Much has already been written about Pope Francis’s controversial comments during his in-flight press conference traveling back to Rome from Mexico where he seemed to suggest that recourse to contraception could be a morally licit way to prevent the transmission of the Zika virus—with its possible yet still unproven link to microcephaly. He even tried to support his position with the claim that Blessed Pope Paul VI allowed nuns in danger of rape to use them during the civil war in Belgian Congo in the early 1960s. Serious questions, however, have been raised as to the historical accuracy of this claim. Was permission actually given? If so, would it not have been more likely during St. Pope John XXIII’s papacy? Where is the documentation to back up the claim? Indeed, some have noted that this was a position put forward by theologians at the time, rather than by the pope himself (e.g., see James F. Keenan and Janet E. Smith).
Although Francis strongly condemned abortion as an “absolute evil” in the interview, he also, confusingly, seems to suggest that a moral assessment of the Zika virus case can entail a conflict between the fifth commandment (“Thou Shalt Not Kill”) and the sixth commandment (“Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”), that is, between human life and sex in and out of marriage. In stating that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” and that the cases of the Zika virus and the Congo sisters are “clear,” he suggested that the use of contraception by sexually active women to avoid infection to any child who might be conceived was an instance of (what the reporter termed) choosing the “lesser evil.”
Trying to determine exactly what Pope Francis had meant by “avoiding pregnancy” was open to wide interpretation, as shown by the many different reactions to his comments. For one thing, Francis spoke of “the evil of avoiding pregnancy,” and then added later that it is not “an absolute evil.” But Catholic conjugal morality teaches that it is not sinful to avoid a pregnancy when one has a good reason to do so and the means are morally good. It is evil only if the means are contraceptive in nature. The Vatican press office “clarified” that the Pope was in fact referring to contraception: “Using contraceptives to avoid pregnancy can be acceptable in difficult situations, he [i.e., the pope] said, noting that Pope Paul VI authorized nuns in Africa to do the same half a century ago when they were threatened with rape.” But the confusion remains: Did Pope Francis mean to say there is a true exception to the Church’s condemnation of contraception in the Zika virus situation, or did he simply (mis)use the term “contraception” when he should have said something like contraception as self-defense, hence not calling into question the exceptionless character of the norm against doing anything before, during, or after sexual intercourse to impede procreation?
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My central concern here is with the alleged conflict that Francis suggests between the fifth and sixth commandments. But first, in terms of Catholic moral theology, I and other scholars (e.g., E. Christian Brugger, Janet E. Smith, and Christopher O. Tollefsen see no problem with the argument that a woman, if she is not able to fight off a rapist, is within her moral rights to protect herself from the completion of the rape and its further consequences, say, by using anovulant or other non-abortifacient contraceptives, or even asking the assailant (if she knows him) to “Please use a condom.” Morally speaking, the rape victim intends to perform an act of self-defense or at least partial self-defense. She is trying to prevent a part of the rapist’s body (his sperm) from reaching a part of her body (her ovum)—thus completing his act of rape. As the U.S. Bishops teach in no. 36 of their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services: A rape victim “should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization.”
Hence, her act of defending herself against the intrusion of the rapist’s sperm is not (contra Keenan and others) a permissible contraceptive act constituting a kind of exception to the absolute moral norm. This is because a woman (and man) can contracept by (1) freely choosing to engage in sexual intercourse—something a rape victim clearly has not done—and then by (2) freely choosing to do something further—e.g., putting a condom on—so as to intend, whether as an end or a means, to impede the transmission of a new human life (cf. Bl. Pope Paul VI, Humanae vitae, no. 14). So, contracepting normally involves two choices and two acts. (This is why one cannot use the principle of double-effect—where you have only one act with both a good and bad effect—as a justification for using contraception.)
The contraceptive device itself does not constitute the choice and/or act of contracepting; as an inanimate device, it obviously does not make free choices. Only human beings make free choices to use various devices and drugs (e.g., condoms, the Pill, patches, etc.) in order to contracept. Only the latter is a moral choice. Thus, speaking of “artificial” contraception is confusing and can lead people to think that “natural” contraception is therefore permitted, even if it is seen as inconsistent on the part of the Catholic Church to teach it. That is, some may think wrongly that natural means of family planning are really methods of contraception, but that they are morally acceptable simply because they are natural. Of course, the artificiality of a contraceptive birth control method may have other negative side-effects, e.g., to one’s health and to the environment, but its unnaturalness is not the chief or even the crucial reason why contraception is immoral. That reason lies in the acting person’s free choice to prevent a new human life from coming into existence—whether as part of a sexual act or even (more unusually) in some other way, for instance, by surreptitiously lacing someone’s drink with a sterilizing drug.
It can also be confusing to hear that the Church “prohibits” birth control. She in fact does no such thing. She allows Natural Family Planning (not the best choice of names!) which is a form of birth control, but just not a contraceptive form. (Or better, it is a method for avoiding conception/pregnancy that does not involve acting against the procreative good; and it is sometimes used, it should be noted, as a method for helping couples achieve pregnancy.) It is morally licit to practice it, for a good reason, again, not because it is natural, but because couples practicing it do not intend to impede new life from coming-to-be. And that is because the means chosen in NFP is abstinence—not engaging in intercourse. One does not contracept when one abstains from intercourse. NFP enables couples to have an awareness or knowledge of when they are or are not fertile. As long as spouses do not intentionally make themselves infertile, they can engage in sexual relations during the infertile period in order to realize the many other goods of marital intercourse (friendship, communion, pleasure, etc.).
This way of looking at contraception, then, places it primarily under the fifth commandment and not the sixth, although contraception falls under the sixth commandment too (since a sexual act is unitive only if the two become one body, and they do not do so if they choose to contracept). Thus, contraception is surely an act against both life and love, that is, it is an act against life in-its-transmission, it is an unchaste act, and it is an act against the spousal or nuptial meaning of the body.
Support for this view, it should be noted, can be amply found in the Church’s Tradition. For example, in such documents as the Catechism of the Council of Trent (The Roman Catechism, 1566), in its treatment of “The Motives and Ends of Marriage,” under “The Sacrament of Matrimony,” we read: “[T]herefore married persons who, to prevent conception or procure abortion, have recourse to medicine, are guilty of a most heinous crime—nothing less than wicked conspiracy to commit murder.” (Click here for additional Magisterial references to the “contra-life” character of contraception: footnotes 2 and 3 on pp. 366-368.)
Today, we may well cringe at the above conciliar language which seems a bit extreme. In what sense is intending to make a procreative act non-procreative “wicked conspiracy to commit murder”? Clearly, only abortifacient forms of contraception actually take innocent human life—with other forms impeding new life’s transmission, that is, contraception in the strict sense. Nevertheless, insofar as they do the latter, they violate—in this case impede—one of the basic practical principles of the natural moral law, namely, the good of human life in its coming-to-be. This is to act immorally, even if one thinks one’s intentions and circumstances somehow justify using contraception to avoid some real evil.
If one places contraception primarily under the fifth commandment, it shows why not just married couples act immorally by contracepting, but also unmarried and adulterous couples. The latter would be engaging in both fornication or adultery and contraception, thus adding to the immorality of their pre-marital or adulterous sexual activity. (Cf. William E. May’s translator’s note in Ramón García de Haro, Marriage and the Family in the Documents of the Magisterium, p. 298, footnote 26. Although as Janet Smith notes, the Church has not pronounced a judgment on this matter.) So, both abortion and contraception are intrinsic evils, even if the former is a more serious evil. But by placing contraception under the fifth commandment, one indicates that contraception is even more seriously evil than has been thought by many people today and in the past.
It is very possible that Pope Francis is unaware of this long tradition of understanding contraception as a will against human life in-its-transmission. Of course, married couples do not have to intend to procreate each time they engage in the marital act. But that is radically different than to intend a “no” to the transmission of new life; it is something the Catholic moral tradition has never countenanced. It is to be hoped that the Holy Father will correct his unfortunate words—implying that one could do a moral evil to achieve a good (cf. Rom 3:8)—and dispel all doubt about the Church’s constant moral teaching on the absolute immorality of contraception.
Author’s note: I would like to thank Dr. E. Christian Brugger and Dr. Patrick Lee for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.