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Pope's new encyclical has little to do with real world.

In 1968 Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae encyclical against artificial birth control caused many American priests to dissent publicly. Massive resignations occurred. In the Washington archdiocese, more than 40 priests signed a document disagreeing with the papal teaching.

An independent spirit who had been expected to sign but didn't was Fr. Geno Baroni, a priest whom I and many others relied on for spiritual guidance in our Catholic faith.

Baroni, who pastored a low-income, black, center-city parish, had a ministry that included organizing credit unions for his flock, pressuring banks to give loans to poor people, creating summer recreation programs for kids and bringing ethnics and blacks together to form political coalitions.

When we talked about Humanae Vitae and the pope's exercise of primacy in which he said that easy availability of contraceptives "could open the way to marital infidelity and a general lowering of standards," Baroni would smile. He had little interest and less energy for getting worked up one way or the other about the encyclical that was raising an unholy storm. His parishioners - the poor and crushed - rarely asked his counsel on sexual issues and if contraception did come up it was in the confessional and his thoughts to the penitent were under seal.

Baroni, the son of Italian immigrants named Guido and Giuseppina, would wave his hand and say he would let the intellectuals furrow their brows and argue it out if they thought the pope's view on birth control mattered. Other urgencies were on his mind and agenda: dispensing the sacraments, fair housing, workers'rights, community development, standing between slumlords and the evicted.

I'm thinking of Baroni these days when I see sides being taken on Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul's new encyclical presented Oct. 5 as the major theological statement of his 15-year reign. Echoing the 1968 work of Paul VI, the encyclical condemns artificial birth control, along with premarital sex, homosexuality and masturbation, as "intrinsically evil."

Such behavior, the pope wrote, is contrary to the commands of the divine and natural law ... and cannot claim to be grounded in the Catholic moral tradition. The faithful are obliged to acknowledge and respect the specific moral precepts declared and taught by the church in the name of God, the Creator and the Lord."

As a Catholic, I laud the pope for speaking this forcefully. Like Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, he had the courage to take a stand. It's the relevance of the stand that raises doubts about John Paul's competence.

This was a document the pope pondered and wrote for six years, years in which overpopulation worsened, poverty increased, global arms sales grew and the number of people dying daily from hunger-related diseases stayed steady at 40,000. And the major document of Pope Paul's papacy is a 179-page message ordering Catholics not to use condoms.

The pope is silent on what he and the Vatican propose to do about the tens of millions of unwanted births that would result if his orders against contraception are followed and secular society has to pick up the tab for the immense social costs of overpopulation.

In the places I visit for spiritual nourishment - valuable programs of social justice and healing that are often funded by Catholic Charities or the Campaign for Human Development - Veritatis Splendor is not likely to be what either the serving or the served are talking about in these coming months. Like Geno Baroni a quarter century ago, they won't agree or disagree, but only see this overly juridical document as marginal to the grubby struggles of the day. Let the intellectuals, including theologians left and right, have their sport with it

The world cries out for justice, peace and reconciliation, and the pope spends six years devising a theology of the bedroom. On Ceno Baroni's tombstone in a Pennsylvania cemetery - he died of cancer in 1984 - these words are carved: "Let us pray that there will be new voices of justice, new prophets who will hear the words of the Lord."

Such voices and prophets are around. They just aren't in the Vatican.

Colman McCarthy is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post.
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Title Annotation:'Veritatis Splendor'
Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 29, 1993
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