The World Health Organization has declared a global health emergency over the rapid spread of the Zika virus. Though our understanding of the virus is still in the early stages, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is linked to a high rate of birth defects. As a result, global health organizations have advised women in affected areas to avoid pregnancy. The recommended solution? Condoms.
But in Latin America, the heart of the outbreak, this is easier said than done, and you can thank the Catholic Church for that.
Since the colonization of Latin America by Spain, the region has been heavily Catholic. With more than 425 million practitioners, the area is home to over 40% of the world’s Catholic population. Though more and more Catholics are leaving the Church for Protestant denominations, it still has significant sway when it comes to social norms and public policy — two arenas that serve as roadblocks as the region looks to combat the spread of the Zika virus.
One of the ways health workers are encouraging people to fight the spread of the virus is by using condoms. This packs a double whammy: no pregnancy means no potential birth defects and decreased likelihood of infection. Unfortunately, the Church’s hardline stance against contraception renders such a suggestion socially unacceptable. Leaders in the Church throughout Latin America have reinforced the idea, much to the chagrin of those seeking to combat the virus.
But then, on Thursday, Pope Francis made comments that seemed to soften the Church’s position.
As Mashable noted:
Francis drew a parallel to the decision taken by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s to approve giving nuns in Belgian Congo artificial contraception to prevent pregnancies because they were being systematically raped.
Abortion “is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil at its root, no? It’s a human evil,” he said. “On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one (Zika), such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.”
Though the statement was heralded with relief and optimism, these comments should not be construed as a victory. They are, in fact, an echo of comments made in relation to another public health crisis in which the Church’s contraception policy played a major role: the spread of HIV in Africa.
In response to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Pope Paul VI released Humanae Vitae in 1968, in which he rejected contraception as a perversion of God’s will. When the HIV epidemic took off in Africa in the 1980s, the Church was pressured to alter this stance — at least on condoms, and at least in Africa. But outside of a few very narrow exceptions — like the one referenced by Francis — they refused to do so. That refusal has earned them no small amount of blame for the meteoric rise of HIV across Africa.
Then, in 2010, a comment made by Pope Benedict seemed to shift Church policy. As the Guardian reported at the time:
In a break with his traditional teaching, Pope Benedict XVI has said the use of condoms is acceptable “in certain cases”, in an extended interview to be published this week.
The comments were made in a book-length interview with a German journalist, Peter Seewald. In the case of a male prostitute, says Benedict, using a condom to reduce the risk of HIV infection “can be a first step in the direction of moralisation, 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”.
A similar trend can be seen when reviewing Francis’ time as the pontiff. He has, time and time again, urged the faithful to stop obsessing about sex in their politics, only to have the Vatican respond with assurances that his comments did not change the beliefs of the Church on such issues. And despite his seemingly more progressive stance on sex in the modern age, his actions tell another tale. Following a trip to Africa last year, Francis dismissed persistent pressure for the Church to shift on condoms as a distraction from poverty.
In other words, Francis’ vague comments about contraception in Latin America should be viewed skeptically. They do not change Church doctrine and could very well be “clarified” away in the next few days. Moreover, his passing comment does not necessarily change the homily Latin Americans hear in the pews on Sunday from their priest. For those socially influenced by the Church, this is far from a green light.
To be fair, whether or not Pope Francis’ comments are durable may be of little consequence in the long run. Instead, it may be the impact of Catholic fundamentalism on Latin American politics that poses the largest barrier to effective condom use in the battle against Zika.
Catholicism has long been inextricably interlinked with political trends in Latin American nations. The Church played a substantial role in governance for decades. Up until the 1980s, that influence was used to prop up the ruling elite. Though this ultimately isolated them from many of their congregants, who identified as Catholic but did not necessarily practice according to Church standards, it did influence policy regimes in a substantial manner. Of relevance to this conversation, bishops in Latin America accepted and advanced the 1968 Humanae Vitae in a very literal sense, and its constraints made their way into the laws of Latin American countries. Those constraints now complicate the fight against Zika today. As the LA Times reports:
[W]omen in many Latin American countries have almost as little control over their bodies as they do the weather. They are subject to rampant sexual violence, have received little or no sex education and may have limited access to birth control. When they do get pregnant, abortion is illegal in most countries, though some have exceptions in cases of rape, fetal impairment or danger to the life of the mother. In El Salvador the strictures are particularly harsh. There are no legal abortions, and women may go to jail for the “crime” of suffering miscarriage.
In other words, regardless of whether or not the current Pope is good with Latin Americans using condoms to prevent the spread of Zika and hedge against the subsequent birth defects, the Church’s influence on laws governing reproductive rights in the past are making things difficult for Latin Americans to protect themselves. The recent comments from Pope Francis might be encouraging, but don’t mistake them as solvent.