It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a pope promoting contraceptive use — an intrinsic evil, condemned infallibly by the Church — would have seemed impossible. But in recent years, we have seen multiple indications that for Francis, the existing boundaries on moral teaching are far too rigid for his liking.
In 2016, in the wake of a scare that the Zika virus was causing serious birth defects in the babies of infected women, Francis tipped his hand. Asked by a reporter whether the Church could “take into consideration the concept of ‘the lesser of two evils’” in response to the apparent health crisis, the pope dropped what appeared at the time to be a theological neutron bomb:
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.
As usual, Catholics around the world sought ways to explain these comments away. But the Vatican immediately followed up with a statement confirming the pope’s meaning, saying that
the Holy Father was indeed speaking of “condoms and contraceptives” when on the flight back from Mexico, Pope Francis said couples could rightly “avoid pregnancy” in the wake of the Zika virus scare.
Fr. Lombardi told Vatican Radio today, “The contraceptive or condom, in particular cases of emergency or gravity, could be the object of discernment in a serious case of conscience. This is what the Pope said.”
According to Lombardi, the pope spoke of “the possibility of taking recourse to contraception or condoms in cases of emergency or special situations. He is not saying that this possibility is accepted without discernment, indeed, he said clearly that it can be considered in cases of special urgency.”
Lombardi reiterated the example that Pope Francis made of Pope Paul VI’s supposed “authorization of the use of the pill for the religious who were at very serious risk” of rape. This, said Lombardi, “makes us understand that it is not that it was a normal situation in which this was taken into account.”
At the time, such a statement appeared to be a smoking gun. Adherence to Catholic teaching on contraception has been viewed as one of the single biggest indicators of orthodoxy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
In a piece entitled, The Galatians Two Moment is Now, I argued that this statement — which preceded the release of Amoris Laetitia — was real proof that this papacy was a problem. I pointed out that a Google search for the words “pope Francis Zika contraception” turned up nearly 4 million results just weeks after he made the statement, many of them with headlines indicating that the pope was changing the Church’s position on birth control. “Just because a papal statement is not infallible,” I argued, does not mean “it is meaningless.” I begged Catholics to stop making excuses for Francis, and for the bishops to do their duty and “defend the faith, and the faithful.”
“If you were waiting for the right moment to emulate Saint Paul in Galatians 2:11,” I encouraged them, “this is it.”
But the reaction dissipated quickly, devolving into fruitless arguments about whether the story about Pope Paul VI and the Congolese nuns was apocryphal, and into arguments between various bioethics camps on the hypothetical moral permissibility of contraceptives in certain instances.
Later, Matthew McCusker of Voice of the Family documented a number of situations where the pope appeared to signal a heterodox position on contraception, including but not limited to his personal intervention in reinstating Albrecht von Boeselager to the Knights of Malta after an internal investigation found that he had overseen Malteser International as it distributed of hundreds of thousands of contraceptives in the developing world.
Still, little to no reaction from the Catholic world, and certainly not from the bishops.
Then, reports surfaced that the theology of Humanae Vitae would be revisited, Amoris Laetitiastyle — in particular, its condemnation of contraception — during its 50th anniversary year. People scoffed, the Vatican threw out more denials. But it wasn’t long before a prominent Italian moral theologian and priest, Fr. Maurizio Chiodi, was giving a lecture at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, arguing that there are “circumstances — I refer to Amoris Laetitia, Chapter 8 — that precisely for the sake of responsibility, require contraception.”
You could hear the crickets from space.
So now, today, we have the case of 77-year-old Sister Marta Pelloni, a well-known Argentinian nun and self-professed feminist. She is described by Infocatolica as a “professor, rector, and Argentine religious of the Congregation of Teresian Carmelite Missionaries.” Today, Sister Pelloni, who is opposed to abortion, told a radio interviewer that the pope had talked to her and recommended additional options to help women who do not want to get pregnant avoid choosing to abort a child.
“Pope Francis, speaking on this subject, said three words to me: condom, transitory, irreversible.” Said Sister Pelloni, apparently in reference to three types of contraception he would consider permissible under certain circumstances. The first is a condom. The second, which she said he described as “transitory”, would be “a diaphragm.” “And as a last resort,” she said, “which is what we advise rural women that we serve because I have a foundation for the peasantry, tubal ligation” — the latter being (more or less) “irreversible.”
These methods, Sister Pelloni argued, are not abortive or destructive in the woman — a curious claim, considering that tubal ligation is considered a permanent method, with reversal procedures not always proving successful.
As is so often the case, here we have a recounting of deeply controversial words spoken by the pope candidly and privately to some other person who feels no compunction about sharing them with the world.
The question will therefore be, as it always is: is the source credible?
It is difficult to document the relationship the two have; I could find no pictures of them standing together, smiling for the camera. But the orbits of Pelloni and Bergoglio certainly overlapped in Argentina, where she became well-known for fighting human trafficking — work for which she received a Nobel Prize nomination in 2005. Work which Bergoglio certainly knew of during his time in Argentina.
In the book Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, by Paul Vallely, Bergoglio is said to have been inspired by Pelloni’s efforts to expose the cover-up of the rape and murder of a young Argentinian girl to “write a small book, Corrupción y Pecado (Corruption and Sin), a theme he has returned to on several occasions throughout his career.”
In 2016, this time as pope, Bergoglio referenced Pelloni’s work indirectly her in an address about female missionaries:
“I remember a sister in Argentina, an excellent person, and she still works, she is almost the same age as me and she works against the traffickers of young people.”
Thus the claims that the two might have spoken privately about such matters are not at all implausible.
But at this point, with so many seemingly-uncrossable lines already fading into the distance behind us, one can’t help but wonder what difference it would make if she had gotten him on tape. We reached out to Holy See Press Office director Greg Burke for comment, but have received no response as of this writing.
He says what he says and does what he does without any real consequence, the shepherds apparently content to allow a wolf free roam among the sheep.