The year of Paul VI

Here is a prediction for 2018: it will be the year of Paul VI. In addition to canonization talk, there are two important anniversaries connected with Paul’s papacy. On July 25, the feast of St. James, we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Paul’s landmark encyclical On the Regulation of Birth, known around the world by its incipit: Humanae vitae. Shortly before that, on June 30, we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Paul’s Credo of the People of God, which Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre called, “an act which from the dogmatic point of view is more important than all the Council.” Both events—the promulgation of Humanae vitae and the Credo of the People of God—are of acute importance at this moment in the life of the Church, when the role of the Petrine ministry seems to be hotly contested. Both events saw Paul acting as a guardian of tradition against the innovations urged upon the Church in the wake of the Council. These events, however, contribute to Paul’s complicated legacy as a pope who was staunch in his defense and appreciation of tradition one day and who indulged the reformers’ whims on another day.

As noted above, there is already talk that Paul VI will be canonized this year. There are reports that the medical and scientific experts have already reported favorably upon the second miracle necessary for canonization. There remain some steps for canonization, according to the Crux article, including the approval of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints and approval by Francis. However, these steps are largely administrative. The idea, according to the reports, is that Paul would be canonized during the ordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops this fall. Paul, you see, established the Synod of Bishops in the wake of the Council. It would also be appropriate for a meeting already deeply penetrated by Boomer notions about young people to see the canonization of the Boomers’ pope.

Paul’s canonization will likely be controversial, despite the events of 1968 discussed here. At New Liturgical Movement, Gregory DiPippo anticipates that “St. Paul VI” will be used to argue that the reformed post-Conciliar Mass is to be regarded with the same reverence as St. Pius V’s Tridentine Mass. DiPippo argues that canonization does not erase mistakes that saints made during their lifetimes, pointing most notably to the example of St. Alphonsus Liguori. He also notes that canonized popes, like Pius V and Pius X, initiated liturgical reforms that had both foreseen and unforeseen consequences—not all of them good. For example, St. Pius X’s reform of the breviary was extremely radical and resulted in ancient liturgical traditions being discarded practically overnight. So, DiPippo argues, there is no reason why Paul VI’s canonization would have any effect on the merits of the Novus Ordo. (Or at least the ongoing debate over its merits.)

Now, it is far from clear that the canonization actually matters to the partisans of the reform. In August, Francis, citing, among others, the example of Paul VI, declared “with magisterial authority” the liturgical reform “irreversible.” (It is not exactly clear to us what that means, however.) Furthermore, Francis, anticipating one of DiPippo’s arguments, observed that Paul VI’s liturgical books were “well received by the very Bishops who were present at the Council”—not including Alfredo Ottaviani or Marcel Lefebvre, one feels inclined to add. In one sense, therefore, the canonization of Paul VI means as little to the defenders of the reform as it does to DiPippo. They have arguments about the merits of the Novus Ordo that do not rely on a missal promulgated by a saint, just as the partisans of the traditional Mass have arguments that do not rely on a missal promulgated by a saint.

However, it seems to us that the rock-ribbed traditionalists who argue that the Novus Ordo is in some way bad or noxious to faith and morals (or illicit or invalid or whatever) will have a problem if Paul VI is canonized. Indeed, DiPippo seems to anticipate this argument somewhat with the example of St. Alphonsus. The controversy of the Regolamento is not easy to understand, but it boils down to this: in 1779 or 1780, for a variety of reasons, the Redemptorists wanted the approval of the Neapolitan monarchy for their Rule. The Rule was finally submitted, and edited grievously, with the connivance of Alphonsus’s friends and colleagues. (The Neapolitan government did not want the Redemptorists to be a religious order, so one of the chief amendments was the removal of the vows of religion.) Alphonsus was induced to sign it and the king approved it. Redemptorist priests reacted sharply and quickly, telling Alphonsus in no uncertain terms that he’d wrecked the Redemptorists. They also appealed to the pope, Pius VI, whose relations with Naples were strained. Following a trial, Pius essentially suppressed the order outside the Papal States, installed a new superior general, and effectively expelled Alphonsus and the Neapolitan members of the order. In 1793, the Neapolitan government recognized the original Rule and the order was reunified.

Now, on one hand, the parallel between Alphonsus and Paul VI is fairly easily made: just as Alphonsus was tricked (essentially) into ratifying a bad Rule, so too was Paul VI tricked (essentially) into ratifying a bad Missal. Fair enough. However, we are not sure the example quite meets the argument. A Rule is not the Mass, and an imprudent Rule, at variance, however great, with the high and noble purposes of an order is not necessarily noxious to faith and morals or illicit or invalid. It may be administratively destructive and morally harmless. Consequently, it seems to us that the canonization of Paul VI is liable to have some impact—though just what impact, we cannot say—on the argument that the Novus Ordo is positively harmful. It will be, we think, awfully tricky to argue that a canonized saint did something as pope that is bad (or whatever). Obviously, the arguments about its prudence or historical correctness or aesthetic merits remain unaffected.

