On Zika and the Lesser of Two Evils

For most Catholics, Pope Francis and plane-ride interview has become a time ripe for confusion.  His return home to the Vatican from his pastoral visit in Mexico was no different.  A reporter from Spain asked the Holy Father the following question:

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?”

And Pope Francis replied that:

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.

Unfortunately, these “off-the cuff” remarks were picked up by the media and led to headlines like “Pope suggests contraceptives could be used to slow spread of Zika” (CNN), “Zika Shows It’s Time For The Catholic Church To Rethink Its Stance On Birth Control” (Forbes), and “Pope Francis Condones Contraception With Zika Virus” (NPR).  An attempt by Fr. Lombardi, the Vatican Spokesman to clarify the Pope’s comments only served to further muddy the waters:

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…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.

These flying papal encounters often leave the faithful with an uncomfortable feeling that the question has not been adequately addressed or even incorrectly so.  Thanks be to God that because we have the great gift of Sacred Tradition we can often fill in the ellipsis that the Holy Father tends to insert in his responses.  While I will not be so bold as to speculate what the Holy Father meant, I can confidently offer what he could not mean.

Some preliminary background is necessary for understand a full response to the question.  The question itself really is “Is it permissible to use contraception to combat the effects of the Zika virus on children in the womb?”  In truth, to frame the question in terms of “the lesser of two evils” is to frame it incorrectly.  Nowhere within the Catholic moral tradition has it ever been believed that one may choose between the lesser of two evils.  In the case of two objectively evil actions, neither may be chosen for its own sake.  It may very well be that in choosing a good, we will have to tolerate an evil that is both a “side effect” of our decision and of less moral gravity than the good itself (see here for a discussion of the Principle of Double Effect which governs this idea).

There is also the danger when you speak in terms of evils of seeing the child that is conceived with a birth defect as an evil.  As any parent with a special needs child will emphatically tell you, the child is an inconceivable good, even if the condition that plagues them is an evil.


If we reframe the question of the goods involved a clear answer emerges that is both consistent with Tradition, Natural Law and even practical sense.  The good to be attained is the avoidance of the birth defects that are (or in truth only “maybe”) associated with the Zika virus.  One of the possible means of attaining this good would be to avoid pregnancy altogether.  Certainly to avoid becoming pregnant with a child who is likely to carry a serious birth defect is among the “grave reasons” for postponing (even indefinitely) pregnancy that Pope Paul VI spoke of in Humanae Vitae.  At this point it is not clear what the chances are of both contracting Zika and having a baby with microcephaly are, but let’s assume that they are significant enough to make it grave.

Pope Francis was clear in his condemnation of abortion as a solution to the issue.  A person is an objective good to which the only adequate response is love as St. John Paul II said.  This means that to do harm to the person so as to avoid their suffering with a birth defect is always a great evil and can never be a moral solution.  St. John Paul II affirmed this by invoking the Church’s charism of Infallibility through the Ordinary Magisterium in Evangelium Vitae saying “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium” (EV 62).

The Saintly Pontiff also conceded that there are “differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion” (EV 13) but this does not mean that contraception too does not constitute an objective evil that cannot be chosen as an ends or a means.  In fact we know that Fr. Lombardi’s interpretation what the Pope said is wrong.  Assuming that when he made the distinction between “contraceptives and condoms” he was considering chemical contraception, then this falls into the first category of direct abortion.

According to the PDR (and the package inserts on birth control pills), “[C]ombination oral contraceptives act by suppression of gonadotropins. Although the primary mechanism of this action is inhibition of ovulation, other alterations include changes in the cervical mucus, which increase the difficulty of sperm entry into the uterus, and changes in the endometrium which reduce the likelihood of implantation.”  The third mechanism that prevents implantation of the fertilized egg (i.e the child) renders the Pill as an abortifacient.  In truth because all three mechanisms are at work, there is no way to know whether pregnancy has been avoided or an abortion has taken place.  Therefore because of their abortifacient nature, chemical contraceptives would not be an option.

What about condoms as a solution?  I have written elsewhere about why any contraceptive measure is always a grave evil, but there is a practical reason why condom usage should not be considered as a solution.  Although it often gets lumped into other “calendar methods” in efficacy studies, Natural Family Planning is at least as effective as most chemical methods and more effective than condom usage (one such study supports this can be found here).  In any regard it is disappointing to say the least that neither the Pope nor his representative mentioned this as an option.  Imagine the power of a response similar to “Yes, there might be reason to avoid pregnancy in the regions afflicted with Zika.  We must get those people trained in NFP and we will have the good of strengthening marriages as well.”

A comment also needs to be made about the exception that the Holy Father mentioned regarding the nuns who were in danger of being raped.  This is a red herring of sorts because there is no moral equivalency here at all.  Birth control as the Church has always taught is related to the conjugal act. By definition this act assumes not only the physical act but also the consent of both parties. Rape may have the same physical act, but lacks the consent. These are fundamentally different things and therefore it is morally licit to do everything that you can to avoid pregnancy after the act (or even during the act). However once pregnancy (i.e fertilization) occurs it is a different thing.

The ability of the Holy Father to act as Universal Pastor of the Church is truly enhanced by the speed at which he is able to travel.  What would be good though is if the Flying Magisterium could be avoided.  While the Pope himself only alluded to “birth control” in his comments, there was no real indication that he was making any distinction between morally licit means and those that are not.  Fr. Lombardi may or may not have accurately conveyed the Pope’s meaning but the fact of the matter is that ambiguity has plagued the papacy of Francis.  While Pope Francis is certainly not the only Papal “victim” of the media in this regard, the questions themselves tend to repeat themselves and truly call for a well thought out and nuanced response.  Let us all pray that when condoms and the next health crisis come up, the Holy Father will act as a clear prophet.



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