Pope Francis didn’t just mix it up with Donald Trump (and other Republicans) on immigration and border security today. He also spoke off the cuff about the Zika crisis in the Western Hemisphere and the limits of the Catholic Church’s rejection of artificial contraception, and may have stirred a hornet’s nest in doing so. Francis sharply rejected abortion as a solution, but allowed that there may be a precedent for the “lesser evil” — of “avoiding pregnancy”:

Pope Francis has suggested that women threatened with the Zika virus could use artificial contraception but not abort their fetus, saying there’s a clear moral difference between aborting a fetus and preventing a pregnancy.

Francis was asked Wednesday en route home from Mexico if abortion or birth control could be considered a “lesser evil,” when faced with the Zika-linked cases of rare birth defects such those faced in Brazil, where babies have been born with abnormally small heads.

That’s not quite what Pope Francis said, actually, but it may be what he implied. Francis framed this as “avoiding pregnancy,” which is not exactly the same as using artificial contraception. Catholic doctrine calls for sexual activity to always be open to the potential for live as part of the self-sacrificing covenant of sacramental marriage — and that it should not take place outside of that particular relationship at all. The church teaches that natural forms of contraception, such as natural-family planning (NFP), can be used prudentially when the need to avoid pregnancy arises. Artificial contraception is considered a barrier to that self-sacrificial covenant relationship between spouses and God.

Did Francis mean that those concerned about Zika should rely on NFP? Here are his remarks in full, as transcribed by Catholic News Agency, emphasis mine:

Paloma García Ovejero, Cadena COPE (Spain): Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”

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.

The clear reference here is to some form of artificial contraception. Paul VI allowed nuns in Africa to use oral contraception in order to prevent pregnancy during an epidemic of rape, but it’s worth pointing out that nuns aren’t married and therefore oral contraception doesn’t interfere with the sacramental nature of a marriage. A more pertinent precedent might be found in the 1993 allowance of contraception in Bosnia, applied more broadly to all Catholic women for a similar rape epidemic during the Balkans conflicts. At the time, though, the church made it clear that the ban on contraception dealt with consensual sex within marriage, not rape:

An article in the Jesuit magazine Civillta Catolica, which is approved before publication by the Vatican, argues that contraception is a legitimate form of self-defence for a rape victim. The author, Fr Giacomo Perico, says that rape is an act of violence, to which the rules applying to an act within marriage cannot apply.

‘In this particular situation, it is legitimate to use contraception to avoid a possible pregnancy. It is not then a refusal of a gift of love, but a form of legitimate self-defence.’ …

Luke Gormalley, the director of a Roman Catholic research centre in medical ethics in London, says that the Vatican’s teaching is perfectly consistent. ‘The teaching about the wrongness of contraceptive intercourse is about a chosen sexual activity. It is not a mechanistic prohibition of certain substances.

‘But when you’re talking about rape, you’re not talking about chosen sexual activity at all. If she takes contraceptives, the woman is then defending herself against an extension of male violation.’

Francis’ extemporaneous citation of the Paul VI exception would appear to extend this to crisis situations within the realm of consensual marital sex. If so, that would be a very slippery slope for Catholic doctrine. What would qualify as a crisis? One could imagine arguments that poverty, genetic or health factors that might create a crisis pregnancy, or even marital discord or more than two children in a house could constitute enough of a crisis to manage prudentially through artificial contraception. And it won’t take long to see those arguments arise.

John Allen of Crux and I discussed this earlier, along with the Pope Francis/Donald Trump clash, and John believes that this is a signal to “pastors in the trenches” that crisis situations do exist and call for prudential judgment:

Most likely, though, Francis offered these thoughts as he usually does — frankly and genuinely in the moment without necessarily parsing them out as an intellectual exercise. That style has frustrated the Vatican at times ever since his installation as Pope, but it also endears him to many millions around the world who appreciate his pastoral style.