Francis: Society without children is 'sad and gray'

Vatican City — One month after saying that couples who choose not to have children are making a "selfish choice," Pope Francis on Wednesday said that societies with low birthrates are "sad and gray."

Speaking during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, Francis said that while children can sometimes bring worries or problems "it is better a society with these worries and these problems, than a society sad and gray because it has remained without children."

Referring in a generic way to societies with birthrates of less than one percent, the pontiff continued: "We can say that this society is sad, is gray because it has remained without children."

The pope has been using his general audience in recent months to reflect on various roles in the family, leading up to October's global meeting of Catholic bishops at the Vatican on the issue of contemporary struggles in family life.

At his audience Feb. 11, Francis said bluntly that "not having children is a selfish choice."

"A society stingy in generation, that does not love to surround itself in children, that considers them overall a worry, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society," he said then.

Francis made his remarks Wednesday as part of wider reflection on the role of children in the family, and in wider society at large. The pontiff said that adults have many things to learn from children, from how to give emotion to how to see themselves as part of a community.

"In themselves, children have a richness for humanity and also for the church, because they recall to us constantly the necessary condition to enter the Reign of God: That of not considering ourselves self-sufficient, but in need of help, of love, of pardon," said Francis toward the beginning of his reflection.

"We are all in need of help, of love, of pardon!" he emphasized.

Francis also said children have a special way of seeing reality that has not yet been tainted by the many experiences adults have had.

"Children are not diplomats: they say what they feel, they say what they see, directly," said the pope. "And many times they put their parents in difficulty, saying in front of other people: 'This one I do not like because it is ugly.'"

"Children say what they see -- they are not double people, have not yet learned the science of duplicity that we adults unfortunately have learned," he said.

Children, the pope said, also have two basic things to teach adults: How to laugh and how to cry.

Joking about children who cry when he picks them up, perhaps thinking that he is a doctor about to give a vaccination, Francis said children "smile and cry spontaneously."

"It depends always on the heart, and often our heart blocks and loses this ability to smile, to cry," he continued.

"[These are] two things that we big people often 'block,'" said the pontiff. "So many times our smile becomes a smile of cardboard, a thing without life, a smile that is not lively -- even an artificial smile, of a clown."

Continuing, Francis said "we have to ask ourselves: Do I smile spontaneously, with freshness, with love, or is my smile artificial? Do I still cry, or I have lost the ability to cry?"

Concluding by saying a life without children is "sad and gray," the pontiff said kids "bring life, happiness, hope."

"Also trouble," he continued. "But, life is so."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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