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February 18, 2016; The Guardian

NPQ has reported on the tension between Zika-prompted public health warnings against pregnancy on the one hand and Catholic positions on artificial birth control and abortion on the other. Pope Francis made headlines on the subject during an in-flight press conference returning from a visit to Mexico. Unlike abortion, he said, “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” and in certain circumstances it may be “the lesser evil.”

One exception to the ban on artificial birth control cited by Francis was Pope Paul VI’s permission for Catholic nuns in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in the 1960s to take birth control pills. The justification for that exception was that the nuns were at risk of being raped by combatants during the civil war occurring at the time.

But Pope Francis’s statements made it clear that although there are exceptions to the ban on artificial contraception, the injunction against abortion is absolute. Abortion was a crime, he said. “It is killing one person to save another. It is what the mafia does… It is an absolute evil.”

Although some headlines make it sound as if Pope Francis announced startling changes to long-held Catholic policy while in mid-flight, this is not the case. He is acknowledging a public health crisis and making accommodation for addressing it within the bounds of existing doctrine and precedent. Like many leaders, including those in the nonprofit sector, he is balancing fidelity to mission and values with a pragmatic approach to shifting conditions and the emerging needs of those he serves.—Michael Wyland