Pope Francis probably got his history wrong when talking about contraception and Zika

Pope Paul VI never mentioned the Belgian Congo and the mass rape of nuns

Vincenzo Pinto/Getty

By Tim Townsend

Lost in the Trump-Pope rap battle over who’s a real Christian was another newsmaking nugget from Pope Francis’ plane trip back to Rome — about the Zika virus and contraception.

In an answer to a reporter’s question aboard Shepherd One from Mexico, Francis indicated Catholic women could use contraception if they were in danger of contracting the virus. Unlike abortion, the pope said, “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”

In supporting his case, the pope made a historical reference to one of his predecessors and the rape of nuns in 1960s Belgian Congo that left some Catholic theologians and historians scratching their heads.

Francis was speaking off the cuff, but he may have gotten his Catholic history wrong.

The Zika virus is hitting Catholic countries in Central and South America hard, and public health officials are telling women they should wait to get pregnant. But the Catholic church opposes artificial birth control. (Instead, it promotes “natural family planning,” a practice in which women avoid sex during ovulation.)

Just ahead of Francis’ trip to Mexico, the secretary general of the National Council of Bishops of Brazil said contraceptives aren’t a solution to Zika, and “there is not a single change in the church’s position.”

Catholic policy around contraception is complicated, but broadly the church opposes artificial birth control because it interferes with the natural process of procreation. In the eyes of the Vatican, it simply isn’t OK to use contraception to avoid a pregnancy, even one that could result in the birth of a child with microcephaly.

To back up his comments on the plane about the Zika virus and contraception, Francis summoned the memory of one of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI, and a grim period of violence in the early 1960s during the Congo Civil War.

“Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape,” Francis said. “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.”

Pope Paul VI, 1963 © Giulio Broglio/AP

The Catholic News Agency explained that “in the early 1960s … the Vatican granted a dispensation to religious sisters living in the Belgian Congo who were in grave danger of rape due to civil unrest to use oral contraceptives.”

There was certainly rape in early 1960s Congo, but did the Vatican actually grant a “dispensation” for nuns in danger of rape?

In 1975’s Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Susan Brownmiller wrote that while some believed there were racist rumors “designed to embarrass the cause” of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, accounts of rape — including of nuns — were meticulous and horrifying.

King Baudouin of Belgium commissioned a white paper, “Congo July 1960: Evidence,” released as anti-Congo propaganda, that detailed 794 rapes of Europeans over 10 days in July. One entry depicted the gang rape of two nuns in a prison cell. An American Universities Field Staff reporter subsequently talked to “shocked” priests who told him “[abortion] must be performed” on four other nuns who’d been beaten and raped.

The Rev. James Keenan, a theology professor at Boston College has looked into the debates over the Congo nuns in theological circles at the time, most of which occurred when John XXIII was pope. (Pope Paul VI was elected in June 1963.)

“Many major theologians weighed in favorably that the nuns had a right to prevent conception in the face of possible rape,” Keenan said.

In fact, there is a conspicuous lack of communication from either pope about the Congo nuns. John XXIII’s silence may have meant something. He didn’t censure any of the Catholic theologians who favored the idea, which some may have interpreted as tacit approval.

Cardinal Giovanni Montini, the future Paul VI — who, in 1968, wrote Humanae Vitae, the papal document that articulates the modern Catholic position banning contraception in normal circumstances — actually visited the Congo in 1962. But he didn’t write or say anything then, or as pope, about the issue of nuns and contraception, Keenan said.

Nuns in a Congolese military camp give soldiers photos of the pope, Christian calendars and books, and small statues of saints (1960). © Horst Faas/AP

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.”

The Congo nun-contraception story surfaced again in 1993 when Bosnian bishops invoked it to debate whether they should allow nuns to use the Pill or the “morning after” pill during the Bosnian genocide.

So, did Paul VI have anything to do with permitting nuns in the Congo to use contraception, as Francis suggested? Not everything the Vatican knows is made public. It’s secret filing cabinets are deep.

“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.