Mosquito vs Monsignor: For Catholics, Zika Pits Tradition of Authority against Tradition of Conscience and Compassion

MicrocephalyEven without Pope’s recent allowance for birth control “in certain cases,” Catholic tradition has long taught that each person must look to his or her own conscience as the final moral guide.

A brain damaged baby or an eternity in Hell—which would you rather risk? Some sincere Catholics believe that Latin America’s Zika pandemic forces practicing Catholics to choose between the wellbeing of their future children and the wellbeing of their souls. Consider these comments from a Catholic forum:

“Since contraception is intrinsically evil, it cannot be justified by the good intention to avoid harm to the prenatal, nor by the difficult circumstance of the spread of this virus.” – Ron Conte

“What’s disturbing is that any posters seem to think, in spite of clear and unequivocal doctrinal teaching on this topic, that there are still some (any) circumstances in which ABC [artificial birth control] for the purpose of preventing pregnancy is permissible. There aren’t. Period. Full Stop. End of Story. If you disagree, you need to work on better forming your conscience.” – SMOM

“A couple conceive and possibly have a child with a birth defect . . . “Suffering” for decades. [or] a couple uses condoms or other forms of birth control. Eternal suffering as they are separated from God. . . Pushing condoms to reduce a small percentage of birth defects puts millions of souls at risk.” Usige

Over the last 1500 years, the Church has promoted some wacky and harmful ideas about sex and reproduction. But any Catholic parent or prospective parent facing the nightmare of Zika should know that the relevant Catholic history and theology are far, far from unequivocal, and that few Catholics—either clergy or lay—believe that using contraception puts anyone’s soul at risk. In fact Pope Francis himself has now weighed in on the side of sanctioning contraception during the Zika pandemic, citing Pope Paul VI’s 1960’s decision to allow nuns in the Belgian Congo to use contraceptives during a time of violence and indiscriminant rape.

A Recent History of Catholic Debate about Birth Control

There’s no denying that the Vatican has a long record of advocating against planned parenthood—broadly defined–and lobbying globally to reduce contraceptive access. And the “doctrinal teaching” mentioned above, a Papal encyclical called Humanae Vitae, does explicitly forbid any family planning except periodic abstinence. But the story of that document sheds light on why most practicing Catholics at the time immediately rejected it, and why most today use some form of modern family planning:

In the decade of the sixties, change was happening at an ever faster pace—in particular change in sexual mores and gender roles—and the Church was under pressure to reconsider traditional opposition to family planning. The Pill—first approved in the U.S. in 1961—was rapidly becoming available to married women. More and more couples were limiting their number of offspring—and the social benefits seemed obvious to many.

In 1966, a “Pontifical Commission on Birth Control” made up of 72 members including bishops, theologians, doctors, and even five women issued a report recommending that the Pill be accepted as an extension of the natural cycle. “For it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature.”

Four dissenters signed onto a minority report arguing that a reversal would amount to conceding that Protestants had been right—a significant threat to Catholic moral authority, and in particular the Church’s 19th Century declaration of papal infallibility:

“If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches. . . It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation.”

In 1968, Pope Paul VI sided with the minority (and with papal infallibility), concluding the inquiry process with the Humanae Vitae encyclical, subtitled, On the Regulation of Birth. The encyclical rejects all modern forms of birth control as “artificial,” affirming that sex, while unitive, should be open to procreation. In a convoluted compromise, it does allow for periodic abstinence during a woman’s fertile period.

By the time the encyclical was issued, many Catholics had experienced the positive benefits of modern contraception on education, health, family wellbeing, and happiness. The Church’s anti-contraception stance slowed adoption of birth control in the poorest Catholic majority countries. But in Europe and the U.S., it instead did exactly what some Church authorities were trying to avoid: It undermined the moral authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. American priests who saw family planning as a positive social good made their disagreement public within days, and while a generation of devout Catholic women submitted to pregnancy after pregnancy—the price many paid was obvious to their own children. Former nun, Mary Johnson is the daughter of one such 1960s mother:

“She had just started her nursing career—barely a year out of college. By the time I was seven there were five of us. Not that she would go back or say that she regrets us, but I know it was very very difficult for her. It was a huge burden on her which made it not so easy for us, either.”

