Thursday, October 23, 2014


Sainthood is based on the personal holiness of the candidate and not on a list of accomplishments. So on the basis of personal holiness, Paul VI may most certainly qualify. 

However, in their rather hobbling attempt to counter the sexual revolution 40 years after the fact, the neo-conservatives in the Catholic Church have already lionized (if not canonized) Paul VI, solely for his penning Humanae Vitae, which they like to enthrone as prophetic.

Humanae Vitae, as most know, is the 1968 encyclical in which Paul VI reaffirmed the Church's traditional ban on contraception. The encyclical, almost immediately, effected the exact opposite of its intent, and it is believed today that almost all Catholics use or have used contraception.

There has been much blame to go around: the culture, the time (1960's), the advent of the sexual revolution, the population explosion (myth), post Vatican II confusion, progressive clergy, and Catholics themselves. However, there are three reasons why Humanae Vitae backfired that can be laid at the feet of Paul VI himself.

1. The expansion of the birth control commission. Paul VI's predecessor, John XXIII, had established a six person commission to study questions related to population and birth control, particularly in light of the recent advent of "the pill". John XXIII had removed the question of birth control from the Council (Vatican II) and had reserved it to himself. Pope John had originally envisaged a very short Council. "Over by Christmas" he had said after opening the Council in October of 1962.

So originally the study was meant to be small, short, and essentially under the radar. However, the Council mushroomed into something John had not planned; and rather than the three short months John had thought it to be, it labored on for three long years during which John died.

And then Paul VI made what we now know to be a fatal move: he expanded the commission from 6 to 72 members.

The surprising expansion of the commission juxtaposed with the ever more revolutionary tone of the Council immediately led many to believe that a change in the church's ban on contraception was about to be lifted, and teachers and pastors around the world began anticipating that change in their lectures, sermons, counseling, and especially in the confessional.

This episode in Church history is important to review in light of the recent synod wherein similarly weighty sexual issues were discussed. Ultimately, as Paul VI was to show us in Humanae Vitae, the Church's fundamental moral teaching cannot be changed even by a pope.

However, the very perception that it could be changed proved to be all that was needed for most people to believe that it was. 

The same is true for the current synod. Like Paul VI, Francis wants to study the issues and encourage discussion. But publicly encouraging the discussion also publicly encourages the idea that fundamental moral teaching can be changed. And while it cannot be changed, actual practice can.

And so it did and so it will. Like Paul VI discovered after writing Humanae Vitae, Francis will discover that the horse has already left the barn through the door that HE left open. 

With the expansion of the commission, the actual business of Vatican II took a back seat to an ever more breathless anticipation of an announcement from the pope declaring the ban on contraception lifted. 

2. 1964 address to the papal commission on birth control. In the midst of this, Paul VI made his second seriously bad move. And it is quite interesting that most of his champions have no clue that he actually said this:
"We say frankly that so far we do not have sufficient reason to consider the norms given by Pope Pius XII on this matter [of contraception] as out of date and therefore as not binding. They must be considered as valid, at least until We feel obliged in conscience to change them." - Paul VI Acta apostolicae sedis (AAS) 56 (1964) 588-59, 1964 address to the special papal commission on the use of contraceptives.
This was huge. There it was: the word "until" - "until We feel obliged in conscience to change them."

Paul VI had just stated that the Church's "norms" on contraception could be changed if "We (meaning the Magisterium) feel obliged to change them." Even using the word "norms" gives the impression that the ban on contraception was just a disciplinary norm and not an unchangeable doctrine. 

The average person didn't hear this. But the people paying attention, most of whom were aching to hear this in the first place, went nuts. More importantly - or tragically - Paul VI was speaking to the members of the commission and the pope's words (particularly his magisterial use of the first person plural "WE") gave them blanket permission to vote for a change: and vote for a change they did, voting 65 to 7 in favor of lifting the ban on contraception.

This left Paul VI in a thick stew of his own making. His expansion of the commission and his own words to the commission had produced exactly what the world was waiting for. However, what "the world was waiting for" was also exactly what the pope knew he could not give. So why did he suggest that he could give it?

Again, this is important to review in light of Francis and the recent synod.

Both popes may have simply wanted to appear that they were sympathetic, anticipating that in the end they could rely on the hardliners to speak up and the decision not to permit the change could be laid at their feet and not their (the popes) own, which would allow them (Paul and Francis) to still be loved and seen as at least sympathetic. 

That's a great strategy for a politician but not for a pope, and in Paul VI's case, it monstrously backfired. He now had to say NO and not only NO but NO in the face of an overwhelming decision by a commission he had expanded and encouraged.

3.  The argument from "complete agreement". And now here is where Paul VI really goes off the rails. And it is amazing that so many of those ready to canonize him on the basis of Humanae Vitae being "prophetic", MISS THIS. The pope appears to still believe he can blame someone else and he opens the encyclical actually doing just that (emphases added):

In paragraph 6, the pope writes:
"...the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain...because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed."
The full quote is filled in with papal-type qualifiers, but the essence of this statement is this:

The conclusion of the commission cannot be considered definitive because the commission's decision was not unanimous ("complete agreement"). 

This is staggering. First of all the commission's decision (65 -7), especially given the moral weight of the topic, could effectively be considered to indeed be unanimous; and second, the pope essentially says that Church moral teaching is up to a vote, it just needs to be "unanimous."

It doesn't matter what Paul VI says next, and he has been proved to be right about everything else he wrote.

What matters is what he said first. 

And since he said it was up to a vote, some, if not most Catholics, were led to believe that Humanae Vitae was not authoritative, that it was just a papal opinion, and, in fact, the teaching will change someday, we just need more votes


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  11. Very nice article, just what I wanted to find.


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