The future Blessed Pope Paul VI was a great champion of family life

The website takes its most recent quote from Benedict XVI: “The new pope knows that his task is to make the light of Christ shine before men and women of the world – not his own light, but that of Christ.”

I thought of this after reading Fr Anthony Symondson SJ’s excellent CTS booklet on Pope Paul VI. First published in 2008, the 40th anniversary of Paul VI’s famous encyclical Humanae Vitae, the booklet has recently been reissued because of his forthcoming beatification, which will take place on October 19 during the closing Mass of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family.

It seems to me that this is a most fitting occasion for the beatification because, through the publication of this encyclical alone, Paul VI has emerged as the great champion of the family over the last half century.

People might object by saying, “Well, he only upheld traditional Church teaching on marriage as popes are bound to do; what’s so special about that?” Or: “His achievements pale besides the extraordinary pontificate of Pope John Paul II, with all his journeys, encyclicals and the heroic witness of his own suffering and death.” Despite such objections, I think Paul VI stands as a uniquely lonely and heroic figure.

By 1968, the modern post-war outlook (which included millions of Catholics) was in full swing, carrying all before it. The stated or implicit response of many Catholics to the culture of insistent individualism around them – confirmed and increased by the advent of the Pill, a wholly new method of contraception, in 1960 – was to make it clear to the Church that they would follow their own conscience on marriage and birth control, regardless of the established teaching. It was no longer for the Church to tell married people how to behave in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

It was also known that Paul VI had appointed a papal commission as early as 1963 “to look into the moral and ethical implications of the new method”, as Fr Symondson writes in his booklet. Again, the unwarranted assumption of many Catholics was that the pope would follow the advice of the commission, which would naturally conclude that the Pill was a safe, ethical and practical way of controlling women’s fertility.

That he in fact upheld “the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by human beings on their own initiative, between the unitive and procreative meaning of the sexual act” in Humanae Vitae was a huge blow to this line of thinking. As Fr Symondson writes: “Paul’s Catholic opponents pointed to an ideal of marriage in which limited contraception might be permissible. But there was no known way of limiting contraception to such admirable families. Inevitably, there would be other, less responsible users of birth control who simply saw it as a way of having sex without children.”

Paul VI had expected opposition from the world. What caused him immense pain was the widespread disloyalty and disobedience among his own people – bishops, priests and the laity. Fr Symondson writes: “The encyclical was ignored by many Catholics and treated warily by many of the clergy.” That understates the consternation and rebellion that greeted it in 1968. The reaction had a profound effect on the pope. He published no more encyclicals and later remarked, “Now I understand St Peter: he came to Rome twice, the second time to be crucified.”

His confessor remarked in a 1989 interview that if Paul VI did not begin his pontificate as a saint, he became one during it. He believed it was significant that the pope had not only toiled for Christ and the Church, “but also and above all how much he suffered for Christ and the Church.” This aspect has only become more apparent as the years have passed: from being initially seen as diffident, weak, vacillating, Paul VI has come to be seen as a heroic figure – and the great champion of marriage and family life.