The Pope's Other Bombshell

Master of small gestures.

Photographer: ALESSANDRO DI MEO/AFP/Getty Images

Like Icarus edging too close to the sun, Pope Francis learned Thursday what it means to graze Donald Trump's news cycle: Even the most meticulously chosen words are burned away in the nebular heat.

Largely overlooked in the uproar over the pope's criticism of Trump was an understated -- but no less intentional -- observation about contraception. Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil, Francis noted, apropos of a question about the Zika virus.

That may not seem like a momentous statement. Yet taken to its logical conclusion, it could herald a substantial shift in Catholic thinking on contraception -- and, perhaps, a promising advance for global health.

Zika is a horrible mosquito-borne disease: so mild as to sometimes be undetectable in adults, yet potentially devastating if contracted by a pregnant woman, whose child might suffer brain damage as a result. There's suggestive evidence that it can be spread sexually, yet unlike most STDs, it could be transmitted unwittingly within a faithful marriage.

From the standpoint of Catholic theology, that makes Zika something like a worst-case scenario, where the church's teachings about valuing life and affirming sexual morality are in tension. Yet as any Jesuit will tell you, worst-case scenarios are often logically clarifying.

As Francis noted in the interview, there is precedent in Catholic thought for considering birth control a "lesser evil." During the Congo crisis, Pope Paul VI granted that Catholic nuns should be permitted to use birth control when faced with mass rape. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI -- no one's idea of a theological permissive -- allowed that using condoms to prevent HIV "can be a first step in the direction of moralization."

Francis, more alive to the messiness of human affairs than his immediate predecessors, seems to be advancing this notion another step. And the consequences may stretch well beyond the Vatican. A more lenient stance on the matter in the face of grave risks -- HIV, in particular -- might go a long way among African Catholics, the church's fastest-growing constituency. It might be particularly comforting to the millions of HIV-positive African children, who contracted the disease through no fault of their own. It would also have health benefits for women and comfort those (especially among the poor) who have trouble feeding and caring for the children they already have.

Throughout his life in the Vatican, Francis has shown that he's a master of small gestures: of offhanded remarks that aren't so offhanded, and seemingly spontaneous acts that are freighted with symbolism. This latest statement seems of a kind: opening the door to new dialogue on a once-moribund argument. That's his particular gift as pontiff -- and it's one that may prove quite valuable to the world outside the Vatican.

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