Paul VI: Steadfast witness to truth

By: Bishop Paul S. Loverde

“Habemus papam!” I can still hear the cheering from the crowd which eagerly awaited the emergence of the newly elected pope in St. Peter’s Square. On June 21, 1963, I was a seminarian in Rome studying at the North American College and was blessed to be in that crowded square. When Giovanni Cardinal Montini emerged having taken the name Pope Paul VI, I knew that he, too, embraced the evangelical and missionary zeal of our mutual namesake, St. Paul. I would have the privilege of being in the presence of Pope Paul VI — who is being beatified by Pope Francis on October 19 at the end of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family — two more times: once when he visited us seminarians at our summer villa, and later at a papal audience after my priestly ordination. Though these are fond memories, what has most been impressed upon my mind and heart is Pope Paul VI’s steadfastness in leading the Church through difficult times. For this reason, he has always been a pope for whom I have had a great deal of admiration and respect. His beatification is so timely at this moment in our history!

PaulVIPope Paul VI was elected prior to the second session of the Second Vatican Council, when the Church was experiencing what Pope St. John XIII had called an “aggiornamento,” or an updating. Theologians and clergy at the Council had the task of discerning how the Church could dialogue with the modern world — what aspects of the culture could be embraced by the faithful and which would have to be kept at bay because their integration would threaten the unity of the Faith. As Pope Francis has said, “Faith is ‘one,’ in the first place, because of the oneness of God. Faith is one because it is shared by the whole Church, in which we receive a common gaze. Faith must be professed in all of its purity and integrity,” (“Lumen Fidei,” No. 48).

Much of Pope Paul VI’s pontificate would be directed at answering lingering questions that remained after the Council had ended. Many of those questions had to do with marriage and the family in light of cultural changes that were taking place. Pope Paul VI is undoubtedly most remembered for his forthright teaching about responsible parenthood in his encyclical“Humane Vitae” (1968). Many have read “Humane Vitae” and reduced its message to a “no” from the Church about the licit use of artificial contraception. What they miss, however, is the document’s rich presentation of the biblical understanding of marriage that the Catholic Church has consistently promoted. The characteristics of marriage as designed by God include that it is “fully human,” “a total, personal friendship in which husband and wife share everything,” “faithful and exclusive of all others until death,” and “is ordained toward the procreation and education of children” who are a supreme gift to their parents (No. 9).

To enter into marriage, then, is to enter into a union that God intends to be total, faithful, and fruitful. Responsible parenthood must respect the design that God has for the sexual union which involves openness to life unless there is a grave reason why a couple cannot welcome a child. The Church’s teaching on the sexual union between husband and wife is one that promotes communication, mutual discernment, and a respect for the ability of man and woman together to cooperate in God’s creative work.

Sadly, many people still misunderstand the Church’s presentation of marriage in “Humane Vitae” and characterize it as antiquated and restrictive. The truth, however, is that the Church’s teaching increases a couple’s freedom — freedom to love one another as they have been created by God. In “Lumen Fidei,” Pope Francis explained: “Precisely because all of the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole,” (No. 48). The Church’s teaching on human sexuality, contraception, and marriage are related to all that She professes and teaches. They are a response to the revelation of Jesus Christ about the kind of love for which we are made. For that reason they remain relevant.

I find myself reflecting on the courage of Pope Paul VI these days, as our own culture wrestles with the nature of marriage. Though in our times, the biblical view of marriage may not be understood or popular, it does not for that reason lose its truth or beauty. St. Paul’s bold proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even in difficult times, inspires me as it inspired Pope Paul VI, to share the teaching on marriage in its fullness. It is not coincidental, then, at the end of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, an event during which bishops in communion with the pope are discussing how to best strengthen married love and family life, that Pope Francis will beautify a champion of these realities. I hope you join me in thanksgiving for the witness of Pope Paul VI, a man of God who has taught me to teach the faith with patience, love, and zeal! May he intercede for all of us, especially for married couples and families!

Paul S. Loverde is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. A new edition of his pastoral letter on pornography, Bought with a Price, and his recent letter on the new evangelization, Go Forth with Hearts on Fire, are available at Amazon for Kindle and at www.arlingtondiocese.org/purity.

This column first appeared in The Arlington Catholic Herald. View it here

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