I was tempted to put a third “r” word—“rabbits”—in the title, but there wasn’t enough room.
I thought I could take a break from writing about Pope Francis, but we now have headlines all over the world picking up on something he said on the plane leaving Manila for Rome.
Most of the headlines were variations on the theme of Filipinos being told to stop “breeding like rabbits.” I searched through the Internet to look for the actual statements, including the original Italian, and, as I suspected, there was a bit of “procreative” or “multiplicative” journalism involved here.
The Pope started out by referring to a woman he had met, not in Manila but in Rome. She was expecting her eighth child after seven caesarean sections.
The Pope remarked: “This is to tempt God. That is an irresponsibility.”
He then referred to the need for responsible parenthood: “Each person with his pastor seeks how to do that responsible parenthood.” We get now to the rabbits: “God gives you the methods to be responsible. Some think that—excuse the word—that in order to be good Catholics, you have to be like rabbits. No.”
Translations are always tricky, but the Italian original definitely was not quite what the headlines used. From the Italian newspaper The Republic, the quote was “I cattolici facciano figli, ma non come conigli,” meaning “Catholics should not have offspring like rabbits.”
In that same news conference in the sky, the Pope did reiterate the Catholic Church’s stand against contraception and “ideological colonization,” or western donor agencies tying their aid to agendas around contraception and sexuality.
After returning to Rome, the Pope made another statement: “It gives consolation and hope to see so many numerous families who receive children as a real gift of God. They know that every child is a benediction.” He said it was “simplistic” to blame large families as the cause of poverty, adding that “the principal cause of poverty is an economic system that has removed the person from the center, and put the god of money there instead.”
“Has the Pope changed his mind?” an American newspaper headline asked. The US network CBS interviewed Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo, a theologian and director of the North American Pontifical College in Rome, about the papal statements, and he said the two statements are not contradictory: “When the Pope speaks on the plane, he is speaking as a pastor to ordinary people… When he comes back, he wants to speak as pope.”
The Pope’s statements do remind us of the tensions with risks and responsibility.
I had actually thought about these themes while watching the Pope on TV apologizing to a crowd in Palo, Leyte, about having to return almost immediately to Tacloban because he had been advised to fly back to Manila much earlier, to avoid the strong winds from Tropical Storm “Amang.”
He could have invoked divine protection and said he would stay on and take the risk of flying through the storm, but he didn’t do that. You see that similar weighing of risks—“tempting God,” as he put it—when he referred to the woman in Rome about to have her eighth caesarean section.
These messages about risks and responsibility need to be discussed even more in the Philippines. In a column last week I wrote about my concerns over the papal visit’s theme of “mercy and compassion,” and how we might end up promoting dependency and fatalism by using a narrow interpretation of “divine mercy.”
We do, after all, have that popular and wise adage, “Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa”—loosely translated as “God has pity, but humans have to act.”
Now, one could be naughty and use “gawa” in the sense of baby-making, and that adage would lose its wisdom with the new formulation: “Let’s just make babies and leave everything to God’s mercy.”
I worry that the debates around family planning focus on pregnancies alone—the “breeding” and the prevention of the pregnancies. Whatever one’s position is on family planning, we do have to deal with the challenge of millions of Filipino children that are already born.
Some years back I was listening to an interview with an elderly woman who had many children being aired by the Catholic station Radio Veritas. Her children were all accomplished professionals—a lawyer, a doctor, even a priest, if I remember right. The interview was intended to show that having many children shouldn’t be a problem and that it pays off when you’re old to have so many of them to support you.
I thought the interview glossed over the fact that she was upper-class, and had her children decades ago. Today, even middle-class couples find they have to strain their budgets and resources to raise three or four children. I’ve also seen, too often, how grandparents, rather than being cared for by their young, still having to support jobless or underemployed children, and grandchildren.
I’ve also been grappling with a conversation I had with one of our barangay captains in UP Diliman during the Christmas break. A few weeks earlier, I was with her visiting an urban poor community and I noticed a toddler with a black eye. When I asked what had happened, I was told that the child had fallen down the stairs. I had her brought to our University Health Service and the attending physician and I exchanged suspicions about the explanation.
We suspected child-battering, especially because of the family circumstances. The child had five siblings, including an infant. The mother, shortly after delivering her sixth child, had abandoned her family and took off with another man. The father was devastated; he lost his job in UP and turned to drinking.
During the Christmas conversation with the barangay captain, I asked about how that child was. And the kapitana grimaced, telling me how the child had just recently been beaten by the father, using a buntot-pagi. That’s the tail of the stingray, which is found in many Filipino households in the belief that it wards off evil spirits and the aswang. I could feel my blood boiling.
The kapitana nudged me, as she had done weeks before: “Ampunin mo na.” Adopt her. I sighed. I could follow my heart, as I have done several times before, but I knew it would be irresponsible. You take in one, what happens to her five siblings, and to the hundreds, thousands, of others out there?
I will take heed, as we all should, of the Pope’s exhortation in Manila, to use the languages of the head, the heart and the hand. (There is a humanist Buddhist version, from the Fo Guang Shan sect, of the three “goods”: Think good, say good, do good.)
The heart can still be primary, as the Pope said in Manila: Feel what you think, feel what you do. What rabbits can’t do are imperatives for us, as humans.
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