The full text of the papal press during the flight from Juarez to Rome can be read here. Dr. Ed Peters gives some quick thoughts here. His comments are brief and well worth checking out. I’d like to offer my own quick thoughts on one particular part of the interview.
Francis was asked about women avoiding pregnancy over concerns of the Zika virus. The word contraception was not used by the journalist, but when you identifying “avoiding pregnancy” as the lesser of two evils – the other being abortion – and the Church’s position against contraception is so well-known, it is obvious that the journalist is here asking if it is permissible to use contraception in this particular case. Here is the entirety of Francis’s answer:
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.
First, the situation in Africa to which Francis refers was Paul VI giving a dispensation to nuns in the Belgian Congo to use oral contraceptives because of the palpable danger of rape due to the upheavals and instability of the country at the time. To properly understand what the Pope is getting at in referring to this situation one must not only know the history of the problem itself, but also grasp the intricacies of Catholic theology and moral teaching. While it is oral contraceptives that are being used, the act itself is not contraceptive -it is a defense against violence suffered from an aggressor. Catholic News Agency has a good piece explaining this in more detail. Check it out. Even if these intricacies were more widely known and understood, the reference to this incident is unfortunate. It is a very different situation from that of women who may be exposed to the Zika virus. It is so different in fact that it actually cannot be used to argue for the use of oral contraceptives during the Zika threat. The reason Pope Francis referred to it is because he was speaking off the cuff, needed to give an example of a circumstance in which a couple may avoid pregnancy, and for whatever reason that happened to be the first thing that popped into his head. The intention here was not to say oral contraceptives are allowable for women in Brazil. The intention here was simply to give an example of a valid reason for avoiding pregnancy.
He ends his answer by saying that avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. Actually, depending on the reasons, it isn’t evil at all. In certain circumstances, it is a moral good and imprudent for a couple not to practice avoidance of pregnancy. This is nothing new to Catholic teaching. When Pope Francis says that the Zika threat is clearly a circumstance in which a couple may avoid pregnancy, he is saying this in the Catholic tradition. There is already a morally licit option to couples seeking to avoid pregnancy for proper reasons: Natural Family Planning.
While answering another question earlier in the presser, Pope Francis twice said that we need to use the hermeneutic of everything when reading a piece of news. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. In other words, Pope Francis is saying that, when interpreting a piece of news, we need to take everything connected to it into account. It is not enough to simply take into account its immediate context. One must take into account the overall context as well. Using the hermeneutic of everything, which Francis exhorts us to do, means in this case the whole of Catholic teaching. Concerning contraception the teaching of the Church has been consistent and clear. Contra NBC with their sensational headline – “Is Pope Francis’ Contraception Allowance During Zika Threat a Major Shift for Church?” – Francis has not made an allowance for contraception during the Zika threat, nor have his words indicated even a minor shift for the Church, let alone a major shift.