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Pope Francis Justifies Contraception In Regions Affected By Zika Virus

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Pope Francis didn't exactly reverse the Catholic Church's long-held stance again contraception today, but in light of the rapid spread of the Zika virus, he appeared to make an exception.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken).

SIEGEL: He said if women were concerned about contracting the virus, which has been linked to severe birth defects, then avoiding pregnancy would not be, quote, "an absolute evil." The pope also addressed comments by Donald Trump whom he implied is not Christian - more on that in a moment. First, we're joined by Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press. She was traveling with the pope when he made these comments. Welcome to the program.

NICOLE WINFIELD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: What exactly was the question that was posed to the pope that elicited all this?

WINFIELD: He was asked in the context of Zika if avoiding pregnancy could be considered a lesser of two evil in this case. The pope didn't say flat out that it could be, but he said for one, abortion is an absolute evil. It's not a question of a degree of lesser of two evils. It's a crime, full stop. But he said as far as avoiding pregnancy is concerned, that is not an absolute evil.

SIEGEL: How did the pope's comments fit in with the church's long-standing opposition to birth control?

WINFIELD: The pope made the parallel to a situation back in the 1960s when Pope Paul VI authorized the distribution of contraception to some nuns in Belgian Congo. They had been subject to some horrific, violent attacks and rape. And in that case, because this was a case of physical attack, this was a way of preventing pregnancy as a result of rape, contraception was authorized.

SIEGEL: But as for abortion, no new room here at all I assume.

WINFIELD: None whatsoever and in fact, this is probably the strongest words that we have had from this pope against abortion. He has really emphasized, in this case, that abortion is not even a question for a situation like Zika or ever.

SIEGEL: How will this message filter out to clergy in areas affected by the Zika virus? Should we interpret this as doctrine coming from the Vatican?

WINFIELD: Well, again, as a lot of theologians have already started to chime in and say, this is very much in keeping with the church's moral theological tradition. The fact though that Francis drew the connection to the case of the nuns in Belgian Congo when Pope Paul VI allowed for artificial contraception to be used when these women were being raped in a context of war, I think that will pose some question for moral theologians that he's making a connection between a situation of war versus a situation of a health epidemic but not a war situation.

SIEGEL: Do you have any sense of how churches in Latin America are going to respond to these comments by the pope?

WINFIELD: Well, I have read - in the recent weeks, I have read some of the conservata churchmen in Latin America not making any wiggle room. Full stop, our abortion opposition stands firm, our oppositions to artificial contraception stands firm. The church in Latin America, as we saw in the pope's recent trip to Mexico, is very divided, though, just as it is around the world. So I'm sure you're going to have, you know, more progressive churchmen who might take this as, OK, you know, the pope is not opening any new doors because these doors always existed. But, you know, he's saying what is in the moral teaching of the church. There probably will be some conservatives who are saying, you know, why has he sown confusion? And the headlines are going to make people think that the church no longer believes that contraception is wrong.

SIEGEL: That's Nicole Winfield with the Associated Press. She's back in Rome having fun back on the papal plane. Nicole, thanks a lot.

WINFIELD: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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