272. Telegram From the Embassy in Italy to the Department of State1

4271. Subject: Population Issues: Discussions with Pope John Paul II and Vatican Officials.

1. C—Entire text

2. Following high level consultations at the Vatican on US–Vatican cooperation in population matters, Ambassador Benedick, Coordinator of Population Affairs, was received by Pope John Paul II in a special audience on Feb. 16. Noting the implications of unprecedented population growth in the Third World for maternal and child health, quality of life, and the stability of nations, Benedick cited the spiritual and material degradation he had personally witnessed in many countries. He emphasized that US international population assistance is based on voluntarism and is consistent with family stability and local cultural and religious values. The Pope agreed on the gravity of the demographic problem. Expressing familiarity with the substance of Benedick’s earlier conversations, the Pope stated that he was “profoundly moved by your concerns.” He agreed that governments have a responsibility for the conditions of life of future generations. The Pope stressed the importance of human dignity, natural law, and discipline in implementing governmental policies, and referred to the encyclical humanae vitae and to his own 1981 exhortation on the family. It was agreed to continue the “cordial collaboration” represented by these consultations. [Page 757]Benedick left an aide memoire with the Pope (text in separate telegram).2

3. In other meetings Feb. 15–17, Benedick, accompanied by me and/or my deputy, called on Cardinal Baggio, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops; Cardinal Knox, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family; Archbishop Silvestrini, Secretary of the Council for Public Affairs; Bishop Rossano, Rector Magnificus of the Pontifical Lateran University; and several other Vatican officials. Purpose of discussions was to underline US view of the seriousness of the demographic situation for many countries, to explain US development and population policies, and generally to establish an atmosphere of mutual confidence and cooperation in preparing for the 1984 International Conference on Population in Mexico City.

4. The main elements of current Vatican position on population matters are:

(A) Recognition of grave consequences of rapid population growth in Third World;

(B) Promotion of “responsible parenthood;”

(C) Reliance on periodic abstinence—natural family planning (NFP) methods—as the only response currently acceptable under “natural law;”

(D) Encouragement of US–Vatican dialogue on population issues. Specifically, Bishop Cox (Sec. of Council for Family) suggested Benedick organize small, confidential bilateral meeting of experts in Washington to explore further technical areas of US–Vatican cooperation, while Msgr. Caffarra (President of newly established John Paul II Institute for Matrimony and Family at Lateran University) invited Benedick to participate in Vatican Conference on “responsible parenthood” in September.

5. The Vatican is not monolithic on this issue, however, and there are subtle nuances between what might be termed “abstract” and “realistic/pastoral” approaches. Representative of the former is Cardinal Knox, who asserts that no compromise is ever possible over the issue of contraception, considers the NFP methods of his Australian countryman Billings to be the final word,3 and couples this with criticism of US armaments outlays. Symptomatic of the strains is a current conflict between Caffarra and the Academic Senate of the Pontifical Lateran University, with the latter favoring free academic inquiry, while the former maintains that on this fundamental point of morality, his new [Page 758]institute cannot admit differing theological or biological views. There is substantial (but not universal) agreement in the Vatican that humanae vitae was not intended as an infallible pronouncement, and that it explicitly opens a door for further scientific and philosophical research and possible evolution in light of changing world conditions.

6. Comment: Benedick’s visit follows personal invitation from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Casaroli last August,4 and continues his earlier discussions with Vatican representatives in Rome, Washington, New York and elsewhere.5 Benedick has clearly impressed highest levels of the Vatican with the sincere concern of USG for human dignity and family values, while supporting voluntary family planning programs in countries requesting such aid. He has maintained the basic US view of the urgency of the demographic situation as it affects economic and social development in many countries, but has also demonstrated US sensitivity to Vatican concerns, especially in the past two years, through greater emphasis on human values and increased US support for natural family planning.

7. As a result of this extremely successful visit, there is clearly greater awareness by the Holy See that the US, in its development and population policies, shares important common values and objectives with the Roman Catholic Church. In light of past accusations against US policy, this demonstrates important progress.

8. I believe this important initiative has been handled with considerable sensitivity and tact. These discussions are especially significant in the context of preparations for the Mexico City conference, in contrast to the atmosphere of misunderstanding and acrimony that characterized US–Vatican relations on this subject at the 1974 Bucharest Population Conference.6 The warmth of Benedick’s reception in Rome, and the readiness of the Pope to acknowledge the visit with a personal audience, are significant indications of Vatican desire to continue this dialogue, which I believe is contributing to improved understanding between the Holy See and the USG.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Guhin, Michael A.: Files, Population/Studies (4). Confidential. Sent for information to USUN New York.
  2. In telegram 4463 from Rome, February 24, the Embassy transmitted the text of the aide-mémoire. (Ibid.)
  3. Dr. John Billings, developer of the Billings Ovulation Method.
  4. Not found.
  5. In telegram 101333 to Rome, April 15, 1982, the Department reported on Benedick’s planned visit to Rome in May. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, D820198–0325)
  6. Reference is to the World Population Conference held in Bucharest, Romania, in August 1974.