Francis allows for discernment on contraception in emergency cases, spokesman says

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis' remarks regarding the use of contraceptives to avoid pregnancy in the face of the deadly Zika virus indicate that in cases of such emergencies Catholics can in fact decide to prevent pregnancy, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi has said.

In an interview with Vatican Radio Friday, the spokesman said that Catholics with well-formed consciences can decide to use contraceptives "in cases of particular emergency."

"The pope clearly distinguishes [between] the radicality of the evil of abortion as suppression of a human life and the possibility of recourse to contraception or condoms for cases of emergency of particular situations, in which you do not suppress a human life, but you avoid a pregnancy," said Lombardi.

"The contraceptive or the condom, in cases of particularly emergency and seriousness can also be objects of a serious discernment of conscience," he continued.

In a press conference Wednesday aboard the papal flight to Rome following his six-day trip to Mexico, Francis signaled that Catholics might use contraception in the face of the Zika virus, which has been tentatively linked to causing microcephaly, an abnormal smallness of the head in newborn babies that sometimes causes incomplete brain development.

While the pontiff firmly rejected the use of abortion, he said that avoiding pregnancy through contraception is not always evil, mentioning that Pope Paul VI had allowed women religious facing horrific situations of violence in Africa to use it.

"Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil," said the pontiff. "In certain cases, like in that which I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear."

Lombardi said Friday that the pope's comment shows that contraception cannot "be accepted or used without any discernment."

"In fact, he said clearly that it can be taken in consideration in cases of particular emergency," said the spokesman. "The example that he made of Paul VI and of the authorization of the use of the pill for religious that were at grave and continuing risk of violence by Congolese rebels ... makes understood that this would not be a normal."

Lombardi also pointed to a book-length interview published with Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, in which the former pontiff said condoms could be a "first step" for those with AIDS who are taking responsibility of their situation.

"Therefore, understanding well the nature of the problem, continuing to study it, reacting also with research to find more stable and sustainable solutions, avoiding however a recourse to abortion and, if there might be situations of grave emergency, then a well formed conscience can see if there are possibilities or necessities of recourse to non-abortives to prevent pregnancy," said the spokesman.

Zika is a mosquito-born disease that has been spreading quickly in recent months throughout Latin America.

While church teaching normally allows women to use birth control for health reasons, the intent of the use cannot be to prevent procreation. Pope Paul VI banned the use of artificial contraceptives in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.

The church's position on the matter has been criticized by many U.S. Catholics. Recent popes have been frequently questioned about why there could be no exception to the ban in difficult situations, especially with the example of the use of condoms to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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