Pope Francis certainly has a flare for the dramatic, especially when it comes to press conferences and speaking off the cuff. The problem is that the media doesn’t understand the Catholic Church or her teachings (this is obvious), but the other side of the coin is that the Catholic Church’s leadership (esp. the Vatican) doesn’t understand the media well either. So, we get situations that cause confusion, as we did yesterday.
Here is some background on the situation. Pope Francis just finished a trip to Mexico, including a visit to the border in Ciudad Juarez (across from El Paso). On the plane trip back to Rome, he gave an informal Q&A session to the reporters traveling on the plane with him. It was in this setting that he was asked the following question (full text here):
Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”
Before I get into Pope Francis’ answer, there is a problem with the question. The case is not a “lesser of two evils” question, because one principle of Catholic morality is that you cannot use an evil means to attain a good end. So this doesn’t apply. Still, let us consider the Pope’s answer.
He responded with:
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. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.
Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion. 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 other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. 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.
Let us break this down. First of all, he is very clear about abortion, “It is a crime”. What he is saying is that it is an intentional killing of an innocent human being in every instance and cannot be justified by any situation. He then references the very little-known case of the nuns (in the 1960s) in the Congo who Paul VI allowed to use contraception, because they were in a terrible situation where they had a high chance of being raped. But, here is what you need to know. This IS NOT AN EXCEPTION IN ALLOWING CONTRACEPTION. Why? Because rape is not a sexual act, it is an act of violence. Sex was created for a two-fold purpose of bonding the spouses together in love and being open to life. Neither of these is the purpose of rape and thus it is never a sexual act. So, allowing nuns to use contraception was an act of self-defense against the act of rape. This is very different than the Zika case, where some are trying to promote the use of contraception for couples who are sexually active. Contraception, when chosen as a means of stopping the end of pregnancy ruptures the meaning of the sexual act (see this link for a fuller explanation as to why).
The real issue was with this statement from Pope Francis, “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.” While there is a lack of clarity in what the Pope is actually implying here, but he isn’t necessarily equating “avoiding pregnancy” with contraception. This statement is out of the context of the previous one on contraception and in fact, the Church teaches that for serious reasons (left up to the couple to decide), a couple can postpone or avoid pregnancy using Natural Family Planning (NFP). Thus, he is most likely referencing cases where a couple avoids pregnancy using NFP.
The other issue is that the Pope can’t just make an off-the-cuff remark and then “change Church teaching”. He doesn’t have that kind of authority. He is limited as a caretaker and defender of the Church’s teaching, he is not a prophet who can just change it as he pleases.
So rest assured, what the media said happened, didn’t happen.
Of course the media took this as an opportunity to trumpet out the news with headlines that say he is changing the teaching on contraception, allowing for an exception to the rule, etc. This isn’t the case and I expect the Vatican to issue an explanation soon, though the damage is already done.
UPDATE – 2/22/16
Seems there is a big question as to whether the case of the nuns in the Congo is legitimate. Dr. Ed Peters has much more. Suffice it to say that the Vatican ought to say something about this soon, if this is the case.
If you want to know more about what the Church teaches on these issues, I highly recommend the following links: