The controversy over the exceptional case of administering contraceptives to religious sisters at grave risk of rape in the Congo civil war of the 1960s points to a pattern in this pontificate of introducing new or exceptional pastoral approaches that give primacy to conscience, while at the same time purporting to affirm Church doctrine.

It’s an approach that could be used to promote new pastoral practices in the Holy Father’s eagerly anticipated post-synodal apostolic exhortation, expected before Easter.

On the plane back from Mexico last week, Pope Francis underscored that abortion is “a crime, an absolute evil” but went on to explain that the “lesser evil” — avoiding pregnancy — “is not an absolute evil.”  

He then proceeded to refer to how “Paul VI — the great! — in a difficult situation, in Africa, allowed the nuns to use contraception for cases of violence.”

He had in mind three respected moral theologians who put their views in a 1961 article in the Opus Dei journal “Studi Cattolici” that were all, in varying degrees, favorable to administering contraceptives to religious sisters at grave risk of rape in war-torn Congo.

In comments to Vatican Radio’s Italian edition two days later, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi also restated the Pope’s strong condemnation of abortion. He then affirmed that, regarding the Pope’s reference to contraception, the matter can be left to “discernment of conscience” in cases of “particular emergency and gravity.”

He said the Paul VI example of giving “authorization to use the pill” for the religious sisters “who were at the gravest continual risk of violence on the part of rebels in the Congo” made it clear that it was “no normal situation in which this was taken into consideration.”

Aside from the moral problems posed by presenting the case in this context, there is no record of Paul VI allowing this exception, first raised during St. John XXIII’s pontificate. Nor is it mentioned in Humanae Vitae, indicating that Paul VI considered the case incompatible with the 1968 encyclical.

And despite the Congo case passing through the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), there appears to be no subsequent magisterial document confirming the legitimacy of such an exception. The Vatican did not respond to an enquiry by the Register asking whether a magisterial document exists affirming the Congo exception.

Questions surrounding the official nature of the case aside, the approach the Pope and Father Lombardi took towards this issue points to a pattern of floating controversial pastoral innovations, which critics say conflict with Church teaching, by firmly underscoring an element of doctrine and then presenting exceptional cases that underline the primacy of conscience.

In this most recent case, the evil of abortion was stressed first, then followed by the “lesser evil” of avoiding pregnancy, which Father Lombardi would later confirm involved contraceptive use, before saying it should be left to “discernment of conscience” in cases of “particular emergency and gravity.”

Other examples of this approach include the Pope’s comments to Lutherans in Rome last year. The Pope emphasized there is only “one faith, one baptism, one Lord”, before telling a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic that intercommunion “is a problem to which each person must respond” and that she should “speak with the Lord and go forward.”  

A similar pattern was seen in the final report of last year’s Synod on the Family: Pope John Paul II’s firm teaching on denying Holy Communion to civilly remarried divorcees was reasserted (though some crucial passages were omitted), before it went on to stress the importance of the “internal forum” — in other words, the formation of conscience with a priest — to come to a “correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of Church.” Some critics, most notably Cardinal Raymond Burke, said the relevant paragraphs lacked clarity. Others, including Cardinal Walter Kasper, said the document “opened the door” to Communion for the divorced and remarried.

Stressing the importance of doctrine and affirming that it won’t be changed was a popular refrain among the synod organizers, but so, too, was an emphasis on conscience which became the most contentious issue in the draft final document of the meeting. Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago was one of the most prominent of the synod fathers to emphasize the primacy of conscience for the divorced and remarried and for homosexuals during the synod. This is in spite of past popes arguing that conscience should not be the only, or even the most important, category for moral doctrine.

When speaking to reporters on the way back from Mexico, the Pope may well have merely misunderstood the context of the Congo case and mistakenly applied it to the Zika virus where it didn’t really fit.

But it also appears from past references to the Congo case over the last decades that it has also been used by those opposed to the teaching of Humanae Vitae.

Writing in the now defunct Trentagiorni in 1993, Gianni Valente, its former editor and now one of Francis’ closest media advisers, wrote that the Congo case had become one of “the arguments of battle for those advocating the abandonment of the traditional Catholic position” as contained in Humanae Vitae. The excerpt is quoted in Andrea Tornielli's 2014 book: Paul VI: The Pope of Francis.

“The arguments used in the extreme case were immediately extended to other situations,” Valente added, “and, in each case, began the attack on the fundamental principle of the intrinsic negativity of contraceptive practice.”

The Pope may or may not have been aware of this in his attempt to find what he viewed as a compassionate pastoral solution. But whatever the backstory to raising the case, its presentation is becoming a familiar one: affirm doctrine, then highlight extraordinary cases or exceptions to the rule, and where possible, appeal to the primacy of conscience.