And now, the real pope news: Francis ties media in knots with contraception/Zika remarks

If you didn’t hear all the excitement about Pope Francis seeming to bless contraception during his hour-long presser on the flight back to Rome, you were apparently on another planet because lots of folks were writing about it (just not on A1).

It seems that the pope also said something about Donald Trump. As one Catholic-media professional said, in an email to GetReligion:

Pope Francis signals openness to birth control for Zika virus is the big story, not the Trump thing. The possibility of changing that doctrine because of a mosquito is huge news, far more important than a spat with a multi-billionaire. ... So once again, we see that for the secular media in the U.S., it's all about politics.

So back to the real news. On the plane back to Rome after his Mexico-Cuba trip, Francis let loose once again. Veteran Whispers in the Loggia blogger Rocco Palmo rightly called it an hour-long 12-question extravaganza.

The pope's thoughts on the Zika virus and contraception were among them, albeit they were worked in such a way that it was hard to be sure exactly what he was approving. It takes a theologian to slice and dice the pope’s remarks during a flight, when it’s tough to get reaction from church officials or moral theologians thousands of miles away.

Lengthy airplane pressers are a recent invention in papal history and they have resulted in some of a pope’s most memorable phrases. Francis’ famous “who am I to judge?” quote came during a press conference on the press plane returning to Italy from Brazil in 2013. Most popes are quite tired on the flight home and sometimes let loose some zingers.

So now -- is Francis OK with using birth control in the hard cases or not?

Headlines ranged from NPR’s “Pope Francis Justifies Contraception in Regions Affected by Zika Virus” to BBC’s “Pope hints at relaxation of contraception ban.” I think the latter example is overreach and should have been hedged about with qualifiers like the NPR headline was.

The Associated Press gave the topic evenhanded treatment with this story:

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) -- Pope Francis has suggested women threatened with the Zika virus could use artificial contraception, saying "avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil" in light of the global epidemic.
The pope unequivocally rejected abortion as a response to the crisis in remarks Wednesday as he flew home after a five-day trip to Mexico.
But he drew a parallel to a decision 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.

The article quoted two Catholic bishops as saying the pope definitely wasn’t approving contraception or that his meaning was unclear. It also quotes a feminist from El Salvador and a Catholic layman from Ecuador, both of whom have differing views of what the pontiff meant.

The Boston Globe’s Crux worded things this way:

ON BOARD THE PAPAL PLANE -- While strongly rejecting abortion as a solution to the Zika virus now sweeping across Latin America and elsewhere, Pope Francis nonetheless appeared to signal an openness to birth control to prevent infection.
In remarks to reporters on his way back to Rome from Mexico, the pope cited a decision by Pope Paul VI in the early 1960s to allow Catholic nuns in the Congo to take contraceptives to avoid pregnancy due to rape.
Avoiding a pregnancy under such circumstances, Francis said, “is not an absolute evil.” However, he did not say specifically that he would approve contraception in the fight against Zika.

The Wall Street Journal stumbled a bit after a decent lead that read like this:

Pope Francis said the use of contraception can be acceptable in regions hit by the Zika virus, a stance that could reignite a debate over the church’s prohibition on using condoms to stop the spread of the AIDS virus.


Still, the comments on contraception -- which is against church teaching -- caused a stir especially in Latin America, a predominantly Catholic region at the center of what the World Health Organization has declared to be a global health emergency over the Zika virus and its possible connection to a birth defect called microcephaly.
“What he’s saying is that protecting reproductive rights is protecting the population,” said Debora Diniz, a founder of Anis, a women’s rights group based in the Brazilian capital.

Read that last quote over a few times. Still not understand what the Diniz quote had to do with what the pope actually said? Me neither.

 From the Catholic News Agency (CNA) , here’s the transcript of what the pontiff actually said:

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.  

In reaction to headlines suggesting the pope was softening the church’s anti-contraceptive stance, CNA suggested that Francis was actually referring to Natural Family Planning, which refers to a couple abstaining from sex during the woman’s fertile period.

As for the exception allowed by Pope Paul VI in case of rape, the article said there’s a huge difference between nuns who had sex forced on them and couples who voluntarily engaged in sex, then decided to contracept after the fact. That explanation sounds forced to me. Has Francis ever mentioned NFP in any speech or writing?

Is there anything left to unpack in Francis' line about avoiding pregnancy in this specific case not being an absolute evil?

This is the same pontiff who said Catholics don't have to "breed like rabbits." Journalists, you may want to keep focused on what the Latin American bishops and cardinals -- who are closest to the Zika outbreak -- are saying about this. They're the ones on the ground during this terror and if they're not already getting clearer guidance from the Vatican on what to do, they'll need to soon.

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