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Pope Francis says what you thought he would never say about birth control

Forget the kerfuffle over Pope Francis insinuating that Donald Trump isn’t Christian. The real news from the pontiff: He appears to have given his blessing to artificial contraceptives.

At least as used by women in countries where they fear they have been exposed to the Zika virus and getting pregnant would put them at risk of delivering babies with severe deformities linked to the disease.

That’s monumental in terms of public health and religion. Particularly in predominantly Catholic Latin America, which has been the hardest hit by the virus, having the leader of the Roman Catholic Church say that in a situation like this one, “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” is enormously beneficial to women. Francis made his remarks on the plane ride back to Rome after his trip to Mexico.

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Also, en route to Rome, Francis was asked about Donald Trump’s vow to build a wall along the Mexican border. "I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that," the pontiff said.

Wow, that was some plane ride.

From the minute this pope was elected in 2013 and chose not to get into the papal limousine but back on the bus with the cardinal also-rans as they left the Sistine Chapel, he has shown that he will not be a strict traditionalist — at least in some ground-breaking ways.

He has emphasized calling out economic injustice in the world over dwelling on social issues. On the other hand, he prompted a sea change in how the Catholic Church officially considers gay people, famously saying “If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

On the plane, he was asked whether abortion or artificial contraception might be considered a “lesser evil” when dealing with the virus. The pope condemned abortion under any circumstances. But as for birth control, he cited the example of Pope Paul VI in the 1960s allowing nuns in Belgian Congo to use artificial contraception because they were being systematically raped.

His remarks on birth control come after lesser Catholic officials refused to change their stance on artificial contraception even in the wake of the World Health Organization declaring Zika an international public health threat.

Of course the pope is always going to be the exemplar of Roman Catholic beliefs, but his willingness, sometimes, to take into account humanity over strict adherence to doctrine is remarkable.

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