Today use of modern contraceptives among Catholic couples approximates that among non-Catholics, and the Vatican’s opposition to contraception continue to erode the credibility of the Church. In Johnson’s words:

“Most Catholics realize that the Vatican is led by old celibate men who know little about families or women. People realize that there is a moral good in planning our families and being able to control what happens and how you build that family–or not. It’s more of a responsibility than a sin.”

Some earnest believers do get stuck, says Johnson. They get caught up in the idea of papal infallibility, a sort of legalism on steroids. Hence the view of some that it’s now worth an eternity in hell simply to prevent one lifetime of microcephaly. But some Catholic authorities argue that such legalism itself is at odds with Catholic tradition, which from the time of Augustine has taught that the ultimate moral guide must be a person’s own individual conscience.

Individual Reason and Conscience the Final Guide

In his Summa Theologica, Church Father Thomas Aquinas wrote a complex argument that has developed into a Catholic doctrine now known as “the primacy of conscience.” Conscience, Aquinas argues, is guided by reason and comes directly from God, and so there is no sin in following one’s conscience, even if conscience is in error. Aquinas pointed to the writings of Augustine, who said, “Return to your conscience, question it…. Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.”

During intervening centuries, theologians have vigorously debated what this doctrine means and when it applies. Philosophy professor John Kavenaugh asserts that each person has a responsibility to ground their own conscience in evidence:

“As a practical moral judgment, conscience takes the form: “I ought to do X.” Aquinas points out that when I make such a judgment, I should follow it. But acting on my conscience is not enough. Like any other kind of judgment—business, artistic, scientific or athletic—we base our moral judgments not only on principles but on evidence, data and information. A judgment made without data, evidence or information is a foolish one indeed. Thus, Aquinas thought it is as important to inform one’s conscience properly as it is to follow it. If I refuse to look at evidence or information in forming my moral judgment, I am actually refusing to act morally.”

Although the idea that the Pope is infallible traces back to the Middle Ages, it became dogma during the first Vatican Council, in 1869-1870. Protestants were alternately appalled and derisive, and Catholic theologians felt the heat. In 1875, John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote a 150-page letter to the Duke of Norfolk, responding to accusations that Catholics had “no mental freedom.” Newman protested that Catholics didn’t deserve the “injurious reproach that we are captives and slaves of the Pope.” He famously remarked, “I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

Another famous quote supporting the primacy of conscience comes from a document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, a document which, while extolling the inviolability of conscience, also ironically insists that Catholic consciences be formed by church teaching regarding “blameworthy” methods of birth control: “For we have in our heart, a law inscribed by God… our conscience is our most secret core and our sanctuary. There we are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths.” —Gaudium et Spes, #16

Primacy of conscience is reinforced in Catechism #1777–“When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.”—and in Canon Law, which says that all persons “possess the right of embracing and observing the truth which they have come to know.” (#748)

The inviolability of individual conscience has been cited by Catholics who are theologically conservative as well as those who are theologically progressive, in the Hobby Lobby argument that Catholic owned corporations shouldn’t be required to cover birth control and—on the other side—in arguments for the ordination of women. It has led Catholics to defy ecclesiastical authority and tradition, as in Latin America’s liberation theology movement, in which priests aligned themselves with the poor. It has conversely led Catholics to argue that they shouldn’t have to supply pizza or flowers for gay weddings. Some of these arguments may seem either ludicrous or commonsensical from the outside, but the point is that the primacy of individual conscience is a profoundly central part of the Catholic tradition.

Zika Creates a Crisis of Conscience

For many Latin American Catholics, the Vatican’s opposition to family planning has long been simply background noise, a regrettable but ignorable quirk of old men—like excessive nose and ear hair. For others, it has been an inviolable article of faith. But the Zika pandemic has created a crisis of conscience for Catholics across the spectrum.

Evidence linking Zika to microcephaly is growing, as is concern that Zika may cause lesser forms of brain damage even when fetal cranium size is normal. Governments in plague-infected countries have advised women to delay pregnancy, but thanks to the influence of the Church, many desperate women have few options for managing their fertility and yet risk prison if they abort a high-risk pregnancy. According to the Guttmacher Institute, Latin American and Caribbean countries have the world’s highest rate of unintended pregnancy, and many women lack the power to deny sex to partners who demand it. Almost a third of women in the region report intimate partner violence.

