Context Is Key to Pope’s Contraception Comments

Theologians Weigh in on Holy Father’s In-Flight Remarks

Pope Francis’ comments on the Zika virus Feb. 17, which many news outlets read as a softening of the Church’s definitive teaching on artificial contraception, may have been in accordance with the magisterium, Church philosophers say — if, in the case of couples seeking to respond to the hazards associated with the virus, the Holy Father was actually referencing the use of natural means of preventing pregnancy.

However, they also noted, a knowledge of the depth of the Church’s teaching in this area was needed in order not to be misled or confused by the Pope’s words.

During an in-flight press conference on his return home from Mexico, Pope Francis was asked by a reporter about the threat of Zika in many Latin-American countries.

The virus, which is passed through mosquitos, may be linked to birth defects when transmitted from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby.

The birth defects may also be due to an insecticide used to control the mosquitos.

In February, the U.N.’s human-rights director caused an outcry by demanding countries afflicted with the Zika virus legalize the killing of disabled unborn babies.

The reporter, therefore, asked the Holy Father about such proposals involving “abortion, or else avoiding pregnancy” in areas where Zika virus is prevalent.

The Pope responded by emphatically stating that abortion is “a crime” and “absolute evil” that cannot be justified.

He also spoke on the topic of avoiding pregnancy. “Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape,” he said.

He warned against confusing “the evil of avoiding pregnancy” with “abortion,” which he said is against the Hippocratic Oath and is an evil “in and of itself.”

But he added: “On the other hand, avoiding 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 then urged doctors “to do their utmost” to find vaccines against the disease. “This needs to be worked on.”

Various news outlets read his comments as a radical shift in the Church’s teaching, while Church leaders scrambled to stress this wasn’t the case.

The Pope used strong language with respect to abortion, but the strength of his words “led some to think he was underplaying the importance of contraceptives,” said Opus Dei Father Robert Gahl, associate professor of moral philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.


Media Misunderstanding

This was coupled with the fact that the media doesn’t appreciate “the depths of the Church’s understanding, and the beauty of the Church’s proposal, regarding sexual morality,” Father Gahl said.

He stressed that the Pope’s words were fully in accordance with Church teaching. With respect to Zika, he said if a couple plans to avoid pregnancy to avoid the negative effects of this infection, “that’s an application of traditional Church teaching” in line with the “responsibility of parents to decide when life would begin.” Of course, he added, that would involve natural forms of contraception, such as natural family planning.

But the Pope was clearly referring to artificial contraception in the example he gave regarding nuns at risk of rape in Africa. Melissa Moschella, a philosophy professor at The Catholic University of America, told Catholic News Agency that, in that case, the dispensation for the nuns was “not really an exception, if you understand the rule.”

The case in question took place in the early 1960s, when the Vatican granted a dispensation to religious sisters living in the Belgian Congo who were in grave danger of rape due to civil unrest to use oral contraceptives (there is debate on this, however; see commentary on page 9).

Moschella explained that, in cases of rape, from a moral perspective, the victim has not engaged in a sexual act, and so the act of violence is a “violation of the woman’s body without any free choice or acceptance on her part.”

Birth control, she said, is immoral because it violates the very nature of sex by trying to engage in sex without the natural possibility of pregnancy.

“But that doesn’t happen in the case of rape,” Moschella stressed, because there has been “no voluntary sex act on the part of the woman.”

As a result, artificial birth control would be viewed not as an immoral contraceptive measure seeking to separate the unitive and procreative aspects of sex, but, rather, part of an act of self-defense, as the women seek to resist the act altogether.

But Moschella said this certainly isn’t the case with the Zika virus, because it involves women who are voluntarily engaging in sexual relations and then using contraceptives to prevent those voluntary sexual acts from being fertile.

“That does contradict the meaning of the sexual act, and so involves a kind of lack of integrity that’s harmful to the person and harmful to the relationship,” she said.

Father Gahl said the Paul VI case in Africa was a “theological opinion” that was “generally accepted by theologians and, therefore, Paul VI seems to have tacitly approved of it.” But he added that “circumstances have changed, also in terms of developments of contraception, and that many of them are in fact abortifacients [cause abortions]; and there are better ways of protecting nuns from rape than contraception,” such as tackling the roots of the violence.


Condemning Abortion

The U.S. professor said he felt it was “understandable” that Pope Francis was “misunderstood because he presumed a thorough understanding of the Church’s Tradition in order to properly interpret his words, but for those who don’t have that understanding, they could have ended up being misled or even confused by what he said.”

The Pope, he reminded, was speaking “very spontaneously, off the cuff and in a very personal way, and the main point was the condemnation of abortion, which came through forcefully.”

He also said that his “surprising” reference to Pope Paul VI as “great” seemed to be an emphasis on the importance of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical that affirmed the Church’s ban on artificial birth control.

“One should read that as saying that we should take Humanae Vitae seriously,” the priest said, “that it’s a prophetic document, and we should give it more attention.”


Vatican Clarifies

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi issued a clarification on what the Pope said with regards to the Zika virus and contraception.

He told Vatican Radio on Feb. 19 that the Pope spoke of “the possibility of taking recourse to contraception or condoms in cases of emergency or special situations” but was not saying that “this is accepted and this action can be taken without discernment.”

“Indeed, he said clearly that it can be considered in cases of special urgency,” Father Lombardi said.

He added that the example Francis gave, of Pope Paul VI’s alleged authorization of contraceptives for nuns in the Congo who were at very serious risk of rape, “suggests this would not be a normal situation in which this was taken into account.”

He then referred to comments Benedict XVI made in the book Light of the World, in which he spoke about the use of condoms in situations where there is a risk of infection, for example, with AIDS.

“Then the contraceptive or condom, especially in cases of emergency and severity, may also be the object of a serious discernment of conscience,” he said.

In response to Father Lombardi’s words, Father Gahl said that if the Vatican spokesman’s words are to be considered as coming from the Pope, then Francis is considering “extreme scenarios” in which, for instance, a woman is threatened by a violent, Zika-infected husband to have sexual intercourse with her.

The woman could use contraceptives, Father Gahl said, but a number of factors would have to have been taken into consideration, such as having tried to persuade her husband not to engage in sexual relations, at least for a period of time, but his insisting against her will and impeding her from fleeing the situation in which she may have an obligation to remain for the sake of her children.

In such an instance, “some contraceptive pharmaceutical” would be legitimate, Father Gahl said. 

“It’s a question of conscience what she should do and depends on the extent that it’s violence,” he said.

“This would not be an exception to Humanae Vitae, but an exception to the beauty of normal married love in which a husband and wife freely give themselves to one another in openness to life.”

Father Gahl also added that he could see the point of a “temporary medical emergency,” such as a strong likelihood of disability, being a “grave reason to delay a pregnancy.” Continence during such a period is “entirely distinct” from any sort of “eugenic motivation” such as genetic screening, he said.

“It’s good and right for parents to desire healthy children,” Father Gahl explained, “and if there’s a grave risk that, for instance, any children conceived over the next three weeks will be seriously ill, then the parents may decide with a well-formed conscience to delay their next pregnancy by abstaining from marital relations for three weeks or the duration of the temporary medical emergency.”

But use of artificial contraceptives in such a scenario would be contrary to the Church’s moral teaching, and so it remains unclear precisely why the Pope would recall the case of Paul VI and the Congolese nuns in this context.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy