Vatican: No, the Catholic Church isn't relaxing its ban on contraception
Pope Francis (R), followed by Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, waves as he arrives at the international airport in Nairobi on November 25, 2015 (AFP)

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.

"When women find themselves in these desperate situations, they suffer and they die. Pope Francis should be well aware of that."

O'Brien argued that Francis's stance on reproductive rights was at odds with his concern for the world's poor.

"He doesn't recognise that it is poor women who suffer and die from restrictions to their reproductive health. The rich can always circumvent any restriction."

- Mixed signals -

While condemning abortion as akin to "what the mafia does, a crime, an absolute evil," Francis said during his flight back from a trip to Mexico that "avoiding a pregnancy is not an absolute evil."

And by citing the example of one of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI, who authorised nuns at risk of being raped in Africa to use contraception, he appeared to open the door to tacit Church approval for its use to combat the spread of Zika.

The pope's comments arguably echoed his immediate predecessor Benedict's mixed signals on the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection in Africa.

Benedict prompted furore in 2009 when he suggested distributing condoms could make Africa's AIDS crisis worse. But he later backtracked, accepting that they could be used to prevent infection in certain cases, notably by prostitutes.

If Francis was advocating wider use of contraception, his comments were at odds with what his own officials have been saying lately.

Bishops in Latin America have responded to the Zika crisis by reasserting Church opposition to abortion and artificial contraception, urging believers to either abstain from sex if there is a risk of infection or use natural family planning to avoid a risky pregnancy.

On Wednesday, the Vatican's ambassador to the United Nations attacked the UN human rights agency's call for a liberalisation of abortion laws in a region where it is largely outlawed or restricted to cases where a mother's life is in danger.

Francis reacted tetchily when he was asked in November about the use of condoms to prevent HIV transmission.

Returning from a three-country African tour, he said that while condoms were "one of the ways" of preventing infection, sexual relations should always be open to procreation.