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.