Today, as I’m sure we’ve all heard by now, Pope Francis was asked on the plane ride from Mexico whether women infected with Zika virus could use contraception to avoid transmitting the virus to their children (or, perhaps more accurately, to avoid having a child to whom the virus could be transmitted). The pope, it is being reported, referred to the time Pope Paul VI allegedly allowed nuns at risk of rape in the Belgian Congo to use contraceptives.
This claim, however, must be part of Jesuit cultural legend, since as far as anyone knows it was only based on a claim made in a 1993 Jesuit magazine article by Fr. Giacomo Perico SJ. In that article, Fr. Perico would use that claim to argue that Bosnian women at risk of rape could licitly use contraceptives. Perico himself was in the 60’s not quite a staunch defender of Humanae Vitae, and in the 60s, while Paul was still alive, this left the Vatican and Civilta Catholica less than perfectly impressed.
Here is an archived portion of a news aggregation article from The Tablet, dated June 7, 1969
_Humanae Vitae’ Rumours Denied
L’Osservatore Romano, in an unsigned note which appeared on 29 May, denied that there was any substance in the rumours recently made public in the Italian press and elsewhere that the Pope is about to issue a further statement on the subject of Humanae Vitae (see The Tablet, 31 May). Mentioning the report which was published in the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero and the article by Fr. Giacomo Perico in the Jesuit review Aggiornamenti Sociali, the note stated authoritatively that “for the information of our readers, we can and we must declare that no further document on the subject treated in Humanae Vitae is about to appear. With regard to Fr. Perico’s article, not only does it lack inspiration from higher sources, but has, in fact, been greeted with well-founded reservations on such levels.”
It appears that Fr. Perico’s article, affirming that the Encyclical does not command “unconditional intellectual assent,” was turned down earlier by the Jesuit’s Rome periodical Civilta Cattolica as being inconsistent with the official viewpoint. Aggiornamenti Sociali, published in Milan, is more free of Vatican influence.
The French newspaper Le Monde, commenting on L’Osservatore Romano’s note, reminded its readers of the French hierarchy’s “carefully weighed” description of Fr. Perico’s article as “authorised”. Henri Fesquet, Le Monde’s correspondent on religious affairs, concluded that while it was “normal” for circles close to the Pope to be reserved on the subject, the Pope himself had indicated that he might speak further on the pastoral application of his teaching; that this was the very field reviewed by Fr. Perico in his article might suggest that the article was a “prudent step” towards a reaction from the Pope to the conclusions found at bishops’ conferences in all parts of the world.
Well, we all know how that worked out…
Fastforward to 1993, and here’s a thing from the Independent – that long-time booster of Catholic moral theology – on the Bosnian rape victims…
July 20, 1993:
“THE VATICAN has responded to mass rapes in Bosnia by reviving a decision that women in danger of rape may use contraceptives, even though its ban on contraception in normal circumstances remains. The ban on abortion remains absolute, although the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales have decided that the so-called morning-after pill may also be used by rape victims in certain circumstances.”
Well, it looks like between 1969 and 1993 – the year of the Bosnian crisis – that Civilta Catholica, the Jesuit “magisterial” magazine that was vetted by the Curia to give officially approved doctrinal statements, had acquired an editorial staff that was more friendly to Fr. Perico’s ideas. The Independent quotes Perico’s article in that magazine to the effect…
_“…that contraception is a legitimate form of self-defence for a rape victim. The author, Fr Giacomo Perico, says that rape is an act of violence, to which the rules applying to an act within marriage cannot apply.
“‘In this particular situation, it is legitimate to use contraception to avoid a possible pregnancy. It is not then a refusal of a gift of love, but a form of legitimate self-defence.’”
“The ban on abortion remains absolute, although the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales have decided that the so-called morning-after pill may also be used by rape victims in certain circumstances.”
…”The ban on abortion remains absolute.”…
And today we had Pope Francis SJ, telling us: “Abortion isn’t a lesser evil, it’s a crime. Taking one life to save another, that’s what the Mafia does. It’s a crime. It’s an absolute evil.”
Here’s the full quote: _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.
Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion. Abortion is not a theological problem, it is a human problem, it is a medical problem. You kill one person to save another, in the best case scenario. Or to live comfortably, no? It’s against the Hippocratic oaths doctors must take. It is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil in the beginning, no, it’s a human evil. Then obviously, as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.
On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. 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.
It’s funny, isn’t it, that the reporter asked that exact question, and that the usually more or less clewless Francis had exactly that situation, precisely the rumour – started by a Jesuit 30 years ago – about Paul VI, precisely at his not-usually-very-nimble mental fingertips.
The Independent: “The article in Civillta Catolica makes it plain that nuns in the Belgian Congo had been allowed to use contraceptives in the early Sixties when they were in danger of rape. The author argues that such concessions cannot be extended solely to nuns.”
And that he chose to use precisely that wording: “an absolute evil”.
(Though it seems like it’s anyone’s guess what he meant by the distinction between “a religious evil” and “a human evil…” And maybe we could ask the Holy Father to elaborate on what he thinks is the “conflict between the fifth and sixth commandments” could be.)
More on this tomorrow.
Meanwhile, I leave you with