Editorial: The Zika virus and contraception: Has Pope Francis changed the rules?

John Kleinsman

Growth in the numbers of people affected by the Zika virus, spread predominantly by mosquitos, has been described as an “explosive pandemic”. While relatively harmless for most people, the virus is now strongly suspected (though not yet definitively proven) of being linked to a serious fetal malformation known as microcephaly. In light of that, various government health ministries in the most severely affected areas are warning women to avoid getting pregnant.  

While returning from his recent visit to Mexico, Pope Francis was asked by a journalist about the dilemma this situation poses for couples and, more specifically, whether “abortion” and “avoiding pregnancy” (in the context clearly a reference to contraception) might be a legitimate moral response.

Pope Francis’ immediate reply was to reiterate in the strongest possible terms that abortion could never be a morally legitimate means: “It is a crime, an absolute evil.” In saying this he would have been aware of the intense debate in many South American countries about using abortion as a way of dealing with fetal microcephaly.

Unpacking the Pope’s endorsement of the moral legitimacy of “avoiding pregnancy” is less straightforward. It is clear from the language and examples offered by the pope that he was thinking specifically about the use of artificial contraception rather than the “regulation of births” – the right of couples to space births – which is an accepted part of Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality (see Catholic Catechism n. 2368). His analogous reference to the situation in the Congo, a 1960’s debate about giving oral contraceptives to religious sisters in grave danger of being raped, points to this. However, any doubts about the precise meaning of his words were dispelled just days later by official Vatican spokesperson, Fr Federico Lombardi, who clarified that “the Holy Father was indeed speaking of ‘condoms and contraceptives’ when on the flight back from Mexico.”

Further explaining the pope’s response, Lombardi added: The contraceptive or condom, in particular cases of emergency or gravity, could be the object of discernment in a serious case of conscience. This is what the Pope said.”

Pope’s Francis’ brief comments have raised questions about Catholic teaching on the use of artificial contraception. Some have gone so far as to suggest that it potentially heralds a reversal of the long-standing Catholic position. I am not in a position to read or know Pope Francis’ mind but, as a moral theologian, I wish to offer three points as part of my own reflection on this debate.

1) The Pope’s response reminds us that whatever one’s beliefs about the use of artificial contraception (and we should recall that the backdrop to the question was a debate about the Zika virus and abortion involving a broad audience rather than a specifically Catholic one), the use of contraceptives is morally different from abortion in terms of its gravity – different because abortion involves the destruction of an already formed human life. At the same time, and in line with Lombardi’s reference to a “serious case of conscience”, this insight does not undermine the seriousness associated with the use of contraception.

2) Many have pointed out that Pope Francis’ reference to the use of oral contraception by religious sisters in the Congo reflects a very different moral situation to that of married couples. The situations differ because permission in the Congo case is neither a dispensation from the Church’s teaching nor an exception to it. Why? Because Catholic teaching on contraception speaks only to intercourse freely entered into by married couples.

Why then would the Pope appeal to this case? It illustrates that he has in mind a truly extreme situation. In doing so he is simply appealing to a fundamental tenet of Catholic moral teaching – the exceptional case does not nullify the ongoing validity of a particular law or teaching outside of the extreme situation. Evidence of this tenet appears in multiple places in Catholic moral teaching which address the different types of conundrums generated by extreme situations, including Aquinas’ discussion of ‘epikeia’, the ‘principle of the lesser evil’, and the role of conscience in helping perplexed persons find moral certainty in the face of a conflict of duties.

In other words, the possibility of couples making contraception an “object of discernment” in an emergency situation does not “reverse” Catholic teaching on the methods of regulating births. The Pope’s comments about the Zika virus need to be understood alongside his previous comments about the ongoing validity and prophetic nature of Humanae Vitae’s teaching on contraception rather than in opposition to them. As he noted in 2014: “Church teaching on contraception does not need to change but it must be applied with mercy.”

3) The reference to ‘mercy’, a defining theme in the pontificate of Francis, leads to the third point. Laws and teachings must always be applied with mercy if we are to avoid an extreme form of rigid moral legalism that stifles human flourishing. By his ‘spontaneous’ teaching on the Zika virus the Pope, with the instincts of a good pastor has, once again, reminded us that at the heart of Christian teaching lies the all-important idea of mercy.

Dr John Kleinsman is the director of The Nathaniel Centre