Pope Francis has apologized, through a Vatican archbishop, for remarks from his flight on the way home from his visit to the Philippines that were perceived by many as demeaning to large families.
In comments to the Italian bishop’s newspaper Avvenire on Thursday, Vatican Archbishop Giovanni Becciu said, “The Pope is truly sorry” that his remarks about large families “caused such disorientation.” Archbishop Becciu said the pope “absolutely did not want to disregard the beauty and the value of large families.”
The regret marks the first time Pope Francis has backed away from his hyperbolic way of speaking. Francis’ use of exaggerated, even insulting phrases, to drive home his points has filled a book. What some have referred to as “The Pope Francis Little Book of Insults” is full of eyebrow-raising papal exclamations like: “Self-absorbed, Promethean neo-Pelagian; Restorationist; Triumphalist; Rigid Christians; and Slaves of superficiality,” among others.
The apology stems from January 19 remarks on the plane trip back to Rome from Manila in the Philippines.
Remarks by the pope on that same flight comparing the imposition of the homosexual agenda by western countries to indoctrination by the “Hitler Youth” and even his statement to Catholic couples that they can’t marry if they aren’t open to children, were almost entirely ignored by the media.
The media did, however, catch remarks in which, while speaking of “responsible” parenthood, the pope cautioned against Catholics being “like rabbits.”
Francis opened with some rather harsh statements about a woman he knows who he said was pregnant with her eighth child after having the first seven by C-section. He said he had “rebuked” her, saying, “But do you want to leave seven orphans? That is to tempt God!”
Later during the in-flight interview, Francis returned to the woman, adding, “That is an irresponsibility. [That woman might say] 'no but I trust in God.' But God gives you methods to be responsible.”
Then came what seemed like a generalization from the particular difficult situation to large families as a whole. “Some think that, excuse me if I use that word, that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits.” He added, “No. Responsible parenthood!”
The pope continued, “This is clear and that is why in the church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors, one can seek and I know so many, many ways out that are licit and that have helped this.”
The words set off a frenzy of reaction, including cheers from around the globe from the mainstream media and much hurt on the part of Catholic moms who have sacrificed careers, wealth, time, and energy to embrace God’s gift of life. The hurt expressed by faithful Catholic moms was very real, and many cute rabbit photos were posted to Facebook.
The pope’s first move to calm the furor was to note in his Wednesday, January 21 General Audience, “It gives me consolation and hope to see so many large families that welcome children as a true gift from God.”
Francis also dismissed the notion that large families are a cause of poverty. “I would say that the main cause of poverty is an economic system that has removed the person from the center and has placed there the god of money, an economic system that always excludes children, the elderly, the youth,” he said.
Then came Archbishop Becciu’s statement to Avvenire expressing the pope's sorrow on January 22.
But what was it about this particular incident that caused the papal walk-back, in light of the many other exaggerated remarks he has made?
It is plain that Pope Francis tries to play to the mainstream media. News outlets are insatiably drawn to remarks that seem to bash conservatives and the pope has not shied away from employing them. But this time things were different.
For one, I think he stretched things too far outside of his own comfort zone. He has previously expressed a love for large families. Even in my own encounter with Pope Francis back in the summer of 2013, I told him I had eight children, and he replied warmly, “Good, keep going!”
But I’m fairly sure the reason for the first turn-around comes thanks to the most powerful force for good on this earth: the mothers who have embraced life in the face of a world hostile to life and even inimical to their choice of loving life. These courageous women have borne and adopted babies unwanted and uncared for by the world, they have offered themselves as victims of love united with that Love who bore the Church.
Traditional Catholic men can take any ridicule and even death with barely a whimper but insult their wives or mothers and that is a different story. As Pope Francis might say, those insults might be met with a punch in the nose. Many a priest and cardinal has one of those heroic mothers of large families and they too are men ready to defend those whose hands rocked their cradles.
Pope Francis himself was the eldest of five children. A walk-back was in order and in this instance, I believe, brought about by the most powerful force for good on earth. Praise God for mothers!