The poor have but a few things in life. But at least they have Pope Francis.
He gives them hope, encouragement and, now and then, a turn of phrase that draws good-natured laughter. When he visited the Philippines earlier this month, he met a Filipino woman who had risked her life to bring forth seven children, all by Caesarian section. She got a papal scolding.
Just because God gave you the right to bear children, he said, that doesn’t mean you should go for broke in exercising that right.
“Some people think,” he said, “that — excuse my expression here — that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No. Parenthood is about being responsible.”
In a world where the rich get richer and the poor get children, who can argue against that? But I’ve read somewhere that rabbit farmers in Germany are incensed by the Pope’s remarks.
“What does he have against rabbits?” they ask. “Rabbits don’t breed like rabbits. Only people do that.”
Actually, the pope has resurrected an ancient notion that Catholic families must be big families — because they resort only to the rhythm method of contraception, which doesn’t work. It’s not called “Vatican roulette” for nothing.
In the same vein, here’s another papal story, one told to me by a Chicago-based journalist: when Pope John Paul II visited the US in 1979, he dropped in on a hospital to comfort the sick. He came upon a man lying in a hospital bed, with his wife attending to him, and a bunch of frisky young children, obviously their progenies, swarming around them. The pope began to praise them for keeping faith with Catholic family values.
“I’m sorry, Holy Father,” the man interrupted him, “but we’re not Catholics. We’re just sexy Protestants.”
That story should remind us that population growth is not just a matter of government policy, nor is it just about the teachings of a religion. It’s also about sex. To be exact, sex as recreation.
There’s a great deal of anecdotal evidence to show that when a poor family saves enough money to buy a television set, the production of babies in the family radically slows down. That’s especially true when a tearjerker of a telenovela is on during prime time, after dinner.
On the other hand, poor families that have no visible means of entertaining themselves in the restiveness of tropical evenings, well, they just keep on producing children. Procreation is their only recreation.
Apart from that, some families see a large brood as the solution to rather than the cause of an economic problem. This is often the case for small farmers in rural communities, where it’s not unusual for a peasant family to have as many as 10 children.
The more children a man has, the more help is available to him as he tills his small farm, the thinking goes. Try convincing the man that he’s got it wrong and he’ll laugh in your face.
The payback comes when the 10 children grow up and they have children of their own. The farm can no longer feed all the mouths in the much-extended family. Some of the children will have to go out into the world, very likely to some city. Having done nothing but farm all their lives, they aren’t fit for jobs that pay decent wages. Some resort to petty crime. They all become part of a huge social problem.
Pope Francis is right when he says that people should exercise their right to reproduce with a strong sense of responsibility. But to do that, they need to be equipped with more than the Vatican roulette.
Partly because he says the cutest things, many women all over the world love the pope. But they take the pill.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy.