Contraception in the Congo

A great deal is being made of a certain papal plane interview in which the Holy Father referenced a decades-old story that Pope Paul VI permitted nuns working in the Congo to use contraception due to the extremely high risk of rape. (A similar tale, which Pope Francis did not cite, involves Pope John Paul II giving the same permission to nuns who were ministering in Bosnia in the 1990s.) This has prompted Catholics to refer to the Paul VI permission story as an “urban legend” or, if you’re Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (Fr. Z), an outright lie.

I would of course encourage readers to examine Fr. Z’s post and the anonymous source he quotes at length to “prove” that both the Paul VI and John Paul II stories are fabrications. Then I would encourage readers to consider the following three points:

  • First, no definitive evidence has been offered by either “side” regarding the veracity (or lack thereof) of either story, though one might argue that those who support either the Paul VI or John Paul II stories carry the burden of proof here. With that noted . . .
  • Second, it is extremely unlikely that either story — if true — would ever receive official or even unofficial confirmation from the Vatican, particularly during the reign of Paul VI, the pope who authored Humanae Vitae. Confirmed knowledge of the permission (if granted) would have had a domino effect in the Catholic Church, leading to even more widespread dissent from the Church’s teaching on contraception than we see today.
  • And third, confirmed or not, who but Pope Francis would be in a better position to know one way or the other if one or several of his predecessors had granted permission for nuns facing a high risk of rape? Many want to assume the Holy Father is either misinformed or, worse, intentionally spreading an urban legend (or lie) to bolster his own (private?) view that contraception may be permissible under certain circumstances, such as the threat of the Zika virus.

My point in mentioning this is simply to caution Catholics from jumping on one bandwagon or the other with regard to either of the Paul VI or John Paul II stories (or both). Granted, the veracity (or, again, lack thereof) of either story neither adds nor detracts directly from the reigning Pontiff’s position (whatever that happens to be exactly). However, given what we have seen transpire in the Catholic Church over the past 50+ years, it is certainly not beyond the pale to wonder if either Paul VI or John Paul II would give such controversial permission to nuns and what that might mean for the future of the Church’s public condemnation of contraception which, I might add, may have little to do with the doctrinal truth of the matter going forward.

4 comments

  1. Perhaps Francis is further developing the doctrinal line on birth control of any form: completely illicit (Early Church Fathers through Casti Connubii) to Paul VI’s blessing of NFP (gross, but a development nevertheless) to St. JPII’s doubling down on NFP with his odd TOB lectures to Benedict’s HIV condom self-defense, which was more of a thought experiment, to Francis’ Zika statement.

    I don’t see how the apocryphal Congo nun scenario applies to Zika since the goal in the Zika case is to avoid conceiving babies with birth defects rather than rape conceptions, but then I don’t see how NFP is different from non-abortifacient contraceptives with respect to intent.

    1. It’s been forever since I read up on this (because it’s a boring topic), but how is NFP a development when the so-called rhythm method has been known since time immemorial. When has that ever been condemned?

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