Okay, Pope Francis, I’m Confused

Okay, Pope Francis, I’m Confused February 25, 2016

Pope francis

Image via Creative Commons

Dear reader, I have always said: Go to the transcript. Don’t go to the mainstream media; whatever you do, don’t go to One Peter Five or LifeSite News or any similar such outfit. Go to the transcript. Look at the context. So here, then, is the full exchange between Pope Francis and a reporter on his flight from Mexico back to Rome.

Paloma García Ovejero, Cadena COPE (Spain): Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion; or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”

Pope Francis: Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does. It is a crime; an absolute evil. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.

Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion. Abortion is not a theological problem; it is a human problem; it is a medical problem. You kill one person to save another, in the best case scenario. Or to live comfortably, no? It’s against the Hippocratic oaths doctors must take. It is an evil in and of itself. But it is not a religious evil in the beginning; no, it’s a human evil. Then obviously, as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.

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 would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.

The overall gist of the pope’s response seems to be: Abortion is always and everywhere evil, but there are licit means to avoid pregnancy. Good enough. I would like to think—I really would—that by “avoiding pregnancy” in the case of Zika, the pope means abstinence during fertile periods. But the difficulty with that interpretation is that the only specific method of avoiding pregnancy anyone brings up during the exchange is contraception—and it is Pope Francis who introduces it into the discussion, not the reporter.

Another difficulty: I have found no one who can point me to any primary evidence that the precedent Pope Francis cites—Paul VI permitting nuns in danger of rape to use contraception—ever occurred. The closest anyone has come is John Allen, in this article. Mr. Allen notes that in December 1961, a group of theologians published an article in the Italian journal Studi Cattolici arguing that contraception may be justified in such cases.

Here’s the rub: In 1961, Cardinal Montini was not yet pope; John XXIII was. And neither he, nor Paul VI after 1963, approved the proposal in Studi Cattolici. They did not reject it either. Mr. Allen interprets this non-rejection as “tacit approval,” but that is an unconvincing argument. I don’t bother refuting every post over at Rorate Cæli, but that hardly suggests I approve of them all.

Now, do not mistake: I am not faulting Pope Francis for being mistaken on this point. But I am unclear what relevance it has to the question about Zika, since that is what the reporter asked about. She did not ask about nuns in the Congo in the 1960s. With Zika we are talking about presumably married couples (at least, no one suggests otherwise) and normal, consensual marital relations. Why would the pope have possibly thought of the dubious Congo example in connection with the reporter’s question?

It also does not work to suggest that the pope may have had in mind something like the law of double effect, where the primary purpose is to prevent the spread of disease, and the avoidance of pregnancy is a secondary, unintended effect. It does not work for two reasons:

  • The question was not about preventing the spread of Zika from one partner to another, as is the case with such things as AIDS;
  • The only intention discussed by both the reporter and the pope was “avoiding pregnancy”

But if avoiding pregnancy is the goal, because of a potential birth defect, why does the pope cite some supposed allowance of contraception, in very different circumstances, as a precedent? Why does he not say, “Paul VI, in Humanae Vitae, permitted abstinence during fertile periods”? It is just as easy a precedent to cite, and has the added advantage of having actually happened.

Then papal spokesman Fr. Lombardi tried to clarify. (This is a rough translation from Google.)

The Pope then distinguishes clearly the radical nature of the evil of abortion as the taking of a human life; and on the other hand, the possibility of recourse to contraception or condoms as may relate to cases of emergency or special situations, wh[ich] then do not suppress a human life, but a pregnancy is avoided. Now it is not that he says that is accepted and used this action without any discernment; indeed, [he] made it clear that can be considered in cases of special urgency.

The example that [he gave regarding] Paul VI’s [permission for religious] to use the pill, who were at very serious risk [during] ongoing violence by the rebels in the Congo … suggests that it is not that it was a normal situation in which this was taken into account. And also—-remember, for instance—-the discussion followed a passage from Benedict XVI’s [book] interview Light of the World, in which he spoke about the use of condoms [when there is a] risk of infection; for example, AIDS. Then the contraceptive or condom, especially in cases of emergency and severity, may also be the subject of a serious discernment [of conscience]. This says the Pope.

This unfortunately does not make the pope’s words any clearer to me. I appreciate that Fr. Lombardi, in the second paragraph, refers to instances (such as the one Benedict XVI had in mind) where a law of double effect may apply. The problem is, as I have already said, that is not at all the case with Zika. We are not talking about preventing transmission of disease from one partner to another, as we are when we talk about AIDS; but prevention of pregnancy itself, which one can achieve with NFP. That was the context—the only context—of the reporter’s question.

Nor is there any place where the Church specifies what would count as “emergencies” or “special situations.” The Church has made no such statement. What we do have are the words of Humanae Vitae, as quoted in the Catechism, §2370:

[E]very action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil.

I do not suggest in any way—and I want to make this absolutely clear—that the pope has said something heretical or unorthodox. There are far too many gaps, too many generalities, too much missing detail, in the pope’s brief answer to make me conclude anything like that. Any such charge should require the highest standard of proof, and should only be made by someone with the competence to judge. I am not that person, and no lay blogger is that person.

So I do not take the path of some who say that bishops need to invoke Galatians 2:11 against the pope; or who say that Catholic apologists who try to find orthodox explanations are liars—liars!—rather than honest people with a difference of opinion. Such things are not only unhelpful but contemptible.

But I would ask the pope these questions; for I can not make an approach to understanding what he did or did not have in mind unless I had these clarifications.

  • Holy Father, did you mean to suggest that couples may use contraception to prevent a potential birth defect? Or are you thinking of NFP?
  • Holy Father, what is the source for your statement that Paul VI permitted nuns to use contraception? Why is it a precedent here?
  • Holy Father, if you think couples may use contraception to prevent birth defects, in what other circumstances would it be okay?
  • Holy Father, how is what you are saying consistent with Humanae Vitae?
  • Holy Father, did you have something like the law of double effect in mind when you made your remarks; and can you explain how that applies to Zika?

I do not mind if I am confused from time to time. There can be a value in it, in that it challenges me. I find a lot of what Jesus says difficult. I give the pope the benefit of the doubt. I have defended him before; I will defend him again. I just do not know how to explain this without more information.

In any case, papal interviews are not infallible. He defines no doctrine, much less changes any, in them. (And not even the pope has the authority to change any Church teaching. Let that be clear.)

And I would point out one last thing. No one, as far as I know, has called attention to the following words from the very same interview, when the pope was asked about communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving communion. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration; all doors are open; but we cannot say, ‘From here on they can have communion.’ This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple.

Yes, Pope Francis, about whom all the hand-wringers predicted otherwise, said that.

Let not your heart be troubled. All shall be well.


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