On his return flight from Mexico on February 18, 2016 Pope Francis responded to a reporter's question about "avoiding pregnancy" for couples in regions affected by Zika with a confusing answer that has widely been interpreted as approving the use of contraceptives in some cases - a clear departure from established Catholic teaching on contraception.
While in his answer the pope condemned abortion in the case of babies affected by Zika, he pointed to the example of nuns in the Congo who were allegedly given permission by Pope Paul VI to use contraception because of the fear of rape. The pope stated: “Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion.”
"Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil," he added. “In certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.”
The quotes sparked a worldwide media storm, with countless headlines appearing declaring that the pope had approved the use of contraception in some cases. Even the Phillippine bishops appeared confused, issuing a disturbing statement calling for the "re-evaluation" of contraception.
The media's reporting that the Pope was speaking specifically of use of artificial contraceptives for Zika was confirmed by Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi himself the following day, when he affirmed that the Holy Father was indeed speaking of “condoms and contraceptives” when he said couples could rightly “avoid pregnancy” in the wake of the Zika virus scare.
Fr. Lombardi told Vatican Radio, “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 notion that couples could use contraceptives on account of the Zika virus is clearly contrary to established Catholic teaching that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (Humanae vitae 11) and that therefore “excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after conjugal intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” (Humanae vitae 14).
Many Catholic theologians and pro-life leaders, Catholic and otherwise, have expressed their grave concern at the “crisis” in the Catholic Church caused by the Pope's remarks. While off-the-cuff remarks cannot change unchangeable Church teaching, the distinct impression that the teachings have indeed changed has been left with most of the world.
After waiting weeks for an official correction, with none forthcoming, it is up to ordinary Catholics to appeal to the Holy Father to clear up the confusion. We respectfully but firmly ask the Holy Father to correct the confusion with a statement clearly reaffirming the teaching of Humanae Vitae.