LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Pope Francis has returned to Rome from a trip to Mexico that included stops in poor, crime-ridden areas, including the city of Juarez on the U.S. border. And he seemed to make more news on his ride home. There were, of course, his comments about Donald Trump's plans for a border wall. But as Francis spoke to reporters on his plane on Thursday, he also seemed to make an exception to the church's ban on birth control. NPR's senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli reports on the Vatican. She joins me from Rome. Good morning, Sylvia.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Now, what the pope said about birth control was that it would be OK for couples to practice birth control if there is a chance they might conceive a child infected with the Zika virus, which is linked to microcephaly and paralysis. Was this a departure from doctrine?
POGGIOLI: Francis seems to have opened a crack in the door, at least in exceptional dangerous situations. He cited a little-known fact that in the 1960s during war in what was then the African Congo, Pope Paul VI issued a special dispensation allowing nuns to use birth control pills because they risked being raped during the conflict. On the plane, Francis used some of his strongest language ever against abortion. He called it a crime, what the Mafia does, but he said avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. I think he's sending also another message here. You know, Francis has made clear he does not share his two predecessors' emphasis on sexual morality. His focus is on the poor and suffering, immigration and climate change. And it's no secret that in Europe and in the U.S. many priests quietly accept the fact that most Catholics don't observe the church ban on birth control. That's not so in much of Latin America. So Francis might have been sending a message to the conservative Latin American clergy suggesting they too might try to shift their focus to other issues, such as poverty, injustice and income inequality.
WERTHEIMER: There was also the pope's suggestion that lawmakers around the world should vote their conscience on the matter of civil unions. Now, what did he mean by that?
POGGIOLI: Well, he was asked to talk about the ongoing debate in the Italian parliament on a civil union bill, which the Italian bishops are strongly opposed to. Francis said the pope doesn't get mixed up in Italian politics, and he said every Catholic parliamentarian must vote according to their well-formed conscience.
Now, for decades, Italian bishops were closely involved in Italian politics and openly interfered in the legislative process. Francis has told them in the past not to be so directly involved and that they should be less interested in their own political power and aim for a higher moral ground. This doesn't mean he approves the bill, but Italian Catholic conservatives are probably pretty disappointed by his disengagement.
WERTHEIMER: Sylvia, Donald Trump - what explains why the pope would insert himself into American politics?
POGGIOLI: Well, he was asked directly about Trump's assertion that he's a political pope, and Francis was pretty fast with his quip. He said thank God I'm political and he quoted Aristotle's definition of the human being as a political animal. But, of course, the really explosive line was a person who thinks only about building walls and not building bridges is not a Christian. This is not in the gospel.
Now, I think probably a lot of Americans wonder how much Francis actually knows about Trump and the U.S. presidential campaign. I think he's very well-informed, and I think his message was not directed just at Trump but also at other Republican contenders who have taken hard-line positions on immigration. Some of whom are also the sons or grandsons of immigrants, just like Pope Francis.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reporting from Rome. Sylvia, thank you.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Linda.
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