Is Pope Francis' contraception allowance during zika threat a major shift for Church?

Pope: Avoiding Pregnancy Not an Absolute Evil

Pope Francis on Thursday suggested using artificial contraception in countries afflicted with the Zika virus would be OK for women worried with how the disease is linked to rare birth defects.

Calling it a "lesser of two evils," Francis indicated that choosing to avoid pregnancy altogether would be the better alternative to abortion.

Abortion "is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil at its root, no? It's a human evil," he told reporters en route to Rome following his six-day visit to Catholic-heavy Latin America, which is grappling with a Zika outbreak.

"On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil," he continued. "In certain cases, as in this one (Zika), such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear."

Pope's recent visit to Mexico:

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Pope Francis visits Mexico
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Is Pope Francis' contraception allowance during zika threat a major shift for Church?
Bishops attend the open-air mass by Pope Francis in Ecatepec --a rough, crime-plagued Mexico City suburb-- on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis has chosen to visit some of Mexico's most troubled regions during his five-day trip to the world's second most populous Catholic country. AFP PHOTO/GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
ECATEPEC, MEXICO - FEBRUARY 14: People sings during a mass at Ecatepec on February 14, 2016 in Ecatepec, Mexico. Pope Francis is on a five-day visit in Mexico from February 12 to 17 where he is expected to visit five states. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty Images)
A young girl waits for the passage of Pope Francis on his way to the Nuncianture, in Mexico City on February 13, 2016. Francis became the first pope to enter Mexico's National Palace to meet President Enrique Pena Nieto, as he starts a cross-country tour that will highlight the country's violence and migration troubles. AFP PHOTO. AFP PHOTO/MARIO VAZQUEZ / AFP / MARIO VAZQUEZ (Photo credit should read MARIO VAZQUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Catholic faithful wait for the arrival of Pope Francis in Ecatepec --a rough, crime-plagued Mexico City suburb-- where he is to celebrate an open-air mass, on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis has chosen to visit some of Mexico's most troubled regions during his five-day trip to the world's second most populous Catholic country. AFP PHOTO/ JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis officiates an open-air mass in Ecatepec, near Mexico City, on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis urged Mexicans on Sunday to turn their country into a land of opportunity where there is no need to emigrate or mourn victims 'of the merchants of death.' AFP PHOTO/ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
ECATEPEC, MEXICO - FEBRUARY 14: Pope Francis wlaks with a censer during a mass for the people at Ecatepec on February 14, 2016 in Ecatepec, Mexico. Pope Francis is on a five days visit in Mexico from February 12 to 17 where he is expected to visit five states. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves from the popemobile on his way to the cathedral, in Mexico City on February 13, 2016. Francis became the first pope to enter Mexico's National Palace to meet President Enrique Pena Nieto, as he starts a cross-country tour that will highlight the country's violence and migration troubles. AFP PHOTO/GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Catholic faithfuls take communion during an open-air mass by Pope Francis in Ecatepec --a rough, crime-plagued Mexico City suburb-- on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis has chosen to visit some of Mexico's most troubled regions during his five-day trip to the world's second most populous Catholic country. AFP PHOTO / ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves at the crowd from the Popemobile after celebrating an open-air mass in Ecatepec, near Mexico City on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis urged Mexicans on Sunday to turn their country into a land of opportunity where there is no need to emigrate or mourn victims 'of the merchants of death.'. AFP PHOTO/ JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar Fuentes (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR FUENTES/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves from the popemobile upon arrival in Ecatepec --a rough, crime-plagued Mexico City suburb-- where he is to celebrate an open-air mass, on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis has chosen to visit some of Mexico's most troubled regions during his five-day trip to the world's second most populous Catholic country. AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
ECATEPEC, MEXICO - FEBRUARY 14: Faithful prays after receiving the communion wafer during a mass for the people at Ecatepec on February 14, 2016 in Ecatepec, Mexico. Pope Francis is on a five days visit in Mexico from February 12 to 17 where he is expected to visit five states. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty Images)
A security member stands guard next to a graffiti depicting Pope Francis in Ecatepec --a rough, crime-plagued Mexico City suburb-- where he will celebrate an open-air mass, on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis has chosen to visit some of Mexico's most troubled regions during his five-day trip to the world's second most populous Catholic country. AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Faithfuyl welcome Pope Francis as he arrives to celebrate an open-air Holy Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico on February 13, 2016. Pope Francis is in Mexico for a trip encompassing two of the defining themes of his papacy: bridge-building diplomacy and his concern for migrants seeking a better life. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives to celebrate a Holy Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico on February 13, 2016. Pope Francis is in Mexico for a trip encompassing two of the defining themes of his papacy: bridge-building diplomacy and his concern for migrants seeking a better life. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (C) arrives to celebrate a Holy Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico on February 13, 2016. Pope Francis is in Mexico for a trip encompassing two of the defining themes of his papacy: bridge-building diplomacy and his concern for migrants seeking a better life. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (C) at an open-air mass at the Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City on February 13, 2016. The pope urged Mexican bishops Saturday to take on drug trafficking with 'prophetic courage,' warning that it represents a moral challenge to society and the church. AFP PHOTO / Alfredo ESTRELLA / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis officiates an open-air mass at the Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City on February 13, 2016. The pope urged Mexican bishops Saturday to take on drug trafficking with 'prophetic courage,' warning that it represents a moral challenge to society and the church. AFP PHOTO / Alfredo ESTRELLA / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - FEBRUARY 13: Pope Francis speaks during a mass for the people at Basilica de Guadalupe on February 13, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. Pope Francis is on a five-day visit in Mexico from February 12 to 17 where he is expected to visit five states. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (R) officiates an open-air mass at the Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City on February 13, 2016. The pope urged Mexican bishops Saturday to take on drug trafficking with 'prophetic courage,' warning that it represents a moral challenge to society and the church. AFP PHOTO / Alfredo ESTRELLA / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Pope Francis wears a traditional Mexican sombrero hat received as a gift by a Mexican journalist on February 12, 2016, aboard the plane to Havana. Pope Francis headed to Cuba on Friday looking to heal a 1,000-year-old rift in Christianity before embarking on a tour of Mexico dominated by modern day problems of drug-related violence and migration. / AFP / POOL / ALESSANDRO DI MEO (Photo credit should read ALESSANDRO DI MEO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves from the Popemobile upon his arrival in Mexico City on February 12, 2016. Catholic faithful flocked to the streets of Mexico City to greet Pope Francis on Friday after the pontiff held a historic meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Cuba. AFP PHOTO/Yuri Cortez / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (C) waves next to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (R) and First Lady Angelica Rivera (L) upon his arrival at Benito Juarez international airport in Mexico City on February 12, 2016. Catholic faithful flocked to the streets of Mexico City to greet Pope Francis on Friday after the pontiff held a historic meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Cuba. AFP PHOTO/RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP / RONALDO SCHEMIDT (Photo credit should read RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
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Francis held up Pope Paul VI as an example of a sort of precedence on the issue: In the 1960s, Paul VI approved nuns in the Belgian Congo to use artificial contraception to prevent pregnancies amid the threat of rape.

