During Pope Francis’ flight from Mexico to Rome, a Spanish reporter posed this 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?’”
In his answer, Pope Francis unequivocally condemned abortion, saying, “Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape. [The nuns were in constant danger of getting raped and therefore of pregnancy.] Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself with abortion. ... [A]s 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.”
The first part of the pope’s answer does not raise many questions, as it is a straightforward and unequivocal application of Catholic teaching that intentional killing of innocent human beings is seriously wrong. But what about the Bishop of Rome’s statements on contraception? Do his remarks indicate that using contraception is ethically permissible if the circumstances are dire?
To understand the pope’s remarks properly, we must look — as Pope Francis does — to Blessed Pope Paul VI, who defined contraception in Humanae Vitae as, “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means” (No. 14). According to this definition, contraception is not simply doing something in order to prevent procreation. Someone who chooses never to have sex at all in order to prevent procreation is not using contraception. Likewise, someone who was going to use IVF but decides not to created embryos in vitro has prevented procreation, but has not thereby used contraception. Contraception is any action specifically intended to prevent procreation from sexual intercourse.
So, it is possible to use a contraceptive device in a noncontraceptive way. If I make a water balloon out of condom and throw it at you, I have not used contraception with you, even though a contraceptive device was used. Contraception involves intending to make acts of sexual intercourse nonprocreative, so if there is no sexual intercourse, there is no use of contraception.
When a woman is raped, she is not choosing to have sexual intercourse. She may not be choosing anything whatsoever (as in the case in which a woman is raped while unconscious). Since contraception involves the choice to render a sexual act nonprocreative, and the person who is raped is not choosing to have sexual intercourse, the person who is raped is not violating the principle articulated by Paul VI even if contraceptive devices are used. This explains why the use of contraceptive devices in cases of rape is not an action contrary to Humanae Vitae.
Now consider the use of a condom by two men who choose to engage in sexual acts together. In using a condom, the two men are not intending to render their sexual acts nonprocreative, since they surely realize the kind of sexual activity they are choosing is always and inherently nonreproductive whether or not a condom is used. So, in this case, even though a contraceptive device is being used, it is not being used as a contraceptive. Whether the actions of these men is ethically acceptable is a different question from whether they are using contraception.
Now, here is where the disagreement among theologians who accept Paul VI’s teaching begins. Take the case of a husband and wife who are HIV/AIDS discordant. May they use a condom solely in order to prevent the transmission of disease? Some theologians hold that for a husband and wife to use a condom when having sex is always a form of contraception. Other theologians hold that the use of a condom in these cases need not be done in order to render a sexual act nonprocreative. For example, if an HIV positive husband of a 60 year old wife uses a condom when they have sex, the couple is not using the condom so as to render their sexual acts nonprocreative but solely in order to prevent transmission of disease. The same reasoning could also hold for a couple in their reproductive years. A full discussion of the ethics of such cases involves many other factors as well.
In his interview, Pope Francis could be understood as endorsing the view that the use of contraceptives such as a condom could be permissible in order to prevent the transmission of the Zika virus, which may be transmitted through sexual activity. On the other hand, his remarks are also open to the interpretation that forms of contraception, such as the pill, would be permissible in order to render sexual acts nonprocreative with the motivation that a child not be born with microcephaly. Given that Pope Francis is, in the very same interview, at pains to praise and show his agreement with Paul VI, the first interpretation is the more plausible one.
Christopher Kaczor is a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and was recently appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Life. He is the author of The Ethics of Abortion: Human Life, Women’s Rights, and the Question of Justice.
A version of this story appears in the March 6, 2016, issue of OSV Newsweekly on Page 5.