The prophetic voice of Blessed Pope Paul VI

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During his homily at Blessed Pope Paul VI's beatification, Pope Francis remarked, "When we look to this great Pope, this courageous Christian, this tireless apostle, we cannot but say in the sight of God a word as simple as it is heartfelt and important: Thanks! Thank you for your humble and prophetic witness of love for Christ and His Church!" (Pope Francis, Homily of the Closing Mass of the Extraordinary Synod and Beatification of Pope Paul VI, Oct. 19, 2014)

Was Pope Paul VI a prophet for our time? While as Christians we know that the Lord Jesus was the final and definitive prophet - since He was God Himself - the Lord continues to commission holy men and women to proclaim revealed truths down the ages. We know from the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament that many times the Lord will ask an individual to call a people to conversion when they have lost their way. Other times, prophets are sent to proclaim a cautionary word before human persons stray from the path to holiness. Far from predicting the future like a fortuneteller, those who are truly prophetic point to God's wisdom at a time when it is especially needed. A recurring theme that they share is that when human persons attempt to take the place of God or usurp power that is properly His, unintended consequences will often follow. This is the age-old effect of original sin and the cause of actual sin.

Prophets are often misunderstood. They can be ostracized. Pope Francis said this about Pope Paul VI: "…before the advent of a secularized and hostile society, he could hold fast, with farsightedness and wisdom - and at times alone - to the helm of the barque of Peter, while never losing his joy and trust in the Lord." As I wrote in my last column, Blessed Pope Paul VI courageously proclaimed the nature of marriage at a time of great cultural change. He upheld the Church's longstanding teaching that a husband and wife should remain open to life when many proponents of the sexual revolution were advocating for sex divorced from its natural consequences.

In addition to noting the changing attitudes about sex, Blessed Pope Paul VI took care to outline in his encyclical the many emerging goods and realities of the changing culture. These included the incorporation of women in the workforce and recognition of their gifts. He also articulated with great clarity that these goods must be sought in accord with God's design for sexuality, not in spite of it. For this reason, the use of artificial contraception cannot accompany the marital act. To use it would be to say, "Lord, I want to use the gift of human sexuality, but not in the way that you designed it." Why would we change the nature of something that God took such care to design?

The pontiff articulated that a husband and wife are called to "responsible parenthood," which means that they should be generous in welcoming children when they are able, but if illness, financial strain or another grave circumstance would make it imprudent to expand their family, they may have recourse to the natural periods of infertility in a woman's cycle - as God designed her. Far