Pope John Paul I’s Defense of Life Undimmed by His Brief Papacy

COMMENTARY: His insights are the expressions of a gentle soul who has bequeathed to the modern world more than most people realize.

Pope John Paul I is shown in an undated file photo. Born Oct. 17, 1912, in Italy’s northern Veneto region, Albino Luciani was elected pope Aug. 26, 1978, and took a double name after his two immediate predecessors, St. John XXIII and  St. Paul VI.
Pope John Paul I is shown in an undated file photo. Born Oct. 17, 1912, in Italy’s northern Veneto region, Albino Luciani was elected pope Aug. 26, 1978, and took a double name after his two immediate predecessors, St. John XXIII and St. Paul VI. (photo: Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

Editor's Note: Aug. 26 was the 41st anniversary of John Paul I's election to the papacy.


Pope John Paul I was the pope who did not want to be pope. He prayed that God might relieve him of the burden, and his wish was granted when he passed away in his sleep 33 days into his pontificate. “I am only a poor man,” he said, “accustomed to small things and silence.”

His brief tenure as Pontifex Maximus, nonetheless, was not unproductive.

One of his last duties was to read and revise his book, Illustrissimi (1976), for its upcoming fourth publication. This work is a series of open letters to illustrious individuals. Among those he honored are Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, Mark Twain, King David, Penelope (the long-suffering wife of the Greek epic hero Odysseus) and Sts. Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux and Francis de Sales.

The letters reveal John Paul’s broad literary interests. They are insightful, charming and routinely contain a Christian message.

One does not expect the issue of abortion to arise. Nonetheless, it does arise, near the end of the book, in a letter to Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793).

Goldoni was a lawyer-turned-playwright. In that latter role, he produced no less than 120 plays. John Paul I cites his play Rusteghi (The Boors). He contrasts this play with Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. “Between the thesis of Shakespeare and yours, dear Goldoni,” the Holy Father writes, “I prefer yours ... even if your ‘feminism’ seems bland.”

Pope John Paul I applauds Goldoni’s liberating attitude toward women and welcomes the many gains they have enjoyed in the modern age. Yet he does not want to see women liberating themselves from their own womanhood.

At the time of his writing, feminists and parliamentarians were beginning to talk about abortion as a “lesser evil” that “will prevent illegal abortions and the deaths of numerous women, formerly the victims of the abortionist.” John Paul is not bamboozled by this claim. He is well aware that the legalization of abortion in other countries has not achieved these ends and that such arguments about abortion being a “lesser evil” are efforts to propagandize people. He is also well aware of investigations by Japanese, English and Hungarian physicians into abortion that revealed that abortion has its adverse consequences for women.

Induced abortions, John Paul goes on to say in Illustrissimi, “are always a trauma for the woman’s health, for later childbearing, and for later children.” In addition, psychologists and psychiatrists indicate other problems that affect women’s health.

Concerning the dubious modern argument that abortion gives a woman freedom, John Paul remarks that in many cases abortion frees the man from “nuisances and irritations,” freeing him from obligations both to his partner as well as to the child. “Abortion,” he adds, “is a retrocession, rather than an advance, for women with regard to men.”

Another specious argument put forward by pro-abortion propagandists is that in the early stage of gestation, the unborn child is not a human being. But there is no such thing as a developing entity in the woman that is not, for however long a period, a human being.

John Paul avers that “there is only one life to make its imploring appeal to parents and to society.” And that life is a human life. Parents do not, as some theorists conjecture, create the right to life in the child. Rather, as John Paul explains, “it is the new being that, from the very beginning of its development, creates duties in the parents.”

John Paul is concerned not only with the development of the unborn, but equally concerned about the development of women. He rejoices in the many enterprises in which women have proven their belonging: as “clerks, students, workers, window-dressers, teachers, hostesses, professors, nurses, employees, doctors, policewomen, social workers, lawyers, and so on, through an endless array that extends to members of parliament and of the cabinet.”

In his affirmation of a true feminism, John Paul I is anticipating his successor’s 1988 encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem, where John Paul II states:

“Vocation is meant here in its fundamental, and one may say universal, significance, a significance which is then actualized and expressed in women’s many different ‘vocations’ in the Church and the world.”

As a good pastor, John Paul I does not neglect to mention God’s command, “Thou shalt not kill.” Nor does he omit the clear and uncontestable claim from the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes: “Life must be protected at all times with the greatest care from the moment of conception; abortion, like infanticide, is an abominable crime.”

There can be no doubt that John Paul I is on the side of women. He is a champion of authentic feminism. But he, in his circumspection, knows that a particular kind of feminism can be harmful to women.

“My wish,” he writes, “is that women may achieve new conquests, but just and lofty ones, developing everything the Lord has revealed about the true greatness of women.”

The key words here are “just” and “lofty.” The spectrum on which lofty goals can be enumerated is virtually endless. Yet these goals, infinite as they are in their variety, must be tempered by justice so that a woman does not sacrifice something of her authentic self as she reaches for new conquests. Justice itself is a lofty goal.

Pope John Paul I’s contribution to the culture of life, despite his short-lived papacy, is significant. Unfortunately, it has been neglected and, therefore, not brought to the general attention of the public. Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, the dean of the College of Cardinals at the time of John Paul I’s papacy, referred to this briefly reigning pope as “a meteor that lights up the heavens and then disappears, leaving us amazed and astonished.”

But John Paul I has not exactly disappeared. He has left important insights in the defense of life. They are the expressions of a gentle soul who has bequeathed to the modern world more than most people realize.

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College. His latest book is Apostles of the Culture of Life.

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