This past weekend, during a small press conference on a jet back to Rome from his visit to the Philippines, Pope Francis criticized the tradition—usually encouraged by the Vatican—of Catholic couples having large broods. “Some think that—excuse the word—that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits,” the National Catholic Reporter quotes the pope as saying. “No.”
Pope Francis illustrated his point by telling the story of a woman he met in Rome who was pregnant with her eighth child, despite the fact that all her previous births had been by cesarean section. “Does she want to leave the seven orphans?” he asked, declaring the choice to have so many children in a row “an irresponsibility” and calling on Catholic ministry to teach “responsible parenthood.”
Don’t get too excited. The pope did not just endorse contraception, even though he was returning from a country where Catholic priests’ efforts to curb reproductive rights have contributed to overpopulation. Instead, the pope argued that there are ways to avoid both contraception and excessive childbearing. “I know so many, many licit ways that have helped this,” he told reporters. “God gives you methods to be responsible.”
He didn’t elaborate. Probably because there are not, in fact, “many, many” ways that the Catholic Church allows women to prevent pregnancy. There is only one: not having sex. You can remain a lifelong virgin, or you can give up on sex within your marriage, or you can practice periodic abstinence, which proponents euphemistically call “natural family planning,” but all methods come back to this idea that you should be having less sex. This isn’t just a bummer for happy couples for whom sex is an important, fun, and bonding activity. For women living in male-dominated marriages, being able to say no to your husband when he wants it isn’t really an option.
And don’t think you can cheat by switching to oral or anal sex. Those sex acts are definitely forbidden by the Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI decreed in the Humanae Vitae, “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life,” which is a flowery way of saying it’s best if you stick to penis-in-vagina intercourse or you are committing a sin. If Pope Francis has decided to change the rules to actually allow for “many, many” methods of preventing pregnancy, he is keeping that fact to himself.