According to Roman Catholic priests, Zika-carrying mosquitoes are causing a theological enigma as well as creating medical challenges.
The church has forbidden almost every type of birth control, but health professionals in most Latin American nations are telling women not to get pregnant. Zika has been connected to incurable and neurological birth defects.
“I’ve never come across this advice, and when you hear it, you wonder what will the bishops do?” said Rev. John Paris a bioethicist at Bost College.
It isn’t clear yet what the odds are that a female who gets Zika will have a child with microcephaly. Newborns with the disease have tiny heads and unnatural brain growth. These twin issues bring developmental setbacks, convulsions, and difficulties with mobility and articulation.
From November 8 through January 30, over 400 children were born with microcephaly according to the Brazilian Minister of Health. Seventeen of the cases were linked to Zika and health care officials are examining over 3,600 additional suspected cases. As of August, that figure seemed to be stable at 4,900 according to Reuters.
Colombia, health care workers, have calculated that over the course of the present pandemic, 500 newborns will have microcephaly. And additional 500 will have Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological affliction.
This forces couples in mostly Catholic nations to:
- Refrain from sex for two years, or
- Use “natural family planning”, or
- Use more efficient birth control methods
The Catholic hierarchy has stayed silent. But that doesn’t mean the disagreement is gone.
Disagreement Among Leaders
Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, believes birth control is sinful regardless of the need.
“The prohibition (against birth control) doesn’t change based on the circumstance,” he said. “Couples have a duty to live in accordance with the church’s teaching.”
Other priests disagree.
“The binary idea that contraception is insidious or wicked may not be the best pastoral strategy,” said Reverend James Bretzke, a theological professor with BostonCollege.
Bretzke believes in the face of the consequences, a child who would suffer, things the church may not be such a hard line.
“In Catholic instruction, some would assume it would be ok to stop conception in situations like this,” said Bretzke.
Paris, the bioethicist, agrees that mitigating factors call for nuanced answers. “In the traditional world, you couldn’t have meat on Friday; if you were starving although and the meat was the exclusive food possible, of course, you would consume meat,” he said.
Another analogy is German families who stole coal in the days after the Second World War. Paris says: “The Bible says ‘thou shalt not steal,’ but is it evil for a father to get a pail of coal to save his family from freezing?” The answer is no. Of course not.
Although representatives of the Latin American Bishops Council did not respond to questions, some believe they expect the bishops will publish a declaration directing Catholics not to use “artificial” birth control.
But Bretzke and Paris, Jesuits like Pope Francis, believe the church will remain silent.
“It will be fascinating to see if, and how, Catholic administrators weigh in,” Bretzke said.