01/22/2015 05:32 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

Pope Francis and Rabbits

On the flight back to Rome from the Philippines, the papal spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, indicated that Pope Francis was ready for another of his now famous airplane press conferences. And this one did not disappoint. He covered a number of topics, including his future travel plans to the United States -- the East Coast, yes, California and the Mexican border, no. He longs to see Africa and plans another trip to Latin America.

But none of that made news, not after his comments about "responsible parenthood" and "breeding like rabbits." In deciding how many children to have, he urged Catholic couples to take account of the concrete realities of their lives and form their consciences accordingly, in discussion with their pastors. Catholic couples, he said, are under no duty "to breed like rabbits."

Let's explore the implications of this statement. First, strictly speaking, Pope Francis was not saying anything new. In 1968, Pope Paul VI, in promulgating Humanae Vitae, the encyclical on birth control, used the language of "responsible parenthood" to tell Catholics that they were free to limit or space the number of children they wished to have. There is no obligation on Catholic couples to have large families. In truth, there never has been, although certainly that has been the tradition in many places and times.

What Pope Francis did, however, was to use unforgettable language to encourage parental responsibility. Paul VI's carefully-crafted language about responsible parenthood -- like most papal language -- was lost to the public, buried as it was in a densely-written, tightly-reasoned document accessible to experts but not to the laity at large. There are few Catholics with the training, desire, or fortitude to read an encyclical. But when a Pope tells Catholics that the Church does not require them to breed like rabbits, now that gets people's attention.

So, let's assume that the Pope knew just how much attention his "breed like rabbits" remark would receive. Why did he say this? Who was he trying to reach? I might guess that he was appealing to the average Catholic couple. What do we know about average Catholic couples? That they are very, very likely to use artificial means of contraception. It is commonly said that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraceptives at some point in their lives. This figure is rightly viewed with skepticism, but still it is the case that the vast majority of Catholic women probably have.

So, how to interpret what the Pope was saying to that vast silent majority of Catholic women? It is fair to conclude the following: he is endorsing their sense of responsibility in using birth control, urging them to take another look at the Church, and encouraging them to form their consciences by talking to pastors. He is not changing doctrine. He has not altered the Church's stance on contraception, but he has opened a welcoming door to those who have chosen to use contraceptives for purposes that are not wrong.

This reading of the Pope's remarks is in keeping with his repeated emphasis on the conscience of the believer. Pope Francis wants an adult Catholicism. He does not want a spoon-fed, clericalized faith, with lay Catholics meekly nodding and following priestly directives like brain-dead automatons. He does not want rule-bound robots. He wants Catholics who think for themselves, who pray for guidance, talk to spiritual directors, and consider how the Church's teaching fits the reality of their lives.

Looking forward, Pope Francis' comments on responsible parenthood may be hinting at a theme he will be exploring in his impending encyclical on the environment. We know that he has been working long nights and days for months on this document. We know that it is well-researched and will address issues like man-made climate change. After all, Pope Francis has said as much in many of his public comments.

But his encyclical runs the risk of not being taken seriously if he fails to address questions about population. Large populations consume significant natural resources. The environmental literature makes this point over-and-over again. Pope Francis must come to terms with this argument. My guess is that he may even try to link "responsible parenthood" with larger concerns about the environment and that he has provocatively initiated that conversation with his "rabbits" remark.

Why does Pope Francis continue to use press conferences at 30,000 feet to make so many thought-provoking comments? It seems he is doing so because he wants to change the ways popes talk. Popes for centuries have spoken in a technical vocabulary and then only in carefully circumscribed conditions. Insiders call it theology, those on the outside might call it jargon. The Church's canon law even prescribes the appropriate degree of weight and seriousness particular types of papal speech should be given.

There is no provision in the canon law governing the papal airplane interview. And that may be precisely Pope Francis' point. Jesus did not speak in obscurantist prose under carefully-guarded conditions. And neither will the Pope. He is using these airline interviews as a way to step outside the established conventions and to say things that have always been off-limits. He wants to get conversations started and many of these conversations are about first principles. Let's not forget, when Pope Francis asked that famous question about gays, "who am I to judge?" he did so in an airplane interview.

My hunch is that the Pope relishes the chance to reopen these debates. For too long the Church acted as if major questions had been settled for all time. Questions like the goodness and legitimacy of gay relationships. All that remained was to pronounce anathema. By asking, "who am I to judge?" Pope Francis changed all of that. He did not change doctrine. But the Church also can never go back to business as usual. We are watching a newly-engaged laity see to that.

"You don't have to breed like rabbits." No, Pope Francis has not changed doctrine. But he has started a debate. The contraception question will never be viewed in the same way again. I was in college in the 1970s when my lagging faith was revived by the vigor of internal Catholic debates. The richness, vitality and diversity of an intellectual tradition really and truly engaging the problems of the world was attractive to me. Pope Francis is doing his level best to rouse that tradition from its long midnight slumber. And he is certainly causing many people to give the Church a fresh look.