The Vatican on Friday moved swiftly to dampen claims Pope Francis had signalled a significant relaxation of the Catholic Church’s ban on contraception in response to an outbreak of the Zika virus in Latin America.
In an unusually extended explanation of Francis’s comment that contraception was “not an absolute evil”, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the pontiff had been talking about the possibility of having recourse to birth control only in “emergency cases”.
“That does not mean that this recourse is accepted and can be used without discernment,” Lombardi told Vatican radio.
Media around the world hailed Francis’s comments, made on his return from Mexico on Thursday, as potentially signalling a new departure on an issue that has long divided Catholics.
“Francis says contraception can be used to slow Zika,” trumpeted the New York Times, while an online headline in Britain’s The Guardian said: “Pope suggests contraception can be condoned in Zika crisis.”
Vatican insiders said such interpretations were wide of the mark.
“You don’t change doctrine with off the cuff remarks,” said Monsignor Octavio Ruiz Arenas, a member of the Vatican department that guides Church teaching.
The Colombian archbishop emphasised that Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical outlawing the pill and other forms of artificial contraception remained the only Church statement that counts on the subject.
A pro-choice lobby within the Church also described Francis’s comments as signalling “little or no change”.
Catholics for Choice also warned that the pope’s simultaneous description of abortion as an “absolute evil” will result in women suffering from the virus dying in back-street terminations.
Jon O’Brien, president of the US-based group, said Francis’s comments were “profoundly disappointing and wrong,” for women going through “terrifying ordeals” because of Zika, a mosquito-born virus which has been linked to serious birth defects and has spread throughout Latin America.
O’Brien said: “It’s a fact that when women who are desperate to end a pregnancy don’t get access to safe and legal services, they can resort to unsafe abortions, whether by self-administering or going to an unqualified provider.