Numerous press outlets are making this claim, usually without giving the full quote by Pope Francis. So let’s look at what the holy Pontiff actually said.
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.” [CNA]
Pope Francis condemned abortion, even in cases of severe birth defects. All human life is sacred. Then, on the question of using contraception to avoid pregnancy when there is a danger of birth defects, he referenced the case wherein Blessed Pope Paul VI permitted contraception in cases of rape. [It turns out that Pope Paul VI never gave such permission.]
Church teaching has not changed, of course. So, then, how should we understand the Pope’s comments?
First, these remarks were made extemporaneously by Pope Francis, speaking to reporters on the plane trip after his trip to Mexico. This type of remark by any Pope does not fall under the Magisterium at all. It is not an infallible expression of the Magisterium, nor is it a non-infallible expression of the Magisterium. So the Pope’s remarks do not change or loosen any teaching of the Church on any subject.
You cannot justify your use of contraception, nor someone else’s use, based on the remarks of any Pope to the press. The teachings of the Faith are based on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, including the teachings of each Pope — not including the personal opinions or extemporaneous remarks of any Pope.
Second, the ordinary and universal Magisterium already teaches, infallibly, that
(a) abortion is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, and
(a) contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, and
(b) intrinsically evil acts are never justified by a good intended end, nor by a dire circumstance.
So the claim is false that the Pope is justifying the use of contraception in difficult circumstances or with the good intention of preventing a child from having birth defects.
Third, direct abortion is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. But the Church teaches that indirect abortion is sometimes permissible. This is not an exception due to a good intention (e.g. a medical purpose) or due to difficult circumstances. Rather, every intrinsically evil act is direct; there is a direct relationship between the knowingly chosen concrete act (the choice in any particular case) and its moral object. The terms direct and indirect are used in Catholic moral theology to distinguish inherently immoral acts from inherently moral acts.
In the same way, some uses of contraception are indirect, and therefore not intrinsically evil. See my previous writings on this topic. I have repeatedly explained that the use of mere contraception (not abortifacients) is moral in cases of rape, since the prevention of conception is indirect. This is a complex point to explain succinctly. See this post: Contraception in Cases of Rape – Catholic moral theology.
The case of nuns in the Congo using contraception because they were in danger of rape is controversial. It is not doctrine, but an historical example. The Holy See permitted these nuns (who of course were not sexually active) to use contraception as a way to prevent a pregnancy due to rape. However, at the time, chemical contraceptives were thought to be merely contraceptive. Today, we realize that those contraceptives were abortifacients. And that fact, unknown to Blessed Pope Paul VI and his advisors, changes the interpretation of that case.
Under Catholic teaching, a physician can give a rape victim abortifacient contraception, only if he can be morally certain that the pill will NOT act as an abortifacient on that particular occasion, but only as a contraceptive (“mere contraception”). Abortion is not justified, even in cases of rape, because the conceived prenatal is an innocent human person. Therefore, abortifacient contraception is also not justified in cases of rape.
Fourth, Pope Francis began his answer to the question of contraception when there is a danger of birth defects by unequivocally condemning abortion. Therefore, his comments can in no way be interpreted as a type of approval for abortifacient contraception. If abortion is not justified in such cases, then neither is abortifacient contraception. The use of abortifacient contraception in cases of rape is only justified if the physician can be morally certain that the pill will NOT kill an innocent prenatal, but will only prevent conception.
And, as I have explained in past posts and in my books of moral theology, the use of contraception after rape is indirect, and so it is not intrinsically evil.
Fifth, the use of contraception by the nuns of the Congo must be morally reevaluated. We now know that this type of contraception is abortifacient. Mere contraception is permissible to prevent conception in cases of rape. (Morally, sex is ordered toward conception; so the use of contraception in cases of rape is directly an interruption of the rape, and only indirectly a deprivation of procreation.) In my theological opinion, it was objectively immoral (though no one realized it at the time) for those nuns to use abortifacient contraception because of the danger that the pill would cause an abortion, rather than merely prevent procreation after rape.
Sixth, it is NOT moral for a sexually-active woman to use abortifacient contraception, based on the possibility of rape. The use of abortifacient contraception in such a case has abortive and contraceptive ends (in the moral object), because the woman is choosing to have sexual relations in her daily life and choosing to use abortifacient contraception, at the same time. The deaths of innocent prenatals caused by these choices is not justified by the mere possibility that, at some point, the pill might prevent conception from rape.
Therefore, it is not moral for a sexually active woman to use abortifacient contraception, based on the danger of a birth defect. Pope Francis clearly condemned abortion, even in cases of a likely birth defect, and so his comments cannot be used to justify abortifacient contraception.
The case of the nuns in the Congo is different for three reasons. (1) Those women, being chaste nuns, were not sexually active, so their use of the birth control pill did not have abortive or contraceptive ends. (2) The pill was not known at the time to be an abortifacient; everyone thought that the pill was merely a contraceptive. (3) Mere contraception is indirect and permissible in cases of rape.
In the case of a likelihood of birth defects, use of abortifacient contraception is gravely immoral, since it is a type of abortion. And the use of mere contraception, such as a condom, is also gravely immoral, since it is direct, not indirect. The use of a condom does not directly prevent the birth defect; it directly prevents conception, and thereby indirectly prevents birth defects (since no prenatal is conceived to later suffer a birth defect). Therefore, the use of abortifacient contraception or mere contraception in this case is direct and intrinsically evil.
Did Pope Francis err?
We certainly cannot say that Pope Francis taught an error under the Magisterium, since he did not exercise the Magisterium. And he correctly referenced the idea, in moral theology, that contraception can be indirect and moral — though the case of the nuns in the Congo is not the best example on that point. The moral use of mere contraception in cases of rape (e.g. in a Catholic hospital emergency room) is a better example. If Pope Francis expressed a personal theological opinion, that the use of mere contraception in cases of likely birth defects is moral, he erred in that opinion. But his comments were extemporaneous, and not an act of the Magisterium.
It would be gravely immoral for anyone to claim that the Church now approves of abortifacient contraception or mere contraception, based on good intentions or dire circumstances. The teaching of the Magisterium on intrinsically evil acts and on the sins of abortion and contraception is clear, definitive, and irreformable.
The Magisterium approves of natural family planning (NFP), as a moral means to prevent conception, for serious reasons. NFP is not intrinsically evil because it does not deprive sexual acts of their procreative meaning. The regulation of birth by NFP is attained by refraining from marital relations periodically (a choice infallibly approved by the Council of Trent). So couples in danger of conceiving a child with a severe birth defect can use NFP strictly, to avoid conception. This type of intervention is moral, and is more effective than condoms. Used strictly, NFP is as effective as abortifacient contraception.
So the use of abortifacient contraception to prevent birth defects is not a dire necessity. The knowing choice of any intrinsically evil act is always immoral, even if that act is the only means to achieve a good end, or to avoid a terrible consequence. But when a moral means exists to fulfill a good end or avoid a bad consequence, then the choice of that intrinsically evil means is even more sinful. For the individual can avoid the bad consequence and obtain the desired good end by a moral means, and yet he or she chooses evil nonetheless. Such wickedness will not go unpunished by God.
Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.