Pope Francis Speaks on Hot-Button Issues: 9 Things to Know and Share

Pope Francis addressed a series of hot-button issues in a press conference. Here are 9 things to know and share . . .
Pope Francis addressed a series of hot-button issues in a press conference. Here are 9 things to know and share . . . (photo: Register Files)

During his plane flight back to Rome from Mexico, Pope Francis gave an interview in which he touched on a number of hot button issues.

Here are 9 things to know and share


1) What issues did he address, and where can I read the interview as a whole?

The issues included:

  • What the Church is doing to combat pedophilia by priests.
  • Immigration proposals attributed to Donald Trump
  • His meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill
  • Civil unions for homosexuals in Italy
  • Whether abortion and contraception might be used by women with the Zika virus
  • Administering Communion to those who have divorced and civilly remarried without an annulment

He said more than I can comment on in a single blog post, so I will only comment here on some of the issues.

To see what he said on all the issues, you can read an English translation of the full interview here.

For some additional commentary, see this post by canonist Edward Peters.


2) What did the pope say about combating pedophilia?

Among other things:

  • He said that any bishop who simply transfers a pedophile priest from one parish to another should resign.
  • Regarding the infamous Mexican abuser Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, he applauded the efforts of then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) to investigate and discipline Maciel, despite the obstacles he faced.
  • He described current Vatican efforts to discipline priests and protect minors.
  • He described priestly pedophilia as a “monstrosity” and a “diabolical sacrifice.”


3) What did he say about the proposals attributed to Donald Trump

The proposals a reporter quoted to the pope were about “build[ing] 2,500 kilometers of wall along the [U.S.-Mexican] border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, separating families.” Concerning these, he said:

[A] person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.

Concerning how Americans should vote and concerning Trump himself, he said:

As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.

Pope Francis’s remarks contain a number of important qualifiers, which will be (and were) missed by the press.

The first is that the initial statement addresses the situation of a person who “thinks only about building walls . . . not building bridges.” The reference to building bridges is a metaphor and frames the walls vs. bridges discourse in at least a partially metaphorical way.

The qualifier “only” is also significant. One can think of building walls without thinking only of building walls.

Thus the Holy See itself has a large wall protecting its border and one of the most restrictive immigration policies in the world. This would suggest that one can advocate building walls and restricting immigration without automatically violating Christian teaching.

Pope Francis refused to weigh in on how Americans should vote, though his seeming criticism of Trump will probably play to Trump’s advantage; this is the usual result when ecclesiastics go after politicians in America.

Without asserting that Trump had said such things, about which he did not appear to have personal knowledge, and urging the benefit of the doubt be given (a sound principle; cf. Philippians 2:3b), he did say that if Trump endorsed the proposals put to him (which included separating families), that “this man is not Christian.”

The latter statement can be misunderstood in countries which have a heavily Protestant ethos—such as the United States—since many in the Protestant community hold that some who profess to be Christians are, in fact, not Christians at all.

This is based on the idea that only people with justifying faith are authentic Christians and all others are false Christians.

This is not Catholic theology, according to which all of the baptized are Christian. Pope Francis, coming from a country with a Catholic ethos, thus assumes that people know that it is baptism that makes you actually a Christian.

What he means, then, is that someone advocating the proposals put before him would not be acting like a Christian should act, in his view.

However, he expressed himself in a way that will be widely misunderstood in America.


4) What did Pope Francis say about civil unions for homosexuals?

He reiterated the teaching of the Catechism but otherwise stayed out of the matter, saying:

The Pope doesn’t get mixed up in Italian politics. At the first meeting I had with the [Italian] bishops in May 2013, one of the three things I said was: with the Italian government you’re on your own. Because the pope is for everybody and he can’t insert himself in the specific internal politics of a country. This is not the role of the pope, right?

Commentators might wonder how that sentiment squares with the remarks he just made concerning an American politician.


5) What did Pope Francis say about abortion and contraception?

Although the reporter asked his question somewhat inarticulately, he apparently queried whether, on the principle of the lesser of two evils, it was possible for abortion and contraception to be justified in the case of a woman who has the Zika virus.

Pope Francis slammed the idea that abortion could be justified, stating:

Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil. . . .

Abortion is not a theological problem, it is a human problem, it is a medical problem. You kill one person to save another, in the best-case scenario. Or to live comfortably, no?  It’s against the Hippocratic oaths doctors must take. It is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil in the beginning, no, it’s a human evil. Then obviously, as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.

On the subject of contraception, he did not answer one way or another. Instead, he recounted a reported incident from the 1960s, stating:

Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape. . . .

[A]voiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.

He concluded by saying:

I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.


6) What happened regarding Paul VI and nuns in Africa?

Although I have not been able to locate primary sources, many secondary sources have—for years—claimed that Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) gave permission for nuns in the Belgian Congo to use oral contraceptives as a way of preventing pregnancy due to rape.

Between 1960 and 1965, the Congo was a war-torn region in which many atrocities like rape were committed.

Reportedly, nuns there petitioned the Holy See for permission to use oral contraception to prevent becoming pregnant as a result of the rapes being committed in the destabilized environment.

