Monica Migliorino Miller, a Professor of Theology, earned a Doctorate in Theology from Marquette University. She is the Director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society and the author of Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars (St. Benedict Press, 2012) and, more recently, The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2015).
The headline in The New York Times said it all: “[Pope] Francis Says Contraception Can Be Used to Slow Zika” (Feb. 19). Who in the history of Christianity would have thought that we would ever see a headline claiming that a sitting Pope has contradicted Church teaching? So, what exactly did the Pope say? Here is an English transcript of Francis’s exchange with a Spanish reporter, in its entirety, provided by the Catholic News Agency (Feb. 18), that took place during the Pope’s hour-long press conference on his return flight from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to Rome:
Paloma García Ovejero: 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 [who are potentially at risk of delivering children with a defect of the brain called microcephaly]. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils”?
Pope Francis: 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 Oath 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 Bl. 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.Francis’s comments on abortion are arguably the strongest of any pontiff. He compared the killing of the unborn to, of all things, Mafia tactics (“to throw someone out in order to save another”), and he called abortion a “crime” and an “absolute evil.” His stance is clear and unequivocal.
Unfortunately, the Pope’s strong condemnation of abortion has been almost completely overlooked due to his confused and equivocal statements regarding contraception. It is clear that Francis has the ability to speak plainly in defense of Church teachings, at least when his convictions regarding those teachings are heartfelt. Yet on the subject of contraceptive use in crisis situations, Francis made statements that lead one to conclude that he believes such use is morally licit, contrary to Catholic moral doctrine. Let us examine his exchange with the Spanish reporter.
First, the reporter asked Francis if the Church, in situations like that of the Zika virus, could tolerate the “lesser evil” of “avoiding pregnancy.” That the reporter called avoiding pregnancy a lesser evil seemed to imply a reference to artificial contraception — since, according to the Church, contraception is an “evil” and avoiding pregnancy not necessarily so. The Pope responded by condemning abortion as an “absolute evil,” making clear that under no circumstances can it be justified.
Then Francis made a rather odd remark. “On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy,” he said, “we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment.” Francis seemed to indicate that there can be a conflict between respect for life, required by the fifth commandment (thou shall not kill), and respect for sexual morality, required by the sixth commandment (thou shall not commit adultery). But, frankly, it is morally improper to pit one of the Ten Commandments against another — there simply is no tension or conflict among the commandments. Respect for life doesn’t mean that one can, should, or must break one of the other commandments.
Within the context of the Zika virus, it appears that the Pope was indicating that a couple’s desire to prevent against the possibility of conceiving a child with a serious birth defect (fifth commandment) might be in conflict with their respect for the conjugal act (sixth commandment). It’s hard to tell where the Pope was going with this. Maybe he simply meant to indicate that some people think there is a conflict among the demands of the Commandments, but that’s not what he said.
The climax of his response came with his recourse to the situation of nuns in the Belgian Congo who were allegedly given permission by Bl. Pope Paul VI to use contraception as protection against the effects of rape. Keep in mind that Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae (1968), an encyclical that reiterated the ban on the use of artificial birth control. Francis stated, “Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.” Then Francis went on to say that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of Bl. Paul VI, it was clear.”
Since Francis’s interview, much ink has been spilled trying to determine whether Paul VI ever gave his approval for nuns in the Congo to use anovulant contraceptives; some have even referred to this as an “urban legend.” The fact is that Paul VI did not give his permission — at least not in the direct manner characterized by Pope Francis. Many of Francis’s critics see his invocation of Paul VI as the Achilles’ heel of his interview because, according to them, if Paul VI never approved of this exception to the ban on contraception, then Francis has no leg to stand on in applying such an exception to the Zika-virus crisis. So, what really happened?
In 1961, during the pontificate of St. John XXIII (not Bl. Paul VI), three well-respected theologians — Ferdinando Lambruschini, who taught at the Pontifical Lateran University; Francesco Hürth, S.J., of the Pontifical Gregorian University; and Pietro Palazzini, secretary of the Congregation of the Council (later renamed Congregation for the Clergy) — offered their opinions on the question of whether women in danger of being raped could use contraception as a form of self-defense. The issue was relevant because the violence in the Congo at the time included the rape of women, and missionary nuns were at risk. The theologians’ opinions were published in Studi Cattolici, an Italian journal of theology, and they concluded that contraceptive use in such a situation was morally licit. Pope John XXIII did not repudiate their conclusion. When Paul VI was elected, neither did he — and he didn’t take the opportunity to do so when he issued Humanae Vitae. Thus, since some are prone to considering silence as tacit agreement, we have the supposed Vatican “approval” of contraception in cases of the danger of the rape of nuns.
Add to this that not only did two Popes see no need to correct the theologians, but Pope Paul himself in Humanae Vitae makes a distinction between true sex acts and ones that are not: “It is in fact justly observed that a conjugal act imposed upon one’s partner without regard for his or her condition and lawful desires is not a true act of love, and therefore denies an exigency of moral right order in the relationships between husband and wife” (no. 13). If such is the case even between spouses, how much more does it apply to the rape of nuns?
What needs to be clearly understood is that, morally speaking, the nuns facing the violence and injustice of rape could thwart, by use of contraceptives, the effects of such hideous acts (so long as no one else is harmed — i.e., unborn children). This cannot be applied to couples who freely engage in sexual intercourse, and it certainly cannot be applied to married couples who engage in the conjugal act. Contraception is immoral because it distorts the God-given meaning of conjugal acts of love within marriage, to which there can be no exceptions. Couples who, for a serious reason, seek to avoid pregnancy, do not commit a “lesser evil” — they commit no evil at all. But they must avoid pregnancy by abstinence or the use of natural methods of birth regulation.
The apex of Francis’s climactic statement came with the phrase “in certain cases, as in this one.” Clearly, Francis was referring to the threat of the Zika virus, which may (or may not) cause birth defects in unborn children. And then Francis referred again to the alleged permission given to the nuns in Africa to use contraception. The obvious conclusion is that, as contraception was “permitted” for nuns facing a crisis situation that involved procreation, couples who face threats from the Zika virus may do likewise!
The most benign interpretation is that the Pope never intended to teach that contraceptive use is permissible in crisis situations because the nuns’ use of contraception was not in violation of, or in opposition to, the Church’s ban on contraception. In other words, since contraceptive use in that case was not an immoral act, but an act of self-defense, neither can Pope Francis be accused of deliberately promoting immoral acts in permitting couples to use contraception to defend against the ill-effects of the Zika virus. To him, the use of contraception by couples who face the dangers of Zika is simply another legitimate, morally licit exception to the Church’s ban on contraception. But this is precisely where he would be mistaken!
The Pope did not properly distinguish between contraceptive use by women threatened with rape and its use by couples who engage in perfectly legitimate conjugal acts. He wrongly used the former situation to justify contraception use in the latter. He thus employed faulty moral reasoning and created confusion regarding the Church’s teaching on contraception.
Bl. Pope Paul VI taught in Humanae Vitae that even for serious reasons, contraception cannot be justified as a “lesser evil”:
To justify conjugal acts made intentionally infecund, one cannot invoke as valid reasons the lesser evil, or the fact that such acts would constitute a whole together with the fecund acts already performed or to follow later, and hence would share in one and the same moral goodness. In truth, if it is sometimes licit to tolerate a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil to promote a greater good, it is not licit, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow there from; that is, to make into the object of a positive act of the will something which is intrinsically disordered, and hence unworthy of the human person, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well-being. Consequently, it is an error to think that a conjugal act which is deliberately made infecund and so is intrinsically dishonest could be made honest and right by the ensemble of a fecund conjugal life. (no. 14)+++
The question remains: Why did Pope Francis say such a thing? Perhaps he is a poor theologian. Perhaps he is a sloppy thinker. Perhaps giving off-the-cuff media interviews on a plane, when he is tired and exhausted, is just a bad idea and mistakes will happen. I would agree that Francis is not a great theologian. But one need not be a great theologian to be pope — though it doesn’t hurt! I think the real reason lies deeper. The Holy Father wishes to emphasize mercy, and he feels that overemphasis on strictly adhering to doctrinal requirements in daily life is somehow in opposition to mercy. This explains his harsh words to those Christians who are “preoccupied” with the “rules” of the faith, those whom he has castigated as “Pharisees” and “legalists,” and perhaps all those who he said are “obsessed” with “homosexuality, abortion, and contraception” — for which the National Abortion Rights Action League thanked him in 2013.
