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ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - Italy's top cardinal and potential successor to Pope Francis is urging a congress on Humanae Vitae to reject groupthink on the 1968 papal encyclical prohibiting artificial contraception.
Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, exhorted participants at the international conference called "Humanae Vitae: The Audacity of an Encyclical on Sexuality and Procreation" to "avoid working within closed and homogenized circles."
"In the end, that kind of approach does no more than reinforce the shared views of the participants, without any trace of sincere and authentic dialogue," Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna, stressed in a written address sent to the Rome conference on Saturday.
"We must have nothing to do with the sterile side-taking that is trumpeted superficially and inappropriately by the media," the cardinal emphasized, noting that theologians are "discussing the various possibilities that can be considered and that could lead to new positions being taken."
"Pope Francis stresses that 'tradition' is not the same as 'progressing backwards.' He is pushing theologians to go 'above and beyond' but to do so with creativity that is faithful," Zuppi explained.
"People are questioning the extent to which the current magisterial pronouncements on this subject are consistent with the sensus fidei fidelium (the 'believers' understanding of the faith') and to what extent they can guide people on their faith journeys," he observed.
This is because "uncertainties about sexual and marital ethics are deeply felt and Church communities ask themselves question after question," Zuppi said, noting that the debate was reflected in reports from around the world in preparation for the Synod on Synodality.
"We cannot be put off by fears that we will create confusion. Confusion is already upon us in the form of indifference or the adoption of contradictory opinions," the cardinal warned, especially as Catholic positions on Humanae Vitae had become increasingly divergent.
"I'm happy to see that debate among the various theological think tanks has become quite spirited," Zuppi remarked, as speakers at several conferences in Italy have presented "varying sensitivities and theoretical approaches" to make sense of the current challenges.
The prelate, who is listed as one of "the leading cardinal candidates" for the papal office in Edward Pentin's The Next Pope, sent a message of encouragement the same day to a pro-life rally in Rome, which drew together over 40,000 Christians from different denominations.
"Let us always say yes to life, beginning with life not yet born, safe in its mother's womb, to life that is resting in a hospital bed, watching eternity draw near," Zuppi told the rally.
The cardinal criticized "so-called surrogate motherhood, which uses a woman, often poor, to fulfill someone else's desire to have a child." Italian law prohibits surrogacy, but the European Union is pressuring the traditionally Catholic country to permit the practice.
"For decades, the Italian Bishops Conference has been concerned by the demographic crisis, which is reaching a critical level," Zuppi noted, highlighting the growing political awareness of Italy's population implosion.
In 2022, fewer than 400,000 children were born in Italy, according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT). During the same period, the country recorded more than 700,000 deaths.
Although the decline in Italy's birth rate has taken a downward curve for several years, never since the unification of the country in 1861 has the number of births been so low, a concern addressed last week by Pope Francis and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
"Are we sure that the trivialization of abortion heals the deep wound that abortions inflict on the souls of women who have had them?" Zuppi asked, echoing questions raised by the rally's organizers. "Are we sure that assisted suicide or euthanasia really respect the freedom of those who choose them?"
"Are we sure that war, in Ukraine as in other countries where 'forgotten wars' are being waged, is really the cure for the evils that cause wars?" the cardinal questioned.
On Saturday evening, the Holy See Press Office confirmed that Pope Francis had entrusted the cardinal with the task of leading a mission to help ease tensions in the conflict in Ukraine.
As a young assistant parish priest of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome, Zuppi facilitated the peace agreement leading to the cessation of the 16-year-old civil war in Mozambique.
Echoing Zuppi's call for diverse voices on Humanae Vitae, Abp. Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said it was imperative for "theological development to remain open" while remaining faithful to the message of the encyclical.
"For my part, I agree with every passage of Humanae Vitae. You will not find anyone more fiercely and tenaciously deployed than me in defense of human life," Paglia emphasized.
Quoting Pope Francis, the archbishop noted that with regard to the topic of contraceptives, "the duty of theologians is research, theological reflection. You cannot do theology with a 'no' in front of you."
"Then the magisterium will say: 'No, you went further, come back.' But theological development must be open, theologians are there for this,'" Paglia added, citing Francis' words at a press conference on the pope's return flight from Canada, on July 29, 2022.
Both radical traditionalists and liberals have attacked Humanae Vitae for different reasons, the former contending that Pope Paul VI's encyclical deviated from the consensus of Church teaching before the 19th century, which, they claim, limited sexual intercourse strictly to procreation.
Some bent on finding fault with Humanae Vitae claim the encyclical contradicts Pope Pius XI's ruling on the use of sterile periods. One such author, Robert Obach, even makes a dubious assertion that Pius XI called it the "art of skillful sinning."
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