Pope Francis, Breeding Bunnies and Ideological Colonization

Pope Francis confounds me. How can a man who is so eloquent and obviously heartfelt when he talks about global poverty and injustice and income inequality start spouting such a collection of reheated papal clichés and utter nonsense when he starts talking about women and sex?

His just-concluded trip to the Philippines was a virtual festival of such comments, some planned and some obviously off-the-cuff–and some even directly contradictory–but most just downright confounding.

In one of the impromptu inflight press conferences for which he has become famous, Francis told reporters in one breath that “[s]ome think that … in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits” but that Catholics should practice “responsible parenthood.”

Some saw this as a breath of fresh air or a major breakthrough for the Vatican. But who in the twenty-first century thinks Catholics “breed like rabbits”? That’s an offensive stereotype of Catholics that went out of date in the 1950s, when most Catholic women got on board with contraception—which the Catholic Church bans.

And he made his comments after saying Catholics shouldn’t use birth control and while criticizing a woman who was pregnant for the eighth time and facing a cesarean section: “Does she want to leave the seven orphans?,” he said, adding, “That is an irresponsibility.”

So she’s irresponsible for getting pregnant eight times because she not using the contraception that you say she can’t use? But Francis has an answer for that:

God gives you methods to be responsible…This is clear and that is why in the church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors. I know so many, many licit ways that have helped this.

So many licit ways? How many ways are there to say natural family planning? Francis doesn’t seem to have the foggiest notion that the reason most people don’t use natural family planning is that it’s not reliable. It’s how you end up pregnant eight times.

And for anyone who thinks that it’s a big breakthrough for the pope to promote “responsible parenthood,” here’s Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae:

Married love, therefore, requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood, which today, rightly enough, is much insisted upon, but which at the same time should be rightly understood. Thus, we do well to consider responsible parenthood in the light of its varied legitimate and interrelated aspects. …With regard to 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.

But the zingers don’t end there. Francis used his trip to the Philippines to warn Catholics about the dangers of the “ideological colonization of the family,” especially of western aid agencies forcing their values on the pure, unsuspecting Catholics of the developing world by imparting a “lack of openness to life,” which is code for abortion and contraception.

In case this sounds familiar, it was a favorite theme of Pope John Paul II, who blasted efforts to expand access to family planning for women in the developing world as “contraceptive imperialism.” During the run-up to the historic 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, which John Paul bitterly objected to for its emphasis on reproductive health care, all the Catholic cardinals met at the Vatican to denounce the conference as “cultural imperialism”:

Neither the Cairo conference nor any other forum should lend itself to cultural imperialism or to ideologies that isolate the human person in a self-enclosed universe wherein abortion on demand, sexual promiscuity and distorted notions of the family are proclaimed as human rights or proposed as ideals for the young.

The irony here is that the Philippines recently liberalized access to contraception that had been blocked by the Catholic bishops of the country in concert with the Aquino administration for more than a decade. The Reproductive Health law that restored government-financed family planning services was popularly supported by Filipinos but stymied for years by the politically powerful Catholic bishops. Who exactly was doing the colonizing here?

But the bigger irony is that in almost the same breath, Francis demanded greater attention to women’s voices in the church:

Women have a lot of things to say to us in today’s society. Sometimes we’re too chauvinistic, and we don’t allow room for women. Women are capable of seeing things from a different angle than men.

Yeah, like from the angle of people who have the babies. Women do have a lot of things to say in today’s society–like they want to use birth control to plan their families responsibly. To bad Pope Francis can’t hear them.