But liturgical arguments are not the only arguments about Paul VI’s legacy that 2018 will see. As mentioned, 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae, the moment when Paul stood up in the face of the world (and many of his own cardinals, bishops, and priests) and proclaimed the intrinsic immorality of artificial contraception. Paul’s prophetic act was a true sign of contradiction and an exercise of the most fundamental duty of the Petrine office. It was widely anticipated that Paul would approve at least hormonal birth control methods—i.e., “The Pill”—not least because a papal commission, managed by the Dominican Henri de Riedmatten and the American philosopher John T. Noonan, had almost unanimously reported in favor of that resolution. Paul, however, was unwilling to take that step, not least because Pius XI’s Casti connubii proclaimed, possibly infallibly, that most forms of artificial contraception were intrinsically evil. Assisted by Cardinal Ottaviani, and famously Fr. John Ford and Germain Grisez, Paul prepared Humanae vitae and declared clearly that even hormonal birth control, which does not interfere with the reproductive act itself, was immoral.

The progressives and modernists in the Church have never forgiven Paul for his iron-willed refusal to surrender to the spirit of the age.

It is also clear that the same progressives and modernists, taking full advantage of the opening offered to them by the Holy Father’s marriage document, Amoris laetitia, intend on taking the opportunity of the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae to gut the encyclical. In the summer of 2017, reports broke of a four-member commission, established with some degree of Vatican approval, to study the historical circumstances that led to Humanae vitae. Of course, the original deliberations of the papal commission played out in the press, with the majority report, minority report, and schema of an encyclical leaked and analyzed at length. (You can read many of the original documents at Grisez’s website today, and we encourage you to do so.) The current commission, allegedly headed by Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, has allegedly been given unprecedented access to Vatican archives, including the usually sealed archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as part of its mission to study the encyclical. The suggestion is that the historical commission will discover what everyone knows: that the papal commission was almost unanimously in favor of some forms of birth control. Based upon this finding, the fear is that the commission will propose a modification or reinterpretation of Humanae vitae. Now, there was a lot of back and forth about just what the Vatican commission was—beginning with the question of whether it even existed? If it existed, was it a commission tasked with reinterpreting the encyclical or was it just a private study group? Given the climate of this pontificate, it is understandable that official denials are given perhaps less weight than the officials issuing the denials might hope.

But setting to one side the question of an official reconsideration or interpretation of Humanae vitae, it is clear that the modernists and progressives, emboldened by what they see as official support, will seize the opportunity to undermine Humanae vitae. We will hear, no doubt, that some great majority of Catholics, especially Catholics in the United States and Europe, not only support but use various forms of birth control. (It may be suggested that a lot of Catholics “have left” the Church because of the Church’s inflexibility on this point.) We will be told, we imagine, that Paul’s teaching has not been “received” by the faithful. We will be told that so-called natural family planning, a doctrine developed in large part by Pius XII but approved quite definitively by Paul VI, is not infallible and, moreover, is a serious burden on some Catholics. We will be told that the Church needs to attend closely to pastoral realities of couples, especially couples who, for whatever reason, live together without being married. In sum, we will hear all of the arguments in favor of bourgeois sexual ethics from Boomers.

This is, of course, not new, but the proponents of such errors will no doubt state their case louder and longer and with a more favorable reception by the hierarchy, as it will be implied that their views are, as we noted early, shared by prelates in the very highest circles of the Church. Perhaps there will be a press conference or an address to this or that association that gives fuel and oxygen to the fire.

And this is why it is so important to commemorate Humanae vitae and the Credo of the People of God. When he made his profession of faith, Paul recognized that the mandate entrusted by Christ to Peter was to confirm the brethren in the faith. The Petrine ministry, Paul observed, requires the pope to resist even those in the Church who are seized by a desire for novelty, lest the faithful be perplexed and scandalized. Both Humanae vitae and the Credo of the People of God are moments when Paul resisted the innovators and proclaimed doctrine clearly part of the deposit of faith—good, old Christian truth, to put it another way. Indeed, the documents of the Second Vatican Council ought to be read through the lens of Paul’s Credo, as some points that are murky in the Council’s documents are admirably clear in Paul’s creed. Today, unfortunately, the Pope’s loudest supporters see the pope as a magical figure, who is infallible in every utterance and who has (apparently) the power to amend the doctrines handed down from the apostles, who received them from God.

Of course, it must be mentioned that 1969 and 1970 mark the fiftieth anniversary of the full implementation of the liturgical reform. And it is impossible to separate Paul’s prophetic acts of 1968 from the difficulties posed by the liturgical reform. It is strange, for example, to read in the Credo of the People of God a ringing reaffirmation of the sacrificial dimension of the Mass knowing within a couple of years, the sacrificial dimension would be obscured for many in a haze of optional texts. It cannot be said that Paul did not understand the Petrine ministry, either, given his clear summation of his mandate on June 30, 1968. Instead we are left to grapple with both aspects of Paul’s legacy and come to what conclusions we can.

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