I’ll say one thing for this Pope: he certainly keeps us bloggers busy.

Thank you, Pope Francis!  I now have enough material for the next three or four posts.  Papal authority, the Zika virus, the lesser of two evils, microcephaly, Blessed Pope Paul VI, nuns in the Congo, and more!

OK, so much for the silver lining.

Much (too much) has already been said about the Pope’s latest press conference aboard Shepherd One.  These kerfuffles always seem to happen at 35,000 feet.  The inflight press conferences after long, draining apostolic journeys must be taxing for the Pope, so I think we can try to give him the benefit of the doubt.  At the least, we owe it to him to:

  1. Read the actual transcript of his words, NOT what the un-catechized, mostly atheist/agnostic secular media says he said. They simply do not have the basic religious literacy to form sound interpretations of the Pope’s words. BEWARE your emotional reaction if it’s generated by a third-party recap.
  1. Know the level of authority belonging to the Pope when he expresses himself in this format. There are various levels of teaching authority, but there is no such thing as Inflight Press Conference Papal Infallibility. It is essential that laypeople understand what sort of assent they owe (and don’t owe) to these off-the-cuff statements. (topic of next blog post)

Isuzu used to have a TV ad campaign in which Joe the salesman would make wild claims about the car, while a crawler at the bottom of the screen told the real story.  That’s what we keep seeing after these inflight press conferences… a bevy of mediators trying valiantly to explain why the Pope didn’t really say what he just said.


Let’s bypass the Damage Control Units and go straight to the source.

Here is an excerpt of the pertinent passage:

Spanish Reporter: Holy Father, the greatest risk (of the Zika virus) would be for pregnant women… As regards avoiding pregnancy, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”

Pope Francis: Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion… Abortion is not the lesser of two evils… Abortion… is an evil in and of itself… On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. (Pope) Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.

It’s going to take years to get all those worms back in the can.

First of all, the Zika virus.  The Center for Disease Control says that 1 in 5 people infected with Zika will actually get sick, and then the illness is usually mild. Many people might not even realize they have been infected[1].

Last year, physicians in Brazil noted an increase of infants born with microcephaly, a birth defect of an abnormally small head and resulting brain underdevelopment.  Microcephaly can be a genetic anomaly, as well as an effect of maternal alcohol abuse, fetal rubella, toxoplasmosis or cytomegalovirus.  Since the affected infants were born in Zika-affected areas, correlation was suspected, but cannot be confirmed (laboratory tests could not be run retrospectively.)  Rather, reports of non-specific rashes in early pregnancy were used to assume Zika infection.  The occurrence of microcephaly in northeast Brazil is currently 1 in 500 live births[2], a not-insignificant number.

This is the source of the concern.  Should women living in Zika-affected areas use artificial means of preventing conception until the Zika virus can be rendered harmless by inoculation or cure?

Doesn’t that seem to be the wrong question?  Even the CDC, which is by no means a religious organization, advises that Pregnant women in Zika virus-affected areas should protect themselves from mosquito bites by using air conditioning, screens, or nets when indoors, wearing long sleeves and pants, using permethrin-treated clothing and gear, and using insect repellents when outdoors.”[3] 

No mention of birth control whatever.  And why should there be?  If your home was in immediate danger of catching fire, wouldn’t you first call the Fire Department, connect the garden hoses, saturate the roof, start filling buckets with water, shut off your gas and seal the vents?  You wouldn’t go straight to filing an insurance claim when you could still prevent the damage.

If there’s a threat, the reasonable course is to avoid it. So why are we talking about contraception, instead of preventing infection in the first place, as the CDC advises?  (In the Pope’s defense, he did call for quick work in developing a vaccine.)

Furthermore, there is an entirely legitimate response if a couple fears conception, and it is what it has always been: periodic continence.  It, at the very least, deserves a mention since it’s the clear, consistent wisdom of the Church and it respects the dignity of the spouses, as contraception does not. (Once again, a future post.)

There are so many good, reasonable, intermediate responses to Zika before nicking the wall of venerable Catholic moral teaching that I smell a 3-day old red herring in that reporter’s question.  I can’t account for why the Pope didn’t just throw that fish back.

Once a person understands the language of the body in the beauty and truth of the person-to-person encounter, then recourse to the lie which occurs with contraception, becomes unthinkable, even in a true disaster.  When  the marital act is understood as love integrated into the whole life and being of the couple, then the spouses act in the best interests of the family, even at a cost to their own desires.

We might argue that it’s too hard on the couple, but can truth be sacrificed to expediency?  If the truths of our Faith could change under difficult circumstances, there would never have been martyrs.  There would never have been a Cross.

The Pope, who is genuinely sensitive to the dignity of the poor, may have done them a disservice in this instance.  The predicament of the poor, who have fewer means to escape their exposure to Zika, is not objectively improved by short-cutting the truth of the body.  The truth, even a difficult truth, is always the respectful course.  Our Lord made rather a career out of difficult truths, and He loved the poor with all his heart.

There is more to be said.  Stay tuned for future posts concerning papal authority on airplanes, rumors about what Blessed Pope Paul VI said or didn’t say to the nuns, contraception (why not?) and other intricacies of navigating Catholic waters in the Bergoglian age.


Sheryl Collmer writes, works and loves the Holy Father from the headquarters of TOBET in Irving, Texas.

[1] Center for Disease Control, Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report, January 16, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] ibid.

The full text of the press conference is available at: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-text-of-pope-francis-in-flight-interview-from-mexico-to-rome-85821/

Note: After the original publication of this post, the CDC issued new guidelines concerning Zika and pregnancy.  They enumerated all the solid, reasonable precautions that couples should take to prevent infection, and none of them included contraception, which is an entirely different issue… as the Spanish reporter must surely have known before she threw that rotten fish at the Pope.  Read the new CDC guidelines here.