By United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
February 3, 2016; CNN

The recent and dramatic spread of the Zika virus has alarmed public health officials and citizens, fueled by frequent media reports of the virus’s potential effects when contracted by pregnant women. The risk of babies born with microencephaly is still unknown, but early reports in Brazil show a marked increase in cases since the Zika virus was identified as a significant health risk. According to the CNN report, “Babies with the defect have small heads and abnormal brain growth and often have developmental delays, seizures, problems with movement and speech, and other issues.” In addition to Zika-influenced microencephaly trends, public health officials in Colombia are also tracking changes in the incidence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), sometimes known as “French polio.”

In several countries, officials have advised women to avoid pregnancy until more is known about Zika and necessary countermeasures have been implemented. Many of the affected countries have significant Catholic populations, however, which puts church officials in a bind when advising parishioners.

Two Catholic priests take opposing views in the article:

The Rev. Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said that means birth control is wrong no matter what. “That prohibition doesn’t change based on circumstances,” he said. “So couples have a responsibility to live according to the church’s teachings in whatever circumstances they find themselves.”

“The polemical approach, that contraception is devious or demonic in origin or the smoke of Satan, may ultimately not be the best pastoral approach,” said the Rev. James Bretzke, a professor of theology at Boston College. “In Catholic Church teaching, some would say it would be acceptable to try to prevent conception in cases like this.”

Catholic teaching says that life is a gift from God and should not be interfered with by artificial means. Sexual abstinence is consummately effective at preventing pregnancy, but other “natural” means of contraception endorsed by the church are much less effective. Does the risk of babies born with Zika-related medical conditions mean the Catholic leaders should alter their teachings to meet the crisis?

From a scientific and medical perspective, both sides can make a case. It depends on which contraceptive method is used. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that fertility awareness–based methods (the so-called “rhythm method”) approved for use by Catholics is only 76 percent effective in preventing an unintended pregnancy when used over a one-year period, while withdrawal is 78 percent effective. “Artificial” birth control options vary widely in effectiveness, with sterilization and implants being more than 99 percent effective, but condoms being only 79 percent to 82 percent effective. The birth control pill is 91 percent effective in standard use, according to the CDC.

The bigger question the Catholic Church must face is, at what point does the challenge of a public health emergency justify a re-examination and restatement of doctrine? How does the Catholic Church balance its members’ need for stability and tradition with their need for support in crisis when there is a tension between the two needs?

Soon, Pope Francis will be issuing his thoughts on the Synod on the Family, where issues like these were debated by Catholic bishops and other leaders over the past two years. As the article says, maybe the papal document will be modified to address how Catholic leaders should address the Zika threat and its effects on Catholic families around the world.—Michael Wyland