Aug 15, 2009

JPI & BIRTH CONTROL: from John Allen, National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 2003

John Allen says: Last week I carried an interview with Fr. Diego Lorenzi, the private secretary of Pope John Paul I, on the 25th anniversary of the pope’s election. Lorenzi’s recollections summoned others from readers of “The Word from Rome.” Among other things, a few readers wrote to ask if it was true that prior to becoming pope, Cardinal Albino Luciani had expressed a positive view of birth control.

In short, the answer is yes.

In 1967, when Luciani was still the bishop of Vittorio Veneto, then-Cardinal Giovanni Urbani of Venice asked him to prepare a position paper for the bishops of the Triveneto region on artificial contraception, then under study by Pope Paul VI. The story is told in the superb recent book Papa Luciani: Il Sorriso del Santo, by Andrea Tornielli and Alessandro Zangrando.

Luciani, who attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), had already been wrestling with the problem. In his diary from his days at Vatican II, Un Vescovo al Concilio, published in 1983, he said that the formation of a study commission had produced hope that the teaching might change. Another factor fueling that hope, he wrote, was the “spiritual trauma” the issue was causing for married couples, for whom it represented a “laceration of conscience.”

In January 1965, Luciani gave a retreat for the pastors of the Veneto in which he told the following story:

“A Capuchin bishop told me at the council, ‘Sometimes I thank God that I’m a bishop for only one reason, not for anything else. The reason is that I don’t have to hear confessions at Easter, dealing with painful, difficult cases that are hard to resolve. These blessed Christian couples simply don’t want to convince themselves that the use of contraceptives is a sin. At the end I never knew what to say … What could I say to a young father who already had six children and he was the sole support of the family? I knew that he was a good young man and in every other way obeyed the law of God.’

“I assure you,” Luciani told the pastors, “the bishops would be extremely happy to find a doctrine that would declare licit the use of contraceptives under certain conditions ... If there’s only one possibility in a thousand, we have to find this possibility and see if maybe with the help of the Holy Spirit we can discover something that previously escaped us.”

In a recent interview, Msgr. Mario Senigaglia, Lorenzi’s predecessor as Luciani’s secretary, recalled that his stand was well known. In fact, he said, some Italian wags referred to Luciani at the time as “the bishop of the pill.”

Paul VI got wind of the thinking in the Triveneto and sent his personal theologian, Msgr. Carlo Colombo, to meet with the bishops. Sources say that during the closed-door session, Luciani argued that Colombo’s position was “too abstract” and did not take account of the real-life struggles of couples.

In the spring of 1968, Luciani gave a series of presentations in parishes. In Mogliano Veneto, the birth control question arose. His response has been preserved in an audio recording.

“For me, this is the most serious theological question that has ever been dealt with by the church,” Luciani said. “In the age of Arius and Nestorius, the issue was the two natures of Christ, and these were serious questions, but they were understood only at the very top of the church, among theologians and bishops. The simple people understood nothing of these things and said, ‘I adore Jesus Christ, the Lord who has redeemed me,’ and that was it, there was no danger. Here, on the other hand, it’s a question that no longer regards solely the leadership of the church, but the entire church, all the young families, the young Christian families. It is a truly central point that they are still studying.”

When Paul VI issued Humane Vitae on July 25, 1968, however, Luciani’s adherence was immediate and unwavering. He wrote a letter to his diocese four days after the encyclical appeared.

“I confess that I had hoped in my heart that the extremely grave difficulties could be overcome and that the response of the magisterium, which speaks with special charisms and in the name of the Lord, could have coincided, at least in part, with the hopes held by many spouses.”

Yet, Luciani said, Pope Paul has spoken, and the proper response is assent.

The Pope “knows that he is about to cause bitterness for many; he knows that a different solution would probably have drawn greater human applause; but he’s put his trust in God, and in order to be faithful to His word, he re-proposes the constant teaching of the magisterium, in this most delicate matter, in all its purity.”

As late as 1974, after he had become patriarch of Venice, Luciani publicly acknowledged how difficult this teaching was to enforce.

“Among couples with few children, some maintain a heroic self-control that merits admiration,” he said at a convention. “Others … find themselves in difficulties so serious that, on the objective plane, not even the confessor sometimes has the courage to pronounce on the gravity of the sin, entrusting everything to the merciful judgment of the Lord.”

The story invites a historical “what if?” If Luciani’s papacy had endured longer than 33 days, how would he have handled the birth control issue?

It’s virtually certain he would not have reversed Paul VI’s teaching. The church does not lurch from position to position like that, and Luciani was no doctrinal radical. Moreover, in Venice some saw a hardening of his stands as the years went by. On the other hand, it is reasonable to assume that John Paul I would not have insisted upon the negative judgment in Humanae Vitae as aggressively and publicly as John Paul II, and probably would not have treated it as a quasi-infallible teaching. It would have remained a more “open” question.

Whether that would have been good or bad obviously depends upon one’s point of view.

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(Interesting summary, but I have my doubts that Luciani would not have sought a change. See quote from God's Candidate below: " If I were the divine master of the law, I would abolish the law." Jay.)