Children are the joy of the family and society… A child is a gift… If a family with many children is looked upon as a burden, something is wrong… Having many children cannot automatically be an irresponsible choice… Not to have children is a selfish choice. Life is rejuvenated and acquires energy by multiplying: it is enriched, not impoverished!

That’s Pope Francis speaking at a general audience at St Peter’s last week – less than a month after his famous reference to breeding “like rabbits”, and making it quite clear that by dropping that colloquialism in a Q&A with journalists he was not denigrating large families as such. On the contrary.

According to the Pope it is a question of generosity coupled with responsibility. For a (married) couple not to want children is selfish. And a society that considers children a burden is a depressed society. Speaking from the heart of a Europe where the number of children a woman will bear, on average, is considerably less than two (1.58) Francis effectively called for the developed world to stop pointing the finger at the likes of Africa and the Philippines and start examining its own conscience.

But that is not all he had to say about children last Wednesday. In the fourth of a series of instructions on the family – the subject of the Synod of Bishops to be held in October – he answered some of the big question looming over the 21st century: Why have children? What is their value? At what stage of their development are they to be respected as part of the human family? What is the role of fathers? What do children owe their parents?

Children bring joy: Evoking an image from the Book of Isaiah where the Chosen People return from exile rejoicing with their sons and daughters, Francis points out that Children are the joy of the family and of society. They open people’s hearts to the future, give energy and oxygen to a society. In the multiplication of generations there is a mystery of enrichment of the life of all, which comes from God Himself.

Children are a gift: Children are not merely a biological imperative or a means of fulfilment for the parents – much less a possession. Each one is unique and irreplaceable; and at the same time unmistakably linked to his/her roots. The Pope tells how, when his mother was asked which of her five children was her favourite, she replied that they were like the five fingers of her hand – hit one and they all hurt. They were all different but all equally her children.

A child is loved because he is one’s child: not because he is beautiful, or because he is like this or like that; no, because he is a child! Not because he thinks as I do, or embodies my dreams. A child is a child: a life generated by us but intended for him, for his good, for the good of the family, of society, of mankind as a whole.

A child has intrinsic dignity: Children are loved even before they are born, before having done anything to deserve it, before knowing how to talk or think, and this reflects the love of God, who always loves us first. There are no exceptions to this love of God, which gives every child an inviolable dignity: In the soul of every child, inasmuch as it is vulnerable, God places the seal of this love, which is at the basis of his/her personal dignity, a dignity which nothing and no one can ever destroy.

The role of fathers: As fathers in recent times seem to have taken a step backwards in terms of their role in the family, so children have become more uncertain in taking their step forward. Fathers can learn their role again from our Heavenly Father, who leaves each of us free but never leaves us on our own, who is always ahead of us but waits patiently for us, and who wants his children to be brave and take their steps forward.

The duties of children: It is right for children to want to improve the world, but they must always honour their parents, which is a commandment of God, and is the foundation of all respect in society. A society with children who do not honour parents is a society without honour; when one does not honour one’s parents one loses one’s own honour! It is a society destined to be filled with arid and avid young people. (Official translation! Perhaps the sense is “selfish and greedy”.) And let’s not forget that “we are all children”, that even adults should honour their parents.

Selfish choices, depressed societies: There is something wrong with a society that does not want children. Couples who choose not to have children are being selfish. Here we must let Francis speak at length:

[A] society with a paucity of generations, which does not love being surrounded by children, which considers them above all a worry, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society. Let us consider the many societies we know here in Europe: they are depressed societies, because they do not want children, they are not having children, the birth rate does not reach one percent. Why? Let each of us consider and respond.

If a family with many children is looked upon as a weight, something is wrong! The child’s generation must be responsible, as the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI also teaches, but having many children cannot automatically be an irresponsible choice. Not to have children is a selfish choice.

Life is rejuvenated and acquires energy by multiplying: it is enriched, not impoverished! Children learn to assume responsibility for their family. They mature in sharing its hardship. They grow in the appreciation of its gifts. The happy experience of brotherhood inspires respect and care for parents, to whom our recognition is due.

Pope Francis concluded by encouraging his audience to challenge prejudice against larger families by living family life with joy. He said it was “beautiful” to see the moms and dads who come to these occasions lifting up their children for his blessing: This is an almost divine gesture. Thank you for doing it!

One politician, at least, has taken the Pope’s words to heart. Two days later Italian Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin said Italy’s very low birth rate made it “a dying country”. New figures show that despite an uptick in the mid-2000s, completed fertility (TFR) has been falling since 2010 and remains one of the lowest in Europe at 1.39 children per woman. Immigrant fertility has also fallen to 1.9 children per woman.

“This situation has enormous implications for every sector: the economy, society, health, pensions, just to give a few examples,” said Lorenzin.

In the Pope’s home country, Argentina, fertility continues to decline and the TFR stands at 2.19.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet