I detect something of a breakthrough among Roman Catholics in reaction to Pope Francis’ comments about contraception and the Zika. Christopher Kaczor does his best to help out the pope (even if it is way above his pay grade):
During Pope Francis’ flight from Mexico to Rome, a Spanish reporter posed this question: “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?’”
In his answer, Pope Francis unequivocally condemned abortion, saying, “Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape. [The nuns were in constant danger of getting raped and therefore of pregnancy.] Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself with abortion. … [A]s 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, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI , it was clear.”
The first part of the pope’s answer does not raise many questions, as it is a straightforward and unequivocal application of Catholic teaching that intentional killing of innocent human beings is seriously wrong. But what about the Bishop of Rome’s statements on contraception? Do his remarks indicate that using contraception is ethically permissible if the circumstances are dire? . . .
In his interview, Pope Francis could be understood as endorsing the view that the use of contraceptives such as a condom could be permissible in order to prevent the transmission of the Zika virus, which may be transmitted through sexual activity. On the other hand, his remarks are also open to the interpretation that forms of contraception, such as the pill, would be permissible in order to render sexual acts nonprocreative with the motivation that a child not be born with microcephaly. Given that Pope Francis is, in the very same interview, at pains to praise and show his agreement with Paul VI, the first interpretation is the more plausible one.
But other Roman Catholics from the left and right are not buying this and so are showing remarkable unity. Edward Peters finds the Pope’s construction of church teaching dubious:
No longer are we musing about a point of Church history (as interesting as that might be), now we are dealing with Church moral teaching. The stakes become dramatically higher.
So here’s my point: not only does the Congo nuns permission seem NOT to exist, but, even if it does exist in some form, it could NOT, I suggest, by its own terms, be used by Francis (or anyone else committed to thinking with the Church) to call into question the Church’s settled teaching that “each and every marital act [quilibet matrimonii usus] must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (Humanae vitae 11) and that therefore “excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after conjugal intercourse [coniugale commercium], is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” (Humanae vitae 14).
Obviously the Congo nuns case (or the Balkan nuns story in the 1990s, to take another variation of the myth) was not about marital acts, it was about religious women facing criminal acts of violent sexual intercourse; the Congo question was not about possible birth defects, it was about stopping rapists’ sperm from reaching ova that perchance had been ovulated. Between women facing rape and wives worried about birth defects there simply is no parallel relevant to the moral question of contraception. One can like that fact or hate it, but one cannot change it or ignore it. Moreover, Church teaching on the immorality of contracepted marital acts is, I believe, taught infallibly; but, even if I were wrong about that technical claim, there is no question about what that teaching is, namely, that contracepting acts of marital intercourse, whether doing so as an end in itself or as means to some other end, is objectively immoral.
The precedents cited to render Francis’s statement consistent with standing teaching strike me as a stretch. Despite the pope’s own fleeting allusion to what is in fact a historically obscure episode involving nuns threatened by sexual assault in the Congo in the early Sixties, Francis was not talking about an apparently proactive prevention of forced conception from rapes that may or may not occur. He was not talking about prevention of transmitting a virus, parallel to HIV, from one marital partner to another. He was talking about the prevention of pregnancy.
And Humanae Vitae condemns any use whatsoever of contraception to prevent pregnancy—even as a “lesser evil … even for the gravest of reasons … even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.” Nor, according to the encyclical, can “a whole married life of otherwise normal relations” justify such a single or temporary use.
My wager is that Pope Francis just doesn’t believe that. He respects it. He admires its author. He looks for the truth in it. But he doesn’t buy it.
But that’s pure guess on my part. The inability of church leaders, including the Holy Father, to speak straightforwardly about contraception has been a great disappointment.
This is unity, but it’s not the kind we’re supposed to notice.