By Angus Mackinnon

Pope Francis wears a plastic poncho as he waves to well wishers after a mass in Tacloban. (MNS photo)

Pope Francis wears a plastic poncho as he waves to well wishers after a mass in Tacloban. (MNS photo)

Vatican City, Holy See | AFP |  – Pope Francis on Wednesday described large families as a “gift from God”, just days after he said Catholics did not need to “breed like rabbits”.

In an apparent row back from comments he made on his way back from the Philippines, the Argentinian pontiff argued that an unfair economic system is the primary cause of poverty, rather than overpopulation.

“The meetings with families and young people in Manila were stand-out moments during the visit to the Philippines,” Francis told a crowd of around 7,000 gathered in St Peter’s square for his weekly audience.

“Healthy families are essential to the life of society. It provides us with consolation and hope to see so many large families who welcome children as a gift from God,” he said.

“These families know that each child is a blessing.”

Francis surprised reporters on the papal plane on Sunday by recounting an anecdote about how he had once asked a mother who had seven children by caesarian section and was pregnant with her eighth if she wanted to “leave behind seven young orphans”.

“She said, ‘I trust in God.’ But God gave us the means to be responsible,” Francis said. “Some think—and excuse the term – that to be good Catholics, they must be like rabbits.”

Following the Church’s teachings did not mean “Christians should have children one after the other”, he added in comments that made headlines worldwide.

Catholic teaching prohibits the use of artificial contraception but allows the use of the so-called rhythm method, where couples avoid unwanted pregnancy by planning sex on days during the woman’s menstrual cycle on which she is less likely to conceive.

Poverty link 

Francis’s comments had particular resonance in the Philippines, where large families are seen by some as perpetuating and exacerbating poverty levels which act as a restraint on development.

The Church claims more than 80 percent of the country’s 100 million as its followers and it waged a 15-year battle to block a family planning law. The law was finally introduced last year, allowing the state to distribute free contraceptives.

The Church’s opposition to contraception was formalised by former pope Paul VI in 1968, as the birth control pill was beginning to be widely used in the developed world.

On Sunday, the current pontiff described his predecessor as a “prophet” who had been rightly concerned about ideas advocating restrictions on the poor having children.

At the same time, Francis appeared to approvingly cite population experts who say three children per family is an ideal number.

Whatever his exact thinking on the subject, the emphasis was different on Wednesday.

“I hear some people saying that families with many children and the birth of many babies are among the causes of poverty,” the pope said.

“That seems to me to be a simplistic opinion. I can say, we all can say, that the principal cause of poverty is an economic system that has removed man from its centre and replaced him with the God of money.”

A pithy Pope 

Francis’s “rabbit” comments came shortly after he made waves by suggesting, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, that anyone who mocked someone else’s faith could expect a violent response.

“If a good friend speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched,” he said.

The comment, which was widely criticised in liberal circles, reflected the 78-year-old’s tendency to express his ideas on complex issues of theology and religious practise in pithy soundbites.

These have included “a poor Church, for the poor,” which he coined at the start of a papacy marked by efforts to reach out to the world’s downtrodden while simultaneously slimming down and shaking up the Vatican’s once spendthrift bureaucracy.

“Who am I to judge,” encapsulated the more compassionate approach he wants the Church to adopt on homosexuality.

Such comments have helped make Francis a global superstar and bring lapsed Catholics back to the Church in huge numbers but both the “rabbits” and Charlie Hebdo comments have shown his communications touch is not infallible.