Francis, Contraception, and the Zika Virus

Controversy has erupted over Pope Francis’ response to a journalist’s question last week about “avoiding pregnancy” in the face of the Zika virus. Subsequent remarks by a papal spokesman only added to the confusion. The actual statements, whatever their merits, do not express a change in the Church’s definitive prohibition of contraception within marriage, even in order to avoid birth defects or disease. Also, they do not alter the current appraisal of contraception in cases of rape or Pope Benedict’s assessment that condoms are not a proper means for dealing with disease.

The journalist asked: “[Concerning the Zika virus,] some authorities have proposed abortion, or avoiding pregnancy. With regard to avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of ‘the lesser of two evils?’”

Francis replied: “Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime, an absolute evil. . . .Regarding the ‘lesser evil’: avoiding pregnancy is a case – we are speaking in terms of conflicts between the fifth and sixth commandments. Paul VI, the great, in a difficult situation, in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape. Do not confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion. . . . [A]voiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”

Francis affirmed Catholic doctrine when he asserted that, unlike abortion, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In fact, whereas the Church always prohibits abortion, she acknowledges that there are serious moral reasons for avoiding pregnancy. In these cases avoiding a pregnancy can be a moral duty and is never treated as a “lesser evil.” That is why couples who practice abstinence or Natural Family Planning, for serious reasons, commit no evil at all.

The pope’s brief reflection must be considered within the context of the definitive teaching of the Magisterium according to which there is a divinely created “unbreakable connection between the unitive meaning and procreative meaning . . . inherent in the conjugal act.” (Humanae Vitae 12). Consequently, it is never “possible to justify deliberately depriving conjugal acts of their fertility by claiming that one is choosing the lesser evil,” even “to defend and advance some good either for individuals or for families or for societies.” (HV 14)

This means that while avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil, using contraception within marriage is always evil. Therefore, spouses cannot justify contraceptives by the argument that they are trying to prevent birth defects or disease rather than a pregnancy.

The pope’s comments on contraception in the case of rape involves an issue that has not been explicitly defined by the Magisterium, but it represents no innovation in Catholic morality. Many bishops have approved hospital protocols that allow contraceptives in cases of rape, provided these do not cause abortion. This, however, is based not on an exception to definitive teachings or an appeal to a “lesser evil,” but on the stark reality that rape is an act of violence rather than a conjugal act whose fertility may never be impeded.

The pope’s reference to the – unsubstantiated – case of Paul VI and the sisters in Africa adds little insight into the use of contraceptives in the case of rape because there is no public record of any such decision. Some researchers, therefore, assert that Paul VI never actually gave this permission while others claim that he gave tacit approval.

The pope does not explain what he means by calling the avoidance of pregnancy a “lesser evil” in “conflicts” between the fifth commandment (murder) and the sixth (chastity). He made a similarly cryptic remark on November 30 when a journalist asked about the use of condoms to prevent HIV infections. But certainly, these comments cannot be rightly interpreted as suggesting that violations of the sixth commandment, including the use of contraceptives in marriage, are anything other than sins.

Subsequent remarks by a papal spokesman unfortunately fostered confusion rather than clarity, especially regarding two crucial points. First, he spoke of a “serious discernment of conscience” regarding the use of contraceptives and condoms in grave situations. But he failed to stipulate that such discernment requires objective moral criteria, including the sixth commandment and the nature of the conjugal act. Thus, outside of marriage their use cannot be the result of a serious discernment because conscience would reject sexual activity entirely; within marriage they are prohibited even in grave circumstances. Actually, there is only one case in which contraceptives have been approved: rape.

Second, he said that Benedict XVI “spoke about using condoms in the case of the risk of contagion” without including Benedict’s moral analysis: “It is not the proper way to deal with the horror of HIV infection.”

Where does this leave us regarding Zika? If the virus actually causes microcephaly, it is one of many dangers to an unborn child or a mother. Genuine tragedies confront each of us in a fallen world. Christians are called, in union with the crucified and risen Jesus, to carry the cross and not to “be conquered by evil, but to overcome evil with good,” knowing by faith that “all things work for good for those who love God.”

In the case of marriage, this means that for the good of individuals, families, or societies, a couple may need to abstain from conjugal union, perhaps for an extended period. Many Catholics live this reality daily with love and courage. They deserve our admiration and support.

God in his mercy has revealed these truths to us so that we might have abundant joy even in the midst of suffering. And he will strengthen us to live the Gospel despite our fears, failings, and sins. This is the Church’s constant teaching, the only valid context for approaching Christian life – or for understanding the statements of popes, bishops, and Vatican spokesmen.

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek, STD has been a priest of the Diocese of Austin since 1985 and is currently pastor of parishes in Gatesville and Hamilton. His doctoral studies were in Dogmatics with a focus on Ecclesiology, Apostolic Ministry, Newman, and Ecumenism.

  • Howard Kainz

    When the Pope talks about “the conflict between the 5th and 6th commandments,” he does seem to be pointing to the fact that contraception is a lesser evil than abortion. And after his statement about African nuns using contraceptives “to avoid pregnancy,” his next comment that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” does seem in context to refer to contraception, and not NFP — unless he supplied further qualifications, such as given in this column.

    • Michael DeLorme

      Yes, NFP as a foil for rape is an intriguing concept. As is the notion of suggesting to a rapist that he slip on a condom first.

      Seems we’re talking about the full-time use of an IUD as being “not an absolute evil.” It would certainly be a furtive shame, in any case.

  • “The pope’s comments on contraception in the case of rape involves an issue that has not been explicitly defined by the Magisterium.”

    So Father you are claimimg there is an exception to the perennial church Teaching on contraception being an intrinsic evil?

    • Truthtold

      It makes perfect sense to me to remove all of a rapist’s sperm immediately from the woman he has raped. While this would be a desirable course of action in an instance of rape, it would be intrinsically evil if done in the case of a marriage act.

