Pope Francis made the comments during his flight back to Rome from the Philippines, telling journalists that he once asked a mother of seven children who was pregnant with her eighth if she wanted to "leave behind seven young orphans".
Recounting the story, he said the woman replied that she "trusted in God".
"But God gave us the means to be responsible," argued the pontiff. "Some think, and excuse the term, that to be good Catholics, they must be like rabbits."
Italians seem to have taken heed of this advice long ago, with the stereotypical image of mamma and papa surrounded by their large brood being confined to history.
The country’s birth rate has halved since the ‘baby boom’ of the 1960s, with the number of babies now being born averaging about 500,000 a year, Salvatore Strozza, a professor of demography at the University of Naples, told The Local.
"But I think the Pope’s comments were made for extreme cases, such as in poorer countries like the Philippines, and what he was trying to do was promote responsible parenting."
Indeed, by Wednesday the pontiff sought to clarify his remarks, saying during his weekly audience at the Vatican that large families were "a gift from God" and that an unfair economic system was the cause of poverty, as opposed to overpopulation.
Bruno Sachetti, a father-or-two from Rome, believes the Pope was right to advise people to be more responsible.
"To have children you need to be able to look after them, give them a home, be in a job, have money," he told The Local.
"Otherwise what can you do, let them live on the street?"
Paola Conti, a shop owner in Rome, felt the Pope’s initial remarks were "a bit elementary", especially coming from "a person in his position".
"Each of us has the freedom to have children, however many, it’s our choice," she added.
"But it is about being responsible. If you bring children into the world you have to be able to take care of them, give them a good education. How could you possibly achieve this with eight children?"
She said that apart from the financial crisis, Italy's low birth rate was also due to more women working, and settling into jobs much later in life.
"Some women might not find stable work until they're 40, by which time they don't want to risk losing their livelihood by having children," she added.
"Also, if you do have a child, then they're a child until their 40s! So many reach that age and are still at home with their parents because they can't find work or afford to be independent."
Giuseppe Gesano, an associate researcher at Rome’s Institute for Research on Population and Social Policies, said little has been done by the government to encourage Italians to have more children, despite a pledge by premier Matteo Renzi in October last year to give families with newborns an €80 a month "baby bonus" for the first three years after a child’s birth.
"When you compare it to countries like France, little or nothing has been done to stimulate the birth rate, such as giving women with children more flexibility to work and assistance with child care."