Giovanni Montini Who Became Blessed Paul VI
The Pope who stood alone against the Western World in his Encyclical – Do we ever understand this Holy Father of such remarkable depth?
An Italian priest and practically the last Italian Holy Father of the 20th Century and to this day. He held office in a junior capacity in the wartime cabinet of Pius XII, and immediately before becoming Pope himself in 1963 he was Cardinal Archbishop of Milan. He remained the Supreme Pontiff until his death in the late 1970’s effectively succeeded by our Polish Pope: St John Paul II in 1978.
2. The Second Vatican Council And Its Aftermath.
A lot is known about this 1960’s very modern Council which Montini brought to its proper conclusion following on from the instigator: St John XXIII his predecessor. What is known about Blessed Paul VI post-Conciliar teaching Encyclical in the late 1960’s: Humanae Vitae on artificial contraception? My early essay on this moral teaching written pre-August 2013 touches on this subject. (Abortion and Contraception.) Blessed Paul VI as Pope did not condemn (in Humanae Vitae) contraception outright, but he did sound a note of disquiet it was so frequently used and had become commonplace without proper thought and care. He sounded a discordant note, yet was there not melody in Montini?
3. The Correct Approach
How do I approach this subject in the vein of Catholic moral thinking then and now? I have already voiced my view that Blessed Paul VI was praising sexual intercourse in its purest and highest form within marriage. (See my 2013 essay.) For this Pope marital sexual relations were at the core of his teaching. How did the English speaking Catholic world and the non-Catholics in the West react to his Encyclical? They were against Montini almost to a man: He had effectively alienated formerly sympathetic non-Catholics, and seriously created disaffection amongst a lot of practising Catholics. To this day these persons and their descendants regard his Encyclical with disdain. It is not however a dead letter like Pope Leo’s teaching on the validity of Anglican Orders in the late 19th Century. (He condemned those Orders as null and void.) Is there no kernel of truth in Montini’s Encyclical of the 1960’s on this still vexed issue? I argue affirmative. He struck hard and sure.
4. The Essence Of The Matter
What is the essence of this Papal Humanae Vitae teaching? I believe sometimes you have to do wrong in the eyes of the majority to do right. Where is the wrong? Montini would say he was endeavouring to flag up the wrong of contraception as it affected the conjugal relations between married men and women for a less good consequence. There was no suggestion of a mortal sin here in contraceptive practices, and neither was this Pope arguing for a counsel of perfection. It was a given by Paul VI that mutual love and respect in marriage through the unadulterated act of copulation was the goal. Procreation was not a necessary product or aim of sexual intercourse for this Pope. These were finely balanced issues and Blessed Paul VI was no Priest to put his “foot in it”. Clearly he was examining in the whole the delicate, sensitive and private issues between married men and women. He would have been well advised to shirk this task. He did not wish to start an explosive debate, yet he must have realised he would be “turned upon” by those against his Encyclical. He could not evade his duty to lead his flock – he was in the shoes of the Good Shepherd Himself. He believed in his Holy and sacred role as it had come down to him alone through St Peter and his successors.
Thus, as Supreme Pastor and Shepherd he had to speak out in this Encyclical to exercise his fundamental teaching duty. Christ had founded His Church on St Peter and Christ was known as the Good Shepherd and the Great Teacher. In the words of St Paul of the New Testament – this Pope’s namesake – he would be “punished” if he did not preach. The same went for Paul VI 2000 years later – he knew his duty to draft and disseminate this extraordinary Encyclical with phenomenal repercussions to this day. Paul VI was suggesting the ambience between man and his wedded chosen woman may be diffused or confused by artificial contraception.
No amount of medical advice or consideration of procreation can overcome this Pope’s teaching, that abstinence is sometimes better than indulging with contraception. Blessed Paul VI was no prude or Victorian moralist, rather he upheld the supremacy of intimacy between a married man and woman in all its glory and honour. He left a lot for the readers of his Encyclical to read between his lines – e.g. the unmarried heterosexual couples, now commonplace. We would do well to ponder in our hearts his lesson of morality and the true meaning of sexuality as derived from this pleading and audacious, yet deeply meaningful and sincere Encyclical. These issues are private between the man of the couple and the woman, and should not be raised in the Confessional in my view. Blessed Paul VI was not creating a new class of sinners and sins by his Encyclical. He purely wished to say to the world that he sought to inspire purity of heart based on the hope in his breast, which would infuse all men and women with his true singularity of purpose. His aim was utter integrity in married men and women in their bedchambers and outside.
5. Contraception and the 1970’s Canonisations.
Contraception was a problematical area for any celibate priest in the 1960’s, particularly when he had achieved the rank of the Vicar of Christ. Should this Pope have shown more discretion? Paul VI went on to canonise the Forty English and Welsh Roman Catholic Martyrs on 25th October 1970. He would not be discomforted or intimidated. What is more he did the same for Saint Oliver Plunkett the last Roman Catholic Martyr to be put to death on English soil (London) for his Roman Catholic faith. (He died on 1st July 1681 at Tyburn and he had been Archbishop of Armagh and Primate for All Ireland at his death.) Montini canonised him in 1975 in the last phase of his Pontificate.
Is there any link between these canonisations and this Encyclical, such canonisations coming after this Humanae Vitae Encyclical had been written and disseminated? The answer lies in the presence of mind of Blessed Paul VI and the mentality surrounding these martyrdoms all on English and Welsh soil. England and Wales lead the World in terms of democracy, liberty and the rule of law. This Encyclical likewise espouses the power of freedom of choice which Pope Paul VI wished to restore to ordinary men and women in marriage, namely that contraception was not obligatory. This had not been said by anyone before. Thus it becomes clear; the way to interpret his teaching. Any Papal teaching must be subject to the individual’s choice and conscience. The Popes never invalidate the conscience in each adult and young person. They uphold it, so does Paul VI. Moreover in his exhortation to his faithful of the Roman Catholic Church and dwellers on Earth the World over he declares: Never be satisfied with second best, but always aspire to attain the highest summit in your life even by replicating the spirit of these Holy Martyrs. Blessed Paul VI appealed to our hearts and souls in this Encyclical when it was published worldwide.
In his view these martyrdoms hundreds of years ago had been “replaced” by the “playing fields” between the husband and wife in modern society. The desire to do one’s utmost is the linking factor. Always stretch yourself whether you are husband or wife – that was this Holy Father’s message to all.
Did this Pope do anything wrong in his Encyclical? Arguably yes because some would say it was none of his business and he was haughty. What was the outcome? A seminal work of teaching morality in private life to mankind would be my answer. Whether Paul VI was right or wrong he did not err. There is a vital distinction here. He sought to show the World the danger of the error of omission in the widespread sexual conduct of the laity Catholic and non-Catholic and he had in mind the married. Yes he was correcting that error. The laity Catholic had prompted his Encyclical by their failure to stress the goodness of the “non-contraceptive mentality” approach. Thus the interactions invisible and inaudible between the laity and this Holy Father are at the heart of his writing and distribution of his Encyclical before the modern day electronic world had truly arrived. We are left with definition and crystal clarity by this Pope. The very influence of his extremely well judged and worded work of encouragement has had a deeply unseen result, and will continue to do so. Not every Pope has the confidence to speak ex Cathedra (infallibly). This Holy Father did in Humanae Vitae I submit. He was no candle in the wind or King Canute commanding the waves. He was not testing himself but stretching his will, heart and soul to the utmost in his office of Pope.
Prega per noi peccatori! Blessed Paulus Sixtus! Amen.