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Humanae Vitae 50 Years On

Fifty years ago, on 25 July 1968, the soon to be Saint Paul VI promulgated his great Encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he reaffirmed the ban on the use of artificial contraception. In the intervening years, and in the aftermath of the disastrous sexual revolution, the fight for moral truth has been waged relentlessly, but it has to be said, not particularly successfully. Figures show a huge percentage of married Catholics have for one reason or another dismissed the clear and constant magisterial teaching that artificial contraception can never be justified.

In my opinion, I dare to say, it will not be contempt for the authority of the Church in areas of sexual morality– even if that is often the reason given– but a fear, and lack of trust in God’s divine grace to support and bless the marriage and family. As far back as 1968, Blessed Paul VI was well aware that changing historical and social circumstances were leading young couples to consider natural methods of responsible parenthood were bordering on the impossible. The poisonous narrative that individual freedom was being turned into a type of ecclesiastical slavery by those intent on promoting an anti-life agenda, was also exerting ever increasing pressure.

In essence, laicist anthropocentrism, working through various means and systems in the past century, has heralded an era where the only religion is the religion of man; a belief that man holds the key to his own destiny, and can find pleasure and fulfilment in whatever way he chooses, no matter what acts may contradict the natural moral law, or how devastating the consequences. This devilish temptation which reminds us of Satan’s words in Genesis chapter 3 “you will become like God”, has without doubt even seeped into the life of many Catholics– St John Paul II referred to it as a “silent apostasy” (Ecclesia in Europa).

It seems to me, that a landmark anniversary for such an important magisterial document, affecting the lives of millions of Catholics throughout the world, is an opportune moment to take stock and look at possible new ways of approaching the question of natural family planning that may, with God’s help, begin to reverse the attitude of so many.

One of the great aspects of the present Pope’s magisterium is that he takes a realist approach to doctrine, and how it is received by the faithful. In reality, the Holy Father long ago recognized–as did many moral theologians in the mid to late twentieth century– that a manual of “you can do this, but can’t do this” was an approach that sooner or later would be challenged by an ever increasingly educated laity. So what was missing in this approach? Quite simply the person of Jesus Christ! A moral theology manual absent of promoting a deep and loving friendship with the God of truth and mercy is decadent, and leaves more questions than answers. It does little to explain how the various prohibitions fit into the will of God, the theological reasoning for this, or address the reality of daily struggle for those trying hard to respect the teachings.

However, with St John XXIII’s announcement at the opening of the Second Vatican Council that the Church as Mother “prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity”, a new approach was taken up, one which Blessed Paul VI emphasised in Humanae Vitae “Then let them [married couples] implore the help of God with unremitting prayer and, most of all, let them draw grace and charity from that unfailing fount which is the Eucharist. If, however, sin still exercises its hold over them, they are not to lose heart. Rather must they, humble and persevering, have recourse to the mercy of God, abundantly bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance.”

Today, I believe there is a need for realism to be taught in marriage preparation, particularly in the area of conjugal relations and responsible parenthood. Since the late 1990’s, positive catechises in this area has revolved around St John Paul II’s “theology of the body”, which was formulated by the great Polish Pontiff in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Unfortunately at times, this wonderfully rich body of magisterial teaching have been perhaps misunderstood a little, or used to present a vision of natural family planning that for many– after marriage–will seem far removed from the stress, anxiety and complexities of modern family life. Women who suffer from irregular cycles for instance, will often feel an immense pressure to interpret their signs correctly, while at the same time trying to enjoy this vitally important part of married life.

In my view, it is important to stress for young couples the sacrificial nature of married love, and to see natural family planning as part of carrying the cross Jesus has given them. True preparation must be open to the truth that nfp requires great sacrifice at times, and that it is the polar opposite of the instant sexual gratification that dominates the world of today.

But should this view be seen as negative, and a hindrance to helping young couples avoid artificial contraception?

It seems to me that sacrificial love, and the cultivation of virtues associated with faithfully practising nfp, (such as patience, humility, faith, trust, purity, self- control and understanding to name a few) are the paths to imitating Jesus ever more closely, and thus the couple should be reminded that their marriage vocation is their own path to sanctification. If properly understood, the idea of self- sacrifice in union with the will of God can allow those setting out on this lifetime journey to accept it with joy, knowing that divine blessings will fall on them.

The root of any success in promoting nfp cannot come from any other source than Jesus himself through the power of the Holy Spirit, and it is trust in divine providence that must be encouraged during marriage preparation. As I said at the beginning, I firmly believe many couples cannot see past the fear of having several or more children, perhaps for very good reasons such as economic, or the ability of parents to properly care for them. However as Blessed Paul VI pointed out, marriage is an invitation from the Lord for a couple to cooperate in the divine plan and to see that his divine will is carried out in those to whom he calls into being.

Thus a truly eschatological dimension must be instilled into marriage preparation, to encourage the couple to see past the ephemeral, and to look with wonder at the eternal and glorious future the Lord has planned for all his children. In this way, what may seem as a great and worrisome burden can take on new meaning and significance; that the sufferings and sacrifices involved in bringing up a large family will last only a short while (cf 2 Cor 4:17, Rom 8:18).

It seems no coincidence that the contraceptive mentality has grown in the same era that a loss of the sense of the supernatural has occurred. Eschatological hope is no longer the driving force for many Christians that it should be, and as such it sadly produces fruits of selfishness and aridity here and now. But eschatological hope is not restricted to a future beyond the end of time; in Jesus this hope is realized now as definitive victory, and he invites each couple to share in that triumph through a profound Christian witness and friendship with him.

Natural family planning ensures that within a marriage, a clear path between heaven and earth is never blocked off; that a chapter in the book of life always remains open. It reveals to the young couple that God has invested in them in the most awe inspiring way, that He entrusts to them the very keys of creation. It is a mission of such grandeur for husband and wife that the Church must never tire of announcing it, or search for new ways to explain it, and God willing, inspire these faithful to fulfil it.

But what of those struggling Catholics who cannot grasp this teaching? Those who cannot face more children and turn to artificial contraception? What role do confessors have in their spiritual life?

In the first instance, we must recall that nobody has permission to sin, and thus it can never be the case that artificial contraception can be approved of as a good moral choice. But the maternal nature of the Church can always look with compassion on those who make use of these methods to avoid pregnancy, and display the same mercy the Lord Jesus used often in his public ministry.

The confessor, for instance, with careful discernment can help the penitent in various ways: possibly utilising the doctrine of “good faith” as taught by St Alphonsus Liguori and approved by the Church (1), in which he may consider it inopportune to reveal the gravity of the sin if he feels material sin will become formal sin. He may encourage them to seek the “law of gradualness” taught by St John Paul II in which they honestly undertake a path to leave behind artificial contraception though a process of deepening their faith and trust in God’s help. As part of this process, ensuring the penitent does not make use of abortifacient pills could be a positive start. He can also discern–as Pope Francis has taught in Amoris Laetitia for the civilly divorced and remarried and the possible reception of Holy Communion–the amount of guilt, or the seriousness of the sin, and thus encourage them to receive the Holy Eucharist as a spiritual medicine for their weakness– when sin is venial rather than mortal. The truth about God and Catholic morality can never be simply about judgment and sin. It must include the revelation of divine mercy. This is not a weakness in doctrine, or a means to approve sin, but a magnificent divine attribute, so great that God lowered himself to share our humanity in order to save us.

In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a clarification entitled “The moral norm of Humanae Vitae and Pastoral Duty”, in which it sought to address criticisms made by certain theologians concerning this emotive subject. While reaffirming once again what successive popes have taught (2), the document did strive to make clear that mercy and loving compassion were an essential element of Christian doctrine applicable to souls bound by these particular sins, and certainly applicable to the Christian moral tradition:

“The same Christian moral tradition just referred to, has also always maintained the distinction – not the separation and still less an opposition – between objective disorder and subjective guilt. Accordingly, when it is a matter of judging subjective moral behaviour without ever setting aside the norm which prohibits the intrinsic disorder of contraception, it is entirely licit to take into due consideration the various factors and aspects of the person’s concrete action, not only the person’s intentions and motivations, but also the diverse circumstances of life, in the first place all those causes which may affect the person’s knowledge and free will. This subjective situation, while it can never change into something ordered that which is intrinsically disordered, may to a greater or lesser extent modify the responsibility of the person who is acting. As is well known, this is a general principle, applicable to every moral disorder, even if intrinsic, it is accordingly applicable also to contraception.” (3)

Interestingly, for those critics of Pope Francis, it is noticeable in this extract just how similar the language and teaching is to that found in Amoris Laetitia paragraphs 301-302, and we must recall that this CDF document originated during the intense middle years of St John Paul II’s papacy, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect.

