Poland, 1982: A young woman early into her fifth pregnancy sits in a doctor’s office at the end of an examination.
“You know, ma’am, you really need to be more responsible about your fertility. You don’t have to breed like a rabbit.”
The doctor – a dedicated communist – proceeds to write her a referral for an abortion that she has not asked for. The woman, a devout Catholic, politely thanks him for his advice and proceeds to ignore it, choosing instead to give birth to the woman who would eventually become my wife.
Little wonder that my wife, now inconveniently pregnant with our third child, is feeling a bit abused by the Pope’s recent “rabbit” comments. Not being a reactionary and possessed of a quality theological education (including an advanced degree), she knew to ignore the partisan squabbling and instead research the Pope’s comments in context. She knows what he “really meant”, but also knows that she’ll be hearing the “don’t breed like rabbits” comments from well-meaning critics (Catholic and otherwise) for the rest of her child-bearing life. She knows that the Pope followed his comments with welcome praise of Pope Paul VI and Humanae Vitae, but also realizes that most people outside of the small orthodox Catholic bubble don’t know what any of that means. She knows that all of this talk about “breeding like rabbits” will keep the majority of Catholics in their contraceptive sin (which will also keep the majority of Catholics in a constant state of Eucharistic sacriliege), while anti-Catholics will have yet another home-spun barb to thrust into our hearts.
Ultimately, while continuing to give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt, my wife joins many women in being baffled that such a cruel choice of words could even occur to the Pontiff. If these were truly unprepared comments, why were these the first words that came to mind? And why weren’t they immediately recanted?
There is a great virtue, you see, to prudent speech. Whether from prepared comments or impromptu dialogue, prudence is essential to Papal presentation. Anyone who regularly engages in public speaking can forgive a slip of the tongue, the choice of an inept analogy, or simply a bad choice of words. Yet whether professor or pope, those with a teaching office bear the direct moral responsibility to speak clearly and truthfully, and to correct themselves when errors or misunderstandings occur.
The frustrating problem with imprudent speech which also carries the weight of Papal authority is that no amount of common prudential explanation seems sufficient to reverse the tide of colossal misunderstanding. Prudent speech, you see, is a slow weapon in an imprudent world. If Pope Francis truly believes the philosophical catch-22 that “reality is better than ideas,” then this Catholic kindly asks of him to consider that a hundred beautiful spontaneous moments may not equal the damage of one poorly placed yet prominent one-liner. In swinging to give evil a “punch on the nose,” one must be careful to not inadvertently strike one’s nearest and dearest.
The Shepherd, first and foremost, must tend to his sheep – who depend entirely on his love and care in a hostile and increasingly imprudent world.