Despite a rush of headlines claiming Pope Francis is softening the Church’s stance on contraception, a closer look at his recent remarks could suggest otherwise.
During an in-flight press conference on his way back from Mexico, Pope Francis was asked by a reporter about the threat of Zika virus in many Latin American countries.
Noting that the virus may be linked to birth defects when transmitted from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby, the reporter asked the Holy Father about proposals involving “abortion, or else avoiding pregnancy” in areas where Zika virus is prevalent.
The Pope responded by emphatically stating that abortion is “a crime” and “absolute evil” that cannot be justified. He also spoke on the topic of avoiding pregnancy.
“Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape,” he said.
Seven sentences later, he added another comment. Not mentioning contraception specifically, he simply said that “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.”
Numerous news outlets suggested that the Pope was introducing a change – or at least a softening – in previous teaching.
However, Dr. Melissa Moschella, a philosophy professor at The Catholic University of America, suggested that this may not be the case.
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When talking about avoiding pregnancy in connection with the Zika virus, the Pope may not necessarily have been implying artificial contraceptive use, but may have been referencing Natural Family Planning, she said.
Normally, if a married couple faces a serious reason to avoid pregnancy, the Church teaches that they may do so through Natural Family Planning, a process that involves identifying a woman’s fertile periods and abstaining from sexual activity during those times.
Moschella also explained that in the Africa case referenced by Pope Francis, the dispensation for the nuns was “not really an exception if you understand the rule.”
The case in question took place in the early 1960s, when the Vatican granted a dispensation to religious sisters living in the Belgian Congo who were in grave danger of rape due to civil unrest to use oral contraceptives.
“In the case of rape, the person who’s raped – from the moral perspective – has not engaged in a sexual act,” Moschella said. Rather, rape is an act of violence and a “violation of the woman’s body without any free choice or acceptance on her part.”
“(I)n the sense, the sperm that’s been introduced as a result of the rape is a kind of further intrusion, unwelcome and non-voluntarily allowed into the woman’s body. So it’s a further kind of intrusion of the violence.”
To understand the distinction, the professor continued, one must first understand the purpose of human sexuality and why the Church opposes contraception.
“(W)hat sex means, from the Catholic perspective, is I give myself totally, completely to you in the kind of relationship that would be fulfilled by having and bearing children together,” she explained. “And if you do that while at the same time intentionally holding back your fertility, in a sense you’ve contradicted what it is that you’re doing with your body. It’s kind of like nodding yes while thinking no, kind of lying with your body language.”
As a result, birth control is immoral because it violates the very nature of sex – trying to engage in sex without the natural possibility of pregnancy.
“But that doesn’t happen in the case of rape,” Moschella stressed. “In the case of rape, there has been no voluntary sex act on the part of the woman.”
As a result, birth control would be viewed not as an immoral contraceptive measure seeking to separate the unitive and procreative aspects of sex, but rather part of an act of self-defense, as the women seek to resist the act altogether.
This is also, she noted, why some actions – such as the use of spermicide or attempts to delay ovulation if it has not yet occurred – may be acceptable even after instances of rape, as long as they do not involve the risk of killing an already-formed human embryo.
However, Moschella said that this is “really different” from the situation surrounding the Zika virus.
“(I)n cases of Zika virus, you’re talking about women who are voluntarily engaging in sexual relations and then using contraceptives to prevent those voluntary sexual acts from being fertile. And that does contradict the meaning of the sexual act, and so involves a kind of lack of integrity that’s harmful to the person and harmful to the relationship.”