In conclusion, we must stress that if a new openness to natural family planning is to occur, a deeper and more realistic approach is needed in which the couple see their exalted role in the history of creation alongside, and within the heart of Jesus. It is to guide them to a greater understanding of agape, that sacrificial love that places the other above themselves, and one that entrusts every struggle and effort to the divine will of God. It is to remind them that true Christian witness will inevitably involve carrying one cross or another, and the embracing of natural family planning is certainly one. However, if this truth can be lived to the full, the sexual relationship can be one of immense joy and one benefitting from true freedom; not the illusion Satan likes to offer, but one blessed and ratified by God in heaven. Pope Francis teaches this clearly in Amoris Laetitia:

“Moreover, moments of joy, relaxation, celebration, and even sexuality can be experienced as a sharing in the full life of the resurrection. Married couples shape with different daily gestures a “God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the risen Lord.”

The young couple need the witness–as Cardinal Farrell– recently stated, of experienced married couples even more than priests; those who can guide them and encourage them that living nfp is possible and a blessing. A Realism based on authentic witness can also tell them that navigating this truth in the early years of marriage may involve certain difficulties where intimacy is concerned, but that in no way should the couple be taught to act as if they were no more than brother and sister when they are abstaining from full sexual relations during fertile periods of time. Husband and wife will always remain just that; sexuality cannot be compartmentalised, but self- control with the grace of God can certainly be mastered.

Humanae Vitae reminds us that God never rescinds his invitation for married couples to participate in the unfolding of salvation history. It impresses on us the truth that sex without its procreative and unitive aspects becomes a tool of evil in many ways: sexual slavery, pornography, paedophilia, abortion, adultery.

For every married couple, the courageous “yes” that the Blessed Virgin Mary gave to the Archangel Gabriel should be a summons for their own courageous unending yes to God; one that with trust in divine mercy can live marital life with the expectation that God will never abandon them. On the contrary, he will sit at table with them and guide them to see children as the greatest blessing–the “living stones” of the family (cf Amoris Laetitia no 14).

It must be our prayer that the next fifty years will see marriage preparation take on a new dimension which places the call to holiness as central to the vocation of each spouse; that couples are made fully aware of the gravity and beauty of their undertaking. That sacrificial love and generosity of spirit remain the central components for true companionship to grow. Anything less than this, and there is little chance that the contraceptive mentality will diminish. Authentic love allied to eschatological hope will allow future young married couples to see the divine will of God far more clearly, while appreciating their own little “domestic church” as building blocks of the glorious communion of saints that will flower fully on that Sunday with no evening.  – Stephen Walford, Vatican Insider, 23 July 2018

* Stephen Walford is a theologian and lives in Southampton, England with his wife Paula and five children. Educated at Bristol University, he is the author of two books: Heralds of the Second Coming: Our Lady, the Divine Mercy, and the Popes of the Marian Era from Bl Pius IX to Benedict XVI (Angelico Press), and Communion of Saints: The Unity of Divine Love in the Mystical Body of Christ (Angelico Press). He has written articles for various publications on eschatological and mariological themes. He is also a pianist and teacher.  

1) Pontifical Council for the Family, “Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life”, February 12, 1997, no 8

2) “What is taught by the Church on contraception is not one of the matters that may be freely disputed by theologians. To teach the contrary is equivalent to leading the conscience of spouses into error.” St John Paul II, Address “To participants in a study seminar on responsible procreation” 5 June, 1987

3) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “The moral norm of Humanae Vitae and pastoral duty”, L’Osservatore Romano, English Edition, N. 9, 27 February 1989, P 7.

4) Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, no 317, March 19, 2016

Abp Chaput: the truth of Humanae Vitae makes us free

Archbishop Charles J Chaput of Philadelphia speaks during a press conference with a delegation from Pennsylvania at the Vatican 25 March 2014. A delegation of government, religious and community leaders from Pennsylvania were meeting with Vatican officials to plan the 22-27 Sept 2015, World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

WASHINGTON DC – The Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage, abortion, human sexuality and contraception is rooted in the same respect for human dignity that guides its work for social justice and care for poor people, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput told a Catholic University of America audience.

It is imperative that the church make known why it upholds its teaching, as reiterated in Blessed Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”), so that Catholics and the world understand God’s plan for humanity, the archbishop said during the 4 April 2018 opening session of a symposium marking the 50th anniversary of the papal teaching.

The encyclical is notably known for upholding church renouncement of contraception. It followed by eight years the 1960 US Food and Drug Administration approval of the first birth control pill.

Blessed Paul convened a commission to examine whether the historic Christian rejection of contraceptives would apply to the new technology. Most commission members advised the pope that it would not, but Blessed Paul eventually disagreed, saying in the encyclical that the new technology was prohibited birth control.

Blessed Paul’s decision has been widely criticised, Archbishop Chaput acknowledged, with some Catholic clergy, theologians and laypeople refusing to accept it. “That resistance continues in our own day,” said the archbishop, who chairs the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. He made the comments in a 35-minute presentation to about 200 people.

“‘Humanae Vitae’ revealed deep wounds in the church about our understanding of the human person, the nature of sexuality and marriage as God created it,” he explained. “We still seek the cure for those wounds. But thanks to the witness of St John Paul II, Pope Benedict, Pope Francis and many other faithful shepherds, the church has continued to preach the truth of Jesus Christ about who we are and what God desires for us.

“People willing to open their eyes and their hearts to the truth will see the hope that Catholic teaching represents and the power that comes when that truth makes us free,” he said.

The archbishop challenged widespread denunciation of the teaching on contraception by those who say church leaders spend too much time on “pelvic issues,” thus obscuring, they argue, the Gospel message of caring for poor people.

“As a bishop for 30 years in the dioceses where I served, that’s three of them, the church has put far more money, time and personnel into the care and education of the underprivileged than into programs related to sex,” he said.

“And it’s not that the critics don’t know this. Many don’t want to know it because facts interfere with their story line of a sexually repressed, body-denying institution locked in the past.”

Church teaching on contraception can be traced to the early days of Christianity, particularly in ancient Rome, where Christians emphasised upholding human dignity, he said.

Citing the work of Kyle Harper, provost at the University of Oklahoma and an expert in Roman history, the archbishop said the Romans “presumed that sex was just sex, one instinctual need among others” and that prostitutes and slaves were “safety valves” to satisfy such needs. But it was the early Christians who “welcomed all new life as something holy and a blessing,” teaching that each person was created in the image and likeness of God, he explained.

Christians also preached that God gave all people free will to act in accordance with God’s commands or against them, he said, continuing to cite Harper.

“Christianity embedded that notion of free will in human culture for the first time. Christian sexual morality was a key part of this understanding of free will. The body was a ‘consecrated space’ in which we could choose or reject God,” he said.

As a result, Christians began demanding “care for vulnerable bodies,” speaking out against slavery and supporting the needs of poor people, and that concern included opposition to contraception, he said.

Archbishop Chaput noted that Christian opposition to contraception continued until the 1930 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, which determined that while the preferred method of avoiding birth should be sexual abstinence, other methods may be used to prevent pregnancy as long as they fell in line with Christian principles.

“Their minor tweak gradually turned into a full reversal on the issue of contraception. Other Christian leaders followed suit,” he said.

“Today this leaves the Catholic Church almost alone as a body of Christian believers whose leaders still maintain the historic Christian teaching on contraception,” he continued. “The church can thus look stubborn and out of touch for not adjusting her beliefs to the prevailing culture. But she’s simply remaining true to the faith she received from the apostles and can’t barter away.”

Since then, Archbishop Chaput said, “developed society has moved sharply away from Christian faith and morals, without shedding them completely.”

He echoed author GK Chesterton, who asserted that society is surrounded by “fragments of Christian ideas removed from their original framework and used in strange new ways. Human dignity and rights are still popular concepts, just don’t ask what their foundation is or whether human rights have any solid content beyond sentiment or personal preference.”

“Our culture isn’t reverting to the paganism of the past. It’s creating a new religion to replace Christianity. It’s that we understand that today’s new sexual mores are part of this larger change.”

The moral conflicts society faces, such as broken families, social unraveling and “gender confusion” stems “from our disordered attitudes toward creation and our appetite to master, reshape and even deform nature to our wills. We want the freedom to decide what reality is. And we insist on the power to make it so,” he said.

Such thinking is manifest in efforts to master the limitations of the human body and “attack the heart of our humanity,” the archbishop added.

Blessed Paul explains that “marriage is not just a social convention we’ve inherited, but the design of God himself. Christian couples are called to welcome the sacrifices that God’s design requires so they can enter into the joy it offers. This means that while husbands and wives may take advantage of periods of natural infertility to regulate the birth of their children, they can’t actively intervene to stamp out the fertility that’s natural to sexual love,” he said.

Because the church’s teaching often was not being followed prior to the encyclical, Archbishop Chaput said Blessed Paul offered four predictions if that trend continued: widespread infidelity and the general lowering of morality; loss of respect for women as they become viewed as instruments of selfish enjoyment rather than as beloved companions; public policies that advocate and implement birth control as a form of population policy; and humans thinking they had unlimited dominion over their own bodies, turning the person into the object of his or her own intrusive power.

“Half a century after ‘Humanae Vitae’ the church in the United States is at a very difficult but also very promising moment,” the archbishop said. “Difficult because the language of Catholic moral wisdom is alien to many young people, who often leave the church without every really encountering her. Promising because the most awake of those same young people want something better and more enduring than the emptiness and noise they now have.

“Our mission now, as always, is not to surrender to the world as it is, but to feed and ennoble the deepest yearnings of the world and thereby to lead it to Jesus Christ and his true freedom and joy.” – Dennis Sadowski, Catholic Herald, 6 Apr 2018

2018 marks 50th anniversary of ‘Humanae Vitae’

Pope Paul VI is seen in an undated official portrait. Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul on 19 Oct 2014 during the closing Mass of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family. The miracle needed for Pope Paul’s beatification involved the birth of a healthy baby to a mother in California after doctors had said both lives were at risk. (CNS photo/Felici, Catholic Press Photo)

This July will bring the 50th anniversary of one of the most controversial Church documents in modern times — Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”), Blessed Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical reaffirming the Church’s condemnation of contraception. Its defenders see its issuance as an act of courage by the pope in the face of rampant sexual permissiveness. Pope Francis three years ago designated Paul VI “Blessed,” a step toward his possible future recognition as a saint. Critics dismiss the encyclical as a relic of outdated morality that Catholics can safely ignore. According to the polls, a large majority of US Catholics do exactly that where contraception is concerned.

One thing the defenders and the critics agree on: Humanae Vitae was a turning point, a watershed event in the life of the Church. To understand why, it’s necessary to understand some of the background that led up to its issuance.

Traditional teaching

Pope Paul’s encyclical was by no means the first time a pope had spoken against artificial birth control. Particularly noteworthy was Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii (“On Christian Marriage”), dated 31 Dec 1930. The document is a comprehensive presentation of Church teaching on marriage, but what it says about contraception was widely seen as an implicit response to a high-level Anglican Church statement from earlier that year giving limited approval to birth control.

Pius XI said: “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” In the years that followed, Pope Pius XII repeated the condemnation of contraception a number of times. In an address in 1951, he said the teaching “is in full force today, as it was in the past, as it will be in the future also and always, because it is not a simple human whim but the expression of a natural and divine law.”

Catholic theologians also uniformly upheld the teaching. There was no visible dissent within the Church. In his 1979 book “The Battle for the American Church,” Msgr George A Kelly quotes a report prepared in 1965 for the US bishops saying Catholic theologians in the United States “have unanimously condemned contraception.”

“Now it is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ; but this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ Himself showed in His conversations and dealings with men. For when He came, not to judge, but to save the world, was He not bitterly severe toward sin, but patient and abounding in mercy toward sinners?

“Husbands and wives, therefore, when deeply distressed by reason of the difficulties of their life, must find stamped in the heart and voice of their priest the likeness of the voice and the love of our Redeemer.

“Nor is there any tendency in their published writings to defend the idea that the Church will or can change her substantial teaching on birth control,” added this document, which had been prepared in response to a Vatican inquiry.

By the early 1960s, nonetheless, pressure for change was gradually growing, fed by widespread acceptance of birth control, a shift in government policy that saw public funds starting to flow to birth control at home and abroad, propaganda about an alleged “population explosion” and the appearance on the scene of oral contraception — the pill. Now, too, some influential Catholic moralists, including the German Jesuit Father Josef Fuchs and American Jesuit Father Richard McCormick and Father Charles Curran, were publicly floating arguments that opposed the traditional teaching.

The birth control commission

Pope St John XXIII established a papal commission to study population issues. Pope Paul expanded its membership and placed the question of oral contraception on its agenda. Suddenly change began to seem like a real possibility.

Msgr Kelly says in his book that the creation and management of the papal birth control commission “was an example of how not to organise a scientific study group.” But the mere existence of such a body encouraged a mindset favouring change — especially when a document called “the majority report,” leaked to some Catholic publications and quickly publicised by secular media, showed a majority of members in favour.

As all this was happening, Pope Paul reflected and prayed. The delay by the pope, whose hesitation in making hard decisions had caused some people to liken him to Shakespeare’s tragic hero Hamlet, increased the expectation that change was on its way.

Then, on 25 July 1968, the pope issued Humanae Vitae. Citing the “inseparable connection” between the “unitive” (love-giving) and “procreative” (life-giving) means of the conjugal act, Paul VI said: “Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” He added: “Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.”

Coming amid the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the heady days of the immediate post-Vatican II period in the Church and the widespread expectation that the pope would change the teaching, this reaffirmation of traditional teaching received a firestorm of angry criticism led by theological dissenters, which spread by blanket coverage in the media. Paul VI was the target of much of it. Although an exodus from the priesthood and religious life had in fact begun several years before, now the pope was blamed for it. Defenders of the encyclical were either ignored or vilified. The mood of dissent spread and became entrenched.

Ongoing ramifications

Since then, the teaching of Humanae Vitae has been endorsed by Pope St John Paul II (who is said to have had a hand in drafting the encyclical), Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis. In his own document on marriage, Familiaris Consortio, published in 1981, Pope John Paul II expressed sympathetic understanding for married couples who have difficulty living the teaching on contraception, and quoted Paul VI: “To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls.”

Pope Francis echoed his predecessors last year in his marriage document, Amoris Laetitia: “From the outset, love refuses every impulse to turn in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning.” The passage carries a footnote reference to Humanae Vitae.

Francis also recommends that the teaching of Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio now be “taken up anew” with the aim of countering “a mentality that is often hostile to life.” The 50th anniversary of Pope Paul’s courageous but much-maligned encyclical might be a good time for doing that. – Russell Shaw, OSV Newsweekly

“Populorum Progressio” turns 50

March 26 will mark the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Populorum Progressio (“On the Development of Peoples”). A lot has happened in 50 years. A lot has changed in the world in 50 years. Yet, for all that has happened and all that has changed, Paul VI’s challenge to the contemporary world remains as relevant as ever – and maybe more so. Thus in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the present Pope categorically warned a world, which seems no more ready to listen now than it was in 1967, that we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills [Evangelii Gaudium, 53].

Faithful to tradition, Paul quoted Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno on the international imperialism of money to warn against the capitalist economic order and the politics it produces in the form of concepts that present profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations [Populorum Progressio 26]  Citing the Church Fathers that the right of private property may never be exercised to the detriment of the common good [PP 23]  Paul boldly asserted that the common good sometimes demands expropriation [PP 24]

Like his contemporary successor, Pope Francis, Paul highlighted not only the material inequalities and injustices that are consequences of an unjust economy but also its spiritual and cultural consequences: even more necessary still is the deep thought and reflection of wise men in search of a new humanism, one which will enable our contemporaries to enjoy the higher values of love and friendship, or prayer and contemplation, and thus find themselves [PP 20] .

Of course, one of the many calamitous consequences of the capitalist economic order and the politics it produces is the devaluation of human solidarity. In contrast, Paul stressed how the social question ties all human beings together in every part of the world [PP 3] This is not only the case across space but equally so across time. Therefore we cannot disregard the welfare of those who will come after us to increase the human family. the reality of human solidarity brings us not only benefits but also obligations [PP 17]. Paul obviously did not foresee our contemporary climate-change deniers, but his words of warning surely should challenge any mentality which would imperil future generations for the short-term profits of certain industries which have disproportionate influence in our politics.

Paul did foresee – and was certainly sensitive to – the culturally destructive dimension that renders economic development so ambivalent. He warned of the tragic dilemma: either to preserve traditional beliefs and structures and reject social progress; or to embrace foreign technology and foreign culture, and reject ancestral traditions with their wealth of humanism. The sad fact is that we often see the older moral, spiritual and religious values give way without finding any place in the new scheme of things [PP 10].

History has not been kind to Paul VI, to whom it fell to try to steer the Church through one of the more challenging periods in her history. Indeed, history will likely judge him harshly in particular for his role in enabling a liturgical radicalism, which, rather than following the plan for authentic reform proposed by the Second Vatican Council, turned out to be more like a dismantling of the Roman Liturgy – a development which was both a symptom of and in its own way a further contribution to the Church’s apparently increasing loss of self-confidence in the face of secular modernity. Even so, Populorum Progressio shines as one of the brighter accomplishments of Paul’s troubled pontificate, proclaiming a perennially necessary corrective to the spirit of secular modernity and a  message that continues to challenge the world today. – City Father

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