Zika virus: The Catholic Church hasn’t learned its lesson from the HIV/AIDS crisis

Is it still the 1980s for the Vatican?
Is it still the 1980s for the Vatican?
Image: AP Photo/Ivan Pierre Aguirre
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Pope Francis leaves Mexico today, after a five-day visit across the country. As expected, the head of the Catholic church addressed inequality, immigration, and violence linked to the drug trade during his trip. But curiously, he never mentioned some of the country’s most controversial and pressing issues: abortion and contraception.

Family planning is always a hot topic in countries with a strong Catholic culture. It is particularly so in the context of the Zika epidemic that has stricken Latin America: As many as 4,000 children may have been born with microcephaly as a consequence of being exposed to the virus while in utero—a condition that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads, which can lead to early death or lifelong developmental complications.

In Mexico, where six cases of pregnant women affected with Zika have been confirmed so far, the CDC recommends enhanced precautions while traveling to the country and reminds travelers on its website that “sexual transmission of Zika virus from a male partner is possible, so travelers are also encouraged to use condoms.” Several countries in the area, including El Salvador, Colombia, and Jamaica have issued recommendations that women avoid pregnancies for up to two years.

But how do you avoid pregnancy when your religious leaders forbid both contraception and abortion?

“Contraceptives are not a solution,” Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, auxiliary bishop of Brasília, told the New York Times on Feb. 13. In São Paulo, Cardinal Odilo Scherer has conceded that condom use is a personal matter (link in Portuguese), but stated that a baby born with microcephaly should be considered “a mission.”

Contraception use in Latin America is currently higher than the global average (pdf, p. 8), and a few countries in Latin America are flexible when it comes to abortion’s legality—in Cuba, abortion is legal in every case, and Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia allow abortion in cases of rape or to save a woman’s life. But the Catholic Church still wields significant influence over public opinion and even legislative decisions across the region.

In Honduras, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga has actively condemned requests that the strict laws banning abortions be amended to at least allow for “therapeutical abortions” in Zika cases, while Murilo S.R. Krieger, archbishop of El Salvador slammed a human rights organization (link in Portuguese) that asked for a revision of the strict abortion laws in his country (where women can be persecuted for manslaughter in case of miscarriage).

It’s up to each bishop to interpret church law as he sees fit, explains John Parnell, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Guanajuato, which covers parishes in Texas, California, and Mexico. Practicing Catholics are expected to follow the ruling of whichever bishop oversees their particular parish.

In his parishes, the use of condoms between married couples is perfectly fine, Parnell tells Quartz. “I don’t see anything wrong with it, if they’re married,” he said.

Pope Francis is also believed to have a somewhat relaxed view on the use of condoms, but he has kept silent on the matter. Broadly, the Catholic church is opposed to contraception, with the sole exception of what it calls “natural family planning”—or timing intercourse around a woman’s fertility cycles. Needless to say, this method is 100% ineffective in protecting partners from infection with the Zika virus.

This is not the first time the Church has failed to react effectively to a public health emergency. During the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s, the Church infamously opposed the use of condoms. Only in 2010 did then-pope Benedict XVI—after previously claiming that condoms made the HIV/AIDS crisis worse—finally concede that condoms could legitimately used to limit the risk of HIV contagion.

Even in cases of premarital sex, Parnell told Quartz he believed it is always better to protected: “It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as if you contract a disease,” he said.