If Vatican watcher Sandro Magister is right, Pope Francis cited an urban legend about Blessed Paul VI’s alleged approval of contraception for nuns in exceptional wartime circumstances in the Congo.

“No one has ever been able to cite a single word of his in this regard. Yet this urban legend has been kept alive for decades, and sure enough even Francis and his spokesman have fallen for it,” Magister wrote Sept. 22 at Settimo Cielo; the text appeared in English at Chiesa two days later.

The story dates back to 1961, when St. John XXIII was Pope. Moral theologians considered whether it was licit for nuns facing direct threat of rape to use contraception. The question arose from situations such as a brutal war that was then underway in the Congo.

Three theologians discussed the question: Pietro Palazzini, secretary of the Congregation of the Council (which would later be renamed the Congregation for the Clergy); Francesco Hürth, S.J., a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University; and Ferdinando Lambruschini, a professor at the Pontifical Lateran University.

They published their views in an article for a 1961 edition of “Studi Cattolici,” an Opus Dei-run journal. The article was titled “A woman asks: how should violence be rejected? Morality exemplified. A debate.”

Each held it was licit for the nuns to use contraception, though they justified this stand for different reasons.

However, Bl. Paul VI never addressed this topic specifically. He was elected Bishop of Rome in June 1963. His 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae reaffirmed Catholic opposition to contraception. The encyclical discussed the Christian doctrine of marriage and human life, rejecting contraception “specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means.”

Yet John Allen has maintained that it is Anglo-Saxon folly to look for evidence that Bl. Paul VI permitted nuns threatened with rape to use contraceptives. Noting in a Feb. 20 post at Crux that in 1961 the future Pope was “close to the currents that shaped Studi Cattolici,” he said that “It was assumed the conclusions reflected his thinking. That appeared to be confirmed later when Paul VI made one of the authors, Pietro Palazzini, a cardinal.”

“Still, the Vatican never repudiated the 1961 position, so the takeaway was that it remained a legitimate option,” Allen wrote. “To Italians — and remember, Francis’ ancestry is Italian, and he’s very wired into the country’s ecclesiastical scene — that meant Paul VI approved.”

Magister’s claims follow a Feb. 18 papal press conference on Francis' return flight from Mexico to Rome.

A journalist had asked the Pope about authorities’ proposals to respond to the Zika virus infection through abortion or “avoiding pregnancy.” The mosquito-borne virus may be linked to birth defects when transmitted from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby.

Pope Francis responded by emphatically stating that abortion is “a crime” and an “absolute evil” that cannot be justified. He also spoke on the topic of avoiding pregnancy, citing his predecessor.

“Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape,” he said.

Seven sentences later, Pope Francis added another comment. Not mentioning contraception specifically, he said that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.”

Holy See spokesman Father Federico Lombardi repeated a version of the story about nuns in the Congo in his own comments about Pope Francis’ interview.