      • Audrey Klingele

        Or in the case of the nuns, blocking entry of sperm forced upon them by using a diaphragm.

  • Michael DeLorme

    Thank you, Father, for the intelligent and lucid presentation of another papal/media confusion.

  • michael ortiz

    Vatican spokesman Lombardi has clarified that the avoiding pregnancy remark was said in the context of contraception. The lesser evil theory only is licit in regard to enduring the evil, NOT doing it.

  • I’m still worried about the inherant bigotry in the Pope’s statement against the microencephalic. Life is still life- and microencephalic people can overcome their disability enough to have good lives.

    • Rusty

      Thank you for stating what needs to be said. Life is life, and it is terribly sad that the possibility of being born with a disability is viewed as reason to avoid conception in the first place. What ever happened to Thy will be done, not My will be done?

  • Manfred

    It was clearly the Pope’s intention to approve contraceptives and condoms to avoid the Zika virus. This is supported by the Vatican spokesman, Fr. Lombardi, who confirmed this is precisely what the Pope meant.The Pope should damned well know that Paul VI never prescribed condom use for Sisters possibly facing rape during the Congo conflict.
    The Pope’s support of Cdl Kasper on Communion for divorced and remarried catholics as well as his soft approach on homosexual unions and marriage at Synod ’14 and Synod ’15, andl his complete failure to support Family Day (one man-one woman) at the Circo Massimo in Rome, all give evidence that this man is not now and has not been a Catholic, yet he has the gall to serve as a Pope.
    Do not persist in attempting to hide this stark fact.

  • Thomas Gillespie

    This is among the least helpful of the commentaries I’ve read on the Pope’s remarks. No, there isn’t just confusion here: the Pope, as clarified by his spokesman, has contradicted settled Church teaching on the use of contraceptives (not just NFP) within marriage. Using a spurious and non-analagous example from Paul VI, the Pope has stated that contraception can be used in marriage to prevent the transmission of the Zika virus.

    If you don’t believe that this is the plain sense of his words (and clarified as such by Fr Lombardi), just Google “Pope” and “contraception” and see how secular media are reading it. For once , the secular media are doing us a service: they’re not in a state of denial about what the Pope said, unlike so many Catholics (particularly clergy, I should add).

    So where are the Cardinals and Bishops now? Why are they silent or attempt to obfuscate what everyone else plainly grasps?

    • Truthtold

      I expect many of them are silent because they are not Catholic either. They don’t like the Church prohibiting contraception. They would welcome anything coming from the Pope that gives hope for officially endorsing contraception. We need to be rid of such men. We also need to be rid the shallow moral thinking of this particular Pope. In any case, he can’t change the Truth by his off -the-cuff, unthinking remarks to a journalist.

    • Michael DeLorme

      According to Dr. Janet Smith, as few as 6-12% of Catholics have ever accepted the teachings of Humanae Vitae (she personally thinks it’s probably closer to 3%).

      I count myself as amongst that 3 or 6 or 12%—and always have. Yet I don’t sense that Father Vaverek was in any way making excuses for the latest confusion coming from Francis.

      My only surprise, in Father’s article, is his statement that “Actually, there is only one case in which contraceptives have been approved: rape.” One tries to keep up, but that’s news to me and I’d like to understand the theological reasoning behind it.

      I confess I’ve never considered the singular prospect of nuns living in dangerous areas where there is a high possibility of their being raped.

      We can’t be talking about condoms, though, since what rapist is about to listen to his victim’s request that he slip one on before his assault?

      Nor can we be talking about natural family planning, since NFP requires an ongoing monitoring and cooperation between “participants.” In rape, there’s no possible “please come back and do it next Wednesday when I’ll be far less likely to become pregnant.”

      So, we’re talking about the ongoing use of IUDs, or the pill or some similar preventative.

      In any case, while it touches on a dimension I haven’t considered before, I say again I don’t sense that Father Vaverek is countenancing heresy.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Michael I can give you the 2001 text of the USCCB document which required approval from Rome: “A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself from 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” (Directive 36).
        [I add a correction that there apparently was no official approval by Rome to the USCCB and other conferences to use this procedure for rape cases].

        • Alexandra_kirschmitt

          Father Morello, thanks for posting this. I was unaware of this specific passage thus I asked Fr. V for more info.

          Curiously the directive 36 is missing from the USCCB website’s file.

          As I read your reply, I did another search and found a commentary on this directive 36 at Linacre centre. Apparently there are controversies as to when conception has possibly occurred and what may be appropriate testing to determine it.

          How to reconcille directive 36 with the Church teaching on the sanctity of life from conception to natural death? I am just thinking, not necessarily asking you a direct question. At any rate was interesting reading this document.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Yes Alexandra the issues were multiple as to what comprises “appropriate testing” and “evidence that conception has occurred”. This was problematic from the start and there have been many interpretations. The Church should have resolved this issue. I too had questions regarding sanctity of human life as you describe the process. It doesn’t appear to reconcile with Church teaching. That negative appraisal was apparently confirmed by Bishop Elio Sgreccia then head of The Pontifical Academy for Life who said 2008 that “there was no exception to the use of the Morning After Pill” which is the medication referred to in Dir 36. Benedict XVI was Pontiff. With enemies of the faith in close quarters he may not have been properly informed. Unfortunately Alexandra the USCCB and other conferences in Europe and elsewhere continued to use this procedure in Catholic Hospitals.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Pardon my error Alexandra it was 2001 when the USCCB introduced Dir 36 during the Pontificate of Saint Pope John Paul II.

          • Alexandra_kirschmitt

            Father Morello, thank you for the answer with more information.It is super! I confess that I do not know all the nuances of this issue. I was surprised to read about these directives. It is confusing to learn the faith as given by the Church and at home, and to hear the pope’s statements . So I was interested in knowing more in order to further my education in such important subject. I appreciate TCT very much, the subjects discussed here are relevant to the faith and people such as myself can expect to have answers that are faithful to Jesus and the Magisterium. I don’t think we have something similar to TCT in Europe. Gratia et pax Christi exultet in corde tuo.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Also Alexandra Bishop Sgreccia Prefect of The Pontifical Academy for Life based his position on Dignitatis Personae [Dec 8, 2008] article 23 “Anyone who seeks to prevent the implantation of an embryo which may possibly be conceived intends abortion.” The problems with the use of the MAP is that it seems virtually impossible to meet the standard prohibiting the prevention of implantation by available testing.

        • Michael DeLorme

          Thank you, Father Morello. The directive certainly gives me new food for thought. I imagine I’ll be mulling it for some time to come. I was just about to ask if the directive is available online—then caught the posting below from Alexandra.

  • grump

    Here we go again. Another “explanation” of what the Pope REALLY meant. Every time he opens his mouth, someone has to “clarify” his remarks post haste. The only question that needs to be answered is: “Is the Pope Catholic?” Meanwhile, I can’t wait for Trump’s Wall to rival the one at the Vatican.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    The Church is blessed by young [compared to me very young] priests with conviction and faith unafraid to speak out openly on moral issues. God will not abandon His sheep and draws such young men so much needed in today’s Church in these unique and trying times with its immense failure of teaching moral doctrine with clarity. Fr Vaverek is correct in stating doctrine exactly as is. Although there are grey areas in moral decision making when persons [that is laity caught in extreme conditions not priests who teach heresy] under duress and fear take measures that are ordinarily prohibited. This mitigates culpability. The Church that is its hierarchy however should not propose what is perceived and often becomes in effect policy by public pronouncements that out of the context of existential personal dilemma contradict moral teaching.

    • Joyfully

      Yes, we are blessed with courageous young priests. We are also blessed with courageous and faithful young married Catholic couples.

      They are carrying on a gentle revolution by rejecting the contraceptive-coupling that is happening in the wider world. They are supporting one another, not with bully pulpits but by encouragement and social acceptance (on full display through social media). As a social-collective we may cringe a bit seeing over and over what has become known as “brag shots” of happy family time, by God’s grace, goodness is being laid bare for those who may never experienced the love of a good family. They are footlights on the path for their contemporaries who never experienced a whole family.

  • Ann Couper-Johnston

    When is Pope Francis next taking a long flight? We need to know when to start a Novena (or encourage him to catch up on his sleep).

    • Disqus_disqus

      Haha, I second this!

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Fr Vaverek is not whitewashing Pope Francis on contraception as several comments suggest. He says Pope Francis refers to extreme instances like fear of Zika virus when laity decide to use contraceptives that is not entirely unlike permission already given in cases of rape. Pope Francis is accounting for mitigating conditions for laity under extreme duress and fear. That is not in itself either permission or error. Fr Vaverek correctly said the “issue is not explicitly defined by the Magisterium”, and he compliments that by clearly defending Church teaching prohibiting its use in reference to the “bogus permission” to use contraceptives to avoid rape as was the case of “nuns in Africa”, when Paul VI had explicitly not given permission, and in Vaverek’s stating “using contraceptives within marriage is always evil.” My assessment of the point of Fr Vaverek’s article is not to absolutely defend Pope Francis’ remarks since he does indicate Francis’ omission of Benedict XVI words prohibiting use of contraceptives to avoid HIV and the unsettling follow-up remarks by Lombardi. Fr Vaverek’s actually clarifies Church teaching on contraception in context of the remarks by Pope Francis and Lombardi.

    • Thomas Gillespie

      Fr, there is no talk of “mitigation” in the Pope’s words. He’s clearly giving permission. And why are Fr Lombardi’s words simply “unsettling”? He states that contraception can be an “object of discernment” in marriage. Since when is evil an object of discernment, as though it could be chosen? If Fr Lombardi is off the mark, why has no one corrected him (or he himself)? It’s because he’s interpreted the Pope quite correctly, and everyone in the Vatican knows it.

      This “head in the sand” approach to this scandal of the Pope’s making is not helping the Church, it’s harming her.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Okay Thomas. I understand your point which is the outcry of the laity and I support them on this. I responded with some anger in my previous post and will not excuse it. Read that post and you will understand on your part I’m not defending Pope Francis’ informal remarks that I’m well aware are causing much harm.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      What I comment on in this post Thomas is not the impression of the interview of Pope Francis and Fr Lombardi’s remarks. That is open to criticism as I state in my first post. That criticism I have stated here and elsewhere is the suggestion the Pontiff often gives which is license to disobey Church teaching. My comment here is to affirm Fr Vaverek’s correct explanation of Church doctrine. I do take offence at your remarks because they impute my integrity as a Catholic priest regarding adherence to the teachings of the Catholic faith. I have placed my life where my faith is not my mouth.

  • Thomas Gillespie

    If the Pope is Catholic then, frankly, so is my Presbyterian neighbor. We’re in uncharted (or rarely charted) waters here, and I think many clergy simply don’t know how to respond: they’ve hit their “Does Not Compute” moment. All the clarity is coming from lay Catholics . . . perhaps because the Pope can’t punish them?

  • George Sim Johnston

    It seems as though the papal spokesman went the path of the Anglican Church in 1930 when it told couples to seriously consult their consciences regarding contraception without offering any objective criteria of right and wrong when they do so. What he should have said is that a couple who have a serious reason for putting off a pregnancy–and this would include the Zika virus–should use NFP, which is as effective as artificial means of birth control and in this situation is perfectly licit.

  • PCB

    The Pope speaks to the media, the Vatican Spokesperson to the choir, (i.e. mainstream media never/rarely gives much coverage to the clarification). Meanwhile, the Truth remains pinned to the Cross and overlooked like children’s artwork hung on the frig.

  • Murray

    The pope does not explain what he means by calling the avoidance of pregnancy a “lesser evil” in “conflicts” between the fifth commandment (murder) and the sixth (chastity). He made a similarly cryptic remark on November 30 when a journalist asked about the use of condoms to prevent HIV infections. But certainly, these comments cannot be rightly interpreted as suggesting that violations of the sixth commandment, including the use of contraceptives in marriage, are anything other than sins.

    Father, thank you for your priesthood, but with respect, you are begging the question: the interpretation of the pope’s words is precisely the issue here, and they cannot merely be waved away with a breezy “certainly”, as you do here.

    Ambiguity abounds in this exchange. First, it is not clear whether the “lesser evil” the reporter mentions is a) contraception vs the “greater evil” of abortion in order to avoid birth defects, or b) contraception or abortion vs the “greater evil” of birth defects. It is also not clear how the Holy Father interprets the question. What is clear, however, is that the reporter has framed her question around eugenic assumptions, and the pope accepts this framing.

    The pope responds in his characteristic wandering way. Abortion is absolutely evil, but where there is a conflict between commandments, it is permissible to choose the “lesser evil”, and here’s an example in which my predecessor of happy memory seemingly violated his own teaching on artificial contraception in service of the lesser evil.

    In other words, the reporter asks whether the prohibition on contraception can be waived in an emergency situation, and the Holy Father immediately provides an example of a previous pope doing so. Leave aside the question of whether or not it happened, or of the liceity of celibate women using birth control. The pope’s intention seems clear, and Fr Lombardi confirmed that the contraceptive interpretation was the correct one.

    • Alexandra_kirschmitt

      Thank you Murray, for being so clear and to the point. My thoughts also.

  • ThirstforTruth

    Truth is not a subjective thing and should not be interpreted by millions according to their own “light”. For Catholics, dependency and obedience is given in faith and trust to the magisterium, of which the Pope, any Pope, is the head, as Christ’s Vicar on Earth.
    It therefore, must be straight-forward and simple in its interpretation so that all the faithful can understand and follow.
    The confusion that seems to surround Pope Francis is due to several factors: he does not speak English either fluently or often which gives rise to so much speculation about what he says, he speaks off the cuff to reporters who phrase their questions in such a nuanced way that the answers coming back from the Pope also are often nuanced and therefore subject to various interpretations depending upon the personal bias of that reporter. It is
    a very dangerous situation and perhaps the Pope in all fairness should be advised to limit
    his remarks to reporters or to only those whom he can trust.
    However, this would probably conflict with the “style” of Francis’ papacy which seems to
    be designed to acquire the “smell of the sheep” which necessitates mingling with the masses and responding to any and all who approach the Holy Father in a pastoral and
    loving manner. We have not seen this in our recent Papacies and it takes time to get
    used to this abrupt change. Meanwhile, the faithful must not allow the
    confusion resulting to alter what they have always known and been taught as the Truth. It, like God, does not change. Papacies come and go and all Christians are required to have patience and practice prudence. This too shall pass so stay the course and keep peace in your hearts along side Truth.

  • Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek

    From the comments so far, I would like to direct the readers to the very fine moral analysis of Dr. Janet E. Smith, noted scholar and pro-life speaker, at the website of The Catholic World Report and the succinct statement from the National Catholic Bioethics Center. These provide important insights into matters that my piece could not examine in depth.
    It is important to note that our national Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare permit in specific cases medicines or procedures that have a contraceptive effect, including for rape (nn. 36 and 53). These directives were approved under the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, so they are not novelties.
    Understandably, there are those who are concerned by the wording and context of the Pope’s statements as well as the manner in which they will be interpreted by the world. This is a legitimate concern that is worthy of discussion. The column, however, limits itself to other topics, namely that “the actual statements, whatever their merits, do not express a change in the Church’s definitive prohibition of contraception within marriage, even in order to avoid birth defects or disease. Also, they do not alter the current appraisal of contraception in cases of rape or Pope Benedict’s assessment that condoms are not a proper means for dealing with disease.”

    • ROB

      Father, I’m one of the poor souls sitting in a pew. I’m confused and can’t navigate the big words of the Professors of Theology and Bioethics. Would you explain for people like me when contraception is allowed during the sex act so that we can understand what is or is not sinful?

      • Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek

        Sure. First, sexual acts outside of marriage are always sinful regardless of whether one uses contraception or not. Second, within marriage contraceptives may never be used to impede the fertility of the conjugal act, whether before, during, or after the act–not even to avoid birth defects, to prevent disease, or to protect the life of the mother.

        • Such plain words surely cried out to be said by the Holy Father at the time. His unwillingness to say them is what is seeding doubts about his intentions.

    • Murray

      I think all of us are fully aware, Father, that a pope is not likely to change Church teachings while answering questions on an airplane. That being said, the pope did claim in his 2014 La Nacion interview that such statements are part of his magisterium. Which raises an amusing recursion: If a pope claims, in a heretofore non-magisterial interview, that his statements in such interviews are part of his magisterium, then…?

      You provide an excellent explanation of Church teaching on this matter, but I continue to think you too lightly brush off the clear context of the exchange. As I wrote below, the reporter asked a question about permission to use contraceptives for eugenic purposes and, rather than repudiating this framing, the pope replied by citing a case in which … papal permission was granted to use contraceptives. All parsings aside, there is really no mistaking the drift here.

      All the Holy Father had to do was say something like Every child is a unique and infinitely valuable gift from God, and we should always be prepared to welcome this gift with open arms, regardless of what difficulties they may bring, and we would not be having this conversation.

    • givelifeachance2

      For someone who thrashes fundamentalists so severely, Francis himself certainly clings to the literal truth of his own words.

    • “These directives were approved under the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, so they are not novelties.
      [Noting that a reply comment of mine that asked to square what has been presented here with Church Teaching has been removed], who did the approval Fr. Vaverek? The Popes mentioned, CDF, the Vatican, or just Bishop Conferences [e.g. US & Germany]?
      A clarification would be in order noting that @frpetermorellophd:disqus says above “there apparently was no official approval by Rome to the USCCB and other conferences”.

  • redhat333

    First I think Fr V has done an excellent job of trying to clarify the Pope’s remarks. In this age of instant analysis and comment on everything the Pope or any “important ” official says,offhanded or not, we need good “clarifiers”.
    In the case of the Pope we get a deluge of comments and analysis, some accurate some terribly inaccurate. We must depend in the end on our consciences spiritually attuned by the Holy Spirit- our Father in heaven has infinite love, compassion and mercy beyond any human knowledge and He is not in heaven with a Catechism of the RC Church discerning how well we are complying.
    My point is that a “black and white” “system” of determining what is or is not a sin is fatally flawed in the areas under current discussion.
    Several wonder whether the Pope is Catholic- perhaps not by standards some are applying but in my opinion he is very Christ like and isn’t that all that really matters?

    • Cheryl Jefferies

      On the use of “conscience.” Are all consciences properly, rightly formed? No. They are not. So, the use of individual conscience loses its force when when one has an improperly formed conscience. While the Church has always encouraged the use of conscience, these days, people tend to forget that the Church speaks, and always has, to the difference between a properly, and an improperly, formed conscience. The “conscience excuse” has long been used by Catholics and non-Catholics alike to excuse both abortion and artificial contraception…not to mention a host of other stances which are really stances formed and made within the “framework” of moral relative secularism. Or, perhaps, I should say, immoral relative secularism.

      • Joe_NS

        I wonder, do you remember the Jon Lovitz character on Saturday Night Live known as Tommy Flanagan (pronounced “Flu-nay-gen). Tommy was a compulsive tale-spinner and serial fabricator, a man who couldn’t stop saying stuff that was untrue. (Is that a liar? I don’t know.) Well this “conscience” and “mercy” stuff flung around so casually as to make one suspect the user is actually contemptuous of both virtues, reminds me a lot of Tommy, as in, “Contraception’s ok in some cases because of . . . because of . . . Hey! Because of conscience! Yeah! That’s the ticket. It’s just conscience. Sure. That’s it! That’s the ticket. Conscience. Sure.”

  • A. J. D.

    Father, do you really think so little of simple, lay, practicing Catholics as to concoct such a poor excuse for the Holy Father?

    What the Holy Father said in that plane cannot be squared away with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and by trying it, you perpetrated an uncharitable act toward the Holy Father, to us Catholics, and to the truth.

    May God bless you.

  • Alicia

    The problems in Africa of rape, etc were in 1961. Paul VI was a cardenal then. I believe he became pope in 1963. The rumor was due to a publication of a discussion by 3 theologians on the topic. It was reported as -Rome said- and later Rome became- the Pope said- .
    It never happened, but unfortunately something repeated many times becomes truth and many believe it.
    This is very well explained and substantiated in some comments to the Zika articles on Catholic World Report and Crux. Read them. They are very interesting and show how church enemies will do anything to push their ideologies.

  • Harry

    I wish Pope Francis would speak with the clarity of the National Catholic Bioethics Center’s statement entitled Zika Does Not Justify Abortion or Contraception which can be read on their website.

    JP II and Benedict XVI managed to avoid creating the confusion that Francis continually generates, confusion which has led many to believe that the Church has now rejected consistent teachings that the Holy Spirit Himself preserves in it. This has done much harm, a very serious instance of which is the scandalization of many new Catholics who joined the Church precisely because of the consistency of its teaching regardless of the popular beliefs of a given century. This is tragic.

    • Michael DeLorme

      Just received the NCBC statement in my inbox…

      One really hates to have such an unflattering opinion of the Vicar of Christ but—for crying out loud—he needs to attend a retreat entirely focused on “Recollection” so he can pull it all together and learn to speak appropriately according to his audience.

      And that’s assuming he’s not actually deliberately trying to “fundamentally transform” Catholic teaching. One prays, and strains, to continue believing he’s well-intentioned.

    • I am overjoyed to be received into the Church after several decades a devout Pentecostal. I’m saddened by the confusion Pope Francis sows, but I’m never dismayed: the Church holds and hands on the truth inviolate, whatever a Pope says. If a new convert has been properly catechised, he will be firm in that faith. The problem, it seems to me, lies in the millions of Catholics who have a very sketchy grasp of the faith, and are indeed being blown this way and that and are afraid. Jesus has got into Peter’s boat, remember – and Peter did sometimes put his foot in his mouth!

      • bernie

        “Jesus has got into Peter’s boat”. What an insightful quote ! Isn’t it amazing how the Gospel continually presents us with new thoughts and images that are appropriate to our current needs. Thank you.

  • bernie

    It seems to me, there are many variations in the presentation of Church teaching, ranging from
    conversation over morning coffee to formal Papal statements on dogma. Economic impressions based on Argentinian experience, or global warming based on even less authoritative sources, or muddled weeping-heart, empathetic attempts at theology on a plane at 30,000 feet, seem to all have the same origin for our Pope – sloppy speculative conversation over morning coffee – at best. A moral theologian should not be required to explain everything he says. And it isn’t caused by the language. Is it unfair to speculate what advice our Pope has been giving in Confession for the last 40 years? Perhaps it is about time he re-examined his own thinking.

  • Alexandra_kirschmitt

    “It is important to note that our national Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare permit in specific cases medicines or procedures that have a contraceptive effect, including for rape (nn. 36 and 53). These directives were approved under the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, so they are not novelties. ”

    Father Vaverek, thank you for the article, which I found instructive.I wonder if you could tell me more about the source you quoted above, the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare. I am a serious enquirer.

    In the same document we read, ” 54. Genetic counseling may be provided in order to promote responsible parenthood and to prepare for the proper treatment and care of children with genetic defects, in accordance with Catholic moral teaching and the intrinsic rights and obligations of married couples regarding the transmission of life.”

    God bless you and your ministry.

    • Joe_NS

      You left out the fact that in the “specific cases” you alluded to, such “measures and procedures” were never prescribed with the intention of “having a contraceptive effect.”

      Why was that?

      • Alexandra_kirschmitt

        I don’t understand your comment. I only quoted n.54 of the document mentioned by Father V., in which there is nothing mentioned about contraceptive measures.I think this n.54 leaves no doubt about that.

        • Joe_NS

          It’s pretty clear, I think. The church has never banned medical procedures or drugs designed to treat a life-threatening condition in a woman that also have contraceptive capabilities.

          You did not mention that, although, in my opinion, it is quite significant in context. Your response as to why you didn’t is unconvincing, to say no more.

      • Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek

        I did not go into greater detail because the reader will find that nn. 36 and 52 describe the “specific cases” in detail.

    • Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek

      If you do an internet search you will find them at the site of the US Bishops (USCCB). They are not complicated or long and are relatively easy to understand. The paragraph you quote (n. 54), when speaking of being “in accordance with…”, is prohibiting such things as abortion, contraception, sterilization, and immoral means of trying to achieve a pregnancy.

      • Alexandra_kirschmitt

        Yes, thank you Father Vaverek.

  • Beth

    Good heavens! The Holy Father’s off the cuff remarks which must be constantly explained have no more weight than the talking heads on the nightly news. Our Mystery has been clouded by blah, blah, blah which is interpreted as “What I’m doing is okay according the Pope!” Truly, Lord, have mercy!

  • Manfred

    The Church has always allowed, under very rare circumstances, dilation and currettage (D&C) BEFORE a possibly recently fertilized egg has attached to the uterine wall. Google the procedure.Do you see contraception here? Abortion?
    It is not surprising that The Catholic Thing would have a new guest write on this topic which requires an official with top credentials (Cdl Mueller of the CDF?, Cdl. Raymond Burke?) The Catholic internet is aflame over the Pope’s remarks as it becomes more evident that contraception will be the issue which finally forces a FORMAL schism. Many bishops are already treating the Pope’s remarks as a “green light” for the practice which catholics have been using for years.

  • Joe

    Father V is unfortunately unaware that pro life Catholic doctors are repeatedly saying that you can NEVER be sure that emergency (so called) contraception is NOT acting in an abortifacient manner. This is a point on which Father V and others need to defer to medical doctors faithful to the Magisterium.

  • GaryLockhart

    Pope Francis has once again torpedoed the myth that all Jesuits are academicians possessing superior intellect.

    Pray for his conversion and pray that he stops sticking his foot in his mouth every time he utters his foolish prudential remarks which, more often than not, contradict the teaching of the Church and scandalize the faithful.

  • Rosemary58

    Your explanation is quite clear – why could not the Pope say the same? I would like to know why he is not able to articulate Catholic teaching. it’s very odd.

  • Fred Martinez

    Fr. V is right that Zika has nothing to do with rape. He, also, clearly presents Church teaching that contraception can’t be used for Zika.

    He is wrong in saying Pope Francis’ comments can’t be interpreted as approving contraceptives in marriage.

    The Pope’s context and syntax to qualify “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” is as Fr. Z said the lie (,which Francis believed to be true, ) of Pope Paul approving of contraceptive use in Congo.

    The context showed that to the Pope these are equivalent (remember Zika has nothing to do with rape, so the Pope’s comments can only be interpreted to refer to the so-called Papal contraceptive approval).

    The Pope’s spokesman said these were equivalent.

    The Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said these were equivalent.

    So unless Pope Francis publicly rejects his spokesman and the CBCP’s contextually obvious interpretation of his statement, then one has no choice, but call bishops and the laity to correct the Pope as St. Paul did to St. Peter.

    “But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.”-Galatians 2:11

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    The question regarding the use of the Morning After Pill [MAP] for rape cases has been definitively addressed by the prefect of The Pontifical Academy for Life Bishop Elio Sgreccia who said “there is no exception to use the Morning After Pill” [the medication listed by the USCCB in Dir 36]. Bishop Sgreccia based his position on that of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith December 8, 2008 art 23 “It must be noted, however, that anyone who seeks to prevent the implantation of an embryo which may possibly have been conceived and who therefore either requests or prescribes such a pharmaceutical, generally intends abortion. Therefore the use of the means of interception and contragestation [the effect of MAP] fall within the sin of abortion and are gravely immoral.” The policy of the USCCB and other conferences to use such means to prevent or abort pregnancy of a raped victim has been determined to be gravely immoral and should end the question as to whether it is permissible there or under any conditions.

    • Sheila

      The MAP’s use has always been clear to me. It is taken to prevent pregnancy after having sexual contact. It’s purpose is to cause an abortion. Thank you for clarifying that evil Father.

  • Manfred

    Nota Bene: It is reported that the Italian Cirinna Bill, now called the Alfano Bill, approved on 2/25 will shortly approve same-sex unions in Italy. The Pope’s silence on this subject (recall Family Day at the Circo Massimo) is cited as the direct cause of the collapse of the opposition to this Bill on the part of the Italian bishops and Catholic legislators..
    Another red letter day for Catholicism attributable to pope Bergoglio!

  • Joe

    Thank you and God bless you, Father Morello! What has been going in
    “Catholic” hospitals – under the noses of the U.S. Catholic Bishops and
    the National Catholic Bioethics Center – certainly seems to defy
    Dignitas Personae, as well as medical voices!

    * Fr. Juan Vélez is an Opus Dei priest with a doctorate
    in dogmatic theology and an M.D. Along with Rebecca Peck, M.D., Fr.
    Juan writes that “the Peoria Protocol, and other rape-based protocols
    should be abandoned, as use of Plan B during the critical fertile period,
    would not be expected to prevent ovulations in a majority
    of cases, and in fact, would lead to a significant possibility of
    post-fertilization effect” (Plan B’s Main Mechanism of Action: The Case for a
    Post-Fertilization Effect, Human Life International, 2013).

    * Patrick Yeung Jr., M.D. and Donna Harrison, M.D., The State of the Science: Why Catholic Hospitals Should
    Not Dispense Plan B, Human Life International, 2013.

    * As per Chris Kahlenborn, MD, Rebecca Peck, MD, CCD, and
    Walter B. Severs, Ph.D, FCP, “current Catholic rape protocols that
    allow for the dispensation of LNG-EC if the woman is determined to be in
    the preovulatory period, appear to be faulty and should be revised. Since
    the most recent medical data clearly note that LNG-EC does not effectively
    stop ovulation and has high potential to work via abortion when given
    prior to ovulation, these protocols would no longer be in compliance with
    Catholic teaching” (Mechanism of Action of Levonorgestral Contraception,
    Linacre Quarterly, 2015).

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    As an addendum to my post citing The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the principle involved is the prohibition against taking an innocent life. The argument of proponents of the use of MAP or any other contraceptive abortive device is compassion toward the victim or potential victim. Justice in their proposal is not respected. The reason is they propose two victims, the rape victim, the potential victim the person in danger of Zika virus infection and the second victim an innocent human life. Repeating the standard set by the German Hierarchy 1941 “Never under any circumstances, except in war and justified self-defense, is it permissible to kill an innocent human being”. I further add in accordance with art 23 Dignitatis Personae that never is it permissible to intentionally abort a human life that may possibly have been conceived. That is because human life is sacred not only to man but primarily to God who creates human life. This includes prohibition against contraception.

  • Confusion is a part of all of Pope Francis’ off the cuff statements. He should really limit them. As I take it he created (or perhaps it was always there based on Popes Paul VI and Benedict XVI on contraception to prevent AIDS) a hierarchy between the sins of abortion and contraception. Personally I have always found the restriction of non-abortifcient contraception to be silly, especially when the objective of NFP is the same. This hierarchy from all three Popes proves it.

  • Dawn

    Father Vaverek, thank you for this article! When the “controversy” first broke, I wondered what all the fuss was about. If we look at the actual words in the statement, it sounds like the Holy Father is saying that it is okay to avoid pregnancy at times. That is not in conflict
    with Church teaching. I think people reacted the way they did, because a great
    deal of Catholics (and non-Catholics), use contraception, and think that it is
    the only way to avoid pregnancy. Our culture seems to have forgotten that
    pregnancy can be avoided without unnatural intervention. My mind immediately
    thought he was referring to abstinence, and Natural Family Planning.

    I have been shocked at the level of outrage and startled nerves over these comments. It made me wonder how many Catholics are actually following Church teaching, and not using contraception. The idea that contraception and premarital sex are not an option, have made me a bit of an outcast in my Catholic community. However, I was one of the few people who was
    not alarmed by the Holy Father’s statements. My friends who are not following
    Church teaching on this matter were outraged, because their minds automatically
    raced to the use of contraception. I think the question we should ask ourselves,
    is whether or not the scandal lies in the Holy Father’s words, or in the true behavior
    of the faithful?

    • Sheila

      Excellent reply. Thank you for the reality check.

      • bernie

        A strange commentary. I do not recall in these pages of comments any “outrage” from those who admit they practice contraception. Instead I read support for the Church’s clear moral stand and many urging the Pope to speak with greater clarity. Those favoring a loose marital treatment of contraception don’t seem to have any problem with the latest Papal muddle. He is supposed to be our authoritative teacher not an off -the-cuff wandering news story.

        • Dawn

          Bernie, I was not referencing any shock and outrage on this particular website. I’m not sure if you listen to Catholic radio, but there have quite a few days dedicated to discussion and evaluation of the idea that the Holy Father gave a green light for contraception usage, if there is a threat one might contract the Ziki virus. If you think I am exaggerating, feel free to check out the Catholic radio podcasts from last week.

  • Quo Vadis

    I am one, (and not alone), tired of having to hear explanations of what the Pope meant to say or should have said or what was meant in context of what other Popes have said etc.

    His words have caused much confusion and discord in the Church and among Her faithful. God only knows what might come out if he decides to issue something on the Synod !

    • Fred Martinez

      I guess I have to shout from the rooftop that if Pope Francis doesn’t correct his own spokesman and the Philippino Bishops Conference’s contextually obvious interpretation of his Zika statement which allows contraceptives in marriage, then all Catholics who held to the Church’s teachings must ask the bishops to correct the Pope as St. Paul corrected St. Peter.

      “But. when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face.”-Galatians 2:11

  • Rene

    Why does not the Pope or his spokesman clarify things like Fr. Vaverek here? Why these and many other confusing comments by Pope Francis without good official clarifications? Why allow confusion among many to continue? The Pope is the supreme teacher in the Church and he needs to make sure his teaching is clear. If he makes a confusing statement when teaching, because tripping is only human, he should make sure this statement is clarified. “Only a few of you, my brothers, should be teachers, bearing in mind that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all trip up in many ways” (James 3:1).

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    There is question about Vatican approval of AMP for rape cases since it has been widely used by several conferences at least since the USCCB issued Dir 36 for Catholic Health Care Institutions 2001. If it was given at that time it must have been tacit. The only instance I’m aware of is when the new President Bishop Ignacio Carrasco De Paula [Spain] of The Pontifical Academy for Life who succeeded Bishop Elio Sgrezzia [Italy] gave permission to the German Bishops Conference February 22, 2013 in clear contradiction to Sgrezzia’s position and the teaching contained in Dignitatis Personae 23. In my opinion Carrasco took an opportune time just six days prior to Pope Benedict XVI announcing abdication of the Papal Office feb 28, 2013. Pope Benedict was ill, claiming he felt unfit to make decisions. Bishop Carrasco again in my opinion is more of a ‘progressive’ type who had criticized pro lifers. That move by Carrasco is not a Pontifical decision, that is, does not have Pontifical approval insofar as I’m aware and Pope Francis has not it seems addressed the matter. This convinces me further that our Church is being denied for whatever reason clear and efficacious moral direction.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Vat City 2012 Prof Josef Seifert member of the Pontifical Academy for Life complained to President Bishop Carrasco De Paula that the Academy is “Losing its full and pure commitment to the truth and magnificent Church teaching on human life.” How a man like Bishop Carrasco got appointed while Benedict XVI was Pontiff is a scandal. Apparently he is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.

