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What the Holy Father Said About Rabbits and Why

February 18th, 2015

This article was first posted January 26, 2015, at National Catholic Register.

The recent news-cycle flap over Pope Francis and the bunnies has confused many people inside and outside of the Catholic Church.

Lots of people continue to be concerned that the Holy Father ought to be clearer in his manner of speaking. I would like to make something good out of this latest situation.

The idea came to me from listening to homilies from two very faithful priests. I do not mind naming them. I heard Father Carl Gismondi, of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and of St. Anne’s parish in San Diego, give a homily on the “Who am I to judge?” comment. I heard Father Jerome Fasano of St. John the Baptist parish in Front Royal, Va., preach on a similar topic.

Now, St. Anne’s describes itself as “San Diego’s Latin-Mass Parish.” St. John’s is the home parish, you might say, to the variety of Catholic pro-life and pro-family ministries based in Front Royal, including the Population Research Institute, Seton Home Study School, Human Life International and Christendom College.

Each priest explained the Holy Father’s words, how the media had distorted them and, more importantly, what Catholic teaching actually is.

I thought to myself, “If every Catholic in America heard this homily, we would be so far ahead! People would understand what the Church teaches and why. It would go a long way to overcoming the poor catechesis of the last 40 years.”

So, when this latest issue came up, I thought, “Maybe I can do something helpful.”

What follows is designed to be used by parish priests in their homilies. I have composed about 1,200 words, to be adapted to fit into the 10- to 12-minute time frame that is customary for a homily at Sunday Mass. Please feel free to adapt this as you see fit.

I have made a few suggestions in italics, where you might adapt this text. You may wish to refer your parishioners to the full text of the Pope’s interview.

It is my sincere hope that the parish priests and deacons of America will seize this opportunity to feed their flocks with the fullness of Catholic teaching on marriage, family and human sexuality.

I place the resources of the Ruth Institute at the service of the Church and the wider community for this purpose.

And thank you, Fathers Gismondi and Fasano!

What the Holy Father Said About Rabbits and Why

You may have heard the recent news about Pope Francis saying something about Catholics and rabbits. What you may not have heard is that the Holy Father reaffirmed the teaching of the Catholic Church on the openness to life. His affirmation is so lovely and so inspiring that I want to share it with you.

Pope Francis spoke of openness to life, not in a legalistic way, but in a beautiful sacramental way.

Openness to life is the condition of the sacrament of matrimony. A man cannot give the sacrament to the woman and the woman give it to him if they are not in agreement on this point to be open to life, to the point that if it can be proven that this or the other did not get married with this intention of being open to life, the matrimony is null.

In other words, not being open to life is grounds for annulment.

You might ask: Why is the Catholic Church so adamant on this point? Why does the Church insist that every marital act be open to new life?

First, this is not a uniquely Catholic teaching. For most of Christian history, all Christian groups agreed that artificial contraception was against God’s plan for matrimony. It was only in 1930 that the Lambeth Convention of the Anglican Church abandoned this ancient teaching of all the churches. Other Protestant denominations followed, even though Martin Luther, John Calvin and other historic Protestant leaders had agreed that contraception was not morally permissible.

More importantly, the Church recognizes that sex makes babies. (You all realize that, of course, don’t you?!) The Church teaches that we ought to be prepared for this. Only have sex with the person you are married to. Be ready to take care of any children you create together. If a married couple has legitimate reasons to postpone having a child, periodic abstinence is perfectly okay. And if it is practiced in a serious and scientific manner, natural family planning (NFP) is quite reliable.

One problem with artificial contraception is that it creates the illusion that sex doesn’t make babies: As long as we have “safe sex,” meaning, safely contracepted, we can do whatever we want. And what happens when our contraception fails, as it often does? We are surprised and think we need abortions, the culture teaches.

I have encountered many men and women in the confessional who regret the choices they made under the spell of artificial contraception (Fathers: I invite you to use a particularly poignant story from your own ministry, instead of or in addition to the examples I have cited here):

  • women who postponed childbearing until they were “ready” and found that when they were “ready” their bodies were no longer “ready.” These women now struggle with the cross of infertility.
  • women who trusted their pills or intrauterine devices and became pregnant anyway. They considered the circumstances impossible and had abortions. Sometimes, I hear their confessions 10 or 20 or 30 years after the abortion. Their regrets do not go away. They do not get over it.
  • I hear confessions from young people who are involved in sexual activity that they know is hurtful to themselves and others, but they cannot figure out how to get themselves out of it. What got them involved in this behavior? The idea that sex is a recreational activity, a false idea that contraception actively encourages.
  • I’ve heard the confessions of men and women who had themselves sterilized and who bitterly regretted it later.

These are some of the sad results of the contraceptive ideology. These sad stories are part of the reason that I am convinced that the Church’s teaching is correct and humane.

Also in this interview, the Holy Father spoke of the dark side of population-control programs. He calls it “ideological colonization.”

Ideological colonization: I’ll give just one example that I saw myself. Twenty years ago, in 1995, a minister of education asked for a large loan to build schools for the poor. They gave it to her on the condition that in the schools there would be a book for the children of a certain level. It was a school book, a book prepared well, didactically, in which gender theory was taught. …
During the synod, the African bishops complained about this, the same story: certain loans in exchange for certain conditions.

(Fathers, the Population Research Institute has many similar examples along these lines.)

The media were not so eager to report this part of the Pope’s interview. The Church has been wise to be suspicious of those who promote contraception among the poor but who have plans to remake and control the culture of the people.

So how do rabbits enter into this story? At one point in the interview, Pope Francis referred to a woman he knew personally in his parish work. Here is what he said:

I reproached a woman some months ago in a parish because she was pregnant with her eighth child, after having had seven C-sections. But does she want to leave the seven as orphans? This is to tempt God.

In other words, he knew enough about her personal situation to realize that she might be “tempting God.” The Holy Father continues in his colloquial way of speaking:

That woman might say, ‘No, I trust in God.’ But, look, God gives you means to be responsible. Some think that — excuse the language — in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No: responsible parenthood. This is clear, and that is why, in the Church, there are marriage groups; there are experts in this matter; there are pastors one can search [for]; and I know so many ways that are licit, and that have helped.

He is clearly referring to NFP and groups such as the Couple to Couple League. He is pointing out for people who have a legitimate need to space their births to morally licit means for doing so.

We have such organizations right here in our own community.

(Fathers: You can mention local resources for NFP and other educational and support groups here.)

Some people have worried that the Holy Father was reproaching all large families. I seriously doubt this. After all, he gave a charming and encouraging address to Italy’s National Numerous Family Association. He appreciates the contributions of families of all sizes, and so do I.

When he spoke of the bunnies, he was speaking of a particular person. He was trying to show that the Church has something to offer everyone, regardless of their situation.

Pope Francis is not backing down from the Church’s teaching. He is not ashamed of the Church’s long-standing teaching on the openness to new life. He does not care what the media thinks about it.

And I, too, am not ashamed. I have been a priest long enough to see the wisdom of the Church’s organic and humane approach.

I urge you to read the whole interview that the Holy Father gave. I think you will be proud of him, as am I.

(Fathers: I am speaking from my heart here. You say whatever your congregation will recognize as coming from your heart.)

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