MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Despite their staunch opposition to contraceptives, Philippine Roman Catholic bishops expressed their full support Saturday to Pope Francis' remarks suggesting artificial contraception can be used by women threatened by the Zika virus.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines also backed the pope's uncompromising position against abortion, even in cases when a pregnant woman carries an unborn child afflicted with a deformity.
"We, your bishops, reiterate church teaching: no matter that the child in the womb may be afflicted with some infirmity or deformity, it can never be moral to bring a deliberate end to human life," Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the bishops conference, said in a statement.
"It is never for us to judge who should live or die!" he said.
Francis, however, raised the view "that the evil of contraception was not of the same magnitude as the evil of abortion," Villegas said. "Clearly, this was sound moral reasoning. The evil of stealing a few pesos cannot be compared with the evil of plunder."
Francis, he said, was in no way backing away from the church's stand against artificial contraception.
"There may be circumstances that invite a re-evaluation of the judgment on artificial means of contraception," Villegas said, adding that once more "the pope has shown his sensitivity to complex human situations" and "allowed the world see the merciful face of the church."
The Philippine Catholic church's opposition to contraceptives is a touchy issue in the country, where it waged a high-profile battle a few years ago against a bill allowing the government to finance and distribute contraceptives in Asia's bastion of Catholicism. The bill, which was backed by President Benigno Aquino III, was enacted into law in 2012, and then survived a separate constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court.
The Philippines, a poor Southeast Asian country, has struggled to ease a high population growth rate, which some attribute to many impoverished families' lack of access to artificial contraceptives.
Asked whether abortion or birth control could be considered a "lesser evil" when confronting the Zika crisis in Brazil, Francis unequivocally rejected abortion as a response to the crisis.
But he drew a parallel to a decision by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s to approve giving nuns in Belgian Congo artificial contraception to prevent pregnancies because they were being systematically raped.
"On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one (Zika), such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear," Francis told reporters Wednesday on his way home from a visit to Mexico.
Francis' remarks drew praise from legislators who had pushed the pro-contraceptives bill in Congress.
"I said 'Wow!' I immediately re-tweeted it," said Risa Hontiveros, a former congresswoman who co-authored the widely debated legislation.
"It's a great recognition by a pope in the modern times of a life-saving health intervention in the face of this new animal called the Zika virus," she said. "It's very refreshing."
Rep. Edcel Lagman, another author of the bill, said he saw the pope's comment as a "mellowing of the position of the church."
"Abortion is illegal under Philippine law, but avoiding pregnancy through contraceptives is not," he said.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.