The real surprise in Pope Francis’ Zika virus remarks (COMMENTARY)

Pope Francis gestures during a meeting with the media onboard the papal plane while en route to Rome on Feb. 17, 2016. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Alessandro Di Meo/Pool
Pope Francis gestures during a meeting with the media onboard the papal plane while en route to Rome, Italy February 17, 2016. Picture taken February 17, 2016. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Alessandro Di Meo/Pool

Pope Francis gestures during a meeting with the media onboard the papal plane while en route to Rome on Feb. 17, 2016. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Alessandro Di Meo/Pool

(RNS) No, it wasn’t what he said about contraception.

Actually, it isn’t clear exactly what he said about contraception. Catholic theology in this area is complex, and Pope Francis was speaking in generalities, off the cuff, as he often does during his papal plane press interviews.

He seemed to imply Thursday (Feb. 18) that using contraception could, if trying to stop the spread of Zika, be the lesser of two evils. As an apparent analogy, he cited Pope Paul VI’s views on the use of contraception by African nuns who were victims of sexual violence.

But “use of contraception” isn’t precise enough to know what the pope meant — at least not from the perspective of Catholic moral theology.

The church teaches that use of contraception, which separates sex from its natural openness to procreation — either as the end goal of one’s action (“I don’t want a pregnancy”), or as the means by which one accomplishes something else (“I don’t want a pregnancy because it will lead to X”) — is never permitted. It isn’t even permitted if it is the lesser of two evils.

Church teaching would seem to mean use of contraception in response to Zika is out. In such a case, shutting off sex’s natural openness to procreation looks like the means by which one is getting to one’s goal — not getting pregnant.

But not so fast. Perhaps the pope was relying on the principle of double effect here? This may allow him to say that what is really going on (in Catholic moral theology, this is called “the object of the act”) is stopping of transmission of the Zika virus — while the closing off of sex from producing new life is foreseen but unintended.

READ: Trump calls Pope Francis ‘disgraceful’ for questioning his faith

Double effect is invoked all the time in Catholic theology. For example, in cases of abortion, Catholic hospitals may remove a cancerous uterus with the baby inside if the death of the child is foreseen but unintended; in war one may drop a bomb that kills an innocent person as long as the death of the person is foreseen but unintended. One may also take a patient off life support — their death must be — you guessed it — foreseen but unintended.

Does the principle of double effect work in the case of using contraception to avoid transmission of a disease?

Several years ago, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke in a very similar way about the use of condoms in response to the spread of AIDS. “He wanted to kickstart a debate,” Vatican officials said.

Boy did he ever. Benedict spoke with enough generalities that it wasn’t immediately clear what, if anything, justifies the use of condoms in response to AIDS, leaving much room for debate. Francis has also spoken with enough generalities that it wasn’t immediately clear what, if anything, justifies the use of condoms in response to Zika, leaving much room for debate.

We’ve seen this before. And from a “conservative” pope, no less.

What was surprising in Francis’ remarks, however, was his incredibly strong language about abortion.

Some believe Francis has downplayed the issue and in a widely covered interview he basically said the church talks too much about it. But the very next day the pope spoke about abortion in a speech to a number of OB-GYNs in Rome, linking the practice to “widespread mentality of profit, the ‘throwaway culture,’ which has today enslaved the hearts and minds of so many.”

“Every unborn child, though unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of the Lord, who even before his birth, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world,” the pope said.

Though Francis has spoken about abortion fairly consistently, until now he has done so with something other than prophetic, fiery, aggressive language. He has been more focused on the structural issues that lead to abortion, even making forgiveness of abortion a key theme in the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

This makes it all the more surprising that he used these words onboard the papal plane flying back from Mexico:

Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to kill someone in order to save another. This is what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil. … Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion.

Equating abortion with a Mafia hit? Directly calling it a crime, an absolute evil? What happened to pastoral Francis? What happened to the shepherd who always spoke with gentle, welcoming language?

Well, it turns out there have been several practices about which Francis has been anything but pastoral and gentle. In calling out the practices of modern capitalism, the Holy Father called the unfettered pursuit of wealth “the dung of the devil.” In calling out the practices of the Italian Mafia, he declared them excommunicated. In calling out the practices of curial officials in Rome, he described them as having “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”

After his most recent presser, we can add another practice to the list of those that produce red-hot Francis rhetoric: abortion as a response to the reality of disabled children.

