Pope Francis Said What? — Contraception and Catholic Doctrine

Pope Francis. Credit: Alan Holdren/CNA.

As well intentioned Pope Francis seems to be, he sure can generate a lot of misunderstandings of Church doctrine. I think it’s important to call out these instances and try to clarify them. After all, I don’t want the secular media, who aren’t the most Catholic friendly, having the final word interpreting the pope’s words.

While the pope’s supposed twitter war with Donald Trump has garnered a lot of attention, he also made statements about the use of contraception to combat the Zika virus in South America.  This didn’t get the amount of attention it deserves as it will live well beyond a few tweets between a presidential candidate and the pope. I fear the media will quote this in the future whenever the Catholic Church and contraception are mentioned.  Here’s the specific part of the transcript I want to focus on (bold is mine):

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.

Here’s the problem. Did Pope Paul VI actually permit nuns in Africa to use contraception? Pope Francis’ argument hangs on the premise that a previous pope had a doctrinally sound reason for doing so. Surely, Pope Francis can refer to some papal document from Pope Paul VI supporting this position right? But it looks like the pope has been hoodwinked by a Catholic urban legend. I came across a great article by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf that examined the root of the “Pope Paul VI permitted nuns to use contraception” myth.

English: picture of pope paul VI Español: foto...
English: picture of pope paul VI Español: fotografia del papa pablo VI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I encourage you to read the entire article, the tl;dr version is that the scenario of nuns in Africa using contraception was written as a hypothetical example in a theological article about the principle of double effect that was published two years before Paul VI became pope. Like any urban legend, it starts based on some actual event and then little changes to the details are applied.  Like a game of telephone, eventually the story the persists is nothing like the original. There’s even a similar version of this story except it’s St. John Paul II instead of Paul VI and Bosnian nuns replace African nuns.

I understand why the New York Times or the Washington Post may mistakenly report this myth as fact. After all, they probably think Nancy Pelosi is an authority on Catholic doctrine. But I would hope that the pope would be better informed and not repeat an urban legend as truth. What’s worse is that while the words attributed to Paul VI or St. John Paul II are myths, the words of Pope Francis are not. He actually said them and believes that they are rooted in Catholic teachings. I fear that over time the Paul VI myth will be replaced with Pope Francis’ own words.  After all, who needs to keep a myth alive when you have the words straight from the pope’s mouth?

The pope’s off the cuff statements create a challenge for those who want to show the world the reality, truth, and beauty of the Catholic Church.  When the truth in areas like contraception are blurred, it waters down the appeal of authentic Catholicism.  Going back to the book, Rome Sweet Home, that I wrote about recently, part of the reason the Hahn’s left the protestant church was because they started to see inconsistencies and too much gray area in the doctrine.  They saw the Catholic Church as an unwavering rock of well reasoned, biblical doctrine that created an opportunity to truly live in the fullness of God’s grace.  Catholic doctrine may not be the easiest to understand and follow, but at least it’s true.  Speaking of rocks, the office of the pope should be acting as the doctrinal cornerstone as Jesus commanded Peter.  That is why Pope Francis’ interviews, where he creates a lot of confusion, bothers me so much.  When the pope gives off the cuff comments, I feel like he weakens the divinely appointed role and power of the papacy.

Retable de l’Agneau mystique

Whenever I think of Church doctrine, my thoughts go towards the Fourth Glorious Mystery of the rosary — Mary’s Assumption into Heaven.  I think that one of the reasons God assumed Mary into Heaven is because her duties as our mother extended beyond her earthly life.  God chose her to be our mother for all ages to come.  And like a good mother, Mary desires us to know our faith and see its depth and beauty.  There is so much misinformation out there about the Catholic Church, both intentionally and unintentionally spread.  It’s our responsibility to learn all that we can so we aren’t led astray into a false or watered down sense of our rich faith.  Holy Mary, we pray to you for guidance to learn as much as we can about the Heavenly Kingdom you so greatly want us to enjoy.  Amen.

