What does the Church do?

Earlier this week a blog of mine on the Zika crisis in Brazil was published on the Catholic Herald website. Over a couple of days it had attracted 337 comments by the time comments were closed. I am reproducing it here to see what Secondsight readers think. You may like to visit: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2016/02/02/the-zika-outbreak-presents-the-church-with-a-major-dilemma/ and get the flavour of the comments so far. Incidentally, it may introduce you to the CH commentandblogs page, which carries interesting stuff. One question was not discussed here: if the Church allowed couples in Brazil to use artificial contraception to avoid the tragedy of microcephalic babies, what would happen to the authority of Humanae Vitae?

Will the Catholic Church keep quiet?

Humanae Vitae has, in its history, been challenged by events. There have been debates about the use of condoms as prophylactics and the morality of contraception in irregular sexual activity. But the outbreak of Zika in the (southern) Americas presents us with an altogether more direct problem.

Zika is an infection caught from the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It is strongly suspected, though not fully proven, that, in some pregnant women, it causes microcephaly in the foetus. (Microcephaly is a severe shrinkage of the brain, which damages brain function.) The World Health Organisation predicts that some four million people in the Americas will be infected with Zika this year.

And here lies the problem. The obvious and sensible precaution is to avoid pregnancy until the situation is under control. Unlike other attempts to circumnavigate orthodox doctrine, this precaution is explicitly and intentionally contraceptive.

The intention may be benign but the contraceptive action is held to be intrinsically evil. This is emphasised in Humanae Vitae, echoing Casti Connubii, “(It) is absolutely required that any use whatsoever of marriage must retain its natural potential to procreate human life.”

Bearing in mind that absolute commands may be hostages to fortune, the Hierarchy face a dilemma. Once it is accepted that artificial contraception is justified by benign intention, we open a gate we cannot close. But the options are not attractive.

Can we imagine the likely effects of proclaiming that married couples should refrain from sexual activity for an indefinite period? Might presenting this on the grounds that no contraceptive method is perfect be seen as disingenuous? Should all couples in the 21 countries at risk immediately master and use natural family planning? Or is it enough to keep quiet, and hope that no one asks any questions?

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44 Responses to What does the Church do?

  1. St.Joseph says:

    How safe are condoms.
    It a very serious situation to be in!
    For those Catholics and non Catholics that will not be a problem who are using NFP; at least more reliable than condoms.
    I don’t wish to be ascetic or uncharitable here, but have to make this point!
    God gave us an answer years ago, do we have to wait until something like this happens to listen!!

  2. Brendan says:

    The Church in Latin and South America is certainly between ‘ a rock and a hard place ‘ on this issue. Reading some of the comments on Quentin’s link there is one that caught my attention by a ‘ Buckingham88 ‘. He/She presents balanced compelling reasons and information , with a place I think for the Church to act immediately and swiftly and ( to be seen by a watching world ) effectively , whilst not compromising its stand in ‘ Humanae Vitae.’ The rest is up to the peoples of that area in putting their ever present flawed human nature into Gods hands . In the meantime Science can do its work in finding a vaccine starting from the paucity of information available.
    I echo St. Joseph here , in suggesting a massive roll-out of NFP through the Continent. If Mother Teresa did it in India with hundreds of couples and 100% success over time with mostly Hindus; then there is a high level of hope in fighting off this cruel viral disease . Rich Catholic Charities can help financially here ; why not for for instance , the German Church could be encouraged to part with a Billion euros , about a third of its annual revenue !
    Unlike the sloth of the West on proclaiming Church Doctrine in the area of contraceptive barriers and prophylactics , and its ambiguity in acting on Gods Providence in our discovering NFP – its time for South American Bishops to show the World what their made of !

  3. Galerimo says:

    Thanks Qentin. I suspect this is only a problem for the Teaching Authority of the Church. The practice of catholics exposed to this danger will have left them as far behind as it ever was since Humanae Vitae failed the Reception test all those years ago. Even the principle of double effect within its own teaching, if honestly recognised would articulate the good reason for responsibility for life on this occasion.

    • Brendan says:

      Without going into a moral maise , let’s try the obvious – following Church Teaching. in other words , and for Catholics at ‘ street level ‘ … the Bishops ‘ busting a gut ‘ to aim for the knowable , a near 100% success by NFP – where the nature of the act is good in itself . Why bother the conscience with ‘double -effect ‘ , when our planet will accept the success for what it is … except of course those of a flat-Earth mentality. Just pray for them !

      • Quentin says:

        Brendan, I am a great champion for NFP, having used it for many years, and I think the Church has been slack in promoting and providing for it. However it cannot be the answer here.

        A first point about reliability. Contraceptive methods are compared by their outcome on the basis that they have been used properly. NFP does well by this measurement. Unfortunately NFP is more complex to operate than most other methods and so there is greater vulnerability to error. This may be heightened among people whose lives tend to be disorganized for a variety of reasons.

        Secondly, it needs skilled training. We are talking about millions here across the Americas; it would be a major project to build up a sufficient corps of trainers, who themselves have to be trained. It would take years rather than months for every fertile married woman to be instructed (and every husband to be equally committed).

        We might add to that the lack of enthusiasm for NFP in our own stable and relatively prosperous society. We have no reason to suppose that the take up in the Americas would be higher.

        Sadly, NFP is not a runner in this crisis.

  4. St.Joseph says:

    Therefore what would you say a runner in this crisis would be other than sterilization!.
    There are children and adults who all their lives live with an illness who have to make sacrifices in their life time, who are unable to live a so called normal life,( as we see it) and who do this with marvellous strength and purpose. Just look at the Children in Aid programmes and see how wonderful they cope . I have had to modify my life with so many health problems over the years especially with Diabeties. heart problems and not forgetting cancer etc;. I consider myself fortunate when I see those children and adults far less fortunate than me and cope with so much courage.
    It would be simple to modify ones sexual intercourse to a infertile time even if it means once a month, which would be unnecessary- however ‘so be it’.

  5. Brendan says:

    Quentin – I accept what you say as a valid argument. With so many uncertainties surrounding the rise of Zika virus and its widespread reach , it is natural and tempting to fall back on rational decisions in face of The Church’s indecision over the practicalities of the resolution to a problem historical in nature – ipso facto , artificial means of contraception. But we know what Pandora’s box will be opened if the Church sanctions artificial contraception ….. the mess the West is in today. It may be rational ; but the Church on the moral high-ground is also the one with the joined -up thinking . The tragedy is that from the Bishops down not everyone is ‘singing from the same hymn -sheet and the secular world is more than happy with this confused state.
    Perhaps a general absolution temporary in a definite timescale , by the Pope ( given the emphasis on Mercy ) to those couples abstaining from sexual intercourse , is another answer for the faithful . Both methods would mean various degrees of discipline within the marriage situation .
    I could imagine from personal experience ( not that my wife and I have ever tried ) that the use of a condom within hitherto , a marriage faithful to Church Teaching could certainly sour the relationship and perhaps have negative life-changing consequences for that union. A great many non -Europeans are , what I would call , ‘serious ‘ about living out their faith ; as I have found among’st Filipinos and South Indians in my own parish .
    In the meantime we know that poverty ( material/ spiritual ) and Faith go together to make strong families . Something the West has largely downgraded, through a kind of collective amnesia.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Brendan. I hope I am not butting in here!
      But have I read you right?.
      Fertility Awareness, is also for spacing childbirth for a good reason.
      I don’t think that Pope Francis would have any need in the Year of Mercy to give a general absolution for Catholics who for serious reasons used NFP in the case of the Zika virus or any other serious condition
      The Church I believe would not encourage contraception when the Pill is dangerous, and it causes an abortion, also condoms are not 100per cent safe , endangering a baby if one is infected.
      The answer is to find a drug to prevent it
      It is not up to Holy Mother Church to solve the problem when God has already done that in the Beginning of Creation..
      We can put a man on the Moon so it cant be that difficult. .

      • Brendan says:

        I was not speaking in relation to NFP St.Joseph ; but Quentin’s legitimate statement on Church Teach… ” explicitly and .consciously contraceptive ” .. To deliberately refrain from the marriage act is against Church Teaching .

      • St.Joseph says:

        I apologise if I misunderstood you .perhaps I ought to have posted my comment to Quentin.
        But there were a few points I wished to make clear with regards to abstinence.as a contraceptive.
        My husband and I when my second child was born premature and I was told his heart had stopped beating it was due to a placenta rupture. Thank God he was born , but very small and raw and chest problems until he was 7. 3 miscarriages after that I was very ill. went down to under 6 stone, 2 children to look after . So we had no choice but to abstain.

  6. Iona says:

    If Zika is a virus like other viruses that infect human beings, then surely once infected we make antibodies to it, and once we have the antibodies we won’t catch the disease a second time. The situation then is very similar to that with the rubella virus (“German measles”). Even before there was a rubella vaccine, if girls could catch rubella before they reached childbearing age, they wouldn’t catch it while pregnant so their unborn baby wouldn’t be affected. Same with Zika – which I understand is rarely fatal and in the majority of cases completely symptom-free – if girls get it in childhood, they won’t get it later and their children won’t be at risk.
    I do realise this says nothing about the Church’s dilemma re avoiding conception while there’s Zika around. But it’s not a completely unprecedented situation.

    • pnyikos says:

      You make some excellent points, Zika. It would be very good also to know how great the risk is, percentage-wise, of microcephaly in foetuses, and also at what point in pregnancy it is likely to produce the effect.

      I should also add that microcephaly is not incompatible with near-normal intelligence. The “pinhead” Schlitze Surtees who performed in sideshows for much of his life, and in the cult movie “Freaks” [banned in the UK for thirty years] and might well have been more intelligent than his act made him out to be. This is almost surely the case with “Zip the Pinhead,” who had a similar career including performing in the Barnum & Bailey circus. See:

  7. Brendan says:

    St Joseph – Sorry I couldn’t get back to you on your singular experiences as a woman , but I had to leave my home quickly .. nothing to be concerned about.
    I used the word ‘ absolution ‘ to answer Quentin’s point , but I think ‘ dispensation ‘ would be more appropriate. I believe your personal experience and couples faced with the Zika virus outbreak would comfortably fall into the same category as Pope Francis’ would apply the principle
    of ‘ mercy ‘. by supplying a temporary lifting of culpability for what otherwise might be deemed ‘ sinful .’ I assume the local Bishop could act on behalf of the Church.
    I hope this approach is not too clumsy/ incorrect in its application.

    • Quentin says:

      Brendan, the difficulty here lies in the Church’s understanding. Artificial contraception, she teaches, is a serious wrong because it perverts the nature of sexual intercourse. That is, the nature of the act is to be open to procreation — irrespective of whether the woman happens to be fertile at that time. Because NFP does not breach this it is OK under certain conditions.
      Galerimo (above) writes of ‘double effect’. But this does not help us here because the rules of double effect require that the act itself, however benign the intention, must not be a wrong act in itself. This is why Zika puts it between a rock and a hard place..

    • St.Joseph says:

      Thank you.
      I believe the Zika virus is completely different to miscarriages.
      When it comes to miscarriages one has to be responsible for our own decisions and conscience..As long as their is no sin involved. My children and husband were the first priority. as is the Zika virus to babies.
      Their is no other100percent alternative but to abstain. like I had or ‘die’.
      Now of course things are different, I studied and taught Fertility Awareness because of my
      experience, (and another reason), and found out from mine by charting in 1982 and it helped so many to understand their fertility. in those days I don’t think they could fix placenta ruptures. Now of course it is well known with NAPRO .I eventually had a hysterectomy.
      This not only a wife’s problem but shared with the family.
      I don’t think that a man should go looking for another woman temporary. Not saying that many do.Love is not all about sexual intercourse Knowing you am sure you will agree.

  8. Brendan says:

    Pushing boundaries too far in life , ends up losing control of the whole .

  9. Geordie says:

    Not all viral infections produce lasting antibodies. Shingles is one example. The chicken-pox virus lies dormant in the spine. It doesn’t affect most people but some of us get shingles when the chicken-pox virus becomes active. In spite of claims that once you have had shingles you become immune, this is not true. The second time I had shingles my old Scottish doctor said you’ve got shingles. With my vast medical knowledge at thirteen, I informed him that it couldn’t be shingles because I had already had it. His responses was “If I tell you you’ve got shingles, you got shingles!” At 74, I’ve just had a miserable Christmas with my worst attack of shingles ever.

  10. Martha says:

    Geordie, I am sorry for your miserable Christmas with a bad attack of shingles. I have been lucky so far with mild symptoms. There is an injection intended to immunise against it, available under the NHS to certain very tightly specified age groups into which I just fitted last year. I had thought this was permanent protection, but read recently that it is only effective for one year, not sure how authoritative. Iona’s introduction of this possibility for the Zika virus does seem to me to give some real hope, long term, though as she says, it does not solve the immediate moral problem. The vaccination would need to be widely available to the poor of all countries, not exclusively for the rich. I remember also, when our daughter was given the German measles jab, a problem was raised about its origin possibly being unethical, stem cells from embryos I think.

  11. John Nolan says:

    Mosquito-borne diseases (including malaria which killed millions) were almost eradicated in the 1950s thanks to DDT. Sri Lanka is a good example. Then the Americans, using very dubious ‘environmental’ arguments, banned it and malaria became endemic once again. Is there a lesson here somewhere?

    • pnyikos says:

      I doubt that malaria was ever “almost eradicated” in Africa, where it has been such a scourge for such a long time that a number of human mutations have been established there to cope with it, including the well known sickle cell trait. [This is not to be confused with the debilitating sickle cell disease, which comes from being homozygous for the sickle cell allele; the trait is in people with one sickle cell allele and one normal allele in the chromosome pair with the relevant locus.]

      • tim says:

        Whether or not malaria was ‘almost eradicated’ there is no doubt that the banning of DDT caused millions of human deaths that could easily have been avoided. No doubt this was not sinful (because unintended) but with hindsight it can be seen to have been a very bad choice.
        Also, I’m not sure I follow your point about the sickle cell trait. One sickle cell allele (heterozygosity) protects (partially?) against malaria. Two (homozygosity) cause sickle cell disease. As the allele spreads in a population, resistance to malaria increases, and so does sickle cell disease.

  12. John Candido says:

    ‘If Zika is a virus like other viruses that infect human beings …’ (Iona)

    ‘If’ is the right prefix to start a conversation about the Zika virus and the church’s teaching on contraception. Medical science does not know whether or not the Zika virus is causal to clusters of micro-encephalopathy or microcephaly in children, although it is suspected that it plays some role in these cases. Because proper medical research takes years to come to a reasonably considered conclusion or a tentative outcome at best, medical, social and political considerations such as the concern about the Zika virus, need some inspired guesswork at times by medical scientists.


    Let’s assume that the Zika virus is indeed responsible for the current clusters of microcephaly, where it has been medically assessed. The question then becomes, how does the church deal with this issue and do the requirements of Humanae Vitae become or not become optional due to the context of people’s poverty & a lack of awareness of the option of NFP?

    Firstly, assuming people’s sincere intentionality to follow the demands of Humanae Vitae regarding artificial contraception & the principle of the doctrine of double effect, would in my view support a loosening of magisterial demands that Catholic adherents must avoid artificial contraception at all times. This is due to the uniqueness of their circumstances that place an unacceptable risk to children yet to be born.

    Secondly, an argument situated around moral theology, situational ethics together with the church’s own teaching about the exercise of people’s human consciences, (paragraphs 1776 to 1802 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church) can be mounted to support individual families to decide for themselves as to what is in their best interests regarding the management of risk to any children of theirs that have yet to be born, in consultation with the expertise of their doctors and any health advice from their government.

    Thirdly, the church should prioritise the application of moral principles towards the distinct situation that any individual or family should find themselves in, above an exclusivist, ‘Fortress Catholicism’ that emphasises doctrine above any other consideration and over any person’s life circumstances. Isn’t that called compassion and understanding towards others?

    I certainly think that the church will get ‘zero’ if it is a noisy and inflexible pronouncer of ‘got you’ rules that finds validation, justification & satisfaction, in a surfeit of aloof explanations of its traditions. I am not saying that the church’s magisterium is to be discounted and ignored by its adherents, because of exceptional difficulties like the current Zika virus and clusters of micro-encephalopathy in newborn infants.

    In other words, a balance must be offered to all people between strict adherences to magisterial concerns over & above the moral, ethical and practical reasoning of its adherents, as they freely and rightly exercise their own consciences, in sincerity and in good faith, to help them determine their personal course of action that is relevant to their circumstances. It is fair and reasonable for the church to do so in its service to all people.

    The pastoral application of moral principles must be a priority for the church. Compassionate pastoral approaches are what will endear the church to people, as a knowledgeable & relevant guide to their Christian lives that is seen and felt by them as both humane and divine. It is a stated priority of Francis’ that the church must be one of pastoral concerns over and above doctrinal pronouncements, however authoritative or definitive they may be.


    • John Nolan says:

      JC, if a ‘doctrinal pronouncement’ happens to be true, then no amount of ‘pastoral concern’ can negate it.
      What you call ‘compassion and understanding towards others’ is in fact what is known as ‘situation ethics’. That is certainly a defensible position to hold, but not one that the Catholic Church can adhere to.
      You are very fond of lecturing the Church on what she should or should not do, according to your own opinions. You never seem to consider why the Church acts and teaches as she does. After all, she has a divine mandate – you do not.

      • John Candido says:

        ‘JC, if a ‘doctrinal pronouncement’ happens to be true, then no amount of ‘pastoral concern’ can negate it.’ (John Nolan)

        I never said that pastoral concerns were ‘superior to’, ‘eclipse’, or ‘negate’ doctrinal pronouncements. Please read what I have written and try not to put words in my mouth, even if it is very tempting for you.

        Concerning ‘situational ethics’,

        ‘That is certainly a defensible position to hold, but not one that the Catholic Church can adhere to.’ (John Nolan)

        Of course you would say that coming from your perspective of what constitutes ‘moral theology’ or ‘situational ethics’. There are lots of theologians that differ from your view about ‘situational ethics’ or moral theology and its possible role in assisting or delineating responsible courses of action for individuals.


        ‘You are very fond of lecturing the Church on what she should or should not do, according to your own opinions.’ (John Nolan)

        You do the same lecturing yourself according to your own views about what the church ‘should or should not do’. I am entitled to have a view about any Catholic matter, teaching or discipline. If you don’t like them: tough. In doing so it may appear to you and others that I am ‘lecturing the church’. I don’t see how anyone in the Vatican is aware about what I think or would give me a second of their time. And your objection for allegedly ‘lecturing the church’ is…?

        My views are my own views, and thank God my views are not your views. I develop my own views and possess them as I see fit, and it doesn’t require your approval or any other person’s approval.

        ‘You never seem to consider why the Church acts and teaches as she does.’ (John Nolan)

        That’s your view. If the church has ‘lectured’ others throughout its 2,000 year history because it sees itself as possessing a ‘divine mandate’, that’s fine. I don’t see why the church cannot be humble enough to accept some ‘lecturing’ or ‘feedback’ from its own flock or those outside the church, from time to time. The church might actually learn something new and be the better for it.