  • I have struggled reading the comments since Thursday when Fr. Vaverek’s article was posted by TCT. Again there is no love for Pope Francis on this site and that has been well established since he was elected. One thing that is missing in all of the comments is the perspective of somebody who is pregnant and has the Zika virus or HIV/Aids. Or we haven’t heard from anybody who’s wife or daughter has been raped and is now pregnant. Or a nun who has been raped and is pregnant. Mind you I can’t imagine there is somebody brave enough to share those thoughts on this site.
    Would it change the tone of the comments? Would the church’s teachings still be so black and white if somebody was trying to explain to us that they are struggling with the lesser of two evils or are trying to decide in good conscience how to deal with their tragic situations? What if that person was pleading with us for mercy or asking us to listen to Pope Francis when he tries to speak from the heart on an airplane?
    Pope Francis might be rocking the boat by talking about Catholic teachings. But surely it doesn’t take much insight to realize this world, including many Catholics are rejecting what we as Catholics hold dear as sacred teachings. Pope Francis told us things would get messy but unless he is willing to talk about the evils of abortion and changes to marriage and gender identity who will the world look to for spiritual guidance? As far as I can tell he hasn’t changed one doctrine yet.

    • MSDOTT

      Mr. Sheahan, as we are not allowed to post links on this site, I would encourage you to google Sister Lucy Vertrus. She was a young nun, raped in 1995 and who conceived as a result of the rape. She wrote a letter to her Mother Superior – the contents of which are available on the web. I came across the link to her letter in a Catholic blog about the Zika Virus and Pope Francis’ response.

      I have no problem with Pope Francis talking about “evils of abortion, changes to marriage and gender identity”. I do absolutely have a problem with him not upholding Catholic teaching about these very same issues in the public arena. It is his duty to safeguard the Magisterium of the Church, especially as he is the person to whom people look for spiritual guidance.
      Pope Francis is putting his own personal opinions out there, which by the way, are not aligned with Church’s teaching. Why has he not spoken about abstinence with respect to the marital act in which Zika Virus can be transmitted? Why has he not spoken about a child inflicted with the virus as a child made in God’s image? Why is it that the National Catholic Bioethics Center, based in Philadelphia, issued the unequivocal statement “Zika does not justify Abortion or Contraception” (please google this as well). … and not the Holy Father, whom, as you say, many look to for spiritual guidance? This is why many of the commenters on The Catholic Thing, including myself, take issue with the Holy Father’s sayings.

      Real mercy and real love – is to be aligned with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Would that our Holy Father be so aligned. Our Lord and Savior, spoke from His heart with His passion, death and resurrection, and beckons us to follow Him, to take up Our Cross and follow Him. Would that Our Holy Father lead the way.

    • Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek

      I agree with your concern that the discussion remain rooted in the reality of peoples’ lives and sufferings. That is the true face of Jesus from whom comes the Gospel as lived and taught within the Catholic Church. W must not treat Catholic teaching as some abstract system of thought when, in fact, it is the light of Christ shining in the darkness.

      The Gospel, that is, the teaching of the Church, does deal with reality on a daily basis and it includes the experiences of those who suffer and struggle. Many Catholics face the situations under discussion directly or indirectly though those they love . I myself have shared the struggles and fears of those who practice abstience rather than contracept, who have been raped and become pregnant, or whose pregnancy turned out to involve birth defects or risk to the life of the mother. A much-loved relative faced an ectopic pregnancy. That is why my column ends by noting these realities and urging that we acknowlege their courageous and precious living of the Gospel. The witness of the sheep is the primary way that the Gospel is proclaimed.

      I have also suffered with those who were misled by priests or an ethical board of a Catholic hospital to accept sterilizations only later to recognize the truth. Also, I have assisted those who years later realize the evil of abortion or contraception. Their grief is profound. Those who were misled experience deep betrayal.Those who failed to welcome children into their marriage without a serious reason find little comfort in the theoretical truth that although they commited a grave evil, it was “lesser” than abortion.

      I have learned from others that Church teaching (the Gospel) is true and merciful at the same time, like Jesus himself. Truth without mercy is not “orthodox,” it is false. Mercy without truth is not “kindness,” it is cruel. In every situation is is possible, in union with Jesus, to speak the truth clearly in charity and mercy. That should be our goal in all discussions.

      We must approach each person recognizing the realities they face. At the same time we must attempt to bring them the mercy of the Gospel–which is expressed in the truth of the Gospel. We do much harm if we use “truth” as an excuse to beat people or “mercy” as an excuse to hide the life-giving truth from them.

    • Stephen_Phelan

      I don’t think it’s fair to say that those who express concerns de facto don’t love the Holy Father, though some comments are certainly disrespectful.

      But you’re confused about how Catholic moral doctrine works. It does not begin in the difficult and sometimes extreme circumstances of persons who do deserve love and mercy. It begins with the Word of God and the Magisterium, which must be brought thoughtfully, compassionately and faithfully to individual circumstances. This is why the Magisterium exists and why it is continually brought into dialogue with modern times even as principles (such as certain “intrinsically evil acts” as the use of contraception) do not change.

      Put another way, the Church’s teachings on poverty do not begin from the perspective of a welfare recipient who games the system and exploits people’s sympathy while living a pathological lifestyle. If such a situation were our primary consideration, what would be left of Catholic charitable efforts? So you, me and the pope can’t change doctrine, but we all do the most vulnerable a disservice when we ignore doctrine and begin reflections on the foundation of particular and particularly difficult situations. The secular equivalent is “Extreme circumstances make bad law.”

  • Stephen_Phelan

    Excellent article. Charitable, clear, truthful.