However one wishes to understand Pope Francis — and let me say that I think he is truly a holy man — it is simply impossible at this point in his pontificate to make excuses for him. His latest over-the-Atlantic public musing during a media interview on a subject that has racked the Church for decades has caused serious confusion and given the enemies of the Church another club with which to beat her. This fact just has to be faced.
Lest anyone be in doubt, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi affirmed that Francis was at least creating a path to the use of contraception in crisis situations. “The contraceptive or condom,” he said, “in particular cases of emergency or gravity, could be the object of discernment in a serious case of conscience. This is what the Pope said” (Vatican Radio, Feb. 19).
Fr. Lombardi also stated that Pope Francis was referring to “the possibility of taking recourse to contraception or condoms in cases of emergency or special situations. He is not saying that this possibility is accepted without discernment; indeed, he said clearly that it can be considered in cases of special urgency.”
Fr. Lombardi also reiterated the example that Francis used of Pope Paul VI’s “authorization of the use of the Pill for the religious who were at very serious risk” of rape. This, said Lombardi, “makes us understand that it is not that it was a normal situation in which this was taken into account.”
The contemplation of an immoral act — in this case the use of contraception — is not, however, merely a matter of discernment. No one can deny that people often face very difficult, burdensome, and serious situations in life and may be tempted at such times to compromise moral principles. But it seems odd that the Church would actually counsel the faithful to discern such a compromise. Fr. Lombardi’s statement could very well read, “Abortion or mercy killing, in particular cases of emergency or gravity, could be the object of discernment in a serious case of conscience.” After all, if making moral choices is about discernment of what is right or wrong in conscience, how can such discernment be limited to contraception?
Pope Francis’s interview and Fr. Lombardi’s affirmation of its significance make it sound as if, though the Church has a doctrine about contraception on the books, the faithful may discern for themselves what to do, especially for the sake of mercy in difficult situations. When life gets hard, we get to decide which doctrines apply to us — and which don’t. Why didn’t the Pope immediately promote natural family planning as soon as he heard the reporter ask about the licitness of “avoiding pregnancy”? He missed a valuable teaching moment.
Troubling, too, is the fact that, as of this writing (and when Pope Francis was interviewed), though Zika has been linked to microcephaly, there is no scientific certainty that the virus actually causes this (or any) birth defect. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Results of recent epidemiologic and laboratory studies performed in Brazil strongly support, but don’t yet prove, a link between Zika virus infection during pregnancy and microcephaly…. Additional studies are needed to determine the degree to which Zika is linked with microcephaly.” So the Zika case isn’t nearly as “clear” as Pope Francis says it is, either morally or scientifically.
It is tempting to interpret the Pope’s remarks as a kind of mini-papal Lambeth Conference. In 1930 the Anglican Communion allowed married couples to use contraceptives to avoid pregnancy for serious reasons — the first time a major ecclesial body officially departed from longstanding Christian doctrine banning artificial birth regulation. I don’t think Pope Francis intended such a thing, but that is the immediate fallout. The question is: What can be done about it?
First, let me urge, and urge with all that I have in me, do not despair. God is with His Church; He truly is, and this crisis of confusion will pass. We need to be faithful; we need to speak the truth, bring light where we can, and show by our lives that mercy and truth can and do co-exist. Above all, we must pray, and pray, and pray some more.
I hope that Pope Francis prays to Mary, the Undoer of Knots, since he has created a lot of knots of confusion that need to be undone.
The foregoing article, "A Virus, a Crisis," was originally published in the April 2016 issue of the New Oxford Review and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.