No need to get hopped up
For many Catholics, Francis’ image deflated a little last week like Tom Brady’s footballs. But that might not be such a bad thing. The truth never is.
It was the week of “feeling devastated by this pope.” Margery Eagan at Crux was the first to use the phrase, after the Holy Father’s vigorous defense of the Church’s teaching on contraception.
“Pope Francis left me feeling foolish for even hoping that he’d somehow see his way to ending the Church’s completely indefensible contraception ban,” she wrote. “Mostly, I just feel sad.”
For those of us who believe it is the widespread use of contraception that is indefensible, our “feeling devastated by this pope” moment came later.
In an in-flight interview, Pope Francis uttered the fateful words: “Some think that … in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood!”
He singled out a particular mother. “I rebuked a woman some months ago in a parish who was pregnant eight times, with seven C-sections,” he said. “But do you want to leave seven orphans? That is to tempt God!”
For Catholics like me, enthusiastically sharing the news of the trip with my nine children — the last one born amid real medical sacrifice — the words were like the famous “good feelings gone”
The advice I give my children fits here: Don’t get hurt by the way someone says something. Separate the content of their words from their tone and figure out if they are saying something true.
In this case, the content is true. Natural Family Planning can and should be used to limit families when there is a serious reason.
But the tone is still all wrong. Catholics in the West suffer from too much reluctance to have children, not too much eagerness to have them, and the “rabbits” remark can only worsen the situation.
The Pope, to his great credit, clarified his position the next opportunity he got, praising large families. But the damage was done. The good feeling was gone. And if Facebook is any indication, many large Catholic families are a lot less enamored of Pope Francis after “rabbits.”
And maybe that is a good thing.
Pope Francis himself has pointed out how uncomfortable he was with the idealized opinion some have of him.
“If I’m not wrong, Sigmund Freud said that in every idealization there is an aggression,” he said. “Depicting the Pope to be a sort of superman, a type of star, seems offensive to me. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone. A normal person.”
This is true.
In Sunday’s Gospel reading, when Jesus calls the first apostles, including Peter, the first Pope, he chooses men who are rather unimpressive by the world’s standards. He always does. He wants there to be no doubt about it: Struggling men like Moses, frightened men like Jonah, and weak men like Peter could never save the world. Only God can, and does, working through them.
I remember when Pope John Paul II was approaching the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, stressing the vigor and strength of the faith. The mainstream media, naturally, wrote articles about the how divided and unfaithful the flock was and how weak and frail John Paul was. And they were absolutely right.
The Wall Street Journal weighed in with an article about who the next pope might be, and said one thing was certain: What was needed was a man with “a personality that will capture the imagination of the world.”
That struck me as a very odd — and extremely dangerous — prerequisite for the servant of servants of God.
And though John Paul II is largely responsible for the modern expectation that Popes would be charismatic media-friendly larger-than-life figures, I think he also did his best to strike a deathblow against the cult-of-celebrity papacy.
Why else would he keep appearing in public long after he had become stooped, frail and swollen, drooling and slurring his words? It was his way of saying, “I am not the Chairman Mao of the Church, with a carefully stage-managed image. I am a Polish priest who would be nothing but for the grace of God.”
I think Pope Benedict XVI said the same thing by retiring early (especially in the way he did). He was delivering John the Baptist’s message: “He must increase; I must decrease.”
It is Christ’s personality that needs to capture the imagination of the world, not the Bishop of Rome’s.
So, yes, I was disappointed by the Pope’s rabbit remark.
But the faux pas of Francis only shows that the papacy is greater than the sensibilities of any one man. It is the papacy that delivered the truth about contraception despite a hostile world that mocks us for believing. And while I have no idea whether Jorge Bergoglio likes large families or not, I know what Pope Francis teaches about them, based on Scripture and Tradition.
In remarks to large families a month ago, the Holy Father said: “In a world often marked by selfishness … [t]he presence of large families is a hope of society.”
If Francis after rabbits is diminished for you, so be it. Jesus Christ still reigns.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.