Pope Francis: Have kids or age in bitter loneliness

[I]t might be better — more comfortable — to have a dog, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the dog. Is this true or is this not? Have you seen it? Then, in the end this marriage comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness. It is not fruitful, it does not do what Jesus does with his Church: He makes His Church fruitful.

-Pope Francis

My wife and I do not have children. We have suffered through many lost pregnancies, only to realize that it is apparent that children are not in the cards for us. As a couple, we struggle with our culture’s expectations that everyone will (or should) have children. Many are insensitive without meaning to be, such as the common rejoinder: “No kids yet? Just wait, you’ll see!” Or the more ignorant: “What are you waiting for? You better hurry up or you’ll be too old!”

So it was with great regret and disappointment that I read the words of Pope Francis above. First of all, it’s just a strange statement coming from him, for several reasons:

  1. The Pope has no children, nor is he even married. Does he find that he lives a life of solitude, in the bitterness of loneliness?
  2. The Catholic Church apparently condemns its priests to a life of solitude and the bitterness of loneliness, as they forbid them from entering into these familial relationships.
  3. What does this mean for the Catholic Church’s ministry to the LGBT community? Apparently, if you are gay, not only are you to live a life of solitude and bitter loneliness (without a partner, no less!) but you are also denied the opportunity to live a life in service as a priest. [Women need not apply.] No worries, though: remember, the Catholic Church loves you completely!

I love Pope Francis and I think he’s doing an astonishing, inspirational job of leading the Catholic Church. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked to read his tone-deaf and insensitive remarks.

Granted, he did add a qualifying statement prior to the above quote:

“In a marriage,” said Pope Francis, “fertility can sometimes be put to the test when the children do not arrive, or are sick.” The Pope said that in such times of trial, there are couples who look to Jesus and draw on the power of fertility that Christ has with His Church.

-Vatican Radio

I wonder, if infertile couples can look to Jesus and draw on their relationship with the Church, then why can’t couples who are childless by choice?

Is it possible that some couples are childless by choice for good reason? Perhaps they do not have the emotional or financial resources to provide for a child. Maybe there are problems with substance abuse, violence or other underlying reasons that allow them to function within a couple but that would not be good for a child. Maybe they know they would not be good parents. Or yes, maybe they are simply ‘selfish’ and wish to live a different life than would be possible with children.

Aren’t all of these possibilities good reasons to not bring an unwanted child into the world? The idea that anyone that is physically able to have a child should have a child is just wrong and one reason why we have so many unwanted children in the world languishing in orphanages, homeless or in toxic families.

Pope Francis is doing so much good right now. However, I think his remarks here were unfortunate to say the least and harmful to many. Would anyone look at this threatening view and feel inspired by this sentiment? Does this sound like the perspective of a loving, inviting community?

I’m hopeful his comments sounded more harsh than he meant them to be. I think it would be helpful if he would revisit his remarks in the spirit of love and acceptance that characterize so many of his other messages.

Did you know a devout Catholic invented The Pill?

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 profile of John Rock, inventor of The Pill, begins:

John Rock was christened in 1890 at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and married by Cardinal William O’Connell, of Boston. He had five children and nineteen grandchildren. A crucifix hung above his desk, and nearly every day of his adult life he attended the 7 a.m. Mass at St. Mary’s in Brookline. Rock, his friends would say, was in love with his church. He was also one of the inventors of the birth-control pill, and it was his conviction that his faith and his vocation were perfectly compatible. To anyone who disagreed he would simply repeat the words spoken to him as a child by his home-town priest: “John, always stick to your conscience. Never let anyone else keep it for you. And I mean anyone else.”

This is a fascinating and in my opinion, under-reported aspect of the Hobby Lobby case that is about to come before the Supreme Court. The Pill was developed by a devout Catholic who was absolutely convinced the Catholic Church would endorse this as a natural method of preventing pregnancy, not unlike the rhythm method! Note: The rhythm method has since been replaced by ‘natural family planning‘. Indeed, Gladwell notes the following:

Not long before the Pill’s approval, Rock travelled to Washington to testify before the F.D.A. about the drug’s safety. The agency examiner, Pasquale DeFelice, was a Catholic obstetrician from Georgetown University, and at one point, the story goes, DeFelice suggested the unthinkable–that the Catholic Church would never approve of the birth-control pill. “I can still see Rock standing there, his face composed, his eyes riveted on DeFelice,” a colleague recalled years later, “and then, in a voice that would congeal your soul, he said, ‘Young man, don’t you sell my church short.’ ”

Of course, in the end it was John Rock who was mistaken. He had good reason to believe that he was on firm ground, however. In Human Vitae at 45: A Personal Story, Frank Maurovich of the National Catholic Reporter relates the story:

During Vatican Council II, Pope John XXIII set up a commission to study the issue of birth control which was the source of much inner conflict for many Catholics. After John XXIII’s death, the new Pope Paul VI broadened the membership of the commission to include married couples and physicians. The very fact that a special commission was set up by the Pope to study the birth control issue caused many Catholics to expect a change in the Church’s teaching which, until then, had condemned all forms of artificial birth control as morally wrong, except for medical reasons (Humanae Vitae, Article 15).

By June, 1966, the commission completed its work and presented the Pope with a majority report and a minority report. The majority report recommended that the Church changes its position on birth control and permit couples to use artificial forms of contraception under certain circumstances. The minority report recommended that the Pope hold fast to the traditional teaching. [Note: an unofficial tally showed 52 to 4 in favor of reform with two abstentions.] As the news leaked out that the majority report recommended a change in teaching, Catholics and, in some cases, their pastoral leaders started to expect and prepare for a change. Within this climate of anticipated change, many Catholics started to use some forms of contraception (mainly, the “pill”).

In July, 1968 (two years after receiving the two reports of the commission), Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. While the Pope carefully examined the majority view, he decided that the truth resided in the minority view. Almost immediately, there was an uproar amongst Catholics, including well-recognized theologians and priests, who expected the Pope to adopt the majority view. Many theologians and priests publicly dissented from the teaching of the Pope. Needless to say, the public dissent of theologians and priests from Humanae Vitae didn’t encourage Catholics who were already using birth control to reconsider their position in the light of Humanae Vitae.

I find this amazing and I’m surprised more people haven’t highlighted this as an interesting (if inconsequential) aspect of this lawsuit. I’ll have more to say about this case in the near future, but John Rock and the impact of his faith on his work is really interesting to me.

Equally as interesting and under-reported in this debate is how the Catholic Church came to have this position in the first place. Current advocates seem to imply this position is now and has been forever unchanged. I wonder how much different the world would be now if the Catholic Church had followed through on this change in the view of birth control in the 60’s.

  • How might Africa have dealt differently with the AIDS crisis?
  • How might we now view women’s reproductive health differently?
  • How would the role of men in relationships be perceived differently?

The Catholic Church plays a tremendous role in determining societal norms and behaviors, affecting far more than its own members. It’s unfortunate that it had an opportunity to help people navigate the reproductive decisions made possible by new technology and instead chose to abstain.

TL;DR: The Pill was developed by a devout Catholic who believed the Church would endorse it. Instead, the Church rejected the majority opinion of its commission and that decision has caused a lot of people a lot of grief.