PopeWatch: Junk History

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Sandro Magister at his blog Chiesa notes the use by the Pope of false history to support the idea of using contraception in regard to Zika virus.



ROME, February 24, 2016 – In the pyrotechnic press conference on the return flight from Mexico to Rome, among his other remarks Pope Francis pulled out again the story that “Paul VI – the great! – in a difficult situation, in Africa, allowed the nuns to use contraception for cases of violence.”

And he added that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil, and in certain cases, as in those that I mentioned of the blessed Paul VI, [that] was clear”:

Two days later, Fr. Federico Lombardi also pulled out the same story, in an interview with Vatican Radio conducted with the intention of straightening out what had gotten tangled in the statements of the pope presented in the media, which at the go-ahead for contraceptives had already chanted victory:

“The contraceptive or the condom, in cases of particular emergency and gravity, can also be a serious object of discernment of conscience. This is what the pope is saying. [. . .] The example that [Francis] gave of Paul VI and the authorization to use the pill for religious women who were at the gravest continual risk of violence on the part of rebels in the Congo, at the time of the tragedies of the war in the Congo, makes it clear that it was no normal situation in which this was taken into consideration.”

Now, that Paul VI explicitly gave this permission is not evident at all. No one has ever been able to cite a single word of his in this regard.

Yet this urban legend has been kept alive for decades, and sure enough even Francis and his spokesman have fallen for it.

To reconstruct how this story came about, one must go back not to the pontificate of Paul VI, but to that of his predecessor, John XXIII.

It was 1961, and the question of whether it were licit for nuns in danger of being raped to have recourse to contraception, in a situation of war like the one raging in the Congo at the time, was submitted to three authoritative moral theologians:

– Pietro Palazzini, secretary of the sacred congregation of the council, later made a cardinal;
– Francesco Hürth, a Jesuit, professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University;
– Ferdinando Lambruschini, professor at the Pontifical Lateran University, later archbishop of Perugia.

The three together formulated their respective views in an article for the Opus Dei journal “Studi Cattolici,” number 27, 1961, pp. 62-72, under the title: “A woman asks: how should violence be rejected? Morality exemplified. A debate.”

All three were in favor of admitting the liceity of that act, albeit with different arguments. And this favorable view not only passed unharmed through the anything-but-lax scrutiny of the Holy Office, but it became common doctrine among Catholic moralists of every school.

In 1968 Paul VI published the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which condemned as intrinsically evil “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.”

And in 1997 this condemnation would enter, with the same words, into the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

But even after “Humanae Vitae” the liceity of the actions of the Congolese nuns continued to be peacefully admitted, without Paul VI and his successors saying anything.

In 1993, in fact, during the reign of John Paul II, the question came into the spotlight again, this time on account of war not in the Congo, but in Bosnia.

That year the moral theologian who made himself the authoritative spokesman of the common doctrine in favor of liceity was the Jesuit Giacomo Perico, with an article in the magazine “La Civiltà Cattolica,” printed with the imprimatur of the Vatican authorities, entitled: “Rape, abortion, and contraception.”

There are those who maintain that this act is an “exception” to which others could be added, evaluated case by case, thereby invalidating the qualification of “intrinsically evil” – and therefore without any exception – applied to contraception by “Humanae Vitae.”

And there are those who maintain that the act of the Congolese or Bosnian nuns is an act of legitimate defense against the effects of an act of violence that has nothing to do with the free and voluntary conjugal act from which procreation is meant to be excluded, on which and only on which falls the condemnation – without exceptions of any kind – of “Humanae Vitae.”

The scholar who has most deftly reconstructed the clash between these two currents is Martin Rhonheimer, professor of ethics and political philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, in the volume “Ethics of Procreation and the Defense of Human Life,” The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, 2010, at pages 133-150, which in turn reproduce a previous essay published in 1995 in “La Scuola Cattolica,” the magazine of the theological faculty of Milan, with the title: “Threat of rape and prevention. An exception?”

In Rhonheimer’s judgment the second thesis is the one more faithful to the magisterium of the Church, while the first, typically casuistic and “proportionalistic,” offers support to the criticisms of “Veritatis Splendor,” the encyclical of John Paul II on moral theology.


One of the many annoying aspects of the current Pontificate is a complete unwillingness to correct the record when an obvious error has been made.  When the Pope makes a significant error of fact it should be admitted to and not supported by the Vatican Press Flack.  Christ told Peter to feed His sheep, not to mislead them with falsities.


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  1. The more I think about this legend the angrier I get. Liberal Catholics completely buy into this story because they see it as an opening into eventual approval of their current use of contraception.

    Rape involves violence, physical and psychological trauma, risk of disease and a chance of pregnancy. Only an obtuse Jesuit or contraceptive proponent would view the pill as the best defense against rape.

    Picture saying to a traumatized nun, “At least you didn’t get pregnant.”

    What an absolute joke.

  2. One of the many annoying aspects of the current Pontificate is a complete unwillingness to correct the record when an obvious error has been made.

    Yes, and this desire that boo-boos blow over and be conveniently forgotten is the very defect of bishops that allowed sexual abuse scandals involving priests to continue when they should have been checked.

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