Responding to the papal interview as if truth matters

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 19, 2016

I don’t want to belabor the point; Phil’s commentary on the latest papal interview is outstanding as it stands (The damage done—again—by the Pope’s interview). We may wish at some point to further discuss the Pope’s incautious moral characterization of Donald Trump. But I believe it will be more immediately useful to review the reproductive principles Pope Francis so unfortunately muddled during his February 18th flight from Mexico to Rome.

For convenience, I have reproduced the entire text of the question and answer about the use of contraception as a safeguard against potential birth defects arising from the Zika virus. You will find it appended at the end of my own comments. However, if you were to plow through the entire interview, you would see the same difficulty everywhere—this constant difficulty that Pope Francis has in speaking clearly and precisely off-the-cuff in response to any question.

This is the simple human problem that lies behind Phil’s recommendation that this pope should not give interviews. It is important to understand that Pope Francis simply does not possess this gift. The corollary is a recognition that such confusing comments do not represent the Pope’s carefully-considered intention, but simply an inability to express his final thoughts clearly on the spur of the moment. We have seen this again and again: Pope Francis will initially express a number of half-developed thoughts, but if he writes officially on the same subject later, his words will be neat, orderly, and on point.

To put the matter succinctly: The wise observer takes Pope Francis’ interviews with a large grain of salt. This is unfortunate; as Phil recommends, it really would be better if Francis simply did not give interviews. But there it is. We must cease immediately from predicting (or fearing) future sea changes based on such remarks. It is far smarter to realize that this spur-of-the-moment fare is not going to be all that it should be—nor even all that Pope Francis himself would like it to be in the end.

Parsing the question properly

The way the question was asked led Pope Francis to emphasize an important difference between abortion and contraception. The questioner alluded to both, and the Pope clearly wanted to insist that direct abortion can never be justified, whereas in fact the use of (non-abortifacient) contraceptives is sometimes justifiable. The main problem is that Francis used both bizarre terminology and unhelpful categories in attempting to convey that point.

In particular, he referred to abortion as an “absolute evil”, he called abortion a “human” (as opposed to a “religious”) evil, and he contrasted it not with contraception but with “avoiding pregnancy”. We can easily overcome the confusion of the term “absolute evil”. It seems certain that Francis meant “intrinsic evil”, which at least makes that part of the answer intelligible. Even with this linguistic correction, however, his method of comparing the two sins led to immediate misunderstanding. Since the original question referred to abortion and contraception, the implications of the answer were:

  • Contraception and avoiding pregnancy are morally equivalent.
  • Contraception is a religious evil (like missing Mass) rather than a violation of the natural law.
  • Contraception is not intrinsically evil.

Now the absurdity of the first point is so clear that we must presume these implications are not what Pope Francis intended to convey. In fact, the first two implications are obviously false, and so we may presume that the Pope was mainly concerned to differentiate abortion, which is intrinsically evil, from contraception, which is not. For only the third implication is true. And only this implication is consistent with his obvious goal, which was to dispel from the mind of the questioner the notion that direct abortion could ever be considered morally acceptable as the lesser of two evils.

But, you may object, how can I assert that contraception is not intrinsically evil? Well, because it isn’t; if it were, Pope Paul VI could not have permitted endangered nuns to use contraceptives to prevent conception resulting from rape [n.b., Feb. 22, 2016: Since I wrote this, evidence has emerged that this permission was either informal or is an urban legend widely believed even in Rome; so this is a weak argument, but it is worth noting that the use of Plan B and other measures to prevent conception following rape are routinely considered moral if they work as a true contraceptive, and not as an abortifacient]. It would, after all, be an actual good, in these circumstances, for a rapist himself to use contraception to avoid impregnating his victim. We would never tell him he compounded his sin by doing so. Moreover, it is generally moral for a belatedly fearful woman to take actions to prevent conception following any immoral instance of sexual intercourse.

But it is intrinsically evil to eliminate the natural consequence of any act of intercourse whatsoever by aborting the baby once conceived. In short, the nuns could contracept; but they could never abort.

Moral precision

With respect to the question of contraception, what is intrinsically immoral is the deliberate frustration of the procreative end of marital sexual intercourse. (It is also, of course, intrinsically immoral to deliberately frustrate the unitive end of sexual intercourse within marriage, such as a husband demanding intercourse when his wife is ill, forcing her into too-frequent sexual relations, treating her shabbily and then expecting sexual satisfaction, and so on—or for a wife to use sexual favors to manipulate her husband.)

Outside of marriage, contraception ceases to be intrinsically evil, and so it must be determined to be evil or not based on intentions, purposes and results. Sexual intercourse is always immoral outside of marriage (because of marriage’s natural human character, by the way, not its sacramental or religious character). For this reason, there are no moral ends or finalities for intercourse outside of marriage which can be frustrated (or which, by being fulfilled, can justify it). So why do we typically judge the use of contraception to be evil in acts of fornication and adultery? There are three main reasons:

  • Contraception represents a pre-meditated commitment to enjoy evil actions more easily and completely by eliminating their natural consequences;
  • The availability, and certainly the encouragement, of contraception encourages fornication, adultery and promiscuity; and
  • The use of contraception tends to diminish our understanding of and commitment to the true purposes of sexual intercourse, and also the nature and importance of the family itself.

It is worth noting as well that the overall damage of widespread contraception to social and public health will invariably be worse than any particular damage that might occasionally be avoided through its use.


Once again, we can probably see what the Pope would have liked to accomplish in his response. Based on the way the question was phrased, he wanted to make sure everyone understood that direct abortion can never be morally justified. Abortion is different in this respect from contraception, which in rare circumstances can be morally justified (as Francis noted in the case handled by Paul VI).

But instead, as this Pope so often does in extemporaneous remarks, he raised more questions than he answered, in particular two questions which it was exceedingly unfortunate to raise: First, might the Church approve widespread use of contraceptives for health reasons? Second, might the Church now decide that the deliberate frustration of the procreative end of individual marital acts is moral in some cases?

Truthfully, these are old questions! With respect to health, the question has already been asked and answered repeatedly in relation to sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV-AIDS. What is new this time is the (unproven) assumption that the most significant danger of the Zika virus is the deformation of the child who might be conceived. Yet dangers to the fetus from conception under adverse circumstances are hardly new. The Church has repeatedly judged programmatic promotion of contraception to be immoral, not least because it always undermines its own allegedly moral ends. And of course the Church has already infallibly declared intentional contraception within marriage to be intrinsically immoral.

For some mysterious reason, Pope Francis emphasized that avoiding pregnancy is not always immoral (a misconception unlikely to be held by anyone present). In any case, we already know that where there is good reason to avoid pregnancy, the couple has two options: (1) Choose to engage in intercourse only at times when the likelihood of conception is low; or (2) Choose not to engage in intercourse at all, if the risk/reason is very grave. For this too is an act of mutual love.

One grows weary of explaining and explaining and explaining. Self-mastery, particularly sexual mastery, is essential not only to objective morality but to human integrity and maturity. To paraphrase Phil Lawler’s judgment on the latest interview: It is clear that few people understand the Church’s teaching on contraception. And sadly—very sadly yet again—it is not hard to see why.

Question and answer on the use of contraception to mitigate effects of Zika virus

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.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Terri11 - Feb. 20, 2016 11:00 AM ET USA

    "in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape" Big difference! In Africa, nuns were being forced to have sex against their will. In Brazil, these married couple can choose not to have sex if they are worried about microcephaly. By bringing up Paul VI's ruling in this case, the Pope implies that sex is inevitable, not a choice. This is the basis of the free-sex culture we have now-sex is inevitable, we can't help ourselves, so we need contraception

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Feb. 20, 2016 4:20 AM ET USA

    "...but if he writes officially on the same subject later, his words will be neat, orderly, and on point." Well, let's not get carried away here. :) See,for example,paragraph 54 of EVANGELII GAUDIUM.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 19, 2016 6:02 PM ET USA

    lfjardine9175: This is a common misinterpretation of Catholic teaching. In the passage you cite, John Paul makes it clear that he is writing of intrinsic evil "in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile", and in fact he explicitly draws on Humanae vitae, which makes the matter even clearer. The "conjugal act" is not a euphemism; it is not a polite way of referring, say, to fornication. It specifically means intercourse within marriage. This is why it was perfectly consistent for the same pope to author HV and permit contraceptives to nuns in danger of rape. Anyway, HV is crystal clear on this point. It lays down a teaching deliberately applicable only to intercourse within marriage, and tied to its marital ends, which are unitive and procreative.

  • Posted by: lfjardine9175 - Feb. 19, 2016 4:55 PM ET USA

    Thanks, but I would disagree with your premise - contraception is a moral evil. Pope John Paul II said as much: ". . .such interventions . . . cannot employ methods which fail to respect the person and fundamental human rights, beginning with the right to life of every innocent human being. It is therefore morally unacceptable to encourage,. . . the use of methods such as contraception, . . .in order to regulate births." EV 91 He refers to contraception in VS 80 as "intrinsically evil acts".

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 19, 2016 3:44 PM ET USA

    As was said some time ago by someone: "Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice..." This ambiguity, apparent contradiction etc. is consistent (if nothing else). Consequently, the logical questions become more unsettling. Are we seeing here the work of one who is an extraordinarily slow learner? (put as kindly as possible) Or is there something more concerning, perhaps not entirely unintended, going on here? Phil's advice should be a priority to those near the Holy Father, and soon.