Short answer: yes.
Read this for yourself (with my emphasis):
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, such as 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 language, as always, is slippery. So why do I think he just permitted contraceptive use?
Because context matters.
The question he was asked took abortion off the table in order to make contraception look better by contrast – the proverbial “lesser of two evils.”
Pope Francis talks about “avoiding pregnancy,” which sounds like NFP talk, until he goes on to say, “Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.”
Now, there are any number of Catholic researchers out there trying to track down the truth of this anecdote as we speak. My friends Hilary White and Oakes Spalding (of Mahound’s Paradise) believe this to be nothing more than a myth, invented to promote the idea that Bosnian women who fell victim to the war crime of rape could use the morning-after pill, as argued in this 1993 article by Jesuit Father Giacomo Perico (abstract in Italian, with link to protected PDF fulltext). Hilary also notes that Fr. Perico was trying to wring serious nuance out of Humanae Vitae as far back as 1969, which the Vatican did not oblige him on.
But even if what Pope Francis said was true — the moral implications of such an allowance set aside for a moment — this situation is different.
Zika fears have nothing to do with rape, or even with the transmission of the virus. They have to do with concerns about birth defects arising in a pregnancy resulting from consensual sex. And the science so far is sketchy on the connection between the virus and the defects, but again, let’s assume that this is true. Let’s assume that infected persons can transmit effects of the virus to an unborn child, causing microcephaly.
Why do they have to have sex?
Why can’t they abstain?
If any Catholic decides they need to “avoid pregnancy,” abstinence during fertile times is the only moral solution. What would make this situation different?
And even if they have a child with these defects, the child lives. They’re human beings. They still have value and dignity as a person.
But you’re still probably wondering, “Yeah, but ‘avoiding pregnancy’ to me still means, ‘NFP.'” I was thinking the same thing. Until I looked at it again. And again. So here’s the second part of what he said, again:
“[A]voiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.”
There is simply no way to separate the words he uttered from the context he uttered them in. He mentions this mythical case of “Blessed Paul VI” giving a dispensation for contraception in the same breath as he says, “avoiding pregnancy.” To him, these are equivalent. This is what his syntax is telling us.
Papal apologists are going to parse these words for their life. They’re going to say, “The pope said ‘avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.’ That’s correct. It isn’t.” They’re going to focus on his comments calling abortion a “crime,” which will serve as a distraction, since it’s the strongest statement he’s ever made on that issue. In fact, it’s so strong, it easily distracts from the more subtle bombshell he drops in the same answer.
But a bombshell it is. He is clearly, undeniably equating “avoiding pregnancy” with Pope Paul VI allegedly allowing nuns to use contraceptives. And considering the impracticality of trying to use a barrier method when a man willing to rape a nun is in mid-assault, we can assume that he’s thinking of hormonal contraceptives – which makes the situation even worse, since they are most likely abortifacient at least some of the time.
This is not okay. This is wrong. And people — people who are paid to answer questions about the Catholic faith and to educate you in what the Church teaches — are most likely going to tell you that this is fine.
And if they do that, they’re lying to you.
I cannot overstate how big this one is. If he doesn’t issue a clarification — which is going to require quite a lot of explaining — the upshot of this is that a sitting pope just contradicted the authoritative Church teaching on contraception. He just chucked Humanae Vitae and Casti Connubii and…well, all of it. The slope he just made is so slippery, I can’t even imagine how many Catholics will lose their footing…and there’s nothing but perdition at the bottom.
And at this point, I don’t even know what else to say.
UPDATE: The Vatican press office has confirmed
that the Holy Father was indeed speaking of “condoms and contraceptives” when on the flight back from Mexico, Pope Francis said couples could rightly “avoid pregnancy” in the wake of the Zika virus scare.
Fr. Lombardi told Vatican Radio today, “The contraceptive or condom, in particular cases of emergency or gravity, could be the object of discernment in a serious case of conscience. This is what the Pope said.”
According to Lombardi, the pope spoke of “the possibility of taking recourse to contraception or condoms in cases of emergency or special situations. He is not saying that this possibility is accepted without discernment, indeed, he said clearly that it can be considered in cases of special urgency.”
Lombardi reiterated the example that Pope Francis made of Pope Paul VI’s supposed “authorization of the use of the pill for the religious who were at very serious risk” of rape. This, said Lombardi, “makes us understand that it is not that it was a normal situation in which this was taken into account.”
Correction: the link originally provided to substantiate the claim that hormonal contraception can act as an abortifacient went to a story about Plan-B One Step “emergency” contraception; we have updated the link to a resource that provides some information about the abortifacient properties of the standard birth control pill, as well as information on other contraceptive methods.