Sunday 7 May 2023

Pope Francis , St Paul VI and Humanae Vitae

 One of the striking things about St Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae is that, though it has perhaps been one of the most contested instances of papal teaching in our times, the defence by the Magisterium of the openness to life of the marriage act that is at its centre has not wavered. Whatever the speculation, the Successors of St Peter have held to that teaching. In that context, Pope Francis' recent message to an international conference dedicated to natural family planning comes as no surprise.

Pope Francis expressed his regard for St Paul VI's teaching in January 2015 during his visit to the Philipines. Speaking to a meeting of families, he said:

I think of Blessed Paul VI. At a time when the problem of population growth was being raised, he had the courage to defend openness to life in families. He knew the difficulties that are there in every family, and so in his Encyclical he was very merciful towards particular cases, and he asked confessors to be very merciful and understanding in dealing with particular cases. But he also had a broader vision: he looked at the peoples of the earth and he saw this threat of families being destroyed for lack of children. Paul VI was courageous; he was a good pastor and he warned his flock of the wolves who were coming. From his place in heaven, may he bless this evening!

This visit may also have been the first occasion on which Pope Francis articulated his idea of a "ideological colonisation of the family", a theme he has referred to on a number of occasions since. In that same meeting with families, he set out the theme:

Let us be on guard against colonization by new ideologies. There are forms of ideological colonization which are out to destroy the family. They are not born of dreams, of prayers, of closeness to God or the mission which God gave us; they come from without, and for that reason I am saying that they are forms of colonization. Let’s not lose the freedom of the mission which God has given us, the mission of the family. Just as our peoples, at a certain moment of their history, were mature enough to say “no” to all forms of political colonization, so too in our families we need to be very wise, very shrewd, very strong, in order to say “no” to all attempts at an ideological colonization of our families. We need to ask Saint Joseph, the friend of the angel, to send us the inspiration to know when we can say “yes” and when we have to say “no”.

 Pope Francis returned to the theme in answering a question during the in-flight press conference on the flight back to Rome:

The second: What did I want to say about Paul VI? Openness to life is the condition of the Sacrament of Matrimony. A man cannot give the sacrament to the woman, and the woman give it to him, if they are not in agreement on this point, to be open to life. To the point that it can be proven that this man or this woman did not get married with the intention of being open to life, the matrimony is null. It’s a cause of matrimonial nullity. Openness to life. Paul VI studied this with commission, how to help the many cases, many problems, important problems, that are even about love in the family. Everyday problems so many of them.... But there was something more. Paul VI’s rejection was not only with regard to personal problems, for which he then told confessors to be merciful and understand the situation and forgive, to be understanding and merciful. He was watching the universal Neo-Malthusianism that was in progress. And, how does one recognize this Neo-Malthusianism? It is by the less-than-one percent birth rate in Italy, and the same in Spain: that Neo-Malthusianism which seeks to control humanity by [controlling] its powers. This doesn’t mean that a Christian should have a succession of children. I met a woman some months ago in a parish who was pregnant with her eighth child, after having seven caesarean births. Do you want to leave seven orphans? This tempting God. We speak about responsible parenthood. This is the way, responsible parenthood. But, what I wanted to say was that Paul VI did not have an antiquated, closed minded. No, he was a prophet who, with this, told us to beware of Neo-Malthusianism, which is coming. This is what I wanted to say. Thanks.

In his most recent intervention, Pope Francis offers a further insight, which extends the warnings of n.17 of Humanae Vitae about likely consequences of contraceptive practice (my italics added):

In a world dominated by a relativistic and trivialized view of human sexuality, serious education in this area appears increasingly necessary, requiring an anthropological and ethical approach in which doctrinal issues are explored without undue simplifications or inflexible conclusions. In particular, there is a need always to keep in mind the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act (cf. PAUL VI, Humanae Vitae, 12). The former expresses the desire of the spouses to be one, a single life; the latter expresses the shared desire to generate life, which endures even at times of infertility and in old age. When these two meanings are consciously affirmed, the generosity of love is born and strengthened in the hearts of the spouses, disposing them to welcome new life. Lacking this, the experience of sexuality is impoverished, reduced to sensations that soon become self-referential, and its dimensions of humanity and responsibility are lost. The tragedy of violence between sexual partners – including the murder of women – here finds one of its main causes. 


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