Passing Judgment – Again

My daily outrage:

Pope Francis – head of the church I belong to – has just passed the following judgment over childless couples: “[…]not having children is a selfish choice”. I have heard this comment all too often these ten years. But I have bad news: not a single man, not even the Pope, is entitled to the moral high ground to speak like this.

I don’t know what games His Holiness is playing on us, but he clearly changed his moral standards over the last couple of days, and not for the better (see his remark where he promoted violence against children). Maybe this is a political move to appease the hardliners within the hierarchy of the Church. Maybe something else. I don’t know. I’m not to judge.

Passing judgments is morally wrong, and Jesus is quite clear when he does not entitle us to it, see Matthew 7:1 or Luke 6:37 (among many other places). Why? First, because human communication is inherently flawed. Second, because those who judge can never possess all the information to justify their judgment.

Human communication is flawed because s/he who listens never understands the same thing as s/he who speaks. When one hears such criticism as the Pope uttered, s/he will inevitably feel degraded and humiliated. If something can be interpreted as judgment, it will be interpreted by some as judgment, as the rejection of their entire person.

When you see a childless couple, how do you know if they chose not to have children? Or if they did make that choice, how do you know what other honorable cases they serve that are just as beneficial to humanity as spawning children?

Maybe Pope Francis didn’t mean to judge all childless couples. Maybe he didn’t mean to judge at all. But he didn’t say so. He didn’t choose to make a distinction.

What’s more, the Pope’s remark is painfully misguided. Declining birth rates are indeed a serious problem, but precisely for this reason, there is plenty of scientific evidence as to what causes it (see here, here, and here – these are random Google finds). A Eurobarometer study even found that European couples actually pledge to have more children (on average) than are actually born.

The conclusion is that birth rates do not fall because couples are selfish and pass on having children. They fall despite couples actually want children.

What about the pain of infertile couples? These people spend years struggling and yearning for children. At the same time, they remain silent because it’s really hard to speak about such a predicament. As a result, they have to hear over and over again how selfish they are. I know about that – my wife and I are one such couple.

In our parish, we are among the organizers of a prayer group that welcomes and looks after childless couples – none of them chose to remain childless. We pray for them, we follow up with them along their journey, whatever choice they make: to struggle on, to adopt, or do something else. Since this group started – three years ago –, many member couples have had babies or adopted children. And those who haven’t still get the reassurance that they are not alone, and they are accepted and loved.

In lashing out against childless couples, today the Pope mocked our work and questioned God’s love for these people. I’m sure God knows better.

4 thoughts on “Passing Judgment – Again

      • first of all, Pope Francis has not changed his stance on anything at all; it is those of us who try to “interpret” what he says through their own lenses, instead of the lens of his own existence; “I am a faithful son of the Church” is his words. Secondly he is right with respect to Church teaching since its founding by Our Lord vis a vis family and children. To obfuscate the statement by arguing about people who cant conceive is disingenuous; He said “people who CHOOSE”, those who cant conceive have no choice in the matter- but then again they suffer from genetic tunnel vision, so perhaps they are at fault as well. And the Pope DOES have every right to teach and shepherd his flock when they stray from authentic teaching- if you wish to call this passing judgment– so be it. I believe Our Lord said,” whatever you bind on earth is bound in Heaven… ” I would not presume to trivialize Christ’s commandments to His steward, unless I was sure I knew more than He does.

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  1. Thank you for taking the time to write a detailed response. Let me react to it — originally, I wrote ‘briefly’, but my answer ended up slightly longer than that..
    I’m not saying that Pope Francis changed his stance on any moral matters, and I don’t believe he did. However, he did make comments that were, in my interpretation, rather hurtful, at least in the form they were communicated. And yes, it’s an interpretation, since no communication is available to us but through interpretation. I was referring to this when, in the post, I claimed that human communication is inherently flawed.
    What’s more, I’m almost certain (and I hope) that the Pope made the comment in the best possible faith and in the most benign meaning. However, it didn’t come through as such, and I can’t say he is not responsible for the effect.
    In addition, I haven’t got the slightest doubt about the importance of family and children, and I’m well aware that it’s through families and in the form of children that new life comes to Earth.
    You wrote it was disingenuous to apply the Pope’s comment (“Not having children is a selfish choice”) to infertile couples. I don’t think it was, as far as the effect of the comment is concerned.
    I know it was a translation into English, but then far more people read this in English than in the Italian original.
    The phrase is ambiguous at best. It can be interpreted like not having children is always a choice, and as such, it’s selfish. I’m ready to allow for the other interpretation (which was probably the intention), but if a malicious interpretation is possible, some will interpret the comment that way.
    I have two reasons to say this: On the one hand, I know Catholic conservatives who do think that not having children is always a choice, or, at best, the result of sin or a flaw in the person of the (prospective) parents. On the other hand, because there’s a considerable amount of shame connected to being childless, infertile couples can hardly speak openly about their predicament. What’s more, these couples – especially the wives – are prone to blame themselves and accept the very interpretation you seem to have excluded.
    The way the Pope’s message was published in the Catholic Herald indeed reinforces the less benign interpretation. The article seems to claim that the single cause of the falling birth rates is that couples choose not to have children, and fails to mention other causes. However, this is simply not true. The Eurobarometer study I have referenced shows that the average European couple pledges to have 2.36 children, and that allegedly more selfish and wealthier societies (e.g. Sweden) have higher birth rates than Southern countries.
    So – the way it was communicated, this message does not help the flock to achieve higher birth rates. What’s more, it is, at least partly, based on false premises. But at least it causes additional emotional damage in couples who did not choose to remain childless. Sorry I sound sarcastic – but in this situation, deferring to the Pope’s absolute authority does not help (especially as he hasn’t claimed it).

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