 (Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social Ethics at Fordham University) 

About the author

Charles C. Camosy

Charlie Camosy, though a native of very rural Wisconsin, has spent more than the last decade as a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. He is the author of five books, including, most recently, "Resisting Throwaway Culture." He is the father of four children, three of whom were adopted from Philippines.


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  • Or, perhaps the Pope meant natural contraception(natural family planning). When he is quoted out of context without a reporter’s care or desire for clarification, he is often misquoted in order that the reporter can use his remarks to gain a cheap sensational headline.

  • The pope said: “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.” He was not “suggesting” that it was OK to use “artificial” birth control in the case of the Zika virus. What he did “suggest” was, “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.” This was also clear.
    When asked about same sex marriage, the pope said: “On people of the same sex, I repeat what I said on the trip to Rio di Janeiro. It’s in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” i.e. homosexuals are “intrinsically disordered.” Why isn’t that making similar headlines?

  • Perhaps “that isn’t making similar headlines” because “that” isn’t news – it has been the Catechism of the RCC for a lot of years that homosexual activities – not temptations – are “intrinsically disordered’.

  • I’ll never understand. I get that murdering a child is wrong. But 2 cells, 4 cells, 8 cells — this is “the face of jesus?” And it trumps everything a woman may need to do for herself and her family. I respect the Pope, but I do not agree.

    This is not an objective truth, this is his religious belief. And he does not have the right to impose that belief on everyone.

  • Paula is right: “This is not an objective truth, this is his religious belief. And he does not have the right to impose that belief on everyone.”


  • Oh come on! The principle of double effect cannot justify contraception here, as what is intended is preventing a birth defect BY preventing conception, which is the directly intended outcome. The virus has already spread to the mother, and she need only refrain from sexual relations until it is purged from her in system in a couple of weeks.

    You might as well argue that in strangling one’s mother-in-law one does not directly intend her death but only an end to her nagging.

    Francis has blundered here. We do ourselves no good by pretending otherwise.

  • To stop the spread of the virus? Even if that is the intent, the action is still to prevent a pregnancy. There are other ways to stop the spread the virus. Namely, not to engage in sex. Taking a contraceptive to stop the spread of the virus is still the intentional termination of life. The question, then, here seems to be, can we intentionally murder someone in order to stop the spread of a virus? The answer, here, should be no? Can we kill ebola virus victims in order to stop the spread of ebola? No. So, too, we cannot kill innocent children in the womb to stop the spread of Zika. The proper way to stop the spread of the virus would be not to engage in sex if you are concerned that your pregnancy and future child will be infected by the Zika virus.

  • Oh pionono and TL, she did not give herself a virus and she cannot impregnate herself. In addition, she is not responsible for the sexual behavior of the impregnators. Perhaps you should be talking to and about them at least as much as you’d like to control the actions of the women.

    How many microencaphalic children do you plan to adopt and raise?

    Lastly, tell us about your specific actions for existing children and your efforts to help women who are trying to raise their existing children because the impregnator has abandoned his children.

    BTW, as Paula has already stated, a blastocyst is hardly on par with a woman.

  • Wrong on termination of “life support” patients. Intended vs foreseen has nothing to do with the Church moral teachings on end of life, extraordinary means, food and water is not “life support,” machines are, patient rights, etc.

  • To Debbo:

    Your entire argument boils down the claim that one can use contraception to avoid birth defects. That is blatantly contrary to the teaching the Church.

    Asking me how many microcephalic babies I am willing to care for is the usual appeal to emotion—boo, hiss–which would of course “justify” aborting babies who are found to be defective in utero.

    The claim that a woman is not responsible for the actions of her “impregnator,” as if all sexual relations were rape rather than consensual is laughable.

  • @ Paula

    “ ….this is his religious belief. And he does not have the right to impose that belief on everyone. “

    Yes, he certainly doesn’t have the right – but he and his minions certainly have the intent….

  • @ pionono

    “ Your entire argument boils down the claim that one can use contraception to avoid birth defects. That is blatantly contrary to the teaching the Church. “

    pionono – you just posed an undeniable reason to relegate the RCC to the dustbin of superstitious history, where it belongs – albeit some 2000 yrs too late.

