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The damage done—again—by the Pope's interview

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 18, 2016

How damaging was the latest papal interview? Let me count the ways.

Tomorrow, no doubt, the Vatican press office will go into its now-familiar “clarification” mode. Loyal Catholic defenders of Pope Francis will argue that the Holy Father’s words were taken out of context. But this time, the problem cannot be attributed to sensationalistic reporting; the Pontiff definitely conveyed the impression that he was ready to discuss the morality of contraception in the context of the Zika epidemic. The Pope’s own words are—at best—confusing.

Questioned as to whether contraception is the “lesser of two evils” when the Zika threatens birth defects, the Pope replied, in part: “On the lesser evil, avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of a conflict between the 5th and 6th Commandments.” What conflict? Does he mean to suggest that in some cases, adhering to one of God’s laws might entail violating another?

In the next sentence, the Pope refers to a reported decision by Pope Paul VI, authorizing nuns in (what was then) the Belgian Congo to use contraceptives when they were threatened with rape. But that decision does not apply to the situation created by the Zika epidemic. Contraception is immoral because it violates the integrity of the marital act. In the Congo, the use of contraceptives was justified as a means of thwarting an act of violence. In Latin America today, some officials argue that, because of the Zika problem, contraceptives should be used to thwart an act of marital love.

No doubt the Pope’s defenders will argue—in fact some already have argued-- that the Pope did not actually say that contraception could be justified. True enough. What he said was that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.” But in context, what other message were reporters likely to draw from his statement? If you ask me whether it is justifiable to rob a bank, and I reply that bank robbery is not an absolute evil, haven’t I indicated that I am open to a discussion about whether bank robbery is licit in certain circumstances? Certainly I have not given the impression that I think bank robbery is always immoral.

Yet the Church teaches that artificial contraception, when used to frustrate the purpose of the marital act, is always immoral. UN officials are now suggesting that artificial contraception should be practiced by married couples routinely because of the Zika epidemic. Nothing in the Pope’s statement suggested that there is an inherent moral problem with that approach. I have seen defenders of the Pope remark that secular reporters generally don’t understand the Church’s teaching on contraception. That’s true; and nothing that the Pope said would further their education.

Moreover, in answering the reporter’s question about Zika, the Pope failed to point out the flaw in the major premise of the argument for routine contraception. That argument is based on the assumption that the Zika virus is responsible for microcephaly. But there is very little scientific evidence to support that assumption: a fact that the Pope’s own representative highlighted in a presentation this week to the UN. Proponents of contraception and abortion have been exploiting the Zika epidemic as a means of advancing their cause. The Pope had an opportunity to remind the world that the effects of Zika are not well understood, and to suggest that research should be concentrated on killing the disease rather than its victims. He missed it.

And speaking of missed opportunities, if Pope Francis had not made those remarks about contraception (and his provocative remarks about Donald Trump) the headline stories about his airborne press conference might have centered on a few other statements, which would have gladdened the hearts of shock-shelled Catholics. For example:

  • The Pope said that Pope Benedict XVI deserves applause for his handling of the sex-abuse crisis, particularly in the time before his election to the papacy. “He was the brave one who helped so many open this door.”
  • When pressed about his forthcoming post-synodal document on the family, and specifically whether divorced-and-remarried Catholics should be admitted to the Eucharist, the Pope said: “Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving communion.”

But these statements, and other important comments by the Pope about his visit to Mexico and his meeting with Patriarch Kirill, will be barely noticed—drowned out by the noise about his comments on Trump and Zika.

The Pope’s frequent public interviews, and his unhappy record of maladroit responses, have become a predictable source of confusion, frustration, and even embarrassment for the faithful. In the distant past, then-Cardinal Bergoglio admitted: “Interviews are not my forte.” Thoughtful Catholic leaders should use their influence to persuade the Holy Father that he was right then, and is wrong now to use interviews as a regular facet of his public ministry.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 22, 2016 9:28 PM ET USA

    The Sacred Scripture and Tradition have never held sexual gratification to be the highest guiding norm in any circumstances, as does the current Western culture. Therefore, when speaking for Christ, the priorities cannot be adjusted ad hoc to the norms of popular culture of the day.

