Who Is Scratching Whose Head?

A number of bloggers are struggling with Pope Francis’ comment about family planning and Roman Catholics “breeding like rabbits.” On the one side are those who think Francis is only speaking to the wider public and would choose his words more carefully if addressing the faithful exclusively:

When Francis speaks to the mainstream media, like it or not, he is choosing to speak to non-Catholics. Faithful, practicing Catholics are not his primary audience. If you are expecting Pope Francis to be speaking to you as a practicing Catholic when he addresses the media, you will be devastated.

From the other corner comes the spin that those outside the church don’t know how to take Francis’ off the cuff statements:

The Church has never taught that Catholics are to have as many children as possible. They can use abstinence, including the selective abstinence of “Natural Family Planning,” to limit the number of children they bear.

Yet such nuance is bound to be lost on the Pope’s secular audience. Just as his comments saying that Catholics should not be “obsessed” with abortion have been used as cudgels against political candidates who oppose abortion and gay marriage, Francis’s rabbit comment is likely to be used as yet another weapon against Catholics faithful to church teaching.

Damned if we get it, damned if we don’t.

But the point about Pope Francis saying things the way he does because he is speaking to non-Roman Catholics raises an interesting (to me) question. Why does the pontiff carry on a conversation with the wider world and how do I get to join it? I mean, if the pope’s jurisdiction is truly universal, then he is my pope as much as Jason and the Callers. In which case, if I have to listen to him, shouldn’t he have to hear from me once in a while?

Or is it the case that the universal jurisdiction of the papacy only extends to a spiritual authority which Francis has by virtue of certain Christians being in fellowship with him?

It seems to me that papal discourse is still caught between the older Unam Sanctam outlook of the papacy as the highest authority even above temporal authorities, and the newer Vatican 2 conception that sees church power largely in spiritual terms (except within Vatican City which has its own police, prison, bank, and postal service). Protestants in the United States took a long time to figure out that when Reinhold Niebuhr spoke, he wasn’t speaking for or to all Americans. But the coverage and following of the papacy surely hasn’t captured the distinction between the real power that the papacy has over Roman Catholic life and institutions, and the apparent moral authority that appears to give the pope permission to speak about everything Satan to tsunamis. Meanwhile, no one seems to notice that no one cares what other bishops might have to say. For all of Francis’ talk of collegiality, he is hogging the limelight. And do journalists actually realize that even if they don’t believe in papal supremacy the way the cover the Holy See indicates they support papal supremacy.

I’m sure Jason and the Callers could clear all of this up (if they ever commented on the contemporary state of the communion to which they call).


13 thoughts on “Who Is Scratching Whose Head?

  1. Mullarkey http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/mullarkey/2015/01/francis-political-illusion

    JM, SJ:] First, do you worry that we might be so enamored of tradition (not Tradition but simply tradition) that we may miss what the Holy Spirit is asking of us, and unable to read the “signs of the times,” as Christ asks? More to the point, do you worry that our church could unintentionally repeat what Jesus accused some of the Pharisees of doing, that is, laying down “heavy burdens” on people, seemingly more concerned with laws than human beings?

    Let me be clear: I’m not calling either you, or anyone who agrees with you, or anyone else for that matter, a “Pharisee.” But Jesus invites us to ask ourselves if we are behaving in that manner. Thus, the church—that is, we, the entire People of God—must always be alert to the danger of relying on the law so much that we miss Christ’s call for mercy. Again, it is always balance: law and mercy. But in my mind Jesus tips the scales consistently to mercy, as when he levels his own judgment on the Pharisees, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

    As I say, it’s a balance, but ceteris paribus, stinginess with mercy seems like something that we would have to answer for when we finally meet Jesus Christ….

    [RD:] What it has more in common with [than stereotypical Pharisaism, and I speak from experience, is certain forms of Mainline Protestantism and megachurch evangelicalism: Notwithstanding what still emanates from the Vatican, we’ve become a church of long communion and short confession lines (and you’re more likely to find me in the first than the second), of Jesus-affirms-you sermons and songs, of marriage preparation retreats (like mine) where most of the couples are cohabitating and nobody particularly cares


  2. Which goes to show that for all the vaunted supremacy of having an authoritative interpreter of Scripture, who is the authoritative interpreter of the pope?

    What our RC interlocutors can’t seem to get is that by undermining the confidence of personal interpretation and replacing it with papalist, we’re just left with an eternal, never ending, never-are-we-sure-what-Magisterial-statement-is-authoritative chain of interpretation.

    Give me the assurance of the Holy Spirit working hand in hand with the objectivity of the Word of God written any day. Its the only place to find true cognitive rest. Put it in the hands of a fallen human institution like the Vatican, and you get but one attitude at the end of the day: “I’m not the Magisterium. The Magisterium knows. I don’t have to know what the Magisterium knows. I just need nominal assent. God will give me a pass on the last day if the Magisterium gets it wrong and I follow it.”


  3. DGH: Why does the pontiff carry on a conversation with the wider world and how do I get to join it?

    You could always follow him on Twitter (@pontifex) and get time off from Purgatory as a bonus!


  4. John, I thought that too, but then the pontifex maximus shoots that idea down too:

    Pope Francis is urging families to put aside their iPhones and Twitter feeds and learn to talk to one another again.

    In his annual message for the church’s World Day of Communications, released Friday, the Pope said media can both help or hinder family communication – helping far-flung members stay in touch but also enabling others to avoid one another.

    I wonder if him and Obama would golf together, they could do so, and there could be lots of chit chat between tee-offs (emoticon). Cell phones always off at the golf course, good ettiquette and all, yo..


  5. John, it was pretty wierd, having to navigate blogdom with Jason and the Callers and all their writing. I’m very much in debt to Darryl for his taking them on full bore since Jason’s conversion. I really appreciate the work of men like you who help draw distinctions for untrained laymen (i.e. never been to seminary) like me who had little to no experience with RCism (excepting the occasional RC co-worker, what NPR says when they elect a new pope, etc..). So to you as well, my thanks. Peace.


  6. Andrew, I’m glad too for DGH’s interactions (and everyone’s here) with Roman Catholicism. It’s truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the more broadly that message can be spread, the better off we all will be.


  7. Some would like the pope to talk less (which was his custom prior to becoming the Vicar of Christ):

    “Interviews are not my forte,” then-Cardinal Bergoglio once remarked, and for that reason he seldom sat down to speak on the record with reporters. When two journalists sought a formal interview, he advised them to publish excerpts from his sermons and essays instead. (A Call to Serve: Pope Francis and the Catholic Future; Crossroad, von Kempis/Lawler, 2013)
    Something has changed, clearly. The Argentine cardinal who avoided interviews has become the Roman Pontiff whose interviews have produced so many headlines. Is it a change for the better?

    As a loyal Catholic I am loath to criticize the Pope. But I feel that I am on solid ground when I invoke his own judgment: “Interviews are not my forte.”

    The most recent “Francis eruption,” of course, was the exchange with reporters accompanying him on the flight home after his trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Speaking about contraception, the Holy Father said: “Some believe that – excuse the expression – to be good Catholics we must be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood.”

    Anyone who reads the entire exchange should realize that in his entire answer, the Pope was supporting the teaching of the Church regarding the immorality of contraception. But as soon as he uttered those fateful words, comparing Catholic to rabbits, the headlines were inevitable.

    For critics of the Church, that comparison was a license to rehearse the old complaint that Catholics “breed like rabbits.” (No, for the record, the Pope did not use the term “breed.”) And for the faithful Catholic parents who, as Blessed Paul VI put it, “prudently and generously decide to have more children,” the Pope’s words—especially as they came strained through the filters of the mass media—seemed almost a rebuke, a dismissal of the sacrifices they have willingly made, even an affront.

    That’s a sad result for an offhand comment. It’s particularly sad because while he was in Manila, Pope Francis paid tribute to Paul VI and especially to Humanae Vitae, the landmark encyclical renewing the Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception. It is still more poignant that in his salute to the parents of large families ( Humanae Vitae, 10), Paul VI was writing about “responsible parenthood”—the very topic on which Pope Francis was speaking when he made that regrettable reference to rabbits.

    Some cantankerous Catholics see the Pope’s remarks as evidence that he wants to overthrow traditional Church teachings. The evidence will not support that interpretation. During his stay in the Philippines, Francis had gone out of his way to denounce the contraceptive mentality, and soon after his return to Rome he would express his admiration for poor parents who know that every child is a blessing.”

    Yet at the same time it is also wrong to place all the blame on the mass media for misinterpreting the Pope’s statement. As soon as I heard that rabbits had been mentioned, I knew what the headline stories would say. The reaction was entirely predictable. If you drop raw meat on the floor, you have no right to be surprised when the dog snaps it up.


  8. these guys weren’t too happy about the rabbit trail fostered by pontifex:

    Wesley Brittain • 3 days ago
    How anyone can see him as Catholic is beyond me. He’s the full embodiment of Vatican II. I hope and pray that the Novus Ordoites and false traditionalists open their eyes and see more of what’s going on. But only those who desire to see will see.
    4 • Reply•Share ›

    JoannesD • a day ago
    Is that satanic hand sign those two are waving for real? So Bergoglio is actually a devil worshipper?
    • Reply•Share ›

    vaticancatholic Mod JoannesD • a day ago
    It’s indisputable that he’s a heretic and an idolater. If you aren’t already aware, please consult the other material on the site which proves that he’s not a pope and that the Vatican II sect is not the Catholic Church.


  9. DGH — fascinating that Philip Lawler is citing the recent CTC convert Taylor Marshall on some point of doctrine. there are so few of them, they really have to talk among themselves.

    Andrew — beware citing those “Most Holy Family” folks — they are sedevacantists (reject Vatican II), and they seem to be more rabid than most. So the CTCers will simply reject anything they say the same way that the reject everything that OldLifers say. “Begging the question”.


  10. Pope ‘sorry’ for rabbit remark: Francis apologises for press conference comment about large Catholic families
    Last month, Pope Francis said there was no need to breed ‘like rabbits’
    He urged ‘responsible parenthood’ and said three children was ‘about right’
    Comments sparked anger and some said they are hurtful to Catholic mums
    Pope ‘truly sorry’ his remarks about families ’caused such disorientation’
    PUBLISHED: 16:07 EST, 3 February 2015 | UPDATED: 16:40 EST, 3 February 2015

    Pope Francis has said he is ‘truly sorry’ for offending large Catholic families by saying that there was no need to breed ‘like rabbits’.
    The Pope caused dismay among larger families last month when he cautioned ‘responsible parenthood’ advising that three children was ‘about right’.
    Vatican Archbishop Giovanni Becciu has apologised on Francis’ behalf by saying ‘the Pope is truly sorry’ that his remarks about large families ’caused such disorientation’.

    Former US Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, said: ‘It’s sometimes very difficult to listen to the Pope and some of the things he says off the cuff, and this is one of them.’



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.