The spontaneous in-flight Q&A sessions between Pope Francis and journalists express the Holy Father’s desire to engage the world, open to all comers and willing to address any questions.
With the pope responding to complex political, moral and historical questions “off-the-cuff,” misinterpretations and selective reporting seem certain to follow. Nuances and distinctions are frequent casualties of ad-libbing in a sound-bite world.
Questions on a wide range of topics were asked of Pope Francis on his return from Mexico — the violence of narcotics trafficking, sexual abuse, immigration, Catholic-Orthodox relations, marriage and the family, his prayers to Mary of Guadalupe. Yet, his five sentences about pregnancy and the Zika virus became headline news. When it comes to sexual morality and the church, selective-hearing filters seem to be set to maximum.
Explaining his words adequately requires a book. Here, I can barely sketch the main outlines to give context to the pope’s remarks.
Going to the source
The first and essential point is to go to the sources, to read the actual text. Pope Francis was responding to a specific question about abortion and “avoiding pregnancy” as a possible “lesser of two evils.” This is a conversation, not a papal decree, apostolic constitution, or “ex cathedra” declaration. Headlines exaggerated that the pope suggested contraception might be condoned. However, the bulk of his answer was a clear and ringing rejection of abortion:
“Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. … 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 is an evil in and of itself … as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.”
Pope Francis is distinguishing abortion, always an inherent wrong that is never justified, and the avoidance of pregnancy, which Pope Paul VI taught in “Humanae Vitae” (HV) may be justified under certain conditions. The section of HV relevant to this situation is in paragraph 10:
“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”
So the pope is referring to this established distinction: that while abortion is never acceptable, even for “serious reasons,” avoiding pregnancy may be.
The next question is the means: What method is used to avoid pregnancy? “Humanae Vitae” is clear that making use of the naturally occurring periods of infertility, and abstaining from sexual intercourse at other times, is an acceptable means to regulate birth. It cooperates with our created nature rather than circumventing it. This is the foundation of the various methods of “natural family planning,” a scientifically-based means in harmony with our “human ecology.”
What then of contraception, whether by chemicals or devices? Here, the pope’s response unfortunately lacked clarity. As an example of his statement that avoiding pregnancy is of a different moral gravity than abortion, he mentions a report that Pope Paul VI allowed nuns in danger of rape in the Congo in the early 1960s to use contraceptives to protect themselves from potential pregnancy from sexual assault.
There is no known public expression of such permission given by Paul VI.While the attacks in question were investigated in 1960, Paul was not elected until 1963. As archbishop of Milan, then-Cardinal Montini was friendly with authors who published a 1961 article proposing this exception, but Cardinal Montini did not write the article and made no such statement later as pope.
Although the two cases — sexual assault by combatants in the Congo vs. marital relations with a risk of transmitting a disabling Zika virus to a child — both involve sexual intercourse and the possibility of pregnancy, they are quite different. In the first, intercourse is forced without consent as an act of violence; in the second, it is intended as mutual expression of love open to new life.
A better example to make Pope Francis’ point about the distinction between abortion and avoiding pregnancy is found in directive 36 of the U.S. bishops’ “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.” This directive (reviewed and accepted by Rome) deals with sexual assault and states:
“A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.”
This position, widely held by Catholic moralists, better illustrates the fact that using contraception in the case of sexual assault differs materially from the context of marriage. “Humanae Vitae” is addressing specific questions raised about sexual relations within marriage and does not speak to every possible situation. This exception does not really apply to the Zika question about marital relations, however.
In the original question put to the pope about “the lesser of two evils,” it must be recalled that even a less-er evil remains wrong, and the ex-istence of objectively greater harms does not somehow make less-grave alternatives therefore acceptable. Indeed, the pope is clear that what needs to be done is for “doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease.”
Reading the brief exchange reveals that, in the end, Pope Francis did not actually address the question of whether contraception could be used by couples fearful of transmit-ting the Zika virus with its potential for causing microcephaly or other complications for a child. Much less did he imply that contraception is now somehow permissible for other couples with other concerns.
Rather, he rejected abortion as a solution, he differentiated abortion (always wrong) from avoidance of pregnancy (may be acceptable), and used a dramatic but ultimately dis-similar example involving contra-ception to underscore this distinction.
It is likely that the Vatican will itself issue a clarification on Pope Francis’ comments, which are open to various interpretations. I would expect it to underscore the use of natural family planning as the morally appropriate means to avoid pregnancy in the light of concerns with transmitting the Zika virus.
Father Tom Knoblach is diocesan consultant for health care ethics and pastor of St. Anthony, Holy Spirit and St. John Cantius parishes in St. Cloud.