No one can be sure – and perhaps we shouldn't read too much into them anyway

Pope Francis’s words on Zika and contraception resist any confident interpretation. The New York Times report, for instance, says in its first paragraph that Francis was “declaring … that contraceptives could be used to prevent the spread of Zika”. In the second paragraph, it tones this down: Francis “seemed somewhat open to making an exception for contraception”. So how much can we say about what the Pope’s comments mean?

The key line is this:

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.

Needless to say, the Church doesn’t teach that “avoiding pregnancy” is wrong: the teaching is about how you do it. And Francis has more than once praised Blessed Paul VI for articulating the traditional doctrine in the face of cultural pressure to cave in.

However, this doesn’t explain why Francis mentioned the Congolese nuns, who took contraceptives because they feared being raped during the 1960s war. Francis says that Paul VI approved. (This story, for the record, is hard to source.) It sounded as though Francis was saying that Zika was a similar exception – though he didn’t explicitly develop an analogy.

It seems an unlikely parallel. As the bioethicists Janet Smith and Christopher Kaczor have written, contraception to prevent conception in the case of rape “qualifies as an act of self-defence rather than an act of contraception”. The US bishops have said that rape victims can take hormones to prevent a pregnancy.

The Church’s teaching is often expressed by saying that contraception distorts a loving act. In the case of rape there is, clearly, no loving act to distort. The philosopher Melissa Moschella made this point yesterday in an interview with CNA which is well worth reading.

But perhaps Francis wasn’t suggesting an exact parallel. In any case, as Fr Z reminds us, “the Roman Pontiff doesn’t teach doctrine on faith and morals through off-hand comments to journalists ON AN AIRPLANE RIDE”. So detailed analysis is probably taking the comments too seriously; though compared to over-excited headlines without much analysis at all, it may be a lesser evil.

UPDATE: 

The Pope’s spokesman Fr Lombardi said on Friday that Francis was indeed arguing for “the possibility of taking recourse to contraception or condoms in cases of emergency or special situations”. He doesn’t say he has heard this confirmed from the Pope himself, but this is the closest we have to an authoritative interpretation so far.

Janet Smith, one of the leading moral theologians in this area, has written a piece which implies that, if that was in fact the Pope’s argument, it is hard to see how it could be reconciled with the Catholic tradition.

As a footnote, John Allen has some of the background on the (still not entirely clear) Congo story. He says that a 1961 magazine article – written by theologians close to the future Pope Paul VI -– approved the nuns’ taking contraceptives; when he became pope, Paul made one of the authors a cardinal. So Paul “permitted” it only in a broad sense.