Sunday, February 28, 2016

Rape and Contraception

Is rape an exception?

Now that I've got your attention, here's another long essay. (And you thought you would be free of this after you graduated.)

Don't worry. I'll get back to Islam soon enough. But this issue niggles.

By the way, I welcome arguments for the opposite point of view. Just because you disagree with me doesn't mean you're a heretic.

Necessarily . . .


Catholic moral theory prohibits contraception on the grounds that it is intrinsically evil. Recently, however, there has been talk of possible exceptions or special cases where the use of contraceptives may be licit. Pope Francis himself suggested that married couples might allowably use contraceptives to prevent conceiving a child with birth defects caused by the Zika virus.

I think it's safe to say that Catholic ethicists have generally rejected the Pope's reasoning, with the exception of dissident ethicists who were pro-contraception to begin with. (What this says about the state of the Church and the current papacy, I'll leave for another time.) Among other things, the 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae was quite clear in rejecting the use of contraceptives by married couples for any reason.

However, another sort of exceptional case is currently being discussed--the use of contraceptives to prevent conception in the case of rape. Ironically, the discussion was prompted by the Pope, in support of his Zika claim, citing an alleged historical example that has now almost certainly been debunked as a myth--the story of the Belgian Congo nuns who were "on the pill."

I have written elsewhere that this story is not only false but maliciously false--even obscene. And indeed it was denied by the Vatican when it last publicly surfaced in 1993. This hasn't stopped some Catholic commentators from continuing to use it as a moral thought experiment: True or not (they have argued), it shows that there are some cases--rape being one of them--where use of contraceptives might be licit.

But independent of relying on a bizarre and grotesque moral hypothetical, these commentators appear to have another thing going for them: For at least the last fifteen years the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has apparently endorsed the use of the Morning After Pill for rape victims. This quasi-official instruction is contained in the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (no. 36).
A woman who has been raped may defend herself against a conception resulting from sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medication that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.
It is important to note that the USCCB prohibits the use of anything that might be or function as an abortifacient. Many Catholic ethicists have claimed that the medical evidence now shows that there are no post-coitius contraceptives that meet this standard, and thus the 2001 USCCB directives implicitly get the science wrong.

This is obviously a very important debate but I want to leave it here for now. Rather, I want to assume with the USCCB that some of the contraceptives in question are merely contraceptive in nature, that is, they merely block or prevent fertilization. In that case, would it be licit to take them in the case of rape? Or to put it negatively, if contraception is intrinsically evil as the Catholic church has always taught, how could it be allowable in this case?

I think the answer is that the USCCB is incorrect--contraception is not allowable, even in cases of rape. But I want to consider the argument for the contrary position. Where does it go wrong?  

In certain recent articles and discussions, one claim has been that we simply know it is licit. Why? Because the USCCB has told us so. This assertion, I suppose, has the added bonus of introducing a new definition of infallibility to the Magisterium. If a bishops conference pronounces on a philosophical claim on page 211 of an instruction manual for doctors, we know it to be true.

In fairness, there is also an actual argument that some Catholic theologians have set out.

Warning: the following discussion may get slightly gross.

The argument makes use of the doctrine of double effect: While blocking conception is an intrinsically bad result, we may intend a good result that merely has the blocking of conception as a foreseen though unintended result. A woman may obviously resist a rape, which of course may have the consequence of blocking conception. Thus, in the same way (so goes the argument), the use of contraception after penetration has occurred--i.e. the next morning--may be properly thought of as resistance to the rape. Blocking the sperm, or preventing it from fertilizing the ovum is no more morally problematic than attempting to physically throw off an attacker. The intention is not to contracept but to defend oneself against a rape.

But this misunderstands the doctrine of double effect. We may not do an intrinsically bad thing if that thing, even if not intended per se, is being used as a necessary means to achieve another albeit possibly good end. Blocking conception after a rape, while the general intention might be good--to avoid having a child (in and of itself a perfectly allowable intention)--includes the blocking of conception as a necessary means. What else would the purpose of taking a contraceptive pill be but that?

Against this it is claimed that what is occurring is self-defense against the rape, not the blocking of conception per se. There is no principled difference (again, so goes the argument) between attempting to block the penetration of the rapist and attempting to block (say) the continued progress of his sperm.

I still find this argument bizarre. Among other things it is an abuse of the English language. It doesn't diminish the horrible crime of rape in the least to say that rape, like most human actions, is implicitly defined as having a beginning point and an end point--that end point being no later then when the attacker leaves the scene. One doesn't go to the police or to a clinic the next day and say, "I am currently being raped even as we speak." And again, this is not to devalue the awful potential consequences of rape--physical or mental--which may unfortunately last a lifetime. But these are consequences, not the ongoing continuance of the rape itself.

The linguistic contortions necessary for the argument can be shown by this passage from a published Catholic theologian (much published, according to his website):
Similarly, after a rape is completed, if a women enters a hospital emergency room and is given a non-abortifacient spermicide, this medical intervention has the moral object of interrupting the rape.
Did you get that? After a rape is completed, one may interrupt the rape. Or at least one may have "the moral object" of interrupting the rape. That makes no sense.  

One could grossly say, I suppose, that the rape ends when the sperm reaches something, or fails to reach something. But this is also not how we use the word. Rape is not defined as a forcible attempt to fertilize an ovum. Among other things, men can rape other men, men can rape woman in ways that cannot possibly lead to conception and so on.

This bizarre stretching of the definition is an attempt to get around the fact that contraception is intrinsically evil. The only way to do that is to somehow redefine contraception as something else.

But answers to moral questions can never be about mere definitions of words. So, for the sake of argument, let's imagine that rape does continue way past the duration normally thought. As that sperm is attempting succeed in fertilization, hours after the initial act, the rape is continuing to occur. When does it end? It is possible, of course, that fertilization will occur and a baby will start to grow. That baby was not intended by the victim, nor is it morally required that she desire to have that baby. If we define a swimming sperm as the continuance of an attack, why not define a growing baby in the same way?

Or to look at it another way, suppose the baby were not a person but merely a tumor, starting to grow malignly. Surely in that case resisting that could justly be looked on as self-defense, made manifest as a result of the rape, whether we wish to say that the victim was still being raped or not.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that resisting that baby would be justified, nor does the USCCB suggest that. Indeed, it explicitly condemns abortion even after rape. The reason it condemns it is the correct one--that killing the baby, even as merely a means to achieving a permissible end (not wanting to have a child that one had no part in consenting to) is intrinsically evil.

So, there it is. Intrinsically evil. We can redefine rape as lasting nine months. We can call abortion after rape "self-defense" (and it perhaps would be self-defense, just not justified self-defense). But because killing the innocent baby would be intrinsically evil we cannot do it.

But for some reason the USCCB refuses to apply this logic to contraception.

Abortion and contraception are both intrinsically evil. If you want to say that one is more evil than the other (as virtually everyone would), that's fine. But they are both on precisely the same grounds when it comes to functioning as absolute side-constraints to our actions. We cannot intend to do them, either as ends themselves or as necessary means to achieve other ends, even if those ends are good ones.

Redefining words or concepts--rape as a two-day process--is one way to cheat this logic, but as I have tried to show, even that fails.

Why is all this important? The question of contraception after rape is not just a remote sort of case. If one adds "date rape" into the mix, this sort of issue is no doubt dealt with virtually every day. Though actual rape is horrific and it may seem unfeeling to ask a rape victim to refrain from doing anything that she believes will help her, it is still wrong to compound things by introducing further evil into the situation.

Equally importantly, the history of ethics in general and Christian and Catholic ethics in particular, show that these sorts of moral "exceptions" have the tendency to eventually undermine the entire moral structure. That's certainly why some defend and advance them. They hate the Church's teachings on sexual morality but they know they cannot, at least at the moment, attack those teachings directly. So they float these sorts of arguments.

Others are perfectly faithful and sincere and have merely been convinced on the not completely unreasonable grounds that important Catholic people or groups such as the USCCB have endorsed them. And of course, some faithful Catholics are convinced by their own sincerely made arguments. Their arguments are nevertheless unsound. That's not a criticism per se. It happens.

But it's still dangerous.

The Belgian Congo nun case was a thought experiment floated by three Catholic theologians sixty-five years ago. They were explicit in claiming that their argument could not and would not be used to justify contraception within marriage. (Whether or not they were sincere in this I have no idea.) Two weeks ago they were proved wrong.

By a pope.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Doctrine of Double Effect

Recently, the doctrine of double effect has been mentioned in the context of discussing the morality of contraception.

I want to take a few posts to discuss the doctrine and its applicability in Catholic ethics. In this post I will simply try to explain the doctrine.

What is the doctrine of double effect?

The doctrine states that one may if certain other conditions are met, perform an action where certain intrinsically bad results are foreseen but not intended. These conditions are:
  1. The results intended must be good or at least neutral.
  2. The action itself cannot be intrinsically bad.
  3. The bad results foreseen must not be a necessary means to achieve the intended results.
  4. The good results must sufficiently outweigh the bad results.
  5. There are no practicable alternatives that have fewer bad results.
  6. There must be due diligence in minimizing the bad results.
The necessary means condition is in a sense a way to prohibit cheating regarding intentions. Consider this claim:
When I robbed the bank and fatally shot the bank guard, my intention was not to kill the guard, but to fund an Hawaiian vacation. Thus, the guard's death, while unfortunate was merely foreseen (or at least foreseen when I pulled the trigger) but not intended.
It is the means condition that prohibits this sort of sophistry. I had to, or at least I thought I had to given the circumstances, shoot the guard to carry out my greater intention (otherwise the guard would have shot me or arrested me, etc). Thus, in an important sense, his death (or at least his incapacitation carrying with it a high chance of death) was indeed intended by me, whatever I might say after the fact.     

It will be useful to look at two examples from war, one general or hypothetical, the other unfortunately real:

Suppose one is fighting a just war. Many thousands have died in this war, including both soldiers and civilians. If the war continues, many more thousands will die. However, imagine that there is the opportunity to conduct a military operation that will end the war: If a certain set of bridges in enemy territory is bombed, the enemy will realize the situation is hopeless and thus surrender. Assume, however, that despite taking the greatest precautions, it is highly likely that some civilians will die in the bombing operation. Is it morally permissible to bomb the bridges?

We can go down the list:
  1. The intention is to end the war--a good result.
  2. While destroying bridges is often a bad thing, it is not an intrinsically bad thing.
  3. The bad results foreseen--the probable deaths of some civilians--is not a necessary means to achieve the end. If, by some happy circumstance, no civilians are killed, the end will still be accomplished.
  4. By assumption, the number of lives--military and civilian--that will be saved by ending the war, are much greater than the number of lives that will probably be lost in the bombing action.
  5. There is no other military operation that will end the war quickly.
  6. Everything possible has been done--by properly instructing the flyers to bomb only a small area, operating at night so there will be fewer civilians nearby, etc.--to minimize civilian casualties.
Given these answers, double effect would say the act is permissible.

Contrast this with a case taken from history--the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Some of the answers to the above conditions will be similar. Assume the intention is to end the war, not to take revenge on the Japanese or send a message to the Russians, etc. Assume also, that even though thousands will die in the bombing, many more thousands, perhaps even many millions will die if the war continues. No other significantly different alternative exists to end the war. Assume that the Japanese leadership is sufficiently cynical or hardened that exploding the bomb over the ocean or in an uninhabited area would have no effect or might even be interpreted as cowardice.

The key difference, though, is with condition 3 (and also therefore 6). Many thousands will die in the bombing. Are their deaths not a necessary means to achieve the intended result--ending the war? I think the answer is No. Their deaths are in fact the necessary means by which the end is accomplished. The reason the enemy will surrender is his horror at those deaths, and by extension his horror that more deaths will occur as a result of more atom bombs being used.

Thus, condition 3 is violated. Double effect says the Nagasaki bombing was not permissible.

Further thoughts:

It might be argued that the deaths of those at Nagasaki were, as in the first example, simply unavoidable casualties. Thus, their deaths were not a means for the result to be achieved. The inhabitants of Nagasaki were simply and tragically (so continues the argument) like those who lived near those bridges, caught in the middle, so to speak. While this is not really very credible, there is no doubt that some of the participants in the actual bombing looked at things in this manner. The city was "strategic," war materiel was produced there, it was a port and rail hub, etc. The means used to convince the enemy to surrender included the destruction of a city, not the killing of civilians (or so some of the participants may have convinced themselves). But of course this description is belied by a number of facts including the assumption that exploding the bomb simply as a demonstration, would not have worked. While one might claim that the goal was simply to destroy buildings or whatever, it's pretty clear that this would be false claim. 

The immorality of terror bombing is not based on numbers. Let's assume 50,000 souls perished at Nagasaki. That's not what made it wrong per se. Imagine an alternative scenario where the only way to end the war and thus save millions, would be to (somehow) sneak into the palace and kill the Emperor's young son. Assume that only this will be enough to make the Emperor see reason, etc. Killing the son would still be wrong.

We may not kill even one innocent person to save millions of persons.

It is here that we see that double effect is not a tricky license to do more, but a constraint limiting us to do less. War examples help us see this. Once one is involved in a war, any action or inaction will almost certainly result in the deaths of many, including civilians. If we advance, some will die. If we retreat, some will die. If we do nothing, some will die. Recalling the plane sent to bomb Nagasaki will spare the lives of some of its inhabitants, but it will also result in thousands or even millions of others dying due to the continuance of the war. Looking at it this way makes it clear that it is only the doctrine of double effect that keeps conventional morality from collapsing into pure utilitarianism. If every action has bad results, shouldn't we simply choose the one that minimizes them? Double effect says that while consequences are important, there are still certain things we cannot do, regardless of how the consequences are weighed.

I hesitated in using the Nagasaki example, partly because it is fraught with implications I want to avoid. Bombing Nagasaki was wrong. But moral culpability is a separate question. That it was wrong doesn't mean that President Truman was morally equivalent to Hitler, or that the pilots of the bomber were morally equivalent to concentration camp guards. This doesn't relieve the participants of responsibility, of course. But whatever any Catholic or non-Catholic might say, moral reasoning is often difficult or complicated, especially in war. And good men can often do the wrong thing while at least in part trying (in some sense of trying) to do the right thing. That bad excuses can almost always be offered for even the most gravely evil actions does not mean that there cannot be justly deserved mitigating factors in many situations, even the most horrific.

