It is not generally known that Pope Paul VI’s most famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”), which condemned contraception as a gravely immoral form of birth control, also was his last.
The reaction to Humanae Vitae had been so deeply and extensively negative that the beleaguered pope decided that he would write no more encyclicals during his pontificate — and he did not.
Today that encyclical casts as ominous a shadow over Paul VI’s legacy as the Vietnam War does over President Lyndon Johnson’s and as the war in Iraq may one day becloud that of President George W. Bush.
We would do well to remember, however, that Paul VI, while still Cardinal Montini, Archbishop of Milan, had been one of the leading figures during the first session of the Second Vatican Council (October to December 1962).
After his election to the papacy the following June, the new pope announced that the council would continue. He not only saw to it that it ended successfully in December 1965, but he also assumed the far more difficult task of guiding the process of implementation in the years immediately following the council’s adjournment.
But then came Humanae Vitae in July 1968 and the beginning of Pope Paul’s personal passion that ended only with his death on a quiet August evening in 1978, at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, just outside Rome.
Many others forget not only the crucial role that Paul VI played at Vatican II, before and after his election, but also the first encyclical that he issued as pope, between the council’s second and third sessions. It was entitled Ecclesiam Suam (“His Church”).
Bishops and theologians looked forward to reading the encyclical in search of clues on how the pope might come down on the highly debated issues of papal primacy and collegiality, but the pope made it clear early in the document that he had no wish to intrude upon the “full liberty of investigation and discussion” carried on by the council fathers.
Although the encyclical had only limited impact on the council itself and was rarely cited in any of its 16 documents, it did lend its support to one of the key points in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes, “Joy and Hope”), namely, the need for dialogue between the church and the world.
The encyclical was organized in three major sections: the first called the church to a deeper self-knowledge; the second, to renewal and reform; and the third, to dialogue on multiple levels. Dialogue, the pope insisted, must occur on four different planes, which he described as concentric circles.
The first and widest comprises all the people of the earth, with whom dialogue must be initiated and sustained on each of the great problems of the world. The second circle includes all religious people apart from Christianity. The third, all non-Catholic Christians. And the fourth, all Catholics.
The encyclical ended on a hopeful note: “We rejoice and find great consolation in the fact that this dialogue, both inside and outside the Church, has already begun. The Church today is more alive than ever before.”
Hope, however, is not the same as optimism. Hope is a theological virtue that gives us the power (the literal meaning of the word, “virtue”) to see beyond the negative realities that surround and bombard us every day of our lives.
For the person of hope, and for the community of hope, which is the church, what looms always on the horizon is the promised kingdom of God, “a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love, and peace” (preface of the feast of Christ the King, cited by the council’s Pastoral Constitution, n. 39).
There is something of this same spirit of hope and commitment to dialogue in a farewell interview given by Sister Catherine M. Patten, RSHM, in the March issue of the “Initiative Report,” a publication of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.
Sister Patten was the first person brought onto the staff of the then-fledgling Common Ground project founded by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, with the assistance of the late Msgr. Philip Murnion, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.
Cardinal Bernardin’s hope, like Paul VI’s, was to stem the tide of polarization in the church through dialogue. That hope was almost immediately dismissed by four of Cardinal Bernardin’s fellow cardinals: Law of Boston, O’Connor of New York, Hickey of Washington and Maida of Detroit.
Ironically, as Sister Patten points out, it was their public opposition that catapulted an essentially local, unfocused idea to national prominence.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.