So maybe you’ve read a snippet from Papa Francisco’s in-flight interview as he departed Mexico earlier today?
Or maybe not.
(If your name starts with a T and ends with “rump,” then I’m going to trust that you have.)
Causing no small amount of chaos on social media with his typical off the cuff remarks to journalists, Papa touched on everything from Benedict’s legacy to mosquito borne viruses to border fences to civil unions. Not to mention narco trafficking and unity with the Eastern church.
But it was the mention of contraception as a possible solution for women of childbearing age in Zika-afflicted nations that caught my ear (well, and my Twitter feed).
Pope Francis fielded the following question from journalist Paloma García Ovejero, Cadena COPE (Spain):
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?”
And Francis’ reply:
“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, such as 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.”
There’s a lot here. Let’s start with his unequivocal condemnation of abortion, which seems to be (so far) flying completely under the secular media’s radar. Fair enough, it doesn’t suit their agenda.
Pope Francis reaffirms the Church’s position on abortion in no uncertain terms, taking the further step to point out that abortion isn’t evil “because the Catholic Church says so,” but rather, because the taking of innocent life is gravely, objectively evil on a fundamentally human level.
So thanks for that, Papa. Way to bat down that “lesser of two evils” gnat and not get tripped up in your response.
The second part of his answer is both more nuanced and more fraught with potential confusion. Because as the story goes, Pope Paul VI allegedly permitted the use of contraceptives in a specific case for nuns who were being targeted and brutally raped in Africa in the 1960’s (as surely still happens today, the world over.)
And in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI made a similar (though theoretical) statement during the course of an interview with an Italian journalist discussing the problem of preventing HIV/AIDS transmission between gay prostitutes and their clientele:
“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”
Both Holy Father’s words are consistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church. But both statements sent shock waves through the media, nonetheless.
Because what the western secular mind is looking for, always, is justification for – and even endorsement of – our insatiable sexual appetite.
So the words “could be a step on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed,” meant to invoke an understanding that any of us, even tax collectors and gay prostitutes, are always capable of conversion, becomes twisted into: POPE GREEN LIGHTS CONDOMS 4 ENTIRE WORLD.
I’ve no doubt that Francis’ reflection on the reality that avoiding pregnancy in and of itself is, of course, not an absolute evil will break the internet in a similar fashion. After all, the Church has only taught that about a million different ways through Humana Vitae, Theology of the Body, and endless diocesan programs championing NFP.
But the rhythm method! Right? Isn’t that what Catholics are expected to do? Silly Catholic Church, trying to force everyone to have babies whether they want them or not. Silly, stuck-in-the-mud Rome, oblivious to women’s real needs for IUDs and hormonal contraceptives and organic condoms.
He didn’t say that.
He didn’t even allude to it, in fact, other than mentioning an anguished incident of it allegedly being used as a weapon to combat the vicious evil of rape.
But make no mistake, if it was wielded then, on behalf of those religious sisters, then it was wielded as a weapon against their aggressors.
So what role does contraception, then, possibly play in the relationship between married spouses?
Where does the need for a weapon enter into the equation?
I’ve reread his remarks at least a dozen times now, and I can’t find the spot where he encourages Catholic spouses to oppose one another in their sexual embrace by means of contraception. I can, however, see where he alludes to NFP in the line “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”
It sounds really familiar, actually. Because it’s a central message in one of Catholicism’s most essential texts on sexuality: Humanae Vitae.
So to sum things up: no, Pope Francis, in an in flight interview on a 747, did not just change the Catholic Church’s teachings on birth control (not least of which due to the simple fact that he can’t. He literally doesn’t have the power to change it.) and no, he probably will not be endorsing Donald J. Trump for president.
(Leaving the comments open on this one because it’s an important conversation, but I won’t be moderating beyond deleting death threats/personal attacks.)