The 'Splainer: Did Pope Francis revise church teaching on birth control?

The ‘Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional online feature in which RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) Pope Francis seemed to open the door to revising Catholic teaching on birth control when he said, "avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil." But is this a new idea or a restatement of an older teaching? What is the Catholic teaching on birth control and how might the pope's statement affect it? Let us 'Splain . . . .

Q: What does the Roman Catholic Church teach about birth control?

A: The church teaches that any kind of "mechanical devices" (condoms, diaphragms, intrauterine devices) or "chemicals" (birth control pills or injectable antifertility medications) are not permitted. They go against the church's teaching that married love is sacred and achieves its highest fulfillment in the creation of new life. The church points to several Bible verses to support this, including "Be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28) and “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23).

The church has always preached against birth control, but Pope Paul VI came out most forcefully against it in his 1968 encyclical, "Humanae Vitae," or "Of Human Life," writing, "The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable."

Q: Does this mean Catholics can never use any type of birth control or family planning?

A: No. The church approves of "natural family planning," sometimes called "the rhythm method." The church describes it as engaging in "marital intimacy during the naturally infertile times in a woman’s cycle, or after child-bearing years, without violating the meaning of marital intercourse in any way." The church recognizes that there are times in married life when having children may not be the best thing for the family due to financial strain, illness, or other difficulties.

Q: Is abortion ever an acceptable form of birth control in the Catholic worldview?

A: No. Pope Francis was very clear that he is not in any way condoning abortion as a form of birth control. Abortion, the pontiff said, is “a crime, an absolute evil.” But what caught most people's attention was that he seemed not to condemn using some form of birth control in places where the Zika virus, which has been linked to microcephaly in newborns, is a threat.

Q: Is that a new teaching?

A: Not really. Pope Paul VI said nuns working in areas in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s where they were in danger of being raped could take birth control pills. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also said the use of condoms by male prostitutes to prevent AIDS infection was permitted. And recently, Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil, called the use of condoms a “personal choice” when used to prevent the virus. This is the first time Francis himself referred to the Zika virus in speaking about birth control.

(Kimberly Winston is national correspondent for RNS)

RELATED STORY: Could the Zika virus move Catholics to reconsider birth control? (COMMENTARY)