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Revisiting Pope St. Paul VI’s greatest teachings



During this past Fall Break, I had the great honor of attending the canonization Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square, where the Holy Father added his predecessor Pope Paul VI to the canon of saints. Gathered with tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world for the occasion, Pope Francis praised St. Paul VI as a man who, like his namesake apostle, “spent his life for Christ’s Gospel, crossing new boundaries and becoming its witness in proclamation and in dialogue.”

In July 1968, St. Paul VI wrote one of the most noteworthy papal encyclicals of all time, Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the traditional Catholic teaching on the regulation of birth and prohibiting the use of artificial contraception. Many astute commentators have already written on this fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, pointing out the prophetic nature of Pope Paul’s warning that widespread recourse to artificial contraception would lead to a general lowering of moral standards, an increase in marital infidelity, and the denigration of women as mere instruments for the satisfaction of male desires.

Despite history’s vindication of its predictions, at the time that it was released during that fateful “Summer of Love,” Humanae Vitae provoked widespread dissent and rejection among the faithful – and even among the hierarchy. The day after its release, a group of 39 priests in the Archdiocese of Washington publicly issued a “statement of pastoral dissent.” Within a few months, the bishops of Canada issued a joint pastoral statement characterizing the situation among the faithful as an “hour of crisis” and asking the Holy Spirit to “guide his Church through all darkness and suffering.” Though his pontificate lasted another ten years, Pope Paul VI never wrote another encyclical.

The canonization of Pope Paul VI is an invitation to revisit his most famous teaching with fresh eyes. Reading Humanae Vitae, I find myself called to recommit myself daily to practice of the faithful and exclusive love for my bride that I proclaimed at our wedding so many years ago. I am reminded of the need to exert my reason and will over my innate drives and emotions. I am encouraged in the practice of self-discipline, growth in virtue, and acting with compassion in the face of weakness.

There is another magisterial teaching that Pope Paul delivered in 1968 that also deserves a careful rereading on this 50th anniversary. At a Mass on June 30 concluding the Year of Faith in honor of the 1900th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the 261st successor to St. Peter proclaimed the “Credo of the People of God.” He introduced this new creed as an expansion of the familiar Nicene Creed, “with some developments called for by the spiritual condition of our time.” Pope Paul’s “Credo” is notable in that it is quoted extensively in the Catechism of the Catholic Church alongside the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

The 22 brief paragraphs of Pope Paul’s “Credo” are divided into thirteen subjects: in addition to discussing the Persons of the Trinity, there are sections professing the Church’s understanding of original sin, the role of the Pope as guarantor of Christian unity, our belief in the Mass as a re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy that mark our free response to God’s grace.

No single creed contains a complete statement of the truths held by the Church, but Pope Paul’s “Credo” is unique in that it also mentions the reality of angels, the beatitudes, the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Our Lady, infant baptism, the sacramental economy, the infallibility of the Pope, the necessity of the Church for salvation, the Real Presence, Eucharistic adoration, the vocation of each person, the state of purgatory, and the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

The origin story of Pope Paul’s “Credo” includes a small connection to Notre Dame. The creed that the Holy Father delivered was originally suggested in a letter from the French philosopher Jacques Maritain to a cardinal friend of his, who shared the idea with the Pope. The final text proclaimed by Paul VI was written almost entirely by Maritain, who was by then living in a religious community of brothers in France after having lectured at Notre Dame several times in the 1940s and 50s. The Jacques Maritain Center was established at Notre Dame in 1957, and continues today as a research repository and center of study directed by associate professor John O’Callaghan.

To read these magisterial documents, Humanae Vitae and the Credo of the People of God, is to read the words of a true saint. Pope St. Paul VI is a man of our own time who fought the good fight, ran the race, and has now received the crown of glory. Let us ask his intercession as we pursue his same mission to spend our lives for the Gospel of Christ. St. Paul VI, ora pro nobis!

Read Humanae Vitae at: http://bit.ly/paul6hv

Read Credo of the People of God at: http://bit.ly/paul6cpg

Ken Hallenius is a Communications Specialist at the Center for Ethics and Culture. You can contact him at khallenius@nd.edu.

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