Maybe It’s the Cabin Pressure

Tom Flynn

Have you noticed? Riding on airplanes makes Pope Francis say the darnedest things.

On a July 2013 flight to Rome from Rio de Janeiro, Francis joined reporters for an impromptu eighty-minute Q&A. Responding to a question about gay priests, he said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” World media went wild, hailing what they portrayed as a softening of church doctrine by Recent History’s Most Lovable Pope.

Fast-forward to February 17, 2016. Aboard a flight to Rome from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the pontiff suggested that for Latin American women urged to delay pregnancy for fear of birth defects linked to the Zika virus, abortion is not an option—“it’s an absolute evil”—but the use of contraception might be considered a “lesser evil.” Again the media went wild.

Before we secular humanists get swept away in ecumenical euphoria, it’s important to remember what resulted from each of these boundary-shattering statements: nothing.

It’s been nearly three years since Francis’s remark regarding gay priests. In that time, what has happened to soften the official Vatican line on gay priests or regarding homosexuality in general? There’s been no follow-through, no tempering of church doctrine. In retrospect, “Who am I to judge?” was an empty question.

It’s already clear that Francis’s “lesser evil” remark is more of the same. It heralded no Vatican pronouncement authorizing couples in Zika-infested countries to use condoms. Perhaps David Willey OBE, the BBC’s longtime Vatican correspondent, summed it up best: “Despite the headlines, despite the almost universal perception that Pope Francis has brought a whiff of fresh air through the corridors of the Vatican, I detect no undue haste to undo the teachings of his predecessors.”

If we look closely at what the pontiff actually said in flight this February—as opposed to what some news commentators thought he said—it’s clear why no one should have expected the “lesser evil” remark to usher in real change. A reporter asked Francis whether in a case such as the Zika outbreak, with its high risk of birth defects, the resort to abortion or contraception might be considered a lesser evil.

“Abortion is not a lesser evil—it’s a crime,” Francis replied. “It’s an absolute evil.” Then his tone softened. “Don’t confuse avoiding pregnancy with abortion.” In extreme cases, he suggested, artificial birth control might be considered a “lesser evil.” Francis cited Cardinal Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini, who in the early 1960s condoned a theological paper suggesting that nuns in the then–Belgian Congo might be permitted to use oral birth control because militants there were using rape as a weapon of war. (In 1963, Cardinal Montini became Pope Paul VI.) Unlike abortion, Francis concluded, “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” in cases of extraordinary hazard.

Note what was not said. Francis never said that pregnant women in countries where Zika is rife are facing an extraordinary hazard equivalent to the one that confronted nuns in the Congo fifty-odd years ago. And he never, ever endorsed the conclusion to which any secular humanist would leap, namely, that contraception is a lesser evil than giving birth to a baby with microcephaly. No, what Francis said was that in certain exceptional cases—a category that may or may not include the Zika outbreak—contraception might, just possibly, be considered a lesser evil than abortion. Since Catholic doctrine views abortion as, you know, murder, that’s really not saying much. “In other words,” as Irish feminist Emer O’Toole put it in the Guardian, “contraception is still evil; it’s just less evil than killing people for lols.”

(In this regard, it’s worth remembering that the future Paul VI’s decision to tolerate the use of birth control by nuns in a war zone, enlightened as it seemed, yielded no definitive results either. After he donned the shoes of the fisherman, Paul might have sought to enshrine the logic of his earlier decision into canon law, but he didn’t. So Cardinal Montini’s wartime decision was, ultimately, as vacuous as anything his modern-day successor has proclaimed aboard an Airbus.)

Of course, viewed through a secular lens, it doesn’t matter what the pope said in thin air. As O’Toole reports, “A Univision poll shows that 91 percent of Latin American Catholics support the use of contraceptives, while a USAID report indicates that 62.5 percent of Latin American women use some form of modern birth control.” That latter figure might be higher, except that in many Latin American countries poorer women can’t afford contraception or may be unable to access it. Meanwhile, abortion is prohibited across most of the continent—and banned in four countries—meaning that some 95 percent of Latin America’s roughly 4.4 million annual abortions are unsafe.

