It all depends on how you interpret Humanae Vitae.
That's essential to understanding what Pope Francis "really meant" in his recent string of remarks on having children.
In fact, it's a line that comes from the pope himself.
He used it in an interview in March with Italy's biggest-selling daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera. The paper's editor asked the pope if the church should take another look at the teaching found in Paul VI's 1968 encyclical.
"Cardinal Martini, your confrere, thought it was probably the time to do so," the editor said provocatively.
Here's how the pope replied:
"It all depends on how Humanae Vitae is interpreted."
Now that's interesting!
"Paul VI himself, in the end, urged priest-confessors to be very merciful, to be attentive to concrete situations," he said, then called his predecessor "prophetic" and praised him for having "the courage to stand against the majority, to defend the moral discipline ... and to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism."
Francis completed his answer to the question by saying it was not a question of whether to change the encyclical's teaching, but to "make sure pastoral care takes into account situations and what persons are capable of doing."
The interview offers an interpretive key to understanding the Jesuit pope when he speaks specifically about the topic of birth control. (Until the papal visit to the Philippines, he's done so only seldomly.)
There's another interpretative key. It's a principle he put forth in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, and has repeated on numerous occasions: "Realties are greater than ideas."
These two instruments are critical to understanding how Pope Francis interprets Humanae Vitae.
First of all, the comments he made in the Philippines, on the plane trip back to Rome and, finally, those at his Wednesday general audience following the trip all suggest one thing: the pope is a realist.
Reality is more important than any idea -- or ideal. And Jorge Mario Bergoglio knows this. He has been closely involved in the day-to-day reality of people's lives probably as much as any bishop could be. He knows that most Catholics have a hard time accepting the encyclical's teaching on artificial birth control and that many simply ignore it.
On the personal level -- or, rather, on the level of the couple -- he also believes the encyclical has much else to say that is of even greater value than opposing the pill and condoms. In the pope's interpretation, the encyclical's message to Catholic couples is to be generous and responsible. Basically, its message is, "Don't be selfish! Don't be irresponsible!" It appeals to the higher virtues, even if people stumble in their efforts to live them.
Francis knows that, in fact, they do. And Paul VI knew it, as well. Hence the appeal to priests to be extremely merciful toward people when it comes to this issue. Whether you agree with him or not, the Jesuit pope seems to think there is no need to change a hard teaching. He believes the more important challenge is to capture the document's greater meaning.
Second, Francis sees the teaching of Humanae Vitae as fundamental in protection of the poor. According to him, the truly prophetic character of this controversial document (written half a century ago) is its farsighted opposition neo-Malthusianism, the idea that population growth must be controlled. And which societies do population control programs most vigorously target? Poor societies and poor countries.
The pope rejects arguments that say reducing the population actually relieves human misery, famine and poverty and is also more respectful of the environment. He has repeated over and over again the scientifically verified fact that there is enough food in the world to feed everyone. He has also advocated many times for a better distribution of goods and wealth, as well as the need for better education. This is his answer to neo-Malthusianism, which he sees as a selfish and irresponsible response of the world's rich toward their poor brothers and sisters. It is simply unacceptable for him to accept the scandal that a tiny minority of people grows obscenely wealthy while the majority live in poverty. In Pope Francis' view, population-control programs are nothing more than an attempt to eliminate poverty by eliminating people.
As ever, he used some salty words and colorful images during his visit to the Philippines, all part of his effort to make these points and many others understandable. But some of his biggest fans worry he might be a bit too intemperate and unreflective in these freewheeling moments of making off-the-cuff remarks. And those less than thrilled with his pontificate openly accuse him of sowing confusion.
But his comments on pregnancies, birth rates and even the famous "breeding like rabbits" allusion have to be understood in their larger and more important context. In this regard, it is useful to remember another maxim dear to the pope: "The whole is greater than its parts."
[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]
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