The Pope Takes on Contraception and the Zika Virus

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
His conversation with reporters on Thursday is making headlines for his criticism of Donald Trump. As I discuss here, that fight does not matter very much, and is better treated as a display of varsity-level trolling and political maneuvering by two very famous world leaders.
The real news from the conversation is something that could be important for the millions of Catholic women who live in Latin America: In countries where newborns have been diagnosed with microcephaly, a brain-development disorder caused by the mosquito-born Zika virus, the pope said, the use of artificial contraception might be acceptable according to Catholic doctrine.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI outlined the Church’s theological opposition to birth control and non-procreation-oriented sex in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. Paul did make some exceptions to this, though, including allowing a group of nuns in the Belgian Congo to take the Pill in the 1960s because they were in danger of being raped. The pope specifically cited this in his comments to reporters on Thursday.
“Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,” Francis said, according to The New York Times. “In certain cases, as in this one, as in that one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease.”
Contraception has long been a challenging topic for the Church. Theologically, it’s committed to promoting procreative sex. But pontiffs have sometimes spoken of contraception in terms of lesser evils: After arguing that Africa’s AIDS crisis “cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms” in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI conceded via a spokesperson that condoms used by male prostitutes or HIV-infected people, for example, may be “the first step of responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk to the life of the person with whom there are relations.” Zika may be another public-health crisis which the Church feels the need to address directly in terms of its theology, and Francis’s comments may be the start of that.
Amid all the inevitable bluster about Trump, this is the development to watch.