His Holiness the Pope has been in the news this week, but for all the wrong reasons. Much was made of his exchange of words with Donald Trump, during which the leader of the Catholic Church questioned the Republican frontrunner's Christianity. Childish discussions about who would win in a battle between Trump and the Pope diverted attention away from the pontiff's more serious, but no less controversial, comments regarding contraception. On a flight back to Rome following a six-day visit to Cuba and Mexico, during which he witnessed for himself the consequences of the Zika Virus, the Pope was asked if using artificial contraceptives (a corruption of words; all contraceptives are ‘artificial’) or abortion could be considered ‘a lesser evil' in the battle to overcome the dreadful disease. Zika is spread through mosquito bites, and is suspected to cause a condition known as microcephaly – where the head of the foetus is abnormally small. Over 4,000 babies have already been born with this horrendous, yet preventable condition.
In his answer, the Pope was predictably adamant about abortion, denouncing it as “absolute evil”, even in circumstances when then foetus is seriously deformed. This is in line with the Church's long-established policy on termination. Indeed, abortion is still either banned or highly restricted in many Catholic countries affected by the Zika crisis, such as Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. When it came to contraception, however, the Pope rather vaguely suggested that birth control may indeed be considered the lesser evil, citing the actions of his predecessor Pope Paul VI, who, during conflict in the Belgian Congo in the 1960s and 70s, advised Catholic nuns to go on the pill at a time when rape was being used as a weapon of war.
All this morbid talk of ‘evil’ is not exactly helpful, and the Pope’s spokesman quickly tried to downplay rumours of a major shift in the position of the Church, making it clear that the pontiff did not endorse using contraceptives 'in a normal situation', but only in emergencies. At this point an obvious question presents itself: if contraceptives are permitted to help tackle Zika, what about HIV/AIDS? Although it may be a more latent crisis than the one currently causing panic in the Americas, the spread of HIV is still an emergency. The Pope’s predecessor Benedict XVI once ignorantly said that AIDS was a tragedy that “cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms”, fatuously adding that they in fact “aggravated the problem”. A year later he softened his position slightly, saying that, in certain situations, it would be acceptable for male prostitutes to use condoms. This piecemeal concession did nothing to address the question of what others, not employed in the sex industry, are supposed to do.
Catholics across the world ignore the Church's ban on 'artificial contraception', and are wise enough to realise that a man who thinks condoms aggravate the spread of sexual disease has got it hopelessly and gravely wrong. Even many priests turn a blind eye to such non-compliance, including in the areas worst hit by Zika. “Family planning has been extremely successful in Latin America”, said Jane Bertrand, a Tulane University professor who has studied reproductive health in the region. “The idea that Latin America isn’t using birth control because of Catholicism simply isn’t the case.” However, it would still be unwise to completely dismiss the influence of the Church, especially in poor, uneducated communities where religious teachings have as much authority as the common law does in any secular country. Pope Francis is not entirely deserving of his reputation for being more liberal and ‘down to earth’ than some of his predecessors. A comprehensive reconsideration of his lamentable policy on contraceptives however would show he really meant business, and, what is more, would prove the Church has a mature understanding the problems of the modern world. It barely needs mentioning the number of lives that would be saved in the process.