Or to put it another way, the purpose of the doctrine of double effect in particular and Catholic moral theory in general is not merely to point fingers at how various people did the wrong thing, but to offer clear guidance on how we can do the right thing.

Clear guidance. That the right thing is not always the easy thing or the obvious thing is all the more reason why voices in the Church should never be ambiguous on these matters.  

Next, double effect in abortion and contraception.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

National Catholic Bioethics Center Directly Contradicts Pope Francis on Contraception

A few days ago, Pope Francis and his spokesman Federico Lombardi directly contradicted the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church on contraception, including directly contradicting the clear words of Pope Paul's 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae. Various "Catholic" individuals and groups quickly lined up to support Francis, including the often heterodox Filipino Catholic Bishops Conference. But a surprisingly large and strong set of Catholics--beyond the expected set of minority traditionalists--has now risen up to resist, as if Francis, after years of this this sort of thing, has now crossed an obvious line.

Who knew that line would be you know where.

Thus, we now have a statement from the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) firmly rejecting the Pope's recent claims. The NCBC is a Catholic "establishment" or "mainstream" group if any group is, featuring on its Board of Directors the archbishops of a number of American cities, including Sean Cardinal O'Malley of Boston and Donald Cardinal Wuerl of Washington. Here is an excerpt:
Zika Does Not Justify Abortion or Contraception 
February 22, 2016 
Given the spread of the Zika virus and microcephaly within the Western Hemisphere, some have recommended the use of abortion and contraception as appropriate tools in the fight against this disease. In the following statement, the Ethicists of the NCBC reply to numerous media inquiries and give guidance to faithful Catholics on this topic. 
Full stop: "Some have recommended"? Who would that be, precisely?
. . . Zika is the most recent and high-profile instance of any number of diseases that might have deleterious effects on the unborn children whose mothers contract it while pregnant. In no way, however, would it 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. 
. . . Humanae vitae also goes on to explain what “due respect to moral precepts” includes. Paul VI teaches that such respect excludes “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” (HV, n. 14). In response to the notion that contraception might be an acceptable lesser evil when compared to direct abortion, he further clarifies: 
. . . Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one. . . Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. (HV, n. 14) 
This provides the foundation to answer a question increasingly being asked—whether it is ethical to use contraceptive methods, such as condoms, to reduce the likelihood of transmission of the Zika virus. Apart from the scientific questions about the actual effectiveness of condoms in disease prevention, using condoms to reduce the likelihood of Zika transmission amounts to directly intending contraceptive acts of intercourse as a means to a good end. It “deliberately frustrate[s] . . . the natural power and purpose” of marital intercourse (see CC, n. 54). In the case of a woman who is already pregnant, condom use could not have the effect of preventing pregnancy, but it would prevent a true marital act from taking place, which always involves a complete giving and receiving on the part of the husband and wife.  
Some might also wonder about the use of contraceptive pills or intrauterine devices as a form of self-defense against the disease. This line of reasoning is invalid: hormonal contraceptives, IUDs, and morning-after pills do nothing to prevent sexual transmission of disease, but rather prevent the conception of a new human life or the implantation of an existing embryonic human being. Their use would amount to directly intending contraception or early abortion as a means of preventing potential birth defects. In other words, it would deliberately violate the unitive and procreative meanings of human self-giving in marital intimacy or purposefully destroy innocent human life, which are means that no good end can justify.
I'm not predicting that all the players will necessarily stand by this. Thus, O'Malley and Wuerl didn't write this letter and it wouldn't surprise me if they in effect disavowed it. But it also wouldn't surprise me if they didn't. The tide is possibly turning and you never know how people interested in holding onto power or merely just landing on their feet will react.

Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

What Will Pope Francis Do Next? Dig Up Pope Paul VI's Body and Put it on Trial?

"You gave contraceptives to nuns!"

If you're not a student of Catholic history, don't laugh. The digging-up-the-previous-pope's-body-and-putting-it-on-trial thing did actually happen once

Make no mistake, the recent statements by Pope Francis and the Holy See Press Spokesman Federico Lombardi on contraception and the Zika virus are a direct attack on Humanae vitae and Pope Paul VI himself.

Though the time and context may have been initially surprising, the attack itself should not have been. 1960's-style dissident Jesuits such as Francis hate Humanae vitae. At the time they thought Paul VI was one of them or at least was controllable. They were to some extent right about that Hamlet pope. But Humanae vitae--perhaps the one case where Paul fully resisted the dissidents--was their great and unexpected defeat, the fly in the ointment, so to speak. They never forgave him for that.

Humanae Vitae was a defeat for them, but it was a defeat that, true to Pope Paul's character, was not followed up. On the main, the dissidents simply ignored the encyclical, or cited it as a typical undemocratic act by a fossilized Church desperately trying to hold onto power against the People of God. Paul never did anything about this. The dissidents continued to hold onto their teaching positions and religious appointments.

John Paul II and Benedict reiterated what Paul had set down in Humanae vitae, often forcefully but, like Paul, generally without any follow through. One might say that the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the inevitable result of this unresolved state of affairs, expressed in the debate on contraception as well as other matters. Eventually they would get a pope like Francis.

In Humanae vitae, Paul VI wrote:
Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one...Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good. It is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (18)—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order... 
In his infamous recent plane interview, Pope Francis seemed to imply precisely the opposite--that on the contraceptive question it is sometimes acceptable or unavoidable to weigh a lesser evil against a greater one--the background case in question being the Zika virus, which allegedly caused a certain birth defect. Those who claimed that the Pope hadn't precisely said that, were then confronted by a clarification from the Lombardi, who set the new position out clearly:
The contraceptive or condom, in particular cases of emergency or gravity, could be the object of discernment in a serious case of conscience. This is what the Pope said.
But according to the earlier Pope, acts that are intrinsically disordered or evil--as all uses of contraceptives are--can never admit of exceptions. Indeed, that passage of Humanae vitae almost seemed to anticipate the very reasoning of Francis before condemning it.

What would make Pope Francis's attack on Paul all the more vicious was his cloying reference to the alleged actions of Paul himself. Paul--who had written against the use of contraception--was cited by Francis as, in effect, handing out contraceptives to (wait for it), yes, nuns!

This blog and others have shown this claim to be a myth, or more strongly, a lie. Just twenty-three years before, a previous Vatican spokesman had publicly denied it. But here was Francis and then Lombardi, who, at least by the time of Lombardi's clarification should have been well aware of the Vatican's previous denial, hurling it at Paul again. They didn't portray it as an attack, of course. "Blessed Paul," that "great" man, was just as merciful as Francis, it was sweetly implied. Sure he wrote Humanae vitae, but he also gave The Pill to nuns.

Some, including at least one Catholic traditionalist, have speculated that Francis and/or Lombardi must be aware of some hitherto secret information in the Vatican archives confirming their claims. That's absurd. Francis has no interest in that sort of thing. He reads La Repubblica for ten minutes a day and that's enough. He's probably afraid that if he tiptoes down to the archives and touches the wrong item, he'll instantly turn into salt.

They might as well dig up the body. Now that Paul is dead he can't defend himself, so why not just be up front about it?

But here's a better idea for the other side, Let's call a council now and put the current pope on trial. Paul VI didn't say anything new in Humanae vitae. Rather, he confirmed part of what had been unchanging doctrine since the second century Church Fathers. Two of Paul's recent predecessors had also confirmed it (here and here) as well as those who immediately followed him. Attacking the central principles of that encyclical is heresy, pure and simple.

For good measure, let's add the charge of slandering a former pope. Can we do that, canon lawyers? If we start now, maybe we can finish things up by the end of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Anatomy of a Jesuit Myth

They weren't on The Pill

I was going to subtitle this "The (Last?) Word on that Bogus Nuns Taking Contraceptives in the Belgian Congo Claim." But I hope it's not the last word. That is, I would be interested in seeing any additional information anyone else might have on this. Whatever my feelings on the Pope or contraception (and you know what they are), I actually think this is an interesting sort of detective story.

Yesterday, Fr. Z wrote a good post on the matter. I was highly critical of part of what he said in a previous post. But in that same post he also correctly suggested that the story of the nuns was almost certainly an "urban myth." And he then followed it up with some good research. I want to put on the record what I have found in my own digging, which both corroborates his research and I think adds to it.

As far as I know, much of the information below has never appeared on a blog. Certainly it has never appeared together in one place.

As an aside, Fr. Z and I will not be collaborating on any scholarly research in the foreseeable future. He has blocked my known IP addresses (my home computer and my phone) from accessing his website.

I guess that's what I get for equating Fr. Z with a water-skiing Fonzie.

So, here's what I have. I hope you find it interesting. If not, thanks for the click and I'll see you on my next shorter post:


A few days ago Pope Francis and then his spokesman Federico Lombardi repeated the story of nuns in the Belgian Congo in the early 1960's taking contraceptives because they were at risk of rape.

The story has been told in various forms for the last twenty years. Sometimes it has the Catholic authorities looking the other way. In others, it has them issuing a special dispensation to the nuns. Sometimes the authority or authorities is a local bishop or bishops. Other times it is "the Vatican" or the Pope himself--Paul VI, when he is mentioned.

Francis put it this way:
Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape...Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of blessed Paul VI, it was clear.
The next day, Lombardi doubled down on the Pope's altitudinal remarks, confirming and reiterating the historical claim.

One recent scholarly source for the claim is Aline H. Kalbian in her Sex, Violence, and Justice: Contraception and the Catholic Church (2014):
This issue of preemptive contraception was debated vigorously by Catholic moralists in the early 1960's. The case that then received much attention in the pages of Catholic journals was that of the Catholic nuns in the Belgian Congo. Ambrogio Valsecchi describes the "test" case in general terms: "It is the case of a woman, more precisely of a nun, who, fearing she may be raped makes use of pro gestational drugs to induce sterility and prevent eventual conception." Bayer [Edward J. Bayer, Rape Within Marriage: A Moral Analysis Delayed, 2003] also recounts the case and provides a little more detail about "the plight of religious Sisters and other woman caught up in the uprisings in the Belgian Congo." He writes: "These women were given anovulant drugs by doctors on the missions in order to ward off pregnancy which might otherwise result from the rape which was a constant threat in that chaotic episode." Bayer also described the Magisterium's lack of response on this issue. He claims that "the Magisterium, however, made no effort to intervene...and...even quietly reviewed the case and tacitly accepted the actions of the mission doctors as being in harmony with the moral doctrine of the Church."
Interestingly, part of this passage was quoted in a paper written only a few weeks ago--just days before the Pope's remarks--by a group of dissident pro-contraception "Catholic" scholars, who end their paper by pronouncing: "The consensus of contemporary Catholic scholarship is that Christian couples may responsibly use contraceptives." Notably, they misquote Kalbian, ascribing Bayer's 2003 words as her own.

Remember Professor Kalbian, as she'll have more to say at the end of this post.

There are many other contemporary references to the story. But none of them cite any original sources--for example, newspaper stories or eyewitness accounts. Indeed, all the references seem circular. I'm with Fr. Z. in tracing the first such reference to a 1993 paper in Civiltà Cattolica by the Jesuit Giacomo Perico, discussing the ethics of contraception against the background of alleged mass rape in the then current Bosnia war.

Perico was apparently one of the minority "conservatives" (one contemporary source used the term) who helped Pope Paul VI write his anti-contraception Humanae Vitae in 1968. But he would soon emerge as a quasi-dissident, attempting to push "exceptions" to the traditional teaching, which in at least one case were disavowed by the Vatican.

Toledo Blade, 5 March, 1993
Perico's paper was a minor cause-celebre and the claim about the Belgian Congo nuns was picked up by a number of Catholic and non-Catholic news sources. But shortly after the paper was published, the Vatican denied the claim:
Vatican Furor Over Bosnian Rapes 
It Denies Allowing Nuns In Danger Zones To Use The Pill 
March 05, 1993 | By New York Times News Service. 
Catholic publications in Rome have reported that several nuns became pregnant after being raped in the former Yugoslavia. The Vatican this week denied that it had permitted abortions for them. But newspapers then reported that nuns working in parts of Latin America and Africa in the 1960s and '70s used contraceptive pills because they feared rape and pregnancy. 
The controversy took yet another turn Wednesday when an unidentified Catholic theologian was quoted as saying that the use of contraceptives-absolutely forbidden by Roman Catholic doctrine-was permissible by nuns "in defense against an illegitimate act of aggression."
The unidentified theologian, first quoted by a news agency regarded as close to the Vatican, was said to have differentiated between such use of contraception and the prevention of the transmission of life by a couple. 
The remarks were widely interpreted in Italian newspapers Thursday as an authorization of contraception for nuns. One newspaper published a front-page headline that read, "The Pope Says Yes to the Pill for Nuns in Bosnia." 
Seeking to quell the controversy, the Vatican's deputy spokesman, Monsignor Piero Pennacchini, said Thursday that there were "no Vatican documents in this regard" authorizing the use of the contraceptive pill for nuns in dangerous areas to avoid pregnancy. 
[It's unclear whether  the "unidentified theologian" is Perico or someone in addition to Perico.]
It would be interesting to quiz Pope Francis or Lombardi as to how their current statements contradict those of a Vatican spokesman from only twenty-three years before. Were they aware of the contradiction? How would they explain it? Is there new evidence on this that they would like to share? Or, given the previous Vatican denial, would they care to revise their current claims?

PR veterans or Vatican conspiracy theorists might argue that the assertion that "there were no Vatican documents in this regard" is not a categorical denial that it never happened. But let's leave this part of the story here for the time being.

To the apparent fact that there were no sources prior to 1993 that reported the story of the Belgian Congo nuns, we can add that there were numerous books and papers published from 1960 to 1993 that dealt in exhaustion with the Catholic position on contraception that would have had an interest in reporting the story if it were true, either because they were advancing dissident pro-contraception arguments or simply to be comprehensive. John T. Noonan's Contraception (1965), at 581 pages, "the first thorough, scholarly, objective analysis of Catholic doctrine on birth control," is one example. I'm looking right now at another--Catholic Thought on Contraception Through the Centuries by Joseph Sommer (1970). I'm not sure if Sommer was a dissident, but his book is full of interesting cases and examples. If he had any information on contraception practiced among nuns in the Belgian Congo, I assume he would have included it. 

Is the fact that there are no original sources or sources previous to 1993 absolute proof that the story never happened? Of course not, since it is impossible to prove a negative. But it's highly suggestive that it's false.

So, did Perico just make it up? I don't think so. But what is almost certain is that he knowingly or unknowingly turned what had then been a hypothetical moral thought experiment into a supposed fact.

Montreal Gazette, 1 February, 1964
We can trace the thought experiment back to a 1961 paper by three "Jesuit theologians." In the heady days of the 1960's this paper would be cited again and again by Catholic dissidents wishing to push the limits on contraception until Paul VI would quash their efforts with Humanae Vitae. It will be useful to quote in full a 1964 AP story on the paper and subsequent controversy:
A leading Roman Catholic moral theologian here says there may be a relaxation of the Church's strict ban on contraception because of the rape of nuns in the Belgian Congo four years ago. 
Very Rev. E.F. Sheridan, rector of suburban Willowsdale's Regis College, foresees probable justification for the use of oral contraceptives by persons threatened with rape but doubts whether abortion or pills for married women will ever been condoned. 
He was commenting on an article by a United Church minister in a recent issue of the United Church Observer. 
Dr. Ernest Marshall Howse of Toronto suggested in The Observer article that three jesuit theologians, studying the violation of the nuns, recognized that artificial contraception is morally permissible under certain circumstances. He said the group presented a considered judgment--on which the Vatican has so far made no comment--that nuns in danger of rape may properly use contraceptive pills and also can "eliminate all traces and consequences" of all aggression. 
The findings of the study were published in the Roman Catholic Theological review Studi Cattolici of November-December, 1961. 
According to Msgr. Pietro Palazzini, a cleric highly regarded for his moral theology studies, "a woman can resist sexual aggression with all her forces." 
"She can slightly mutilate her face in order to make herself unattractive; she can also eliminate all traces and consequence of the aggression including the fecundant element abusively laid in her womb." 
Msgr. Lambuschini, another member of the study team, said: "We conclude that the use of pills which suspend temporarily a woman's fertility, can be considered morally legitimate." 
Dr. Howse asked; "How long before what is moral in their (the nuns?) situation becomes moral in other situations for other women who, for legitimate reasons, do not want children?" 
Father Sheridan said in an interview: "When three theologians of such high reputation as these men say this, any Catholic can, in safe conscience, follow the advice in the circumstances exactly implied, until contradicted by the Holy See." 
In other words, it could be understood that nuns can safely use contraceptives to prevent the possible outcome of rape. Father Sheridan added that he understood the Jesuits' findings to justify contraception for violated women other than nuns. 
"But I don't think there is any possibility of defending use of contraceptives of the oral type by married couples," he said.  
He added: "When the theologians speak of preventing any consequence of rape I am quite certain that they would never justify abortion but refer to attempts to expel the spermatozoa before conception. These attempts are licit under the circumstances described, as long as there is no danger of abortion.
There are a few important things to note here. First of all, the story of the Belgian nuns is treated not as fact but as a philosophical jumping off point for a particular argument--that contraception would be licit under certain circumstances. As it was creepily put, the Jesuit theologians were merely "studying the violation of the nuns."

Its's also interesting to see the manner in which in 1964 the envelope on changing the traditional Catholic teachings on contraception was aggressively being pushed: "When three theologians of such high reputation as these men say this, any Catholic can, in safe conscience, follow the advice in the circumstances exactly implied, until contradicted by the Holy See." This sort of thing would eventually lead to Humanae Vitae.

Finally, observe the strong denial that such reasoning could ever lead to married couples taking contraceptives. That was just proven false by the current Pope.

Remember when I said above that the circular references to the story being fact only go back to 1993? That was true enough, but there is actually a source from much earlier that made a different and more spectacular claim about the Belgian Congo nuns. In 1967, the German bi-weekly magazine Deutsches Panorama alleged that the nuns had actually been given secret abortions by the Vatican, or at least so it was reported in a NZPA (New Zealand) dispatch of the story as recalled a few years later:
European nuns who became pregnant after being raped by Congolese soldiers in July, 1960, were allowed by their Church superiors to undergo abortions, the bi-weekly magazine, "Deutsches Panorama", reported yesterday. 
The Catholic Church and the parties and government closely associated with it, the magazine commented, 'are likely from now on to have more difficulty opposing all interruptions of pregnancy on the grounds that it would be murder.' 
Most of the raped nuns who became pregnant, 'Deutsches Panorama' said, were Vincential Sisters of Charity working in the Congo as nurses and teachers. After their ordeal they returned to Belgium. 
Until recently, the magazine said, the public had assumed the nuns who became pregnant had been released from their vows and had delivered babies. 
'What really happened,' the magazine said, 'remained a closely guarded secret for many years. A leading Belgian gynaecologist, Dr Jean Snocck, a Brussels university professor, only now has revealed it — not for reasons of sensationalism but in he put it, to call attention to a crying injustice, and not publicly, but before only a small circle of leading Belgian physicians and scientists.' 
The magazine continued: 'Soon after the developments in the Congo, Professor Jean Snoeck explained, certain high-placed persons made it known to certain leading specialists in the field of gynaecology that the otherwise forbidden operations could be undertaken in certain special cases, with the specific approval if not at the suggestion of the highest Catholic authorities. 
The certain special cases, Professor Snoeck explained, were the nuns who became pregnant because of rape. He added that it was incomprehensible to him why that which is forbidden to a 16 year old student who is raped by a white-skinned drunk should be permitted in these special cases. 
'However, Professor Snoeck and his colleagues — also Catholics of Belgium and the whole world — see this crying injustice simultaneously as a hope, namely, as a sign of a basic change in the Church's view.'
The story may not have been known by Perico or any of the other later players. Of course, even if it had been known, its sensationalist nature and almost certain falsity would have prevented its use. Also, of course, that the allegation involved abortion and not contraception would not have bolstered anyone's case.

What the forgotten article does show is that, probably as early as 1967, even before Humanae Vitae, the thought experiment of the three Jesuits had taken on a life of its own among those with an ideological axe to grind who wanted to believe.

Paul VI in Uganda
Let's return to Professor Kalbian. Though she added fuel to the rumor fire with her recent book, she seems now to have somewhat recanted:
Aline Kalbian, a professor of religion at Florida State University and author of Sex, Violence & Justice: Contraception and the Catholic Church also looked into the Belgian nun story and came up empty. 
“I didn’t find any evidence of Paul VI saying anything about Congo and nuns,” Kalbian said. “And John XXIII didn’t say anything either.” 
Kalbian also pointed out that the Pill had just been approved for public use in the US in 1960, and that it wasn’t widely available in much of the world during the Congo crisis. She said the debate was likely a typical hypothetical premise that theologians bat around as part of their work. 
“This was a bunch of theologians debating the possibility [of providing nuns with contraception],” she said. “And all of it was happening under John XVIII, so it’s weird [Francis] invoked Pope Paul VI.”
In fairness, we'll quote the last part of her statement:
“It’s possible the pope has accessed Vatican archives and knows something about Paul VI and the Belgian Congo that we don’t,” Kalbian said.
Yes, possible. Pope Francis just made a very controversial claim about his predecessor, a claim that would be slanderous if false. Where's the evidence?

Kalbian's historical analysis brings us to the final piece of the puzzle. A number of European nuns were raped in the Belgian Congo in 1960 during the violent turbulence of de-colonialization, though leftists have long dismissed this as anti-African propaganda. It is these rapes that were "studied" by the Jesuits. There was another eruption of violence during the so-called "Simba Rebellion" of 1964 that also tragically included attacks against Catholic nuns. If the story as reported by, say, Francis is true, and the period in question was during the pontificate of Paul VI, who became Pope in June of 1963, then the women religious would have had to have "gone on The Pill" at about this time.

That's at least logically possible, of course. But consider also that The Pill was either unavailable or illegal in most Western countries during this period. It didn't become available in Belgium until 1965, and contraceptive literature was essentially illegal in that country until the end of the decade. Though, women used it in growing numbers in the countries where it could be obtained, there was still much controversy about its safety and side-effects, among other things.

Was The Pill available at all in the Belgian Congo is, say 1964-65, let alone obtainable by Catholic nuns? Did their bishops smuggle it in?

It's time to stand back and consider just how absurd and even obscene this whole bogus story is:

"Sisters, we're about to send you into/back into a war zone. There's a very good chance that you'll be attacked by rebels. These rebels are quite bloodthirsty and violent. It's very possible/probable that you'll be raped. If on the off-chance you're raped and not killed, then a really bad thing might happen--you might become with child. We can't really provide extra guards or anything to prevent any of this. But what we can do is give you some medicine which we've obtained on the black market. Don't worry, you might think it's morally wrong, but a 1961 academic paper contradicts that. Also, whether or not there might be any side-effects or other health dangers, consider how awful it would be, not to be raped per se, but to have a baby as a result of that. Here, Sisters, have some contraceptives."

The crisis in the Church continues.