  • @ pionono

    “ The claim that a woman is not responsible for the actions of her “impregnator,” as if all sexual relations were rape rather than consensual is laughable. “

    pionono – at some point on your life you must have had a rather traumatic intimate relationship for you to make this ignorant and hateful statement.

    Your bitterness is manifest.

  • Don’t co,mmmetnt here, betty. Don’t you know RNS is a site funded by the momosexual lobby to spread misinformation?

  • No. You must be a Catholic and you must do everything the Pope says. Of course he can force you to do his will. Like, you can’t change churches or anything.

  • “’s natural openness to procreation” or The Pope’s God makes me sick!
    Let me get this straight.
    1. Be open to Gods plan unless – it makes you sick.
    2. Be open to Gods plan unless – some medical intervention is needed to keep you healthy.
    Looks to me like God’s plan can be subject to man’s modification – except when
    it cain’t, or it shouldn’t be. Ain’t theology grand.

  • Which is well and good. No one has any issue with that. The issue is treading on the other living human body inside you. Complicated to be sure. But “don’t tread on me…. my body” ignores 50% of the issue.

  • 2, 4, or 500,000,000 cells…. the object we are speaking about is a living human life…. regardless of its stage of development.

    It is easier to dismiss early human life as without value because it doesn’t look like a healthy adult.

    But it is a failure of moral reasoning to not equate the two based on appearances – the object in question is a constant – only its appearance varies.

  • Life is not a subjective truth. It is objective. Given that a live object is growing in a human mother’s uterus it is a further objective step to declare it human. The issue is not “what” the object is (a living human at its earliest stages of life) but what VALUE we place on that object.

  • Blatant appeals to emotionalism:
    “murder of children . . . Nazi”

    Science tells us that ‘fetus’ and ‘child’ are not synonyms. As for Godwin’s Law, you jumped right in, face first.

  • No the issue is simple but its held up by a high level of intellectual dishonesty an fanaticism. Opposing contraception is completely irrational. At no point has abstinence ever been an effective form of birth control.

    At no point was the Catholic Church’s ban on contraception ever based on moral precepts. It was an arbitrary notion to encourage building up numbers of faithful. Even though it was at the expense of promoting poverty and attacks on the rights of women. Thanks to such ignorant, patriarchal notions the rights of women to receive medically necessary healthcare is compromised on a regular basis.

    This is simply a matter of an arbitrary and very harmful religious rule that is contributing to the misery of the general population.

  • Not at all. Since its not your body, its not your business. Ever. You don’t like abortion, don’t have one. You don’t like other women having abortions, tough luck, its never your call to make.

    At no point do any of your notions of a woman’s virtue overcome her inherent right to make decisions as to what goes on in her body. Your whole stance is about ignoring women, insulting them and demeaning them to he point where you have the ridiculous notion that they must answer to you on such issues.

  • A woman is responsible for what goes on in her body. Her choice to keep a pregnancy. Not yours. You don’t like the decisions she makes, tough luck. Your opinions are not necessary for such things.

    If you are so keen on forcing women to give birth to children with profound birth defects, then you should be responsible for the results. Adopt as many microcephalic babies as you can and take care of them. Offer incentives for women to keep them.

  • The church’s teaching on contraception is in keeping with natural law that the very purpose of sexual activity is procreation, it also serves a purpose of unification for the couple. Contaception invalidates the first of of the two purposes allowing for indiscriminate practice which ultimately cheapens the experience and voids it of the deeper meaning which it has always had. The consequences of this are all around us with a general cheapening of human life, cheapening of marriages, rising divorce, etc. At the heart of this is the enjoyment of pleasure and selfserving pursuit of desire. The church teaches a conversion of heart and obedience to God’s will and natural law. To ever endorse the acceptance of birth control would be a radical departure from the 2000 year old teaching that came from Christ himself, “not my will but yours be done.”

  • ‘Natural law” is Catholicspeak for taking an arbitrary stance and not expecting criticism of it. Invoking it is an admission one lacks a rational argument.

    Contraception severs the link between sex and procreation. It allows families to avoid being mired in poverty where they cannot support themselves due to untenable size.

