Bishop defends Pope Francis in 'rabbit' controversy

MANILA - Pope Francis never said that "Catholics breed like rabbits," the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) stressed Wednesday.

The pope would "never [make] the rather unseemly remark," said CBCP president Socrates Villegas, who is also archbishop of Lingayen and Dagupan.

"What the Pope did say was that some Catholics mistakenly believe that to be Catholic, we ought to breed like rabbits," Villegas pointed out in a statement.

The prelate added that Pope Francis "knew that it was harsh and so said 'excuse the expression'" before using the simile, which "was apt and it brought home the point."

Villegas spoke after a controversy broke out over the Holy Father's statement.

Senator Vicente "Tito" Sotto said Tuesday that he found it hard to believe that Pope Francis would describe Catholics as being "like rabbits." The lawmaker added that it was likely an "invention" attributed to the pontiff.

Villegas encouraged everyone to read the transcript of the papal statement, which was about responsible parenthood and "not about rabbits."

"The point is that the Church has always taught that it is a Catholic obligation to be responsible about parenthood," the prelate said.

"Births should be planned rationally by both parents who must always remain open to new life, but who must also take into consideration their physical, financial and emotional capacity to raise children," he added. "It is not correct for a Catholic to assume the attitude: 'Come what may!'"

Villegas noted that the issue of responsible parenthood "should be especially relevant to us Filipinos who are grappling with population issues." "This is certainly significant teaching for our time," he said, before concluding: "Let us leave the rabbits in peace!"