Blessed Pope Paul VI, scheduled to be canonized a saint on October 14 of this year, was the first pope I ever saw in person. The date was May 25, 1975. The place was St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome at the canonization Mass for Saints Juan Garcia Lopez-Rico, O.SS.T., and Vincenta Maria Lopez y Vicuña. I had no particular attachment to either new saint but just happened to be in Rome at the time, prior to entering the novitiate of the Congregation of the Mission (C.M.). I did have an attachment to Pope Paul VI, however, who was Pope since I first entered the seminary in 1969. I admired him greatly.
Standing among a throng of people in the long aisle of the Basilica, I saw Pope Paul VI being carried by footmen on the now obsolete ceremonial throne known as the “sedia gestatoria (chair for carrying).” I was positioned on the aisle in front of the Basilica’s magnificent statue of St. Vincent de Paul, the founder of my religious community. Clad in his Mass vestments, the Holy Father was looking in the other direction as he approached my location when, suddenly, he turned my way giving his blessing to the crowd. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Pope Paul VI is remembered in the Church for many things. He brought the Second Vatican Council to a close, spending the next 13 years implementing its reforms. He approved a new form for celebrating Mass. He was the first pope to travel extensively outside of Italy as Supreme Pontiff, earning him the title “the Pilgrim Pope.” He incorporated the Church’s social teachings into his many doctrinal writings and homilies. He laid the cornerstone for the Church’s modern efforts at evangelization and ecumenism, a legacy often noted by his successors.
As a longtime Vatican official and eventual Archbishop of Milan (1955-1963), Giovanni Battista Montini was the clear favorite to succeed Pope St. John XXIII at the 1963 conclave that elected him. The two popes, however, were very different in background, temperament, style and personality, easily demonstrating the popular Italian saying “fat pope, skinny pope.” Scholarly, progressive, intense and somewhat melancholic, Montini had the enormous task of introducing the ancient Church to the modern world and vice versa – the “aggiornamento” – fulfilling his predecessor’s hope when convening Vatican II.
To say that the pontificate of Pope Paul VI proved difficult for him is an understatement, to be sure. He wore the loneliness and burden of the papal office visibly on the sharp features of his thin face. Biographers and Vatican watchers, however, have often noted that Pope Paul VI – never a parish priest himself – admirably balanced a keen sense of fidelity to Church teaching with a true pastoral understanding of the needs of the faithful in his approach to life in the Church of the late 20th century. In a departure from the practice of his predecessors, the Holy Father frequently consulted with members of the hierarchy internationally as well as with other theologians and experts before issuing official teachings and papal pronouncements. This kind of dialogue, even when there was disagreement, was always very important to him.
Blessed Pope Paul VI authored seven encyclical letters during his 15-year papacy – in modern times, the most significant type of papal teaching documents. Fifty years ago this July 25th commemorates the release of, without a doubt, the most controversial of his encyclical writings, “Humanae Vitae: On the Regulation of Birth.”
Pope St. John XXIII had established a six member Pontifical Commission on Birth Control in 1960 to study the use of various artificial means of contraception in the face of growing worldwide concerns about the need for population control. After his death, Pope Paul VI expanded this commission to 72 members, including the future Pope John Paul II, and their work continued for the next several years. A majority report was confidentially issued to the Pope in 1966 stating the opinion that certain means of artificial contraception were not intrinsically evil and, therefore, morally acceptable and that married couples should be allowed to take advantage of them during marriage. This opinion represented a break with longstanding Church teaching and practice. Within the year, it was secretly released to the press – along with a minority report arguing to the contrary and in favor of established teaching – raising expectations that an inevitable change in Church teaching was forthcoming.
Pope Paul VI studied both reports carefully for the next year, consulting broadly but ultimately rejecting the majority opinion. Releasing his findings in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” on July 25, 1968, worldwide reaction from clergy and laity alike was swift and largely negative, one of the most widespread expressions of dissent encountered within the Church. Debates in academic, theological, non-theological and ecumenical circles began immediately and continued for decades representing both opposition to as well as support for Pope Paul VI’s teaching in the encyclical.
His immediate successor, Pope John Paul I (Archbishop and Patriarch of Venice Cardinal Albino Luciano) did not express an explicit opinion about “Humanae Vitae” since his tenure lasted only 33 days. Pope John Paul II (Archbishop of Krakow Cardinal Karol Wojtyla) consistently affirmed the teaching of Pope Paul VI on artificial contraception as did Pope Benedict XVI (Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Josef Ratzinger) who referred to “Humanae Vitae” as “a sign of contradiction but also of continuity of the Church’s doctrine and tradition,” stating that “what was true yesterday is true today (Address “On the 40th Anniversary of the encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae,’ May 12, 2008).”
Pope Francis likewise supported Pope Paul VI’s moral teaching. “His genius was prophetic; he had the courage to take a stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a cultural restraint, to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism (advocacy of population control and preventive contraception). The question is not one of changing doctrine but of digging deep and making sure that pastoral care takes into account situations and what is possible for persons to do (Interview in ‘Corriere Della Sera,’ May 1, 2014).”
Although “Humanae Vitae” represents Blessed Pope Paul VI’s specific attempt to address the “regulation of birth” to a world concerned with population control, the encyclical also draws attention more broadly to the nature of Christian marriage and God’s plan for marital love embodied in the transmission of life. The Holy Father affirmed the Catholic Church’s belief that married love is fully human, involving body and soul, and, faithful to God’s designs. It is total, faithful and fruitful (“Humanae Vitae,” para. 9). While acknowledging the fact that “not everyone will accept this particular teaching (HV, para. 18)” as well as supporting the legitimacy of a married couple’s expression of conjugal love during natural infertile periods, Pope Paul VI saw openness to the transmission of life as “the design established by the Creator” for Christian marriage (HV, para. 13).
Indeed, Blessed Pope Paul VI will be remembered for many things and his 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae” will certainly rank among the most memorable, albeit the most controversial. Fifty years later, the issues he considered in that now mature document still remain the subject of reflection, discussion and debate around the world as the Church prepares for his canonization by Pope Francis. It is clear that the current Holy Father has profound respect not only for Pope Paul VI but also for his attempt to address those issues in his teaching to and pastoral care of the People of God.
In a meeting with families in Manila on January 16, 2015, Pope Francis stated, “At a time when the problem of population growth was being raised, he (Pope Paul VI) had the courage to defend openness to life in families. He knew the difficulties that are there in every family, and so in his encyclical (“Humanae Vitae”) he was very merciful toward particular cases, and he urged confessors to be very merciful and understanding in dealing with particular cases. But he also had a broader vision: he looked at the peoples of the earth and he saw this threat of the destruction of the family through the privation of children. Paul VI was courageous; he was a good shepherd and he warned his flock of the wolves who were coming.”
As the Church commemorates the 50th anniversary of the publication of Pope Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae,” whether we agree or disagree with its conclusions, we should keep in mind the “broader vision” and “courage” of this “good shepherd” as he joins the ranks of the saints. Blessed Pope Paul VI, pray for us!