But the pontiff on Thursday also urged doctors to "do their utmost" to find vaccines to fight the mosquitoes that harbor and spread Zika.

"This needs to be worked on," Francis said.

The use of contraception is strictly prohibited under Roman Catholic Church teachings.

A passage in the Book of Genesis is often cited by scholars. In it, a son of Judah named Onan is described as wasting "his seed on the ground" when having sexual relations with his brother's widow, so that he doesn't impregnate her.

This form of contraception, however, upsets the Lord, who then smote Onan, the Bible says.

Francis didn't elaborate on any specific type of contraception, but his decision to not declare an outright ban is an about-face from what Brazilian church leaders have said. Brazil is battling a rise in Zika cases.

"Contraceptives are not a solution. There is not a single change in the church's position," said Brazilian Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, according to reports.

But Francis, while not completely opening the door to contraception in other similar scenarios, appears to be building on his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Benedict, who was pontiff from 2005 to 2013, had once held the line on the church's anti-birth control beliefs.

In 2009, he drew controversy for saying that condom use can aggravate the spread of AIDS in Africa.

"You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," the conservative pope told reporters aboard his papal jet after leaving AIDS-ravaged Africa. "On the contrary, it increases the problem."

But the following year, in what some reports called a "seismic shift," Benedict softened his stance on prophylactics and supported the use of condoms to fight AIDS — even if it results in preventing a pregnancy.

"In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality," Benedict said, while also extolling abstinence as the preferred method.

Francis last year declined to delve deeply into the topic of condoms.

When asked about the issue while leaving Africa after a six-day visit, he suggested the form of birth control was a mere "Band-Aid" solution. The continent, he said, had other pressing problems, including poverty and exploitation.

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