Zika tests Catholic position on birth control

Story highlights

  • Zika-infected mosquitoes are creating a theological conundrum
  • Health officials in some largely Catholic countries have advised women not to get pregnant
  • The Roman Catholic Church has long forbidden nearly every form of birth control

(CNN)Zika-infected mosquitoes aren't just causing medical problems, they're creating a theological conundrum for the Roman Catholic Church, according to priests and other experts.

The church has long forbidden nearly every form of birth control, but health officials in some Latin American countries have advised women not to get pregnant, because the virus has been linked to an incurable and often devastating neurological birth defect.
"I've never seen this advice before, and when you hear it, you think, 'What are the bishops going to do?'" said the Rev. John Paris, a bioethicist and Catholic priest at Boston College.
"It's going to present a lot of problems for the bishops to sort out," echoed Daniel Ramirez, an assistant professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan and an expert on Latin American religious culture.
"They're going to have to really thread a fine theological needle here," he added.

    Differing views on Catholicism and birth control

    It's not entirely clear what the chances are that a pregnant woman who contracts Zika will have a baby with microcephaly. Babies with the defect have small heads and abnormal brain growth and often have developmental delays, seizures, problems with movement and speech, and other issues.
    A baby who has microcephaly in Recife, Brazil.
    According to the Brazil Ministry of Health, from November 8 through January 30, 404 babies were born with microcephaly, an unusually high number. Seventeen of these cases have been linked to Zika. Authorities are investigating another 3,670 suspected cases of microcephaly.
    Colombian officials said they calculate that during the course of the current Zika epidemic, 500 newborns will be born with microcephaly, and 500 newborns will have a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome.
    In December, authorities in Brazil urged women not to get pregnant. Then last month came the warning from Colombia to delay pregnancy until July. Then in an interview, a health official in El Salvador recommended that women "try to avoid getting pregnant this year and the next."
    Does this mean couples in these largely Catholic countries should abstain from sex for two years? Or should they use so-called "natural family planning"? The method, which involves a woman monitoring her basal body temperature and vaginal secretions to avoid having sex at fertile times of the month, has a 25% failure rate, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
    Or, because of Zika, should couples use more effective methods of birth control?
    So far, the church hierarchy has remained silent on these questions.
    The Catholic catechism states that besides "natural family planning," anything else that works to "'render procreation impossible' is intrinsically evil."
    The Rev. Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said that means birth control is wrong no matter what. "That prohibition doesn't change based on circumstances," he said. "So couples have a responsibility to live according to the church's teachings in whatever circumstances they find themselves."
    But other priests don't see it that way.
    "The polemical approach, that contraception is devious or demonic in origin or the smoke of Satan, may ultimately not be the best pastoral approach," said the Rev. James Bretzke, a professor of theology at Boston College.
    He said in the face of such consequences -- in this case, a baby who could suffer greatly -- he thinks the church might not be so hard line, especially under the leadership of Pope Francis, who has taken a more merciful stance on many social issues from abortion to homosexuality and is himself from South America, where Zika has taken such a heavy toll.
    "In Catholic Church teaching, some would say it would be acceptable to try to prevent conception in cases like this," Bretzke said.
    Paris, the bioethicist, agreed that extenuating circumstances call for more nuanced approaches. "In the older world, you couldn't eat meat on Friday, but if you were starving and meat was the only food available, of course you would eat meat," he said.
    Or consider German families who in the aftermath of World War II stole coal, he said. "The Bible says 'thou shalt not steal,' but is it wrong for a father to go get a bucket of coal to keep his family from freezing to death? The answer is no, of course not," Paris said.

    The church's next steps

    Representatives of the Latin American Bishops Council did not respond to inquiries from CNN. Pavone said he expects the bishops will at some point issue a statement instructing Catholics not to use "artificial" birth control.
    But Bretzke and Paris, who like Pope Francis are Jesuits, said they think the church will likely remain silent on the issue. "It'll be interesting to see whether and how Catholic leaders in these countries weigh in," Bretzke said.
    Ramirez, the historian from the University of Michigan, noted that practically speaking, it might not matter. As in the United States, many Catholics in Latin America don't follow the church's advice on birth control anyway. According to a survey by the Spanish-language television network Univision, 88% of Mexicans, 91% of Colombians and 93% of Brazilians support the use of contraceptives.
    Ramirez said he thinks the Catholic Church might weigh in on Zika and birth control, perhaps at the highest level. By the end of next month, Pope Francis is expected to deliver an apostolic exhortation on family life. His report will take into consideration recommendations from bishops around the world, who discussed such issues in a synod, or meeting, in Rome last fall.
    "I think the situation with Zika might cause the Vatican to add a couple of caveats to whatever document is coming out on the synod," Ramirez said. "And there will be some leeway in the Francisco era for a more nuanced approach to the contraception question."
    He said he thinks the approach will consider the unprecedented situation that Zika presents.
    "I think the message will be that whatever you as married Catholics decide to do, we will walk with you," he said. "That we'll encourage you to follow the church's precepts, but when you don't, we will still love and accept you."
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