At the end of the day, and despite fevered speculations generated by papal bon mots delivered at a cabin pressure equivalent to no more than eight thousand feet above sea level, the Roman Catholic Church clings to its harsh misogynistic doctrines on abortion and contraception. A statement by the National Catholic Bioethics Center—yes, issued after the pope’s statement—titled “Zika Does Not Justify Abortion or Contraception” says it all. (Arguably, that title alone says it all.) “. . . In no way, however, would [Zika] justify a change in the Catholic Church’s consistent teachings on the sacredness and inviolability of human life and the dignity and beauty of the means of transmitting life through marital relations. Direct abortion and contraceptive acts are intrinsically immoral and contrary to these great goods, and no circumstances can justify either. . . .”

The minority of Catholic women in Latin America who still try to live in accord with Vatican teachings will face the terrors of the Zika outbreak alone.

And on an Ironic Note …

Secular humanists cheered in December 2015, when the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris ended with a firm decision by nearly two hundred participating countries to do, well, something to keep global temperatures from climbing more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. Holding them to within 1.5 degrees would be even better, but there was general agreement that warming beyond 2 degrees would irreversibly damage the ecosphere. That agreement was less than three months old on March 3 when, for a few hours, temperatures across the entire Northern Hemisphere ran more than 2 degrees Celsius above normal. That’s right: If only briefly, the disaster that nations have pledged to prevent by, oh, 2050 has already happened—in the words of veteran environmental activist Bill McKibben, “for the first time in recorded history and likely for the first time in the course of human civilization.”

This development underscores how urgent—and perhaps, how insuperable—are the challenges we face. Clearly, the dream some international development specialists still cherish of elevating all the world’s poor into Western-style lifestyles of high consumption and high emissions is instead a nightmare scenario. The ecosphere could not possibly withstand all of humanity’s teeming billions living like Americans or Europeans, if such a thing were even possible. Based on March’s temperature excursion, there is reason to wonder whether the environment will survive what we’ve done to it already.

A new University of Melbourne study even suggests that The Limits to Growth, a pessimistic 1972 study frequently dismissed as methodologically primitive and excessively alarmist, has in fact predicted developments through 2010 with disturbing accuracy. Population, resource extraction, and other economic and environmental variables have all followed The Limits to Growth’s timeline almost doggedly for the past forty-odd years. That’s disquieting because the “Mad Max” part of that timeline is all but upon us. Its model predicts severe economic and political dislocations—falling industrial output starting just about now; rising death rates around 2020; and, by 2030, population losses around half a billion people per decade amid general socioeconomic degradation.

Consider that as you read this issue’s interview of Lawrence Krauss by Phil Torres concerning the probabilities that the human experiment might end altogether in this century.

We humans have our work cut out for us—if it isn’t already too late.

Further Reading

Maybe It’s the Cabin Pressure

Donaldo, Rachel. 2013. “On Gay Priests, Pope Asks, ‘Who Am I to Judge?’” New York Times, July 30.

National Catholic Bioethics Center. 2016. “Zika Does Not Justify Abortion or Contra­ception.” February 22. Available at http://www.ncbcenter.org/resources/news/zika-does-not-justify-abortion-or-contraception/; accessed March 14, 2016.

O’Toole, Emer. 2016. “What Hope Has Pope Francis Offered to Women Exposed to Zika? None.” The Guardian, February 22.

Willey, David. 2016. “Is Pope Francis’s Contra­ception Hint Just a Puff of Smoke?” BBC, February 21. Available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35620937; accessed March 15, 2016.

Wooden, Cindy. 2016. “In Zika Outbreak, Con­traceptives May Be ‘Lesser Evil,’ Pope Says.” Catholic News Service, February 19.

And on an Ironic Note . . .

McKibben, Bill. 2016. “The Mercury Doesn’t Lie.” The Boston Globe, March 4.

Turner, Graham, and Cathy Alexander. 2014. “Limits to Growth Was Right. New Research Shows We’re Nearing Collapse.” The Guardian, September 1.

Wagner, L., I. Ross, J. Foster, and B. Hankamer. 2016. “Trading Off Global Fuel Supply, CO2 Emissions and Sustainable Development.” PLoS ONE 11, No. 3.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


Why what the pope says in airplanes may not matter—and why our efforts to stem climate disaster may not either.

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