  • Posted by: Terri11 - Feb. 20, 2016 10:13 AM ET USA

    The Zika virus has *not* been proven to be the problem, in fact, the latest information is that chemicals were added to the water supply to decrease the mosquito population starting a year ago in the areas hit by the microcephaly increase. That is the first problem with the interview! Why not wait until we know what really happened before suggesting potential solutions that might involve contraception. If the problem is manmade, then contraception is completely unnecessary to even bring up.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Feb. 19, 2016 7:52 PM ET USA

    Oh I knew this would rattle the cages of people who held fast to the contraception is evil belief, regardless of the circumstances. This pope will not reigned in by those who think they know better.

  • Posted by: mclom - Feb. 19, 2016 6:18 PM ET USA

    I am depressed by this Pope's proclivity for worldly chatter. He is the Vicar of Christ not the Vicar of Dibley.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Feb. 19, 2016 6:13 PM ET USA

    "Interviews are not my forte." Since you know this about yourself, Holy Father, why do you keep on granting them, especially when you're not at your best anyway? Please just stop.

  • Posted by: mwean7331 - Feb. 19, 2016 6:07 PM ET USA

    My sentiments exactly. Every time this Pope takes an interview I cringe as , I am sure, the Vatican does. He said it correctly "interviews are not my forte" May I suggest " silence (sometimes) is golden.

  • Posted by: jeanneg117438 - Feb. 19, 2016 6:00 PM ET USA

    "Avoiding pregnancy not an absolute evil"? Sure. But contraception is an "intrinsic evil".

  • Posted by: mhains8491 - Feb. 19, 2016 5:00 PM ET USA

    It is truly sad to see the seeds of confusion being sown by the Pope. Satan does not need a helping hand in our "modern" world, he seems to be doing stirling job with his existing helpers.

  • Posted by: presbergc3900 - Feb. 19, 2016 4:45 PM ET USA

    Our Holy Father might consider giving up interviews--and magisterium by sound bite--for Lent. Confusing important matters of faith and morals and insulting a public figure as "not Christian" evangelizes no one. Just the opposite.

  • Posted by: presbergc3900 - Feb. 19, 2016 4:41 PM ET USA

    Our Holy Father might consider giving up interviews--and magisterium by sound bite--for Lent. Confusing important matters of faith and morals and insulting a public figure as "not Christian" evangelizes no one. Just the opposite.

  • Posted by: DCpa - Feb. 19, 2016 1:05 PM ET USA

    As usual, light, clarity, sense and assistance from Phil! Thank you , Phil!

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 19, 2016 12:17 PM ET USA

    An old (Episcopalian) friend recently said to me, "I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I don't trust your Pope." To which I could only reply, "I don't either. I trust God."

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Feb. 19, 2016 8:57 AM ET USA

    Through hindsight we can judge that the Church has had to endure some bad popes. Through hindsight we can identify which men were bad popes, bad in the sense of creating obstacles for Catholics to stay in the Church and for nonCatholics to come to the Church; popes who did not change doctrine, did not institute false doctrine. Does a contemporary generation have the right to judge a pope in its current time, or must that judgment be reserved for future generations? Just asking.

  • Posted by: space15796 - Feb. 19, 2016 2:43 AM ET USA

    I submit this Pope is best when he remains silent. This interview leaves me totally confused. Demoralized, even. Today, I don't want anyone to know I'm Catholic. He should have just gotten into his private jet and dashed off to his own walled city without any further words or bothering to get "tangled up" in American politics.

  • Posted by: Richard Cross - Feb. 18, 2016 9:59 PM ET USA

    "Interviews are not my forte." Indeed. I would like to chalk it up to oxygen deprivation--which has a well known effect on suppressing logical thinking. Francis is traveling in a partially pressurized cabin at 35,000 feet. He has one lung. He's exhausted from a grueling trip that would tax the resources of a man many years his junior. He may be jet lagged. Interviews in these conditions are evidently an occupational hazard...for him.... and for the laity.

  • Posted by: KC627 - Feb. 18, 2016 9:00 PM ET USA

    My Sentiments exactly Phil.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 18, 2016 8:23 PM ET USA

    Mr. Lawler, you are to be commended for the courage demonstrated in allowing the undesired reality that you have appreciated to be taken in as it is. You did not suppress the reality that you recognized trying to persuade others it is not at all or not nearly at all what it is. You have borne witness honestly and in fidelity to reality. You have dared to be true, and the more one loves the Church and her Vicar on earth the more painful this witness becomes. This is the work of a Christian.