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.