Monday, February 22, 2016

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.


  1. FYI I think Fr. Z's blog is completely down.

  2. “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.

    No, in his airplane comments, the Pope specifically cited "Civilita Cattolica"as his source. No digging in the archives for him.

    By the way, Father Z's blog is up.

  3. It's 1964, you know that the Simba's are on the move. Do you tell your nuns to stay with the orphans and the sick and be raped and killed but tell them it's okay because you smuggled birth control pills to them months ago or do you order them to evacuate? And seeing that most victims of the rebels were hacked to death how many actually got pregnant?

  4. Just a thoroughly, thoroughly EXCELLENT post. Thank you for doing the work that 'journalists' won't do.

    We are the frogs in the pot and they keep turning the up heat to the point where it's making the VII machinations look like Trent...we're beyond boiling point and the Registers and Z's and Longeneckers just keep soapin' up like its a jacuzzi. I really can't get over the fact that people just refuse to see how fully (and moreso by the day) francis fits the bill as false prophet. (make Daniel 9-12 your pre-bed reading tonight)

    Pope Francis(PF)
    False Prophet(FP); same syllable and stress pattern even...diabolically ironic, no? No tin-foil hat reasoning here...I just see the diabolic humor signature in so much of this...almost like he's waiving a big banner in front of our faces, and we're doing everything we can to avoid looking at it.

    Sister Lucy:
    "the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid, she added, because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue. And then she concluded: however, Our Lady has already crushed its head."

    This has always been the goal, target, and trophy for the enemy; satan can't create, and he hates that God made us procreators with Him. Contraception (including sodomy…really the ultimate contraception) has always been the serpent's trump card, and he's playing it to the full, setting up the Catholic version of Lambeth.

    This latest heres-tatement by the pope has the masterpiece "Deeds of the Antichrist" by Luca Signorelli flashing thru my head. What exactly is this man gonna have to say or do to make people wake up?

    Some good food for thought from a great post at
    “Now when [the Pope] is explicitly a heretic, he falls ipso facto from his dignity and out of the Church, and the Church must either deprive him, or, as some say, declare him deprived, of his Apostolic See.”
    St. Francis de Sales, “The Catholic Controversy”

    “…a pope who is a manifest heretic by that fact ceases to be pope and head, just as he by that fact ceases to be a Christian and a member of the body of the Church; wherefore he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the judgment of all the early fathers, who teach that manifest heretics immediately lose all jurisdiction.”
    St. Robert Bellarmine, “On the Roman Pontiff”

    “If God permitted a pope to be notoriously heretical and contumacious, he would then cease to be pope, and the Apostolic Chair would be vacant.”
    St. Alphonsus de Liguori, “The Truths of the Faith”

  5. Good work and thank you!

  6. Bear has come around to agreeing that this is a big deal. It seems to the Bear's 450 gm. brain that between Pope Francis and Fr. Lombardi, the contraception toothpaste is out of the tube and this Lesser of Two Evils (Lo2E) test coupled with the "interior forum of your conscience" are being widely propagated, and are easy to remember.

    I can forgive an 89 year old pope repeating a well-established urban legend in careless fashion. The job then fell to Lombardi to correct it, and he simply doubled down on it and embroiders even more error into it. What I can't forgive easily is for the Pope to link the Lo2E test to contraception. First of all, I do not believe that is sound moral theology, but a misstatement of the "double effect." Please correct an old Bear if he is wrong, but he does not think the Church recognizes the Lo2E test. Bear does not recall St. Thomas Aquinas saying we may do evil if a greater good will result.

    Anyway, linking to your article.

    1. He's only 79 Bear...that's a big difference. He's not senile, but scheming. Look at the evidence of his life in Argentina.

    2. Not sure if this is a correction or not. The Doctrine of Double Effect actually comes from Aquinas. And it's most decidedly NOT a "lesser of two evils" sort of claim. Rather it's a Necessary part of most any deontological ethical theory that recognizes that actions may have many consequences--some good and some bad. Thus, far from not recognizing the test, traditional Catholic moral theory has embraced and accepted it since Aquinas.

    3. Agree Bear. These arguments could never be used to justify contraception for ordinary Catholic in ordinary circumstance as other approved options are available: abstinence or natural family planning.

  7. Thank you Mahound, that last paragraph is very well said. I was going to point it out, from a woman’s perspective, but you are quite able to empathize with the dilemma of the nuns.

    It would be very difficult to continue living and ministering to the poor under threat of rape, well before any consideration that a pregnancy might result and be intended by your attacker.

    Can’t the nun decide whether to continue living under that threat or withdraw from it?

    How much obedience does the Church and her religious order require? In the calculations of the Jesuits?

  8. Enter Prof. Janet Smith of Sacred Heart Major Sem, who proposes that utilization of contraceptive (NOT abortifacient) pills can be licit when considered to be "self-defense". (Thus, NON-marital, aggressive, intercourse, i.e. rape.)

    Following her theory--which also invokes 'double effect'--"the Vatican" would not have had to "give permission" at all, as self-defense is not morally controversial.

  9. Shouldn't there be some 50 year old black Belgians walking around who can attest that their mother's were nuns? There ought be some living proof.