Paul VI remembered

  • August 26, 2008

{mosimage}While Humanae Vitae deserved much of the ink spilled last month on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, it would be a shame if this encyclical became the sole marker of the remarkable pontificate of Paul VI.

Less noted than Humanae Vitae’s birthday was the 30th anniversary of the death of the pope who led the Catholic Church through much of the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s.

Paul VI died Aug. 6, 1978. His pontificate began in 1963, during the heady debates of the Second Vatican Council. It ended in the late 1970s, a time of rampant materialism, sexual confusion and continued fear of nuclear annihilation in the ongoing Cold War between East and West.

It was also a terribly difficult time to lead the church. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council, embarked on so optimistically in the mid-1960s, ran aground on the excesses of over-enthusiasm, on one hand, and conservative reaction, on the other. Paul VI tried to steer a middle path between competing forces, satisfying no one, but holding the church together nonetheless.

Over those years, Pope Paul produced insightful and challenging — both morally and spiritually — encyclicals. Humanae Vitae, engulfed in controversy over its restating of longstanding church teaching against the use of artificial contraception, has received the lion’s share of attention. But other of his encyclicals deserve equal treatment.

We owe thanks to journalist John Allen Jr. of the U.S.-based National Catholic Reporter for reminding us of Ecclesiam Suam, the 1964 encyclical that challenged Catholics to engage the broader world in dialogue, both to teach and to learn. In his Aug. 8 column on the newspaper’s web site (, Allen quotes Paul VI: “A man must first be understood; and, where he merits it, agreed with. In the very act of trying to make ourselves pastors, fathers and teachers of men, we must make ourselves their brothers.”

To which Allen adds his own afterthought: “Alas, little of this largeness of spirit seems to be remembered today, either in internal Catholic discussion or in those secular realms Paul VI so longed to engage.” There’s no arguing with that.

There should also be no argument with Paul VI’s penetrating analysis of the appalling gap between the developing world and First World nations described in his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio. Drawing on the church’s treasury of social teachings, the pope  challenged all humanity to take on the scandal of Third World poverty to find ways to help poorer societies meet those needs that give dignity to human lives.

“When we fight poverty and oppose the unfair conditions of the present, we are not just promoting human well-being; we are also furthering man’s spiritual and moral development, and hence we are benefiting the whole human race. For peace is not simply the absence of warfare, based on a precarious balance of power; it is fashioned by efforts directed day after day toward the establishment of the ordered universe willed by God, with a more perfect form of justice among men.”

This remains as noble a challenge for today as it did four decades ago. And just as urgent.

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