Pope Francis held down his title as the ~cool~ pope on Thursday when he suggested that women at risk for contracting the Zika virus could use birth control. Until now, most of the heavily Catholic South and Central American countries battling the virus have preached abstinence as the best way for women to avoid becoming pregnant and risk developing the severe birth defect linked to the illness.
On his way back to Rome from Mexico, Francis told reporters that birth control is the “lesser of two evils.” Compared to abortion, he explained, "avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”
Which raises the question: If the pope can make exceptions to the Catholic Church's anti-contraception mandate with such seeming ease, why is the Church so vehemently opposed to birth control in the first place?
For centuries, Christianity as a whole prohibited any form of contraception because it considered any act that stood in the way of pregnancy an affront to “God’s design."
Theologians often cite a passage in the Book of Genesis as the root of this belief. In it, a son of Judah named Onan “spills his seed” on the ground to avoid impregnating his brother’s widow. This act displeases the Lord, and the Lord smites Onan.
But in 1930, Christianity split on birth control. The Anglican Church endorsed contraception—which, at the time, included condoms, diaphragms, and cervical caps—if used “in the light of Christian principles,” and other Protestant denominations followed suit.
Catholicism, however, doubled down on its anti-birth control stance. That same year, Pope Pius XI penned an encyclical—a letter that is distributed to all of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church—maintaining that any form of contraception was strictly prohibited.
Then in 1963, when hormonal birth control came along, the Catholic Church convened a papal commission on marriage and reproduction to review its position on contraception—and the commission concluded that the Church should actually embrace it.
Around that same time, Pope Paul VI allowed nuns in danger of rape in the then-Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to use birth control to prevent pregnancies. Members of the Church later used that decision to justify allowing women to use contraceptives while at risk of assault in war zones.
And yet, despite the commission's conclusion, official church doctrine didn't budge. Birth control was still effectively prohibited for Catholics.
In 1968, a year after The Pill was featured on the cover of TIME magazine, Pope Paul VI sent out an encyclical entitled Humanae vitae, Latin for “Human life.” The letter served to uphold the Church’s orthodox views on marriage, “married love,” and birth control. In it, he wrote that abortion, even for “therapeutic” means, was totally out of the question, as was sterilization, whether temporary or permanent. As for any other forms of contraception:
Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.
In his remarks Thursday, Pope Francis cited Paul VI's rape exception as a precedent for his unusual move—but with a clear caveat: "In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also ask doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.”
The pope’s comments don’t mark the first recent papal exception. In 2010, Pope Benedict condoned the use of condoms, in very specific circumstances, to prevent HIV/AIDS. Still, Catholic theologians stressed that using condoms to prevent the transmission of a disease constitutes a separate “moral order” than using condoms to prevent pregnancy.
Just to be clear—it’s not that the Catholic Church doesn’t want its faithful to have sex. They’d love for you to have sex! It just needs to be within the confines of marriage and for the purpose of making babies. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the “power to create a new life with God” is what makes married love so remarkable. But to have sex without the purpose of fertilizing eggs is to not really have true sex at all, fundamentally tainting the Church’s definition of marital love. Per the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
Suppressing fertility by using contraception denies part of the inherent meaning of married sexuality and does harm to the couple’s unity…The Church’s teaching is not only about observing a rule, but about preserving that total, mutual gift of two persons in its integrity.
Clearly, the Zika virus has posed a quandary. The pope maintained that abortions are still unequivocally prohibited, even in light of the health risks posed to developing fetuses. But his loosening of the Catholic contraception mandate is a significant departure from the party line—and goes to show just how critical the virus is.