Pope Francis and Contraception: A Troubling Scenario


(photo: Alan Holdren/ CNA)

In Pope Francis’ return flight to the Vatican from Mexico last month, a reporter raised the issue of women threatened by the Zika virus and then presented to the Pope two options for dealing with it: “abortion” and “avoiding pregnancy” (the reporter clearly meant the latter as a reference to the use of contraception). Could either or both be considered “the lesser of two evils?” he was asked.

What Pope Francis said, and the subsequent commentary offered by Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, on Vatican Radio the next day, invited a firestorm of discussion.

The Pope said very strongly that abortion is not, and could not, be a legitimate option. He said abortion “is an evil in and of itself.”

Referring to the “lesser evil” of avoiding pregnancy, the Pope said, “We are speaking in terms of the conflict between the Fifth and Sixth Commandment.” (The Fifth Commandment, of course, protects innocent human life, and the Sixth Commandment safeguards the integrity of marital sexual relations.)

He did not say in what the “conflict” consists, and I am still at a loss to understand the comment. But he immediately went on to refer to “a difficult situation in Africa,” where Pope Paul VI “permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.” He was referring to an oft-cited scenario, which some believe is fictional, of a group of missionary religious sisters in the Congo during the five-year civil war from 1960 to 1965. Suffering rape and abuse at the hands of soldiers, their doctors apparently prescribed them anti-ovulatory pills to protect them against the rapists’ attacks. Since there is no evidence that the Holy See (under Popes John XXIII or Paul VI) ever condemned the sisters’ alleged actions, many have drawn the conclusion that Rome approved the use of contraceptives under the circumstances.

Most theologians today agree that the use of prophylactics to avoid pregnancy in cases of rape can be morally licit. Most subsume the case under the principle of double effect. Since the intention of the woman is not to render her sexual intercourse non-procreative, but to prevent the harmful effects of an unjust attack, the act, morally speaking, is not contraception, but self-defense.

An analogy might help to clarify this: A spear thrown by an aggressor is an extension of the aggressor’s attack. Foreseeing that one’s enemy might attack in this way, a solider would be perfectly justified in wearing a breastplate when going into battle as a prophylactic against the “finality” of the attacker’s attack, namely, the piercing of the solder’s heart. It is an act of proportionate (i.e., legitimate) self-defense against the aggressor.

So too, the migrating sperm in the birth canal of a rape victim is the extension of the rapist’s attack. Therefore, a woman foreseeing that an assailant might attack her in this way would be justified in protecting herself against the finality of the aggressor’s attack, namely, the fertilization of her ovum. She intends as an end the preservation of her health and as a means a proportionate (and so legitimate) act of self-defense. Since she never intends sexual intercourse, she cannot be intending to render her intercourse sterile. This case is fairly straightforward.

But the Congo case and the Zika virus case would only be (morally) analogous if the women threatened by Zika are not intending any sexual intercourse; if they fear rape at the hands of aggressors and wish to avoid the consequences for themselves and any baby who might be conceived (e.g., the fearsome congenital condition known as microcephaly), they may use, as it were, a “uterine breastplate” to protect against their aggressors’ assaults.

But a sexually active woman who uses contraceptives to avoid pregnancy can hardly claim she is engaging in an act of self-defense. If she chooses intercourse, she chooses a procreative-type act. She may not want it to be what it is. And she may have strong reasons for wishing to render it something other than it is. But if, unlike the religious sisters in the Congo, she chooses to have intercourse, her intercourse’s inherent procreativity is not an attack upon her, but a part of the fullness of the act she has freely chosen. If she supervenes upon that act another act aimed at rendering the procreative-type act sterile, she intends what the Church has always condemned.

The constant and authoritative (and arguably dogmatic) teaching of the whole Catholic Church is that one may never intentionally render one’s sexual intercourse sterile. If there are good reasons for avoiding pregnancy — and avoiding a debilitating disease for a child not yet conceived is certainly a strong reason — then a couple should abstain from intercourse during the phases of the woman’s menstrual cycle where she is most likely to be fertile.

When Pope Paul VI was faced with questions of a moral nature about the anti-ovulatory pill, he saw clearly that if it were chosen to render intercourse non-procreative, the pill — like the condom, or vaginal barrier, or spermicide, or a retrospective uterine wash — was an instance of the type of behavior always and everywhere condemned by the Church. It was a contraceptive act. And he passed on the ancient judgment in Humanae Vitae, when he condemned as intrinsically evil “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse is specifically intended — whether as an end or a means — to prevent procreation” (14).

Seventeen years earlier, Pope Pius XII had said that this moral teaching “is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law” (“Address to Midwives,” 1951).

Faced with the fear of conceiving a disabled child, we can understand why a couple might be tempted to have recourse to contraception to render their intercourse non-procreative. But by doing so, they would be doing precisely what Paul VI condemned: i.e., performing an action, either before, during or after sexual intercourse that is specifically intended — as a means to avoiding the spread of infection — to prevent procreation. It is critically important to see the relevant distinctions between the Congo and Zika scenarios.

Pope Francis then said: “In certain cases, as in this one [the Zika case], or in the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.” But as I have indicated, it is not at all clear what relevance the Congo scenario has for the case of the Zika virus. Unfortunately, the Pope offered no further clarification at the time, leaving the world press to conclude (understandably) that he had approved of contraceptive acts for women threatened by Zika.

Those of us who were concerned by the remarks awaited a clarification of the Pope’s meaning by the Vatican. On Feb. 19, the Pope’s spokesman, Father Lombardi, commented on the Pope’s impromptu remarks on contraception on the flight back from Mexico. Father Lombardi said the following:

“Now it’s not that the Pope says that this option [i.e., ‘using contraception or condoms in cases of emergency or special situations’] is accepted and used without any discernment; indeed, the Pope made it clear that it can be considered [only] in cases of special urgency. […]

“So contraceptives or condoms, especially in cases of emergency and seriousness, may also be the subject of a serious conscience discernment. This is what the Pope said.”

Father Lombardi claims here that Pope Francis asserted that in cases of emergency women in good conscience may consider the use of contraceptives as a legitimate alternative for choice. (We may presume he is referring to women who are sexually active.) In other words, if serious circumstances prevail, women may do what the Church has always taught is gravely immoral, what no person under any circumstance or for any reason may ever rightly do. This is obviously problematic.

Some, perhaps many, will be elated by the Pope’s words. But those of us who support and defend the magisterium, in particular the successor of Peter, in its proper role as guardian and interpreter of the deposit of faith, find Pope Francis and Father Lombardi’s words baffling and troubling. It appears that the Pope has asserted something that is false and contrary to salvation. I very much hope that I have misread the situation.

Whether or not I have, I would like to say two things. First, the extemporaneous remarks of a pope in an interview and the commentary of his spokesman do not constitute Church teaching. So these assertions are not guarded by the Holy Spirit and are not invested with ecclesial authority. Catholics have no obligation whatever to render to the Pope’s words a “religious submission of mind and will” (Lumen Gentium, 25).

Second, Pope Francis is our beloved father. We esteem him in virtue of his office and will stand by him whenever he is falsely attacked. We wish for his good and for the good of the whole Church. And we certainly will never follow the pathway of Martin Luther into a rejection of papal primacy and apostolic succession. But the Church is Jesus’, not the Pope’s or the bishops’ (and certainly not mine).

And so I say to beloved Pope Francis, my father:

“Please do not delay in reaffirming to the whole Church the truth and moral implications of the twofold goodness of the marital act, which by its nature is ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring (Canon 1055, §1); therefore, if anyone acts intentionally against either the unitive or procreative goods, they ipso facto render their intercourse non-marital.”


E. Christian Brugger, the senior fellow in ethics and director of the fellows’ program


at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, holds the

Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.

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