Friday, July 20, 2012

The Council, Conscience, War and Birth Control: One Faded Memory UPDATED

I have written extensively about the connections between the Second World War and the Second Vatican Council.  Many people assume that, since the Council took place from 1962-1965, the Council was about the world of the 1960s.  A friend of mine once remarked that he remembered the Second Vatican Council.  "That was when the Catholic Church," he said, "sold out to the Beatles!"  The truth, however, is much more complex.  After all, as the Council opened in 1962, the Second World War had been over less than twenty years.  One can ask: If a 62-year old French bishop was processing into St. Peter's on 11 October 1962, where had he been twenty years before, in 1942?  What would he have experienced as a teen and young man during the First World War and the rise of, eventually, three totalitarian regimes, a second World War, the Holocaust, the advent of the nuclear age and the Cold War?  And how might that experience have affected what he did at the Council?

UPDATE: I am indebted to Helen McDevitt-Smith for acquainting me with one such bishop: Pierre Francois Lucien Anatole Boillon, Bishop of the Diocese of Verdun, France. 

Pierre was born in 1911, and was ordained a priest in 1935.  In 1962, at the age of 51, he was ordained a bishop less than a month before the opening of the Council.  He served first as an auxiliary bishop of Verdun, and then became the diocesan bishop of Verdun from 1963 until his retirement in 1986; he returned to the Lord in 1996.  But what about those all-important years between 1935 to 1945?

Young Father Boillon served, as did many priests, in the French Resistance.  So it would come as no surprise to find out that in 1965, as the Council Fathers were debating issues related to war and peace for Gaudium et spes, Bishop Boillon rose to speak strongly in favor of total military disarmament; he had seen the horrors of war first-hand.  But there's more to this story.

After the Council, Bishop Boillon continued his work as Bishop of Verdun and the implementation of the Council.  His name turns up again in a remarkable account of the French bishops' conference and their 1968 response to Pope Paul VI's famous encyclical Humanae Vitae ("On Human Life"), which had just been promulgated.  Here's a link to an archived article on the topic.  It gives us many things to consider prayerfully, and shows the complex relationships involved.  Some highlights:

"Vatican officials expressed appreciation this week of the 'deep spirit of charity' contained in the statement on birth control with the French bishops issued last Friday.  The 120 members of the French episcopate said in their statement that although contraception was always  'disorder,' it need not imply moral guilt on the part of married couples who practiced it.  This was a matter for the couples to decide themselves after serious reflection before God."

Bishop Boillon of Verdun served as the spokesman of the French episcopal conference in presenting this statement to the press.  He explained that "a Catholic who felt compelled to use artificial means of birth control need not confess it to a priest and could take communion with a clear conscience."  In attempting to balance the duties of marriage and the teachings of the Church, the French bishops wrote that "a couple must prayerfully decide which duty took precedence."  They continued that "contraception can never be good.  It is always a disorder but this disorder is not always guilty."

It is here where Bishop Boillon draws on his own wartime experience.   "I killed four Germans," he said.  "I try to justify myself before God, but I did not accuse myself at confession of a sin.  I had a conflict of duty between the duty of defending my country and that of respecting human life.  Killing those Germans was evil but not a sin."

I find much here that is profitable for our reflection today.  Among other things, the statement of the French bishops accurately presents the role of conscience and the formation of conscience required by every individual.  It also respects that each individual must ultimately form that conscience himself or herself; no one can do it for another.  As the Council itself taught, the conscience is a "crucible" in which a person is alone with God.  The French bishops respect this religious freedom and responsibility.

The recognition that in life a person can be faced by competing "goods" ("duties") which require hard choices is also refreshing.  At least in my own pastoral experience, most people do not set out to do bad things; they are, rather, trying to do their best in often extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  While seeing things in black-and-white can seem to make human choices seem simple, life is far more often lived in various shades of gray.

This account, to me, captures much of the wonderful complexity that is reflected in the Second Vatican Council and the very human bishops who struggled with the extraordinarily difficult tasks facing the church and world.

As I researched more of this story, I was reminded of a powerful scene from the 1968 move, "The Shoes of the Fisherman," with Anthony Quinn playing a former bishop-prisoner in a Siberian gulag who is elected Pope.  In this scene, his character speaks of the moral tightrope we all must walk.  Given Bishop Boillon's own account, perhaps this is not as fictional as one might originally have thought.  Regardless, it is worthy of great reflection.