Pope Francis is firmly upholding church teaching banning contraception, but said that Catholics do not have to breed "like rabbits" and should instead practise "responsible parenting".
Speaking to reporters en route home from the Philippines, Francis said on Monday there are plenty of church-approved ways to regulate births. But he said most importantly, no outside institution should impose its views on regulating family size, blasting what he called the "ideological colonisation" of the developing world.
"Every people deserves to conserve its identity without being ideologically colonised," Francis said.
On the trip, Francis gave his strongest defence yet of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which enshrined the church's opposition to artificial birth control. He warned against "insidious attacks" against the family - a reference to gay marriage proposals - echoing language often used by overwhelmingly conservative US bishops. And he insisted that "openness to life is a condition of the sacrament of matrimony".
At the same time, however, he said it is not true that to be a good Catholic "you have to be like rabbits". On the contrary, he said "responsible parenthood" requires that couples regulate the births of their children, as church teaching allows. He cited the case of a woman he met who was pregnant with her eighth child after seven Caesarean sections.
"That is an irresponsibility!" he said. The woman might argue that she should trust in God. "But God gives you methods to be responsible," he said.
He said there are many "licit" ways of regulating births that are approved by the church, an apparent reference to the Natural Family Planning method of monitoring a woman's cycle to avoid intercourse when she is ovulating.
During the Vatican's recent meeting on the family, African bishops denounced how aid groups and lending institutions often condition their assistance on a country's compliance with their ideals: allowing healthcare workers to distribute condoms, or withdrawing assistance if legislation discriminating against gays is passed.
"When imposed conditions come from imperial colonisers, they search to make people lose their own identity and make a sameness," he said. "This is ideological colonisation."