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Misunderstanding the (alleged) ‘Congo contraception’ case

February 21, 2016

Even by the standards of his reign, the presser Pope Francis conducted on his return flight from Mexico has provoked an unusual number of questions. I wish to address only one of those here.

Preliminarily, I note that the burden is not on the negative to prove that something did not occur, it is on the affirmative to prove that the alleged something did occur. That said, though, it now seems all but certain that the ‘permission’ or ‘approval’ which Francis has claimed his predecessor Pope Paul VI gave for Congo nuns facing rape to use contraception simply does not exist. See e.g. Fr. Zuhlsdorf or John Allen*.

Unfortunately this myth has been invoked by the pope as if it were a fact of Church history, and, more importantly, in a way that suggests it might be a precedent to be considered in deciding whether contraception may also be used to prevent pregnancy in some cases of possible birth defects. That claim would take Pope Francis’ contraception remarks into a very different area. No longer are we musing about a point of Church history (as interesting as that might be), now we are dealing with Church moral teaching. The stakes become dramatically higher.

So here’s my point: not only does the Congo nuns permission seem NOT to exist, but, even if it does exist in some form, it could NOT, I suggest, by its own terms, be used by Francis (or anyone else committed to thinking with the Church) to call into question the Church’s settled teaching that “each and every marital act [quilibet matrimonii usus] must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (Humanae vitae 11) and that therefore “excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after conjugal intercourse [coniugale commercium], is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” (Humanae vitae 14).

Obviously the Congo nuns case (or the Balkan nuns story in the 1990s, to take another variation of the myth) was not about marital acts, it was about religious women facing criminal acts of violent sexual intercourse; the Congo question was not about possible birth defects, it was about stopping rapists’ sperm from reaching ova that perchance had been ovulated. Between women facing rape and wives worried about birth defects there simply is no parallel relevant to the moral question of contraception. One can like that fact or hate it, but one cannot change it or ignore it. Moreover, Church teaching on the immorality of contracepted marital acts is, I believe, taught infallibly; but, even if I were wrong about that technical claim, there is no question about what that teaching is, namely, that contracepting acts of marital intercourse, whether doing so as an end in itself or as means to some other end, is objectively immoral.

A discussion could be had, I think, on whether non-marital sexual intercourse is subject to the same moral requirements as that to which marital intercourse is held. Humanae vitae does not, as far as I can see, address that question. But, as to whether a permission allegedly given to nuns to take contraceptive measures in the face of rape establishes a precedent for spouses wanting to contracept their sexual relations out of fear of possible birth defects, the conclusion seems inescapable: there is no parallel between the two cases, and so there is no precedent set.

*A note on Allen’s article cited above: As I feared he did earlier, Allen is once again arguing that papal non-action is papal action.

After claiming that then-Cdl. Montini was “close to the currents that shaped [the journal] Studi Cattolici” and that it “was assumed” that Montini approved of an article defending contraception by Congolese nuns, an assumption that Allen says “appeared to be confirmed later” when as pope Montini later promoted one of its authors, Allen tops off this journalistic house of cards with a zinger: “The Vatican [sic] never repudiated the 1961 position [taken by theologians, not by Montini], so the takeaway was that it remained a legitimate option. To Italians — and remember, Francis’ ancestry is Italian … that meant Paul VI approved.”

Good grief. I say it again, good grief.

I can imagine not a few Italians are hitting the roof right about now over Allen’s opinion of their formal logic skills. But my question is, How many conjectures from assumptions based on silence may a journalist pile up before someone shouts Enough!? Here’s one for ya: God could have stopped this evil or that if He wanted to, but He didn’t stop it, so bingo, God is the author of evil. Talk about bad logic skills. Seriously, there are plenty of terrible things that John Allen has never written about, let alone condemned; may we assume that his silence on such matters signals his consent to them? If not, should not the same deference be accorded to a pope?

23 Feb 2016. This post now available in French, here.

2 Mar 2016. This post now available in Portuguese, here.

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