No, Pope Benedict Would Not Support Contraceptive Use in Zika Crisis

Media quote pope emeritus out of context to support change in Church teaching

The Zika virus is presenting a golden opportunity for those who oppose Church teaching on the sanctity of marriage, sexuality and human life.

Because the mosquito-borne virus is thought to cause severe birth defects in the children of some pregnant women who are infected, some activists are clamoring for a liberalization of abortion laws in Latin American countries.

In Brazil, for example, which is 65 percent Catholic, abortion is permitted only in extreme circumstances.

Church leaders have rejected proposals to change such laws, reminding people that a person’s life has intrinsic value no matter how deformed or debilitated one may be.

One Church official offered this response: Kill mosquitoes, not babies.

But there is also pressure on the Church to relax its teaching that the use of contraception is immoral. Countries such as El Salvador have recommended that women postpone getting pregnant for upward of two years. Because most people still don’t know about or trust natural family planning, in most people’s minds, such a recommendation would entail the use of contraceptives.

When asked if Pope Francis might allude to the crisis during his visit to Mexico, Vatican spokesman Father Thomas Rosica told The New York Times that Church teaching remains the same. The epidemic, he said, presents “an opportunity for the Church to recommit itself to the dignity and sacredness of life, even in very precarious moments like this.”

But if advocates cannot find any flexibility in the Vatican, they think they may have found some support in a pontiff who was thought to be rigid and immovable, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Last week, Religion News Service published a commentary by a doctoral student in history at Duke University named Travis Knoll, arguing that a 2010 statement by Benedict would support changing Church teaching against contraception:

A Catholic theologian respected by conservatives has also acknowledged the moral value of using condoms to prevent spread of disease. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in a book-length interview that the use of condoms by prostitutes to prevent AIDS infection constitutes “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

Knoll in a commentary, as well as the Times in a news article, quote Pope Benedict correctly, but only partially. In Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, a book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, Pope Ratzinger, the former head of the Church’s highest doctrinal office, responded to a comment about the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV.

“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants,” Pope Benedict told Seewald. He quickly added, “But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”

In an interview around the time of this controversy, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was head of the Vatican’s highest court, explained the pope’s comments this way:

He’s simply making the comment that if a person who is given to prostitution at least considers using a condom to prevent giving the disease to another person … this could be a sign of someone who is having a certain moral awakening. But in no way does it mean that prostitution is morally acceptable, nor does it mean that the use of condoms is morally acceptable.

Granted, reading Pope Benedict can be a challenge at times. He was an academic, a theologian, not always a writer or speaker who could be widely and readily understood by the masses. And it’s natural for any of us to hear what we want to hear. But both RNS and The Times seemed not to consider the words he spoke right after those they quoted to be of any importance.

The Church has every right to speak out against abortion in this and any other situation — because she is defending life in its most innocent and vulnerable state. While the Church is not about to tell society how to legislate in regards to contraception, it would be irresponsible for her to let the faithful lose sight of the symbiotic relationship between the procreative and unitive aspects of the marital act. Nor is she commanding couples to take the risk of conceiving severely deformed children. There is another way.

“Contraceptives are not a solution,” said Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, secretary general of the National Council of Bishops of Brazil. He urged couples to practice chastity or use natural family planning.

In the meantime, let’s not misinterpret papal pronouncements.