The Holy See reportedly said that they could, and this is often attributed to Paul VI himself, though without primary sources, this claim has to be regarded with some caution (particularly given the press’s tendency to attribute anything anyone in Rome says directly to the pope).

If permission was given, it was probably by a document issued by one of the Vatican dicasteries (departments), though Paul VI may (or may not) have approved it.

This would have been before Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which dealt with contraception, but the permission is not necessarily inconsistent with the teaching of the encyclical.

Quoting Humanae Vitae, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“[E]very action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil (CCC 2370).

A key word is “conjugal” (Latin, coniugale). This is an unfamiliar word to many English-speakers, who often take it to mean “sexual.”

However, conjugal does not mean “sexual.” There is a different word for that in Latin (sexuale).

“Conjugal” means “married.” Even in English. It comes from the Latin word conjux, which means “spouse” (a person with whom one is yoked-together).

Thus the Catechism deals with contraception under the headings of “The Love of Husband and Wife” and “The Fecundity of Marriage.” Note how, in the relevant sections, it consistently speaks in terms of “married couples,” “spouses,” and how contraception violates “the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife” (CCC 2370).

Understood in this light, what Humanae Vitae condemns is “every action which, whether in anticipation of marital intercourse [Latin, coniugale commercium], or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.”

(Note: Some translations of Humanae Vitae inaccurately translate coniugale commercium with things like “sexual intercourse.” Accurate translations would be “marital congress,” “marital intercourse,” or “the conjugal act”—as in the Catechism. The inaccuracy of some English translations of Humanae Vitae is an illustration of why it is always a good idea to check the original language.)

Since nuns are celibates and so are not married (except in a mystical sense to Christ), there is no marital act between them and anyone trying to rape them.

Thus many Catholic moral theologians, including conservative ones, have seen the use of contraception by nuns as a potentially legitimate defense against the consequences of an act of violence rather than an attempt to thwart the natural consequences of the “marital act.”


7) Could this understanding of conjugal intercourse be relevant to the Zika virus?

This is not clear.

Humanae Vitae unambiguously rejects acts which would render relations between husbands and wives infertile “as an end or as a means.”

Preventing a wife’s pregnancy for its own sake would be preventing it “as an end,” while preventing it for another reason—such as to prevent a child from having birth defects as a result of the Zika virus—would be preventing it “as a means” toward the end of having not having a child with birth defects.

It is hard to see how the latter would not violate the teaching of Humanae Vitae.

It is also hard to see how it would not justify contraception in other circumstances in which a married couple might have a child who might end up with birth defects—yet the Church has never suggested that married couples refrain from having such children.

Having a birth defect is a cross in this life, but we are beings with immortal souls and an infinite future before us in which we will not be troubled by such things. Even if you have a birth defect in this life, that is nothing compared to the future.

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor. 4:17).

On the other hand, one could consider a case—which Pope Francis does not explicitly discuss—in which the use of barrier methods of contraception (e.g., a condom) might prevent the transmission of the Zika virus between a woman and her male partner (rather than her potential child).

However, in that case one would have to consider whether the use of barrier contraceptives would prevent a different aspect of the marital act (the unitive rather than the procreative) from taking place.

An initial analysis would suggest that barrier methods do prevent the unitive aspect of the marital act from taking place, in which case they would not be legitimate between married couples.

The logical solution in that situation would be for married couples to abstain until such time as a virus like Zika was not an important threat.

This would leave any potential applicability in the realm of unmarried couples, and those couples should not be having sex in the first place.


8) What should one make of Pope Francis’s raising of this situation?

I would assume that he raised it because he thought it was at least potentially relevant to the situation of the Zika virus.

However, as his remarks indicate, he had not thought the matter through carefully—as shown by his refusal to draw any conclusion regarding it.

He appears to affirm Paul VI’s reported decision regarding nuns in the Belgian Congo, but he does not draw any application for the contemporary Zika virus.


9) What does Pope Francis say regarding giving Holy Communion to those who have civilly remarried without an annulment?

His initial answer discusses the problems facing families and their pastoral care in general terms.

He also says that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation in which he is expected to address the question “will be published, perhaps before Easter” (i.e., Sunday, March 27).

However, he does not address the question of whether divorced and civilly remarried couples can receive Holy Communion, prompting the reporter to ask again:

Thompson: Does that mean they can receive Communion?

Pope Francis: This is the last thing. Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving Communion. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration, all doors are open, but we cannot say, “from here on they can have Communion.” This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration. And those two were happy. They used a very beautiful expression: we don’t receive Eucharistic Communion, but we receive communion when we visit hospitals and in this and this and this. Their integration is that. If there is something more, the Lord will tell them, but it’s a path, a road.

Here Pope Francis expresses a desire to help couples in these situations integrate into the life of the Church, but he cautions that this does not mean giving them Communion.

His remarks are somewhat ambiguous—perhaps because he has a document addressing this subject scheduled to come out in just over a month—but he clearly downplays the idea of simply giving the couple Communion as a solution to their situation, even pointing out that giving it prematurely “would be an injury also to the marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration.”

This may reflect an argument which many have made that giving Communion to people in such situations would discourage their further moral reform by sending the signal that they are where they need to be and don’t need to do anything else.

We will have to wait and see what the forthcoming apostolic exhortation says.