        ‘After all, she has a divine mandate – you do not.’ (John Nolan)

        I have never claimed any divine mandate. Never have, and never will. It’s funny how you think I have though.

  13. Brendan says:

    St.Joseph – I thank you as a man , for your important insights.

  14. Geordie says:

    Martha, tanks for your concern and info but I too have heard that the immunisation is only 50% effective for older people.
    John Nolan, it is immoral to steal but, if you starving and destitute, you are permitted to steal food or the means to obtain food.

  15. John Nolan says:

    John Candido, I did not advance my opinion on situation ethics; indeed I acknowledge that one can make a philosophical and even theological case for it. But the moral relativism which underpins it cannot be reconciled with Catholic teaching. Views and opinions don’t come into it.

  16. Brendan says:

    Apparently Zika has been known for about 50 years or so , but not in such concentrations as to cause alarm. Professor Arnold Monto of Michigan State , who works on causes , containment and eradication of infectious diseases gave an informative interview to the Huffington Post the weekend on the subject . He concludes that killing of the said mosquito in areas that are infected and restricting movement of pregnant woman from those areas was the best ‘ modus operandi ‘ at present.

  17. Brendan says:

    The DDT controversy not withstanding ; NFP – what have our Bishops been doing for the past fifty years ?

  18. St.Joseph says:

    I have asked them that question.!!
    EWTN has been very informative with information on Fertility Awareness. and still do, but not every one watches it.

    Maybe Bishops believe that they are celibate and so are parish clergy and don’t feel confident enough to speak , but of course they ought to know how valuable information is to those who have to confess to them in Confession, and those preparing for the Sacrament of Matrimony, if couples don’t hear the good news with regards to NFP they will not be interested in finding out when they are infertile or fertile, it has the advantage of finding the cause of so many problems.

    As I have said many times before ‘now that we have married deacons they will be suitable to be part of the teaching power of the Holy Spirit to preach or teach the value of knowing ones fertility. for other reasons than birth control’.

    What a wonderful privilege that is for them to be chosen to be a part of the Good News for Holy Mother Church, whom they love so much .
    I consider it a privilege to have been chosen as part of my vocation!

  19. St.Joseph says:

    That is also my answer to Quentin’s question.
    What does the Church do?

  20. Brendan says:

    ST.Joseph – I can understand how a whole generation can feel a justifiable deep sense of betrayal and hurt by Catholic Bishops in the latter twentieth century ; and turn away from their Faith to flawed ideologies waiting with open arms in our troubled world. If I did not ‘ know ‘ there is no answer to The Lord as …. ”The way , the truth and the Life … ” I might have been set adrift long ago. As it is for ourselves and our Bishops … ” where sin abounds grace is in abundance .” -St. Paul.Rom.5:20- Thank God!

    • St.Joseph says:

      Thank you for your understanding comment.
      I always knew God would not leave me wanting in time of my distress , and I too Thank Him and Our Blessed Mother.

      • Brendan says:

        ” Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe ……….. heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away. ”

  21. Iona says:

    At present, all we have is a correlation between the prevalence of Zika virus and an increase in cases of microcephaly. Correlation does not have to imply causation. The situation is probably much more complex than “infection with Zika in a pregnant woman results in microcephaly in the baby she is carrying”.
    And going off at a tangent: I’m a bit put out to find that the shingles inoculation is only 50% effective, and/or is only effective for a year. I was offered it in 2014 (falling into the “correct” narrow age group at the time) and accepted. No-one said anything about 50% effective or only lasting for a year.

  22. Martha says:

    pnyikos Feb 8th 4.10 am, thank you in turn for your links, very interesting, the second one particularly so more personally, in regard to a nephew, now in his 40’s, whose hydrocephalus has seemed not to affect him at all for many years, which has always been a puzzle, They illustrate perfectly how complex are the issues in this week’s post.

  23. Peter Foster says:

    As we enter Lent in anguish over the many implications of the Zika virus, can I recommend the daily readings of “Lent at Home” accessible in English via ‘Les Textes’ at:


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