If you are unaware of the current kerfuffle over Pope Francis’ interview on his way home from Mexico, here is a little catch up:
- Pope and Donald Trump (I’ll be writing something about this too)
- Pope and Contraception
I would like to address the Pope’s comments on the Zika virus first. The situation is more complicated, and has further reaching ramifications (even if Donald is getting more attention).
Most articles reporting in on the situation claim that Pope Francis has broken the moral tradition of the Church. Some, in the various comment sections, go as far to claim his supposed assertion as proof that the Pope is not infallible. Check Buzzfeed, NBC , CNN, or hundreds of others. The real problem with these articles is that they seem poorly researched, and narrow minded.
Poorly researched, in that there are rarely arguments to support their claim aside from the Popes comments themselves. I mean, some propositions might be helpful to back up your conclusion. Especially if you are going to claim that one of the most powerful men in the world, has broken one of the most important theological traditions, in one of the most traditional religious institutions on the face of the planet…of which he is the head.
Narrow minded, because they don’t seem to have the truth as their first criteria for stating an opinion. No one seemed to think, “Before we make a radical claim that could potentially affect the moral decision making of millions, maybe we should reach out to the Vatican or another respectable Catholic institution for clarification”.
To slightly modify a quote from Jimmy Akin:
“To focus on [contraception] itself and trumpet it “justified” is to miss the moral forest for a single tree. The overall moral structure of human sexuality is what needs to be the focus of attention, and thus the Pope and his assistants have been assiduously pointing to the forest, though the press (as usual) seem to have myopia”
On the other hand, there are also some solid catholic blogs (Aggie Catholic is the main one that comes to mind) which provide arguments defending the Holy Father, that aren’t completely satisfying. I don’t disagree with their conclusions, but many either try to put words in the Holy Father’s mouth (which is impossible and unproductive) or base their arguments on lost in translation intuition.
So, here is my attempt to comment. I will probably fail in some aspect or another. Thus, I genuinely welcome addition and/or clarification.
Here is what Pope Francis said, “Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime, an absolute evil. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy, we speak in terms of a conflict between the fifth and sixth commandments. Paul VI, a great man, 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. … 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 also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against … this disease. Work needs to be done on this”
Yeah, it’s a muddled statement. Is this a literal translation? Transliteration? Spanglish? What about the elipses? Are those pauses, or did they leave something out? Who knows. More importantly, who cares. Thats what the Vatican put out, that’s what’s being reported on. The real problem is with the term “avoiding pregnancy”.
There are 3 ways to “avoid pregnancy”
- Don’t have sex. This is the most common sense, and morally safe option. If you don’t do the crime, you don’t do the time (unless you are falsely convicted and sentenced to death row, only to be released after DNA evidence is found proving you didn’t do it #makingamurderer #janethevirgin) (Also Obama recently rescinded federal funding for abstinence education so there’s that)
- Use Natural Family Planning (more than “not having sex”). One must avoid the “contraceptive mentality” and practice NFP only when there is grave reason (lack of money, emotional instability, Zika virus?, Godzilla, already pregnant…etc). In regards to the Zika virus this seems legit. This is what Catholic bloggers assume the Pope is referring to
- Use contraceptives. This could refer to completion of the sexual act outside of the vagina, condoms, spermicides (poor guys), or various other interceptive medication , most notably “Plan B” or the “Morning after” pill. This is what the press is assuming the Pope is referring to.
As regards contraceptives, Pope Francis looks too something which is commonly understood amongst catholic moral theologians. In the early 60’s Pope Paul VI gave permission to nuns in the Belgian Congo, who were under threat of being raped, to use the morning after pill as a form of self defense. A similar conclusion was reached by Bishops in England in 1993 for women in Bosnia, who were also under the threat of rape. (seehttp://www.independent.co.uk/…/vatican-acts-overbosnian…)
This was done under two conditions:
1. The women believed they were approaching ovulation (This can be determined through various forms of cycle charting)
2. Took the pill in an effort to inhibit ovulation, not perform a very early term abortion.
Here is a quote from Dignitas Personae a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.” (n. 36)
This is possible thanks to a complicated, but 100% legitimate moral principle called “double effect”. For a good explanation go to: http://www.independent.co.uk/…/vatican-acts-overbosnian…
Particularly regarding sexual assault victims: http://www.ncbcenter.org/page.aspx?pid=1314
Back to the argument at hand. I have no idea what Pope Francis means. Could he be suggesting that under the principle of double effect, as was in the case of Paul VI, that contraceptives may be used to avoid pregrancy so that you don’t conceive a child who could then potentially contract the Zika virus through mommy? I don’t know. If so, why didn’t he clarify?
Could he have been suggesting NFP as a morally viable option for avoiding pregnancy? I don’t know. If so, why did he include a reference to Paul VI okaying limited use of Plan B?
Could he simply be saying, “Don’t have sex right now if you’re afraid your child might contract the Zika”? I DON’T KNOW! If so, why say “avoid pregnancy” instead of “refrain from the sexual act” or “don’t be intimate” or some other socially acceptable phrase.
The whole problem with this interview is that our Holy Father (with all respect and love, as well as the benefit of the doubt) was unclear* but also, NO ONE ASKED A FOLLOW UP QUESTION! The Pope just said something about contraceptives that’s unclear in the least, heretical at the most, WHY DIDN’T ONE OF THEM ASK HIM TO BE SPECIFIC!
Point is though, Church teaching is not going to change, because it can’t. The Church only concludes what is true, she does not define the truth in whatever way most pleases her. Plus, what Pope Francis said does not contradict Church teaching, because the statement isn’t clear enough to do so. He only OPENED UP THE POSSIBILITY. He’s asking a question! Thus there can be no definitive conclusion.
My hope is that someone eventually asks him directly what he meant. Not that it will be reported, but at least I’ll have something to share with my youth group kids.
I’m more disappointed in the media than anything else. Half questions, half-reporting, zero follow through. WOMP WOMP.
*Just to re-emphasize, I love Pope Francis.
Update 1: “Vatican affirms Pope was speaking about contraceptives for Zika”
Update 2: “Zika Does Not Justify Abortion or Contraception”