Zika shines a harsh spotlight on the Church’s disempowerment of women and pervasive global interference in family planning policy, and the picture isn’t pretty. Condemning poor, desperate people to reproductive roulette seems cold and cruel under normal circumstances—but given present conditions even some conservatives are cringing.

As well they should be.

How well the Church itself fares through Zika will depend on how well individual women, children, families and communities fare. In the words of Brian Green at Santa Clara University, “At this point it becomes clear how there can be a tension in the Church’s teaching: we must never violate our conscience and our conscience should match Church teaching… but what if it does not? . . What is in dispute, then, is not so much the primacy of conscience, but the primacy of the Church’s authority for teaching conscience in a substantive way.”

Will the Church hierarchy assert, as some bishops have, that there can be no deviation from traditional teachings about family planning? Or will the hierarchy acknowledge, as Pope Francis himself has hinted, that there may be higher considerations? Either way, individual Catholics will have to weigh their spiritual priorities in light of their own lives and loves.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Christianity in the Public Square, Reproductive Health and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Mosquito vs Monsignor: For Catholics, Zika Pits Tradition of Authority against Tradition of Conscience and Compassion

  1. Paul Douglas says:

    Very well written, Valerie! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. madagascanlemur says:

    Good Gawd, Valerie! I know you escaped evangelicalism, but where did you come up with all that Catholic church theology and history? I was baptized in the church when I was two months old, and I consider myself an active member. But as a student in an exclusive all-women’s Catholic university, I decided that nothing is as black-and-white in faith or in life as the church wants me to swallow. Infallibility began as a formal doctrine in the 19th century. Before that was Pope Alexander Borgia infallible? During World War II, Pope Pius XII earned the label “Hitler’s Pope,” and now in a humanitarian crisis, the Curia of old celibate men (if they’re celibate) is whining more about the Reformation Protestants being “right” than they are about following Pope Francis’ merciful lead. As an educated Catholic woman with a carefully formed conscience, I support the women where the Zika virus is a pandemic. The hell with male church leaders. Don’t get pregnant and infected. Save your babies from microcephaly any way you can.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. whistlinggirl2910 says:

    I had never heard of the primacy of the individual’s conscience, as it relates to Roman Catholic doctrines, until I clipped a tiny quote about it made by a local priest from our local newspaper some 20 years ago. Since then I’ve heard nothing more. My city sits between the first and second most Catholic states in the US (RI and MA). Maybe the ‘conscience clause’ is better known elsewhere, but it’s been kept secret in the Irish, Italian, Polish, French Canadian Catholic congregations hereabouts.

    So I was delighted to see your wonderful explication of why Catholic teachings are changing, ever so slightly. This blog is a resource for those of us who left religious behind. We can, perhaps, reassure our Catholic neighbors and friends who may be questioning as to the true meaning of conscience.

    Valerie, you are a treasure and a bright spot in a dark time. The poet Theodore Roethke wrote a in his evocative poem that “In a Dark Time the Eye Begins to See”. For those of no faith or strong faith, I hope it will give us some light with which we may see our way forward, throwing off the heavy cloak of tradition as we go.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Kristen Armstrong says:

    Hey Val-

    You’ve been on my mind of late as it has been so long since I’ve had time to visit in Seattle and since you last visited me in Tiburon. Just touching base to see if you are possibly around any time soon, and we would have the chance to get some time together. I’m missing you!

    I’m holding out the pope is slowly inching his way towards condoning contraception…and wisely moving the dial slowly (yet as fast as the Catholic Church can stand without having to silence him)…fingers crossed.

