Previous posts in this discussion:
PostMore on John Paul I and Contraception (Enrique Torner, USA, 08/08/18 9:55 am)
I would like to start by thanking the kind compliments my last post received from Gary Moore and Istvan Simon, as well as their reactions and Edward Jajko's (August 5th). All of you (and, as usual, our dear editor, who graciously agreed to publish my long essay on the WAIS website, which will answer a few of the questions arisen from my initial post) came up with great questions that I will love to answer, but I'd better space them out in two different posts so I don't overwhelm you.
I will start by answering John Eipper's questions to my initial post because, after all, he was the first in the line! He asked me if I believe that, as pope, John Paul I would have reversed the doctrine on contraception. My answer is easy: Absolutely! I am convinced of it because of his love for and experience with the poor, not only at home and around his town, but in Burundi, which he visited in 1962 (to found a mission), and from 16 August to 1 September 1966. In Burundi, he witnessed "the prevalent poverty, strife and disease of the area" and was struck by "the high birth-rate and the high infant mortality rate." (Spackman 57) Paul Spackman, one of the few biographers of Albino Luciani (I have only found three, one of them in Italian), recalls that "questions concerning the population explosion and the attendant issues of birth control and abortion were becoming increasingly prevalent in the 1960s amongst both Catholics and non-Catholics." (57) Actually, on May 22 of 1978 (the year of the 3 popes), Italy would legalize abortion, with voters upholding the law in a 1981 referendum.
Given the problem of overpopulation, "[in] March 1963 Pope John had set up an advisory Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth. 'Artificial' Birth control . . . was one of the major issues that it was to study." (57) His encounter with the Third World produced a deep impression in him, and he ended up twinning his town of Vittorio Veneto with Kiremba, a small town in Burundi (Yallop 22). It's this global population explosion--in great part because of lack of birth control--that led Luciani to espouse contraception in cases where fertility "is" a problem!
Another reason why Luciani was in favor of contraceptives is that one of his brothers, Edoardo, was married and "was struggling to earn enough to support an ever-growing family that eventually numbered ten children." (Yallop 27) The Luciani family had been raised in Forno di Canale, a small village with barely one thousand inhabitants up in the Italian Dolomites at the confluence of the Liera and Bois rivers, with very humble means. His father, Giovanni, started working at "a very dangerous job on a red lead farm on the island of Murano in the lagoon of Venice. The crystalline powder, toxic when ingested, was used in the manufacture of the lead glass used by the famous glass-blowing industry on the island." Giovanni would escape from these toxic fumes in spring and return on the onset of winter, "working in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and France as a bricklayer, engineer, mechanic or electrician!" (Spackman 3) In 1913 he migrated to Argentina in search of better employment, hoping to earn and save enough money to afford having his wife--Bortola--and little Albino join him. However, the outbreak of WWI in Europe in August 1914 led Giovanni to return home.
As a result of all his experiences in other countries, Giovanni became an anticlerical socialist. Looking at a photo of him taken at this time, his son Edoardo would later joke with his sister that their father looked like Stalin! (Spackman 4) Giovanni's views caused him friction with Bortola, who was a highly devout Catholic: "She attended Mass, received Communion and said her Rosary every day, and had at one time considered entering a convent as a nun. Such regular attendance at Mass made a deep impression on little Albino." (4) Spackman describes their home as a 3-story building "partly converted from a barn. Its one source of heating was an old wood-burning stove that heated the room where Albino was born. The house had two gardens with common flowers, herbs and vegetables. The family diet consisted of polenta (corn meal), barley, macaroni and any vegetables that were available. Meat was a rare luxury; on special occasions there might be a dessert of carfoni (pastry full of ground poppy seeds). It was not until 1923 that the Luciani family first had white bread in the house; it was brought back up the steep track from the nearby village of Cencenighe with something approaching reverence." (5)
With all this information, I don't mean to say that experiencing poverty leads someone to support the use of contraception. It is the constant experience and witness of poverty and the realization that birth control could have prevented parents from conceiving more children than they could afford. That's why Luciani favored birth control under special circumstances and studied the subject in depth, consulting not only with all kinds of experts in the field but with married couples as well. And that's the reason why, when Paul VI asked for the opinions of various regions of Italy and the patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Urbani, called a meeting of all the bishops within the region, after it was over, it was unanimously decided that Luciani should draw up the report. (Yallop 26-27) Luciani was such a good defender of birth control that Spackman even asserts that "some Italian wits referred to him as 'the bishop of the pill'." (59)
I want to emphasize that this doesn't mean that Luciani didn't value life or conception. Quite on the contrary! He just wanted to prevent couples from experiencing such poverty that it might lead to malnutrition, or even death, besides living a life of misery. Proof of this is that, after Louise Joy Brown, the first test-tube baby, was born through in-vitro fertilization in Oldham, England, on July 25, 1978, exactly one month before he was elected, Luciani was elated. Just three days before Paul VI's death, he had been interviewed by the Rome newspaper Prospettive nel Mondo about this subject, even though the article was not printed until after his election. Yallop describes this interview at some length, and declares that Luciani made it clear from the beginning that what he was going to say were just his personal opinions, "because he, like everyone else, 'waited to hear what the authentic teaching of the Church would be when the experts had been consulted.' . . . In the interview Luciani expressed qualified enthusiasm about the birth. He indicated concern about the possibility of 'baby factories,' a prophetic concern in view of current events in California, where women are lining up to be impregnated with the sperm of Nobel Prize winners." Yallop quotes Luciani's words addressing the baby's parents:
Following the example of God, who desires and loves human life, I too send my best wishes to the baby. As for her parents, I have no right to condemn them; subjectively, if they acted with good intentions and in good faith, they may even have great merit before God for what they have decided and asked the doctors to do. (204-205)
Naturally, when members of the Curia discovered the article after Luciani had already been elected pope, they were horrified! Villot, in particular, was even more afraid that Luciani was about to dismantle the Church's Canon Law. Yallop explains what happened next: "Discreet meetings were held. It was clear to those who attended these meetings that Luciani had to be stopped. They talked airily of 'the betrayal of Paul,' which was in essence an elegant way of saying, 'I disagree.'" (205) When a few days later some of these Curia members found out that a secret meeting between the US State Department and the new pope to discuss world population and birth control was being arranged for some time in October, they realized that the situation was now urgent.
On Tuesday, September 19, secretary of state Villot was discussing Humanae Vitae with the now pope John Paul I in his study. Villot had reaffirmed Paul's opposition to artificial contraception, while Luciani had been calmly describing the negative effects the encyclical already had caused all over the world: "In Belgium, Holland, Germany, Britain, the United States, and many other countries there had not only been marked opposition to the encyclical but also marked disobedience. The maxim had rapidly become that if one priest did not take a tolerant attitude within the confessional, the sinner shopped around for a more liberated priest." (Yallop 171) Luciani pointed out that "world population had increased by over 750 million." Their discussion was tense and I believe this may have been the ultimate trigger for Villot's "final decision" (quotation marks are mine, and I believe Villot was somehow involved in the plot to murder the pope). I can't but finish this topic quoting Luciani's final words to Villot when the latter was about to leave the room, because I consider them very meaningful and strong:
Eminence, we have been discussing birth control for about forty-five minutes. If the information I have been given, the various statistics, if that information is accurate, then during the period of time we have been talking, over one thousand children under the age of five have died of malnutrition. During the next forty-five minutes while you and I look forward with anticipation to our next meal a further thousand children will die of malnutrition. By this time tomorrow thirty thousand children who at this moment are alive, will be dead-of malnutrition. God does not always provide.
Right after this sarcastic remark by Luciani, Yallop adds: "The secretary of state for the Vatican was apparently unable to find an adequate exit line." (171-172) So, did I make my case for some elements of the Curia to be resentful enough to desire to "want him gone," as John said? Well, contraception was just one reason for them (and others I haven't mentioned yet) to want to get rid of him soon. Other reasons dealt with other religious aspects, while others were financial, social, political, and the plain desire to remain rich, in power or control and/or to survive! Details will be described--as I said before--in a future post.
My next post will address the questions from Edward Jajko, Gary Moore, and Istvan Simon, I hope.
PS: There is one last biography on John Paul I that I haven't been able to get and read because it was just published towards the end of last year in Italy, and is not available in the US yet: Stefania Falasca, Papa Luciani, Cronaca di una morte. Piemme, 2017. Could any of my dear Italian WAISers help me get it?
Spackman, Paul. God's Candidate. The Life and Times of Pope John Paul I. Herefordshire, England: Gracewing, 2008.
Yallop, David A. In God's Name. An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1984.
JE comments: Enrique's longer essay will be uploaded shortly to the WAIS "publications" page. I'll post the announcement when it's available.