Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why, no, we’re not rabbits

Of all the teapot-tempests I’ve witnessed in the Catholic blogosphere, the Great 2015 Rabbit Debate has to take the cake.

There are blog posts and articles.  There are heated debates on Facebook.  If we all lived in the same neighborhood someone would probably have resorted to festooning someone else’s trees with toilet paper by now.

And all because the Pope said this:  “Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits – but no.”

To be fair, there was a somewhat unclear anecdote about a woman the Holy Father spoke to in a parish who has had seven c-sections.  And people seem to think it’s not quite cricket for a pope to go using personal examples like that, especially since the tendency of many people who either have many children or have had many c-sections is to think that the pope was personally dissing them--an unfortunate, if human, reading of the example.

Given that not that long ago Pope Francis went out of his way to praise big families, you would think that people would understand that he was not saying, by these two quotes, that nobody should ever have more than a few children, or that it’s always and everywhere imprudent to have multiple c-section births, or that people with large families are necessarily behaving like rabbits. People with quite small families can be behaving like rabbits, too, after all.  Having many children isn’t a sign of rabbit-like behavior, and having few children isn’t a sign of virtuous marital asceticism and the avoidance of too-great a carnality or uxoriousness, either, especially in our contraceptive age.

Having said all that, I have to back up to what the pope is quoted as saying: that some people think that to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits, but that this is not true.

What, exactly, is wrong with that?

Rabbits, after all, mate rather indiscriminately and unthinkingly. They have long breeding seasons, short gestational periods (about a month, for some species) and produce several litters a year, with twenty offspring in that time not uncommon.  But they will only live for a year or two; the males take no interest in the young and may even kill and eat them, and will mate with many different females.

How, exactly, is it insulting to be reminded that we human beings are not and should not be like that?

Nothing a follower of Christ does should be mindless and indiscriminate, but for married couples, the idea that something as important and awe-inspiring as bringing new children into the world not only should be but must be so is really wrong-headed.  And yet--it is an attitude that is out there. There really are people who assume that holiness comes from the number of children you have, or that only the most dire peril can permit you to use NFP--and not even then, really, because you should be ready to become pregnant just in order to die in childbirth like St. Gianna Molla (and I think the good saint would be horrified by her name being used in that context).

There are also Catholic married couples who seem to think that any form of abstinence from marital intimacy is so unfair, unjust and burdensome that unless they are facing maternal death or dire poverty the wife has a duty to satisfy her husband (it is possible that there are examples the other way, but this is the more common iteration).  Male rabbits may only communicate with female rabbits by mating, but human beings are supposed to be capable of things like conversations and hobbies or pastimes enjoyed together and the sort of intimacy that comes from the deep bond of real spousal friendship, a bond I have seen in elderly couples whose state of health had not permitted marital intimacy for some time, but who still clearly and deeply loved each other and were pleased simply to spend an hour in each other’s presence.

Rabbits have a lot of young for one reason: because they are prey animals--and most of their children born in the wild will be eaten, sooner or later.  Catholic human beings, again, being very different from rabbits, have a duty not just to have children but to care for them, to raise them, to teach them the Catholic faith, to form them as best we can before sending them out into a world that has predators of its own, but that is also the Kingdom.

I understand that large families in America in 2015 have more than their fair share of discouragements and criticism.  I realize that it’s hard not to take this sort of thing personally, especially if you are the mother of a large family and you have faced a difficult or dangerous pregnancy, perhaps more than once.

But the pope isn’t saying you can never prudently choose to seek to become pregnant in spite of a potential health risk, or that if you should become pregnant in spite of NFP use you should rail against God for putting you in danger.  That’s not the point here, not at all.

The point is that we’re supposed to think about these things.  We are supposed to take the incredible responsibility of bringing new life into the world with suitable gravity and good judgment. For the young couple just starting out, that gravity and judgment may be nothing more than a mutual agreement that no good reason to avoid pregnancy exists (or, in those honeymoon days, can even be imagined, in many cases).  For the couple nearing 50 who already has six or seven or eight or nine children the calculation may be different, especially if maternal health or financial need or the care that is duly owed to the existing children outweighs the desire to add to the family.  And for couples in the continuum between honeymoon and late middle age, and in all stages of health and finances and needs and challenges, the decision may be easy or hard, simple or complicated, and it may change on a more frequent basis than that honeymoon couple could ever have dreamed.

Rabbits don’t much care about their mates, their offspring, or their lives--and they don’t have immortal souls.  We are very different, and should not take offense at being reminded of that simple fact.

15 comments:

Matthew Latham, ASLA said...

I was offended because Catholics do not, in fact, breed "like rabbits." It seemed like the pope was making fun of Catholics and perpetuating an old stereotype.

The "some people think..." part is the old "straw man" argument that our President loves to use. Some people? Who exactly?

Pope Francis seems to have a certain imprudence when it comes to speech.

Daniel O'Connor said...

I am a big supporter and lover of Pope Francis; 9 times out of 10 I publicly support him in controversies like this.

This time is different. The rabbit comparison was very offensive.

He asked us to call him out publicly when he errs; this is one of those times.

There's too much to put into a comment, but if you'd like to see my post in it just go here: http://dsdoconnor.com/2015/01/20/dear-pope-francis-why-that-word/

Ren said...

Wow! You read what the pope said, looked at the context, looked at the context of things he has said previously, and came to a charitable and sound understanding of his words. You clearly don't belong on the internet. ;) I was glad for his comments because there really is this perception that the Church insists married couples should be baby making machines with no thought to the welfare of the children. You see this especially in abortion debates when the "choice" crowd asserts that nobody is interested in the children after they are born.

gsk said...

Everything you say is true, Erin, but one in a thousand will stop to think about such things. I think it's more the thoughtless off-the-cuff remarks that people have to explain that are frustrating. I know that my whole extended family (not Catholic) heard it and sniggered. It only adds to the mindless persecution, which is to be expected, but unfortunately with fuel added by our own pope. God bless him, but when we have to deal with the new Texas Two-step: "Who am I to judge?" hmmm,, "the imprudent Catholics with too many kids for their own good," the terrain got more hostile.

Daddio said...

I don't have a dog in this fight, but I think why some are upset is that so very few are actually *trying* to have a dozen kids. Many couples are just "open to life", and accept what comes along. They thought the Church was encouraging that.

I agree with everything you've written. People can be much too sensitive.

But when the Pope - the Pope! - gives their smart-aleck relatives and neighbors more ammo to tease them... I can see why they're annoyed.

Shadowfax said...

My problem was not with the rabbit comment. Of course we should not "be like rabbits" and breed indiscriminately without thought. My problem was that he brought up this poor woman who no doubt had been pressured with each C-section to get her tubes tied (I have yet to meet a woman with more than 2 C-sections whose medical team has not offered and/or pressured her to get a tubal with each subsequent C-section). She resisted that pressure each and every time.

She may well have been one of those "hard cases" for whom NFP is a crapshoot. She may have tried Creighton, CCL, Billings, and Marquette by this point. We don't know, and the Pope doesn't fill us in. He probably doesn't know everything she has tried to prevent getting pregnant repeatedly, either, for that matter. Unless she is a complete wackadoo and just wants a baby a year no matter how risky it is, I strongly suspect she has at least tried to regulate the births. You can't tell me she is thrilled every time she gets pregnant, knowing just how exhausting it is to recover from yet another C-section while trying to care for her other many children.

But what does she get for all her trouble? Condemned, in front of the entire Catholic world, with one of most socially damning labels a parent can earn for him or herself--"irresponsible." Oh, and accused of one of the most serious sins there is--tempting God. In public.

And how come her husband isn't being called out on the carpet for being an inconsiderate jerk for continuing to get her pregnant? It's one thing, after all, to put your own health at risk. It's another thing entirely to put your spouse's health at risk---over and over and over again.

That's the far more offensive part of the story to me. Not the "be like rabbits" comment. Of course we shouldn't be like rabbits. We shouldn't be like any animals. We are humans.

No form of birth control is 100% effective. If what the Pope is really saying is that it is irresponsible for this woman to be having sex with her husband, then come out and say it. And give the poor woman some real-life tips for how she is supposed to make a marriage of abstinence work. After all, if your life is truly at risk, is it ever responsible to have sex? What level of risk is acceptable and will qualify you as no longer "irresponsible" if you end up pregnant? After all, pregnancy and childbirth used to be very risky for every woman. It's only in recent years that the entire thing has become reliably safe. Were all the women of past centuries who were taking their lives into their hands every time they got pregnant being irresponsible?

I think it is kind of funny the Pope talked about us not being "like rabbits" when it comes to breeding. I can't tell you how many times I've had people use that very expression with me and other mothers of many I know. Yep, we get it. Even the Pope is saying it now! But what's not funny is the position it puts women in--that of being the gatekeeper of parental responsibility--God forbid you miss a fertility sign or misinterpret a sign. You could well end up being that irresponsible parent everybody points out to as being "like a rabbit."

It's the assumption that we have now got fertility so well under control that NOT to control it qualifies us as irresponsible parents that irritates. Do we have to explain ourselves even to our fellow Catholics now? "I know it looks like we are irresponsible, but given that Creighton failed for us last time, we moved to Marquette, and unfortunately, that didn't work for us, either. Next time we will try CCL, we promise! We are trying to be responsible!"

Red Cardigan said...

Ren, thanks! :)

Shadowfax, I hear what you’re saying, but we honestly don’t know any of the context of this woman’s conversation. Pastors should, I agree, be careful in bringing up specifics. But given his Latin American roots, and given the prevalence of various Protestant groups there, I wonder if this woman was someone influenced by the Quiverfull movement? It would be interesting to know.

Daddio, I am sympathetic to what you say here, and to the families who don’t feel they need to use NFP--yet. I always add the “yet” because many families are one crisis away from actually needing some temporary abstinence. If you meet a married couple who says that they will NEVER use periodic abstinence no matter how dire the situation--well, that’s a problem, frankly. Usually it’s a problem of immaturity combined with good health and reasonably good finances so far that make NFP seem like something they will never need, but I have known women who had the first seven or eight kids without any real complications or issues to speak of, and then baby number 9 or 10 suddenly put them in the hospital for a three-month total bedrest kind of stay, and at that point they began to consider prayerfully whether God might be calling them to consider NFP. And that’s GREAT! If you get to have your first eight kids without anything but minor inconveniences or problems you can actually handle, then God has entrusted you with this great blessing for a reason.

But there are a few Catholics out there who consider NFP “Vatican II evil Catholic contraception-lite” and who insist that even if Mom is dying and Dad is about to lose the house and all the kids will go into foster care they would never use it. I have a feeling those may be some of the people the pope was trying to reach.

Daddio said...

You may be right. I haven't met those people myself... but I'm just a plain ol' "new mass", local parish kinda guy.

adele young said...

Perhaps the Pope will give up interviews with the press for Lent..or find someway to otherwise
refrain from embarrassing his flock with thoughtless and less than Godly remarks. Otherwise all the good he does in the world ( and he is enormously popular currently)will be undone. The only Catholic I can imagine condoning this latest blooper is VP Biden who must feel at long last off that hook!

MagesteriumMommy said...

My only fear in all this is that the churches' teaching on openness to children will be blurred. I don't want to see these comments get turned into an argument that can blur the line between NFP and birth control. There is already a lot of misunderstanding in that regard. How many Catholics today have large families? How many do you think could really afford more? Here in the USA most people, including Catholics, choose not to have more kids so they can have a comfortable life with their new cars every 4 years, college tuitions, vacations, etc. That's not what we are called to be. We are called to be a beacon...a light on a hill...set apart. The fact we are Catholic should be noticeable by our lifestyle. I am not condoning "irresponsible reproduction" but instead "sacrificial" reproduction. Todays Catholics are not distinguishable from atheists as far as family life is concerned and that's concerning. We should be willing to give up some of our creature comforts in order to cooperate with God to bring another life into eternity..... but so few see this topic in the light of faith, but instead through the lens of here and now.

MagesteriumMommy said...

My only fear in all this is that the churches' teaching on openness to children will be blurred. I don't want to see these comments get turned into an argument that can blur the line between NFP and birth control. There is already a lot of misunderstanding in that regard. How many Catholics today have large families? How many do you think could really afford more? Here in the USA most people, including Catholics, choose not to have more kids so they can have a comfortable life with their new cars every 4 years, college tuitions, vacations, etc. That's not what we are called to be. We are called to be a beacon...a light on a hill...set apart. The fact we are Catholic should be noticeable by our lifestyle. I am not condoning "irresponsible reproduction" but instead "sacrificial" reproduction. Todays Catholics are not distinguishable from atheists as far as family life is concerned and that's concerning. We should be willing to give up some of our creature comforts in order to cooperate with God to bring another life into eternity..... but so few see this topic in the light of faith, but instead through the lens of here and now.

Paul said...

This is one of those time when you have to realize that the Pope is in fact human.

He made a human mistake with his comment and amplified the level of persecution that is heaped upon those with large families.

There are so many ways he could have communicated what I think he was intending to communicate without resorting to the particular words that he used - words that will be used by those that wish to persecute the parents of large families for decades to come.

I would rather forgive the Pope and move on than attempt some tortured justification of his choice of words. Yes, there are Catholics who are not responsible in their family sizes, but the Pope's choice of words rolled parents of all large families under the bus. He screwed up.

Teomatteo said...

its become embarrassing....gawdawfull

margaret oh said...

He really should retire ...... his remarks were crass and in bad taste

Saphira said...

Thank you, Red. To me it is just as though the Pope had said? "Some people say we worship statues, but we don't" and then people throw their arms up and say "He said 'worship statues'! That is derogatory!" Yes it is the derogatory phrase thrown at Catholics and he used it on purpose. It is astounding to me that he is being treated as though he confirmed rather than denied it. I don't see why anyone would be offended, unless for some reason they actually identify with a rabbit.
Rebecca