    On the Wheaton front, I wonder if you get their emails regarding the canning of the professor wearing the habib in solidarity with Muslim women. I do, and finally read a bit from Wheaton just now tonight, and couldn’t keep from writing my comment to them (they say they are collecting them from anyone who would care to write in—who knows who’ll actually look at them?). This is what I wrote (admittedly a lot softer a statement than you’d make, and trying to strike an “insider’s” pose, rather than an outsider’s:

    I am deeply saddened by Wheaton College’s inability to recognize that we as Christ followers do not have the final truth about God and God’s identity. We have the revelation of Christ in our midst 2,000 years ago, believe him as our savior, and live our lives in service to others as he taught us to. We are wrong when our man-made theologies make us wary of a suggestion that the God of Islam or of Judaism might be the same God we worship and Christ worshiped and called “Abba.” Who are we to know? Who are we to cast out a teacher who dares to suggest a commonality in the one true God, honored by different faiths and cultures in differing ways, and by those who don’t recognize Jesus as their savior? Are we forgetting that Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian, and that his radical call to love and forgiveness and not to theological correctness was what got him in trouble with the religious leaders of his day? Is this current judgment by Wheaton College against the professor with the habib not an echo of this very past wrong that Jesus so ardently taught against?

    So, though I’m no Val Tarico, I do become way upset by “Christian” judgments of others regarding “right” theology. I want this nonsense stopped. I want its ridiculous and harmful medieval outlook to be outed, and for Christ’s actual teaching (so contrary to the institutionalized Church’s) to find air to breathe again.

    And really, would a white male faculty member who decided to wear a headscarf of some sort really be treated in the same way as this black female professor? It is really difficult to imagine that’d be the case, no matter what they say. But, perhaps it really is just the stickling point of what God it is that Christians worship/believe in, and their supposed monopoly of right theology…I don’t know. In either case, it’s greatly disturbing.

    Another thought: I’ll be in Vancouver March 24–27 for an Indian wedding. I’ll be busy at night, but will have some play time during the daytime. I’d love to “do” Vancouver with a buddy. If by any chance you have a day or two in there you’d like to come up and join for some fun, please consider doing so! (I’m mentioning the fact that I have reserved a two double bed room at the downtown Marriott there also to my Seattle buddy Seanna, just so you know there may be a night that she’ll join, too). I’d love to play with both of you, for that matter, up there!

    All for now, hope you are well and enjoying your Seattle wintertime. Come down for some sunshine any time, dearie!

    xo, Kris

    Liked by 1 person

  5. MB says:

    Valerie, feminist theologians have been writing about these issues for several decades and yet, you didn’t quote them. Instead, you quoted John Kavanaugh and Brian Greene. You’re a good writer but you have a terrible habit of always quoting men as authorities. Start quoting feminist women. Indeed, I was quite shocked and disappointed that you never wrote a tribute to Elizabeth Cady Stanton on her 200th birthday. Without classics like Cady Stanton’s “The Women’s Bible,” you would probably still be a struggling evangelical. Start giving feminist women the credit they deserve.


  6. metalnun says:

    As Brian Green said, “we must never violate our conscience and our conscience should match Church teaching…” That is the crux of the matter, as I discovered when I was considering joining the Catholic Church years ago for its liturgy, sacraments and support of vocations. I had strong disagreements with the Church’s teachings on sexuality especially, e.g., telling poor people to keep having more kids and “God will provide.” I was willing to “agree to disagree,” but was told that this was NOT an option! “You MUST agree with the Church’s teachings in this regard.” “But,” I protested, “How can I make myself believe something that I don’t believe?! I can’t go against my own conscience.” They replied, “You can’t trust your own conscience until it is FORMED according to Church teachings!” So there ya go. I ended up joining the Episcopal Church, same liturgy, sacraments and vocations, without all the silly rules and/or violation of one’s own conscience. I love Pope Francis, BTW. Hopefully he will be able to make some much-needed changes…


  7. Reblogged this on aunt polly's rants and commented:
    One of my favorite bloggers.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Arkenaten says:

    Excellent piece of writing , Valerie. I have recently come off a blog where the author likened abortion to the Holocaust, and included nice pictures too!
    I was also labelled a promoter for the extermination of babies. Truly wacky!
    I wonder how this particular US based conservative Christian woman – and others who are vehemently anti-abortion – will react if this pandemic spreads North to any serious degree and mother-child transmission of the the virus is confirmed?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. tildeb says:

    I cannot see how anti-contraceptive religious musings is granted equal or even superior weight in consideration with the very real risk and lifetime cost of producing a virus induced cephaly child… as if the conscience grants each position – intentionally putting a barrier between sperm and egg to avoid creating a cephaly child is equivalent to intentionally producing a lifetime of gross physical and cognitive dysfunction – as if six of one, half dozen of the other. This granting of equivalency is sheer lunacy because it’s irrational. There is no equivalency: there is simply religious impaired thinking hard at work causing real suffering to real people in real life and doing so in the name of piety. Going along with it as if rational is itself lunacy.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Hank Pellissier says:

    Hi Valerie

    Thank you for this essay. We will have Steven Umbrello post it to appear in about five days.