The Contraception Mandate Hook

The Health and Human Services contraception mandate is behind us now, right?  After all, the Obama administration announced it in January and then made the appropriate accommodations in February.  So everyone is happy, right?  The only people left complaining are those religious, woman-hating extremists who will never be satisfied, right?  That’s probably the impression you get listening to many media sources.  But the truth is that the war for religious liberty is far from over.  We look to the rosary, Mary, the saints, and our Lord Jesus on what we can do to defend ourselves against the assault on our God-given religious freedoms.

Do you like to fish?  Any experienced angler will tell you that when you hook a big fish you can’t just reel in your line as fast as you can.  Doing so will create too much tension on your line resulting in it snapping and your fish getting away.  Instead, you let the fish run a little followed by reeling it in a little more.  You give the fish ten feet to run, you reel it in eleven feet.  Eventually, the fish gets tired fighting and you’ve brought it close enough to the boat that you can scoop it up in your net and hang it on your wall as your trophy.

Obama treats the contraception mandate much like hooking a big fish.  ObamaCare passed in 2010 after a vigorous fight in both houses of Congress.  But Obama delayed the announcements regarding conscience protection.  Like a good angler, he didn’t try to “reel us all in” at once.  He let the emotions die down a little so the objectors would tire out.  He then announced the contraception mandate in January, 2012.  But he quickly followed with a toothless accommodation speech.  With help from a willing media, the dialog turned from religious freedom to health-care and a “war on women.”  When you take a step back and see what’s happening, you realize that all this give and take is part of a well-orchestrated strategy.  Everything in this campaign is a calculated movement of knowing when to press and when to fall back.  But ultimately the administration is slowly getting what it wants — universal contraception and abortions for anyone and funded by every tax-paying citizen.

When did abortion enter into the conversation?  Again, our political Angler and Chief is just using contraception as his opening attack.  Once you get people reeled in and destroy conscience protection with contraception, it becomes so much easier to extend those policies to cover abortion.  Don’t believe me?  Read this article about how there is nothing in the ObamaCare text that really prevents the federal government from mandating abortion coverage in government-backed health exchanges.  Read the article on how the law states that these health-care exchanges cannot call attention that they even provide abortion services.  Read how Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, has no issues with the plan and Obama’s many accommodations (that speaks volumes).  Again, Obama appears to give a little to his opponents by delivering fancy speeches and signing worthless executive orders.  But all this time we’re getting reeled into taxpayer-funded abortions.  If that gets put into place, who’s to say that a one-child policy or other abortion mandates won’t make an appearance on Capitol Hill?  We’re getting ever closer to conscience protection and the freedom of religion becoming something caught, killed, gutted, and hung as a trophy as big government’s victory over personal liberty.

Part of Krzeszów Abbey "Stations of the C...

I think we need to look at the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery of the rosary — Jesus Carrying His Cross.  Jesus fell three times during His Passion.  And each time no one from the crowd offered to help Him up.  Everyone stood watching either in sorrow, fear, or contempt.  And while some had pity for Jesus, no one came to help Him.  Maybe they were scared of what the Roman soldiers might do to them.  Maybe they just didn’t want to stand out as a follower of Jesus fearing what their friends and neighbors would think.  Regardless of their motivation, Jesus was left to carry His cross alone while everyone just looked on.

We find ourselves in the same situation with the HHS mandate.  Many times we look around and think it’s someone else’s fight.  We don’t want to get involved and create a lot of tension between friends and family.  We often think that somehow things will just turn out fine so what’s the point of sticking our necks out?  But in not speaking up, in not publicly defending our faith, we are like the bystanders who watched Jesus fall and did nothing to help Him.  Like St. Peter, we deny Jesus and His teachings because we are afraid of what others may think.

Now is not the time to sit around and hope that our situation will magically change.  Remember the Second Joyful Mystery of the rosary — The Visitation.  I mentioned in my meditation how personal prayer is important.  But prayer is not an end in itself.  We must use prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to go out and publicly show God’s glory as Mary did when she visited Elizabeth.  That may mean taking the difficult road of speaking up when remaining silent would be easier.  We may not have wanted this fight much like how the fish doesn’t intend on getting hooked.  But we’re on the hook now.  And our only option is to fight and, with God’s help, snap that line big government has on religious liberty so it can remain free and flourish.


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