Last week, we covered a news story about Pope Francis and he comments regarding birth control and the spread of the Zika virus throughout South America. Specifically, here’s the Inside newsletter summary:
Pope Francis suggested the Zika virus may present a rare exception to the Vatican’s total ban on birth control. In an informal interview, the Pope suggested there’s some precedent for the limited use of birth control in emergency situations, such as the spread of an illness.
Reader Timothy Dean sent us a very thoughtful, detailed response about why this summary may have been a bit misleading. It’s republished here in full.
My problem with the news reports I keep seeing are twofold: first, that doesn’t appear to be at all what Pope Francis said; second, the phrasing of your headline in particular implied the existence of a “total ban” (and so too the “rare exception”) that doesn’t exist as such (even less so if the term “birth control” includes NFP or not).
First, what Pope Francis was asked: “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?’” Note that this doesn’t say anything about artificial contraception. It talks about avoiding pregnancy. I have yet to find an article that actually quotes the question Pope Francis was asked (e.g., your CNN article does not) — however, many quote Francis’ response: “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.” No article I’ve read so far actually contains any quotation referring to contraception. This leads me to conclude that the transcript released by the Catholic News Agency is likely the correct one.
This matters, because the Catholic Church recognizes and teaches that it may be morally irresponsible not to avoid pregnancy. Catholic couples must weigh their love against “the responsible transmission of life” (Gaudium et Spes), and that there may very well be “well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances”(Humanae Vitae).
Therefore this especially can’t be characterized as a total ban if, as you suggested in your email to me, “birth control” can apply to a wide range of techniques including NFP.
Finally, and I totally get that this is nit-picky, but I offer it just for completeness: if we speak of a ban of birth control, where the term “birth control” refers only to techniques that the Church believes to be morally suspect, then the term “ban” is indeed closer to being accurate. But bear in mind that the Church doesn’t actually “ban” any of these, in the sense of making any church laws about it. The Church teaches certain moral principles to be followed: such as not killing a new life, or not taking steps to totally separate sex from its procreative potential. But intention is important — clearly sometimes a medical operation must be performed in which a doctor may save t he mother or the child, but not both; there are uses for “birth control” methods that reach outside the realm of consensual sex (everything from correcting hormonal imbalances, to protecting nuns being raped); etc. This alone wouldn’t have prompted my writing in — it’s more of a correction to connotation than to anything practical in what you wrote.
Thanks, Timothy! If you have any comments about anything you see in the Inside newsletter, leave us a comment here or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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