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Catholics should not be like rabbits, Pope Francis stated in a recent papal interview. The comment is at once obviously true and ill-advised. The Church has never taught that Catholics are to have as many children as possible. They can use abstinence, including the selective abstinence of “Natural Family Planning,” to limit the number of children they bear.

Yet such nuance is bound to be lost on the Pope’s secular audience. Just as his comments saying that Catholics should not be “obsessed” with abortion have been used as cudgels against political candidates who oppose abortion and gay marriage, Francis’s rabbit comment is likely to be used as yet another weapon against Catholics faithful to church teaching.

Francis’s comment came in the context of a defense of church teaching on contraception. Read with sufficient nuance and sympathy, it is unobjectionable. But it is the nature of the modern media environment to strip out all subtlety, to present phrases in isolation. This is why “Who am I to judge?” and “obsessed” have taken on a life of their own. 

For this reason, I can’t help but regret that Francis referred—without, of course, any ill intent—to the hoary slur that Catholics “breed like rabbits.” It is worth taking a moment to track its history as a justification for hatred. One telling anecdote comes to us from Dame Enid Lyons, who in the 1930s accompanied her husband Joseph—then the prime minister of Australia—to Northern Ireland. At a state dinner, they encountered a sentiment typical of polite society at the time:

Lord Craigavon, the fiercely anti-Catholic prime minister of Northern Ireland, asked Joe at a banquet: “Lyons, have you got many Catholics in Australia?” “Oh, about one in five,” Joe had replied. “Well, watch them, Lyons, watch them,” Craigavon had urged. “They breed like bloody rabbits.”

It had not occurred to Craigavon that Lyons might himself be Catholic, though both he and his wife were. Earlier in the trip, upon their visit to Edinburgh, the Lyons had been greeted by a crowd chanting, “No popery.”

Dame Lyons went on to become the first female member of the Australian parliament, where she advocated for better maternity care, raising the widow’s pension, and eliminating employment discrimination against women. She also fought against sentiments like Lord Craigavon’s. In her inaugural speech to parliament, she said

People began to think that the woman who became the mother of a family was something of a lunatic. About 30 years later she began to be regarded as something of a criminal lunatic. In the end the belief developed that it was a social virtue to produce fewer and fewer children. Where such a state of affairs exists, it is a matter of courage, even of hardihood, to have a family of more than two or three.

The slurs Lyons battled persist today. Anti-Catholic leader Ian Paisley dismissed concerns about housing discrimination against Catholics by saying that they “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin.” Australian historian Inga Clendinnen recalls in her memoir Tiger’s Eye how for her mother, “Catholics were as identifiable as they were reprehensible . . . they bred like rabbits so they could take over the entire public service and look after their own.”

Defenses of Pope Francis’s most controversial statements usually take the form, No, of course this is not counter to church teaching. If so, we can always be glad of the fact, but that is a rather low bar by which to judge any statement. Questions of prudence, relevance, and helpfulness must also be weighed. When will an off-the-cuff comment be received as an endorsement of nonjudgmentalism? Is it accurate to suggest that the church is obsessed with abortion and gay marriage? Do Catholics more often face a temptation to “irresponsibility” or to letting “responsibility” become an excuse for ignoring church teaching on openness to life?

I fear that as a result of Pope Francis’ comment, and counter to his intention, an old anti-Catholic slur—the one against which Catholic women like Enid Lyons have fought for decades—is about to be revived with a new vigor. If so, one lesson will be that there must be responsibility in how we speak as well as in how we love. 

Matthew Schmitz is deputy editor of First Things.

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