott and his college of cardinals in Steubenville and their bishops in the Catholic media. Another ‘curia’ to be cleaned up? Is this what people mean when they get effusive about the experience Protestants and their heritage have brought into the church? (Don’t get me wrong. I have no problems with them doctrinally. It’s the pedagogical proportionalism and nepotism.)

    Am I just being too touchy?

    As to the Holy Father, who’s going to thank a pope who’s trying to clean up the clergy, especially at the highest levels?

    But also, a pope who was (is) as close as one gets to being a living Doctor of the Church, is a hard act to follow!

    Papa Benedict made some big ‘gaffes’ too, didn’t he? Assuming his listeners were bright and reasonable! :) Remember Regensburg and the condom debacle?

    Maybe Francis assumes, too freely, that people have a sense of humour? :)

    Is a ‘gaffe’ (rather than the truth of the matter) simply in the eye of the beholder? Both Benedict and Francis have been distorted by the media and people with agendas.

    In the modern age might we be more pagan than we’d like to admit, and cry ‘Santo subito’ only for those who make us feel good or share our worldview, rather than those who are holy?

    I wonder whether Pope Francis might not use some analogy about wiping noses or bottoms if he joined this discussion? :)

    Duc in altum…

    • Hello Paul,

      I think you are right to be concerned for the sense of the sacred, the sense of due reverence, in the “impressionable young minds”, young minds of any age, at conferences or anywhere else. I find a section in the Catechism relevant and important. This paragraph is in the context of the 2nd Commandment:

      CCC 2144 Respect for his name is an expression of the respect owed to the mystery of God himself and to the whole sacred reality it evokes. The sense of the sacred is part of the virtue of religion:
      “Are these feelings of fear and awe Christian feelings or not? . . . I say this, then, which I think no one can reasonably dispute. They are the class of feelings we should have – yes, have to an intense degree – if we literally had the sight of Almighty God; therefore they are the class of feelings which we shall have, if we realize His presence. In proportion as we believe that He is present, we shall have them; and not to have them, is not to realize, not to believe that He is present.” [John Henry Cardinal Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons V, 2 (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1907) 21-22]

      God is always present! And we are always in His presence, realize it or not. Ought an attitude of reverence, a sense of the sacred, then be an attitude and a sense we ought to want to have always – to never lose – to remain in? Authentic reverence is not an attitude that we can turn on and off like a faucet, although in our woundedness we can sometimes inadvertently forget who we are, and Whose we are. But when we remember again, thanks be to His grace and mercy, we need to return immediately: we are on holy ground, and there we want to remain.

      • Avatar Paul Rodden says:

        Hello Dr R
        Thank you for pointing out CCC 2144.
        What you’ve written makes so much sense.
        ‘Authentic reverence is not an attitude that we can turn on and off like a faucet…’, and that is one of the things I’ve observed which makes me suspicious of some aspects of the New Evangelisation which seem to be gaining traction.
        Thank you.