    Thanks Steven!



    Liked by 1 person

  11. Murphy says:

    Thank you for this article, valerie…as we thank you for all of your well-informed, well-researched articles. Once again you’ve hit the nail on the head regarding the difference between true morality and the faux morality of following dogma.

    Stay safe…J.A. Murphy

    Liked by 1 person

  12. mriana says:

    Anyone who views contraception as a sin and is unacceptable for any reason lacks education of human reproduction and development. “Period. Full Stop. End of Story.” To force a woman to bring a child with a permanently underdeveloped brain, which the child will have to live with for their probable short life, is wrong and totally immoral. No mother (parent) should have to through watching a child suffer and die or even watch a child never reach full human potential. I have seen children born with no more capacity than to just lie there and watch the world go by, if they can even comprehend that the world is going by, all because a parent believed that it was life and that the child can understand, communicate with just eyes, and learn. This is not life, seeing other children run, jump, and play when all one can do is just lie there, unable to speak, move, or even possibly lack sensory stimulation sensation (it was believed that the child could feel a feather, despite lack of response). Life for a child is being able to run, jump, play, enjoy feathers, running their hands through sand as they explore the world around them, not lying on a blanket watching the world go by. Anyone, during this time of a Zika virus, who believes contraception is morally wrong and denies “a soul” life, has no comprehension of what life is, much less the misery they impose on others. I’m glad the Poop has updated his views on contraception, no matter if they are only slightly past a neanderthal education of what contraception really is. He could possibly save lives because of the updated view, leaving a future opening for parents to have a happy and healthy family, without extreme suffering.


    • STLICTX says:

      I’m pro-choice as anyone, and totally in favour of access to contraception to anyone for any reason… but the ableism that surrounds a lot of the rhetoric in favour of it, such as is found in your post, is something I find profoundly disturbing. Who are you judge what live is worth living? Most people who have developmental disabilities, including every one I personally know, find that their lives are worth living and would rather be alive than not, and while one can’t speak for those who can’t communicate in a way we understand that’s all there is to say in that regard; we can’t speak for them. The individual you mentioned might have in some way had one of the happiest, most fulfilling lives to ever be lived on this earth and we can’t know either way without them being able to speak for themselves on the matter
      The concept of “life unworthy of life” has a history to it you probably don’t want to be associated with, and the worst atrocities surrounding that particularly disgusting idea started with nice, compassionate-sounding rhetoric too. So, I’ll defend the fundamental human rights of anyone; I’ll defend your right to say(or have an abortion or general access to reproductive choices) whatever you want even if I disagree with what you say(or your reasons for your particular reproductive choice)… but certain spoken ideas and certain reasons for choices, while they ethically can’t be stopped, are directly in line with those supporting some of the worst atrocities in history.

      Never again.


  13. T.A.H. de Ruyter MB, ChB says:

    Much of the discussion here is about: ‘authority’, ‘irrevocable’, etc. How about starting to ‘level the playing field’ as follows:
    Father, is the statement that mechanical contraception is intrinsically evil AN INFALLIBLE TEACHING. If so, please quote me its number, so that I can look it up in Denzinger (where all the teachings are written down) ?
    Typical answer you get: “NO, but surely 150 eminent theologians cannot be wrong.”
    Father: is the statement that 150 eminent theologians cannot be wrong AN INFALLIBLE statement. If so, please quote me its number, so that I can look it up in Denzinger.
    In this way you continue until there are no more: ‘but surelies’ left.
    You will find it does not exist, not even as ‘definite’ teaching in Denzinger, thusis completely absent. Do not believe me, ask your Parish Priest.


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