    Forcing people to stay married because of religious rules or yoking women to endless child rearing cheapens marriage. They force couples to stay together for reasons having nothing to do with affection or marital bonds. It cheapens child rearing to something which is out of control and obligatory rather than welcomed.

    The catholic church has nothing of value to say on these subjects anymore. They are so p00rly regarded that the majority of Catholics ignore them (save fanatics and busybodies)

  • You’re welcome to your opinion, thank you for freely sharing it. I agree, people should not be forced to follow these or any rules. thankfully the church’s mission is not to try to get as many members as possible by changing what it teaches over time to suit modern culture, in fact its one of the only ones in which this is true. Just as Christ didnt take a vote on what His teachings should be or whether people of His time thought He should be hung on a cross. I’m thinking any further comment is not worth the time. Your comments don’t seem to be in good faith and certainly don’t foster civilized discourse. If you truly would like to know why people would follow such seemingly nonsensical rules, I invite you to visit where you will find answers to your questions, including what the true definition of natural law is. If you really want to know, the answers are there, but be careful, if you read it with an open mind, you’ll become Catholic yourself.

  • AC Will there world ever take Jesus words for what they mean.Jesus taught in very simple words,but don’t confuse yourself it’s very hard to live these simple words because of greed and self satisfaction. The world is always looking for loop holes to justify a action. Us adults know if it is morally right or wrong. You have freedom of choice however we will be held accountable for our actions when we meet our maker. According to our choices during this short life of 70 to 110 years old on this earth. Eternity is forever,science says there has been life on earth for billions of years . Compare billions of years to a small 110 years. I take life very seriously,I always like to keep the odds in my favor and live life the way God intended me to live. God doesn’t except excuses of a person that didn’t know, God will punish them less harmful. The way I see it God left us with a Bible as our guide.If we don’t read it throughout our life then we have to accept our consequences of our…

  • But abortion doesn’t kill you. Don’t like murder? Don’t commit one.

    I can accept your argument as logically sound if we accept that unborn human life has zero value.

    But I don’t accept that and you must accept that if you wish to maintain intellectual integrity even if you abandon basic morality.

  • No, it is based on the recognition of the intrinsic value of innocent human life…. ~before I knit you together in you mother’s whom I knew you.~

    It is also based on the notion that marriage is a divinely ordained institution and that husband and wife freely giving of themselves within the marital may, with God’s grace be gifted with a child. Contraception is an effort to deny a fundamental function of the institution and the grace of God.

    Don’t like the answers? Ok. But as C.S. Lewis noted… don’t ask difficult questions expecting simple answers.

  • Not it doesn’t. Science tells us that “fetus” means a gestating animal…. and in common parlance we speak of human fetuses. Or, unborn children. The notion that a fetus somehow transforms into a child after birth is a metaphysical argument only used by pro-abortionists.

  • “Personhood” is a legal definition utilizing a metaphysical argument to deny the himanity of the unborn.

    Can anyone give an objective answer as to when that fetus, or unborn child, becomes a human?

    Singer and a few others have the courage (and bankrupt morality) to say only after birth… Or, as with Singer, after it becomes self aware of the value of its own life. But at least he doesn’t deny that the unborn fetus is a living human being. He simply places zero value on it.

  • Indeed…. food and hydration is ordinary care it is not medical treatment. Only a subjective redetermination of supplying same could alter that view.

  • But the question was addressed.

    Sex can result in pregnancy. Easy to accept as true.

    Rape is nonconsenual sex that may result in pregnancy just as consensual sex may.

    In the former the rape victim is not consenting. In the later there are only two consenting partners sharing responsibility of the consequences of their act. Were this not true one would be relieving women of responsibility of their consensual act… It is not a very flattering view to take of women to suggest that they are unable (or relieved of) a duty to accept responsibility for their freely made choices.

    Abortion is much more analogous to rape because it denies consent to the victim. An appeal to autonomy of the mother while denying it to the unborn child creates the exact same paradigm. One cannot reasonably claim that autonomy justifies killing the innocent while denying autonomy and consent to the killed… well, without duplicity anyway. Or, is duplicity unreasonable? Apparently.. that depends.

  • This pope despises clarity, unless it is directed toward tradition and traditionalists. He is a master of Jesuit-speak….that which can mean anything to everyone.