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What is the Pontifical Academy for Life's plan on contraception?

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia made headlines this week, after he told a journalist Friday that a 1978 law decriminalizing abortion is a “pillar” of Italian “social life” and is “absolutely not” up for discussion in the country.

The archbishop, who is president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, has pushed back against Catholic criticism of his remark, with the academy’s spokesman arguing Monday that Paglia was not praising Italy’s abortion law, he was just stating a fact about the entrenched position of abortion.

But the archbishop can expect to take flack in Catholic media over his remark, and some commentators will say the tone of his comment confirms their long-held suspicions about Paglia’s commitment to the mission of the pro-life Vatican think tank he leads.

Under ordinary circumstances, the archbishop’s remark might prompt weeks of think pieces about the Pontifical Academy for Life.

But this is not an ordinary moment for the Pontifical Academy for Life.

However the remarks were intended, Paglia and the institution he leads are facing much closer scrutiny over another pressing issue playing out at the academy — a controversy surrounding the 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae, which affirmed that “sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive” is “intrinsically wrong.”

For months, the Pontifical Academy for Life has promoted a book, “Theological Ethics of Life,” which Paglia says is meant to “introduce a paradigm shift” in the Church’s theological discussion of sex and contraception.

The book calls for discussion on a set of related topics: the role of individual conscience in discernment about the use of contraception, the question of Humanae vitae’s doctrinal authority, and the possibility that doctrine on contraception might “develop.”

As he promoted the book, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life gave an interview this month in which he argued that the Church’s teaching in Humanae vitae is “reformable” — and that there is need to better incorporate context and intention into the Church’s evaluation of the moral use of artificial contraception. The interviewer was the academy’s media spokesman.

Months of discussion about this have prompted speculation that Pope Francis could be planning a new document addressing the Church’s teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception, the title “Gaudium vitae” was floated.

But several sources in Rome have told The Pillar that an entire document on contraception isn’t likely, and isn’t even what the pontifical academy is aiming for. Instead, Vatican sources said they believe floating the idea is part of a broader strategic initiative launched by some theologians associated with the academy.

So why is the Pontifical Academy for Life suddenly talking so much, on so many fronts, about Humanae vitae. What’s the plan?

And why is this discussion happening now — years after many of the central voices in the discussion were appointed to positions at the pontifical academy, and at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome, which was overhauled - with a new theology faculty and a new focus - between 2017 and 2019.

A growing body of Vatican officials and Roman academics have told The Pillar recently they’re convinced that members of the pontifical academy, along with academics at the John Paul II Institute, are waging a strategic campaign, aimed at provoking a response from the pope during the 2023 synod of bishops on synodality.

The idea floating in Rome is that Paglia, along with Fr. Maurizio Chiodi, Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, and others, have coordinated to generate discussion among theologians, bishops, and in the media about the norms of Humanae vitae, ahead of the bishops’ synod in October 2023. That discussion would allow bishops to raise questions about the moral normativity of Humanae vitae - or the role of conscience in discernment of the contraceptive marital act - in the context of the synod’s assembly.

From there, the pope might make reference to the discussion in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

Even if the reference was not specific, and only mentioned that questions had been raised about the topic, it might give the impression of a kind of papal approbatio to a re-litigation of the Church’s teaching on contraception. Or it might give leeway to theologians who want to say they uphold the objective immorality of contraception, while suggesting that principles like “gradualism” give couples room to make other moral judgments for themselves.

One theologian close to the Vatican told The Pillar that those ideas are intended to chip away at the affirmation of objective morality in Pope St. John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor — and even suggested that there is open conversation about that idea in some Vatican theological circles.

The theologian added that if such a plan is successful, “within one year-and-a-half, we will see something - a footnote, perhaps - that relativizes Humanae vitae to the realm of the conscience. That’s what they’re working toward.”

Of course, all of that might seem far-fetched and conspiratorial.

But some Vatican-watchers say it mirrors the path of the famous footnote in Amoris laetitia, which was kicked off with an idea that floated from a private phone call in early 2014, and ended with a controversial document in 2016 — with a number of academics and bishops pushing the topic along the way, generating conversation in synod halls and on coffee breaks, and drawing considerable media attention in the process.

Is the same game plan in the works at the Pontifical Academy for Life? It is possible - and seems as plausible as any other theory about why the pontifical academy is pushing right now the idea that the Church’s doctrine on contraception is ripe for “development.”

And if the ideas expressed by some voices associated with the academy seem far-afield of orthodoxy, recall, that’s effectively the crux of the plan — that a year of conversation about contraception would widen the Overton window, just enough to see the pope consider making some kind of acknowledgment of the discussion — even one that tries on balance to be restrictive, but is not a wholesale shutdown of Chiodi camp.

If that is the plan, will it work?

That’s not clear.

The pope has never called into question the Church’s teaching on contraception, and has frequently expressed its importance in the theology of the family. At the same time, he has appointed or permitted the appointment of academics and officials with the more permissive vision described above. And once Francis makes appointments, he’s generally reluctant to bring down a hammer emphatically.

If the pope were merely ambiguous about a conversation that seems to relativize Catholic doctrine on contraception, it would be seen in some corners as permission to repudiate Humanae vitae broadly — even if technically that’s not what the Francis had done.

Whatever Francis will do, he is likely aware that the consequences of the discussion go beyond a Vatican think tank and a recently overhauled pontifical university.

Bishops and theologians across the Church are already asking why the Pontifical Academy for Life seems permitted to host a set of conversations that seem to criticize the Church’s long-standing doctrinal understanding of marriage and sexuality — and some are making serious counter-arguments.

But if all those conversations become the basis for even the appearance of some concession on contraception from the pontiff himself, long-simmering ecclesiastical disagreements would sharpen, and episcopal pushback would dwarf the discontent expressed by some bishops about Amoris laetitia.

With frustration mounting about the German “synodal path” and other issues, it’s not clear how long Francis can tolerate “creative” theological projects taking place under his nose, until he finds at his door a robust pushback from a broad swath of bishops.

To some extent, the pope has already weighed in on the burgeoning discussion, saying last month on a plane that “dogma, morality, is always in a path of development, but development in the same direction.”

Of course, depending on their agendas, different voices emphasized different parts of that remark - with some claiming the pope saw room for development, and others pointing to the restrictive clause at the end of his sentence.

Encouraging theologians to talk seriously about the issue, Francis said that you cannot do theology with a ‘no’ in front of it … the magisterium will be the one to say no.”

But some theologians, it seems, are betting that if they do the talking, Francis will not be inclined to say “no” — that he’ll give them enough room to introduce more subjective elements into the moral discussion surrounding contraception — even by acknowledgement in an apostolic exhortation.

Are they right? Or will Francis soon put down his foot to say “no?”  The next best indication of how far Francis will let things go is probably the Vatican’s Instrumentum laboris for the synod’s final session in Rome next year — a text which is presently being drafted by a committee which includes the president of Rome’s JPII Institute, along with papal biographer Austen Ivereigh and others.

That document will, in theory, be meant to reflect the preliminary feedback of a global process. If it seems also to carry the arguments advanced about the need to “develop” Humanea vitae, serious questions will be raised - especially if the text doesn’t indicate whether “national synthesis” documents also took up that topic.

In the meantime, the pontifical academy seems determined to keep up the chatter. After, of course, it deals with Paglia’s “pillar” gaffe.