The Pope, Official Global Spokesman Against Rabbit Sex?

In a metaphor related to natural family planning, the pontiff provoked progressive Catholics and—yes—bunny breeders.

Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

For a man of 78 years, Pope Francis is eerily adept at breaking the Internet. He has declared himself the enemy of magicians and magic wands; earned the adoration of the gay community; and tweeted against income inequality like an ardent Piketty (or Jesus) fan might. This week, the Bishop of Rome has once again pushed the Internet into self-parody, speaking on the topic of pregnancy and family planning. "Excuse me if I use the word," he said to reporters, ever so politely, but "[some Catholics think] that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits."

Presumably, the Pope was referring to two stereotypes: One, that those of his flock (nest? colony?) tend to have lots of kids, since Church doctrine does not permit them to use birth control, and two, that rabbits have lots of sex. Both progressive Catholics and professional rabbit breeders took issue: The American organization Catholics for Choice, for example, issued a finely titled press release, "Catholics to Pope Francis: We're Not Rabbits." And The Telegraph, in an honorable journalistic effort to hear all sides of the story, sought comment from the head of the German Rabbit Breeders Association—oh yes, there is such an organization—who apparently found the comment both misleading and "stupid." The promiscuity of Leporidaes, it turns out, is vastly overstated, especially for creatures in captivity.

The real story, of course, is the tricky dance Francis has been doing throughout his papacy: upholding traditional Church doctrine while easing the rhetoric of condemnation. During his chat with reporters this week, he urged "responsible parenthood" while reaffirming the Church's opposition to artificial birth control, advocating "natural" family planning methods instead—things like abstinence from sex and the rhythm method. In general, this topic has been one of the Pope's priorities: This fall, he convened a large-scale meeting of bishops in Rome to discuss divorce, priestly celibacy, contraception, abortion, and gay marriage. Although no official changes came out of this gathering, a follow-up meeting will be held next fall.

Francis's comments about "rabbit sex" didn't signal any change in doctrine (although: Wouldn't it be great if there were a papal encyclical called Laus Fututio Sicut Cuniculi?). Instead, this was a very Francis-like move: Taking on a big, challenging, global problem and interpreting it through the lens of faith, all while keeping an eye to the unique challenges of the modern world. Even though the current pope is skilled at this technique, in many ways, this has been a focus of the Church for more than 50 years: In the early days of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII declared that Church leaders needed to focus on aggiornamento, or "bringing up to date."

And this is a challenge the Pope has embraced. "Who am I to judge?" he said of gay relationships, while not changing the Church's stance on homosexuality. "Do not condemn" the divorced, he urged, while not altering Church doctrine on divorce (or, at least, not yet). "Inequality is the root of social evil," he tweeted and wrote in a long encyclical that alluded to both investment banking and Jesus.

No doubt, this is part of what makes now a fascinating time for the Church, and Francis an extraordinary man. But the Pope's colorful metaphors are rather beside the point—rabbits and magicians make for great headlines, but absurd points of reference in a long history of change in the Catholic Church.