Press conference

Pope Francis signals openness to birth control for Zika virus

Pope Francis landed back in Rome Feb. 18, 2016 after his trip to Mexico, and immediately paid a visit to St. Mary Major Basilica. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP)

Pope Francis landed back in Rome Feb. 18, 2016 after his trip to Mexico, and immediately paid a visit to St. Mary Major Basilica. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP)

ON BOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — While strongly rejecting abortion as a solution to the Zika virus now sweeping across Latin America and elsewhere, Pope Francis nonetheless appeared to signal an openness to birth control to prevent infection.

In remarks to reporters on his way back to Rome from Mexico, the pope cited a decision by Pope Paul VI in the early 1960s to allow Catholic nuns in the Congo to take contraceptives to avoid pregnancy due to rape.

Avoiding a pregnancy under such circumstances, Francis said, “is not an absolute evil.” However, he did not say specifically that he would approve contraception in the fight against Zika.

During an hour-long press conference aboard the papal plane, Francis also called Donald Trump’s proposal to build a massive wall along the US-Mexico border “not Christian,” said bishops who move around abusive priests should resign, reiterated the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, suggested the door is open to Communion for divorced/civilly remarried Catholics, and said St. John Paul II’s friendship with a married woman was nothing more than that.

Zika virus

On the Catholic response to the Zika virus, native to Africa and Asia but with outbreaks now prevalent in Catholic-heavy South and Central America, the pontiff clearly ruled out abortion as a solution. But he seemed to leave the door open as to whether the traditional Catholic principle of the “lesser of two evils” could apply to the use of contraception.

The Zika virus, transmitted by a mosquito, has mild symptoms in adults, but is believed to cause microcephaly in babies when a pregnant woman is infected.

“Abortion is never the lesser evil, it’s a crime,” Francis said categorically. “It’s to discard one to save another one. It’s what Mafia does; it’s a crime, an absolute evil.”

Regarding the “lesser of two evils” when it comes to contraception, Francis said that it’s a fight between the 5th Commandment (Thou shalt not kill) and the 6th Commandment (Thou shalt not commit adultery). But he avoided giving a definitive response.

“Let’s not confuse the evil of ‘simply’ avoiding a pregnancy with abortion,” Francis said. “Abortion is not a theological problem, it’s a human, medical problem … a person is murdered to save another one, in the best of cases. In others, just to have fun.”

He called abortion an “absolute evil.”

The pontiff did make an appeal for doctors to find a vaccine for the virus.

Donald Trump and his wall

Just hours after visiting the US-Mexico border to bless a group on the US side that included undocumented immigrants, Francis bluntly described a proposal by GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump to build a massive wall along the border as “not Christian.”

“Building walls instead of bridges is not Christian; this is not in the Gospel,” the pope said.

The pope said he hadn’t heard about Trump’s plan, but took reporters’ word for it, and said he’d give Trump “the benefit of the doubt.” But he added: “I’d just say that this man is not Christian if he said it this way.”

However, Francis declined to wade into US politics, saying didn’t want to “get involved” on whether a Catholic should vote for a candidate who proposes building a wall and deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Bishop accountability

Francis said a bishop who moves an abusive priest to another parish instead of reporting him to authorities “is an unconscientious man, and the best thing he can do is to present his resignation.”

“Is that clear?” he asked.

Given that the pope had just visited Mexico, where the Legion of Christ was born, he was asked about its founder, the late Marcial Maciel Degollado, who was found guilty by the Vatican in 2006 of sexual abuse and misconduct.

Francis said his predecessor, Benedict XVI, deserved “a round of applause” for starting the process of cleansing the Church of the “filth” of sexual abuse by investigating and moving cases forward, until his strength wouldn’t allow him to continue.

“[Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger] was the brave one who helped so many open this door,” Francis said. “I want to remember him because sometimes we forget about these hidden works.”

Francis, who in late 2014 created a commission for the protection of minors, said he “thanks God” for the uncovering of clerical sexual abuse, adding that the Church needs to continue on a path of cleansing, and that the Vatican department which deals with these cases, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has to work faster.

“Lastly, I want to say that [clerical sexual abuse] is diabolical, because a priest is consecrated to lead the children to God, and he eats [his victim] in an ideological sacrifice, destroying him,” Francis added.

Same-sex marriage

Asked about an ongoing debate in Italy over a bill to legalize same-sex civil unions and give gay and lesbian couples adoption rights, Francis said that “the pope doesn’t get involved with Italian politics” because he “belongs to all.”

However, he said his beliefs match “what the Church thinks,” and pointed out that his position has been stated before, given that Italy is not the first country to engage in this debate.

Last year, when same-sex marriage was approved in a referendum in Ireland, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, called it a “defeat for humanity.”

When it comes to gay marriage, the pope said, he upholds the Catechism, the official compendium of Church teaching.

Communion for divorced Catholics

Asked about divorced and civilly remarried couples, the pontiff said “the doors are open,” but it can’t be said that “from now on you can receive Communion” because that would be “a wound for marriage, for the couple, because it wouldn’t lead them through a path of reintegration [into the life of the Church].”

Communion, he said, is “the last thing,” because there are many Catholic couples that demand access to the Sacrament but only go to Mass once or twice a year.

The pope then went back to the testimony of a divorced and civilly remarried couple from Tuxtla, a city he visited on Monday. “They said ‘we don’t receive the Eucharist, but we’re integrated in the life of the Church.”

He was referring to Humberto and Claudia Gomez who said that those who have remarried after a divorce can’t receive the Eucharist, adding that, however, “we can receive Communion through the brother in need, the brother who’s ill, those imprisoned.”

JPII and his female friend

Francis also shared his thoughts regarding the recent disclosure of letters from St. John Paul II and a Polish-American woman, which revealed a deep friendship some have interpreted as suggesting romantic feelings by the pontiff, though there’s no suggestion that John Paul was ever unfaithful to his vows of celibacy.

Francis said that a man “who doesn’t have the friendship of a woman is incomplete.”

“The pope is a man,” Francis said. “The pope needs the input of women too. And the pope, too, has a heart that can have a healthy, holy friendship with a woman.”

He then said that a friendship with a woman is not a sin, it’s a friendship. “A romantic relationship with a woman who is not your wife,” on the other hand, he said is a sin.

“But women are still not fully appreciated,” he said. “We have not understood the good that a woman can do for the life of a priest and of the church in the sense of counsel, help, healthy friendship.”

* * * * *

On several opportunities before departing for Mexico, Francis said that the main reason behind his trip was his desire to visit Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared in Mexico City to an Indian in 1531.

He had asked to have some alone time with her, something he got on Saturday, after celebrating a Mass for 40,000 people.

“I asked her for the world, for peace, for so many things … poor her, she ended with her head like this,” the pope joked, making a gesture of exhaustion.

He said that he’d also asked Our Lady for priests to be real priests, nuns real nuns, and bishops real bishops. “But what a son asks of his mother is secret!” Francis added.

Asked about what his dreams are, Francis didn’t doubt: “China, going there.”

Inés San Martín is the Vatican correspondent for Crux, stationed in Rome. More