The Pope said contraceptives may be used to prevent the spread of the Zika virus, despite the church’s longstanding ban on most forms of birth control.
Speaking to reporters aboard a flight from Mexico to Rome on Thursday, the Pope was asked if the church should consider contraception the “lesser of two evils” compared with the possibility of women aborting foetuses infected with Zika virus.
The Pope answered by calling abortion an “absolute evil” and a “crime.” “It is to kill someone in order to save another. This is what the Mafia does,” Francis said. “On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”
He then pointed to a narrow exception to the church’s ban on most forms of birth control: His predecessor, Pope Paul VI, allowed African nuns to use contraceptives “in cases of rape,” Francis said.
“In certain cases … such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear,” the Pope said.
Francis urged doctors to “do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease.”
The Rev. John Paris, a bioethicist and Catholic priest at Boston College, said Pope Francis is primarily a pastor, not a systematic theologian interested in abstract ideas. In contrast to previous popes, Francis formed his style of ministry in the slums of South America, not European seminaries.
“He’s a pastor and he’s concerned with the plight of people in all their human dimensions,” Paris. “And Zika is a problem that’s suddenly confronting the world and just to repeat past abstract theories doesn’t help resolve the question.”
But the Pope’s comments appear to put him at odds with some Catholic leaders in Latin America.
“Contraceptives are not a solution,” sBishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, the secretary general of the National Council of Bishops of Brazil, told The New York Times. “There is not a single change in the church’s position.”
And a Catholic priest in Salvador told Catholic News Service that “If someone asks me for advice, I would say that the important thing is to get rid of the larvae, but I can’t say do not get pregnant.”
The Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, has said that birth control is wrong, no matter what. “That prohibition doesn’t change based on circumstances,” he said. “So couples have a responsibility to live according to the church’s teachings in whatever circumstances they find themselves.”
But other priests don’t see it that way.
“The polemical approach, that contraception is devious or demonic in origin or the smoke of Satan, may ultimately not be the best pastoral approach,” said the Rev. James Bretzke, a professor of theology at Boston College.
He said in the face of such consequences — in this case, a baby who could suffer greatly — he thinks the church might not be so hard-line, especially under the leadership of Pope Francis, who has taken a more merciful stance on many social issues from abortion to homosexuality and is himself from South America, where Zika has taken such a heavy toll.
“In Catholic Church teaching, some would say it would be acceptable to try to prevent conception in cases like this,” Bretzke said.