Pope Francis makes waves farewell to well wishers at the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City on Monday morning before departing the Philippines (Photo by Gil Nartea/Malacanang Photo Bureau)
Pope Francis has said that good Catholics do not have to breed "like rabbits", defending the Church's stance on artificial contraception and appealing to the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics to practice responsible parenting.
Speaking to journalists on his flight back from the Philippines, the pope said that he once asked a mother of seven children who 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," the pope said. "Some think, and excuse the term, that to be good Catholics, they must be like rabbits."
Francis said creating new life was "part of the sacrament of marriage" and in Manila strongly defended his predecessor Paul VI's outlawing of artificial contraception for Catholics in 1968.
"We need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected," he said.
However, following the Church's teachings does not mean "Christians should have children one after the other", he said.
"I believe that three children per family … is the key number for sustaining the population," the pontiff told journalists.
The family, he added, "all too often needs to be protected against insidious attacks and programs contrary to all that we hold true and sacred".
His comments came at the end of a trip to the Philippines, the Catholic Church's Asian stronghold, which last year passed a family planning law after a 15-year battle by the Church to block state-sanctioned contraception.
The law allows the government to begin distributing free contraceptives to millions of poor Filipinos.
It was a rare loss for the Church, which has for centuries been one of the nation's most powerful institutions and continues to count more than 80 percent of the nation's 100 million people as Catholics.
The pope said that his predecessor had foreseen the rise in policies restricting childbirth.
"Paul VI was worried by the growth of neo-Malthusianism" (which advocates restricting the number of children the poor can have) which tried "put a control on humanity... he was a prophet," he said.
"The key teaching of the Church is responsible parenthood. And how do we get that? By dialogue. There are marriage groups in the Church, experts and pastors," he added.
In 2013, six months after becoming pope, Francis urged the Church to drop its "obsession" with contraception, divorce, gays and abortion, in an interview signaling a dramatic shift in the Vatican's tone.
The Argentine pope has brought a series of fresh perspectives to the notoriously rigid Church since he took over, signaling a strong reformist drive.
He stressed at the time that the Church's official position had not changed, but said that it should "always keep in mind the individual".
Francis' papacy — he is the first Jesuit pope and the first from South America — has marked a series of breaks with Vatican tradition.
The pope has become known for his humility and concern for the poor, and has reached out to non-believers and those in other religions. He regularly picks up the phone to call ordinary people who write to him.
His latest comments are not the first this month to attract attention for their candor.
Last week when discussing the deadly attack by Islamist gunmen angered by French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo's depiction of the Prophet Mohammed, the pope said: "If a good friend speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched."