On his flight back to Rome from Mexico, Pope Francis — as he has a tendency to do on international flights — made some comments that have caused quite a stir. The two issues that received the most media attention are his words about contraception and his critique of Donald Trump.
Regarding contraception, the pope was asked a very loaded question about whether “avoiding pregnancy” is less evil than abortion when it comes to preventing the spread of the Zika virus. In his response, the pope admitted that, while abortion is never permissible, there are rare circumstances when avoiding pregnancy (i.e. contraceptive use) can be permissible. He cited the example of Pope Paul VI who allowed nuns to use contraception in the extraordinary circumstance of rape.
It is nothing new that comments of a pope are being poured over the media’s “controversy sieve” in hopes of finding any semblance of laxity on moral norms. This happened with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s comments regarding condom usage in a 2010 “Light of the World” interview, where he said that a male prostitute who uses a condom to prevent the spread of disease can be said to have taken “the first step in the direction of moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on a way to recovering an awareness that … one cannot do whatever one wants.”
However, even with Benedict’s comments in the background, Pope Francis’ words seem to go further since he seems to have proposed contraceptive usage as something altogether permissible in certain circumstances, which is much more than Benedict’s acknowledgement of a mere step in the right direction.
What do we make of the pope’s comments? Are they in line with traditional Church teaching on this topic?
I would submit two things about how a Catholic should react to words like these from the pope.
First, understand that Pope Francis is primarily a pastor, not a theologian or academic, which means that he is less careful about precise nuances in his speech than a high-level professor might be.
Second, the focus of his papacy has not so much been to affirm traditional Catholic teaching as it has been to reach out to the poor and the marginalized. From his perspective, we already know what the Church teaches on these things, and those things are not going to change. His citation of Paul VI and his overlooked reaffirmations of traditional Catholic teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage in the same interview show that he has every desire to retain continuity with his predecessors. So, in the view of Pope Francis, rather than focus our attention on points of doctrine, we ought to turn our gaze outward and bring the Gospel to all people. These two points explain possible reasons why the pope may have spoken in the slightly garbled, misleading way that he did.
Third and finally, nothing that a pope says in an off-the-cuff interview is infallible, nor does it demand any form of assent from the Catholic faithful. There are two ways that the pope can speak in a way that demands assent. One is “extraordinary” and infallible, which is when he defines dogma ex cathedra, and these pronouncements declare an assent of faith from all Catholics. The other is “ordinary” and non-infallible, and demands an assent of mind and will (which is not as high as the assent of faith). Ordinary papal pronouncements include documents such as encyclicals and apostolic exhortations.
As far as I can tell, in-flight interviews of the pope do not fall into either of these categories, and therefore do not demand assent like an official papal pronouncement would. So even if Pope Francis did let his lack of interview know-how get the best of him when he spoke of contraception on the plane, it shouldn’t cause us too much worry.
Before I conclude, I will say this about the pope’s words on Donald Trump: the pope gave a very measured response to another loaded question. It was not he that brought Trump into the conversation, but rather the interviewer who set up a faux fight between the two men.
The pope’s now-famous words, that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” have reverberated around the Internet and caused many people to view Pope Francis as not only anti-Trump, but also anti-Republican.
This is an extremely misleading view, for all that Pope Francis really said was that building bridges is more important than building walls! Even Trump himself, who was initially outraged at hearing the pope’s comments, eventually realized and said publicly that the pope’s comments were blown out of proportion.
As mentioned above, it is nothing new for a pope’s words to be misinterpreted by the mainstream media. I will say that, with Pope Francis, these sorts of things seem to be happening much more often. While this is frustrating for many of the faithful who would rather not have to constantly explain to skeptics why the pope is still Catholic, the best we can do is patiently accept these annoyances and go perform a work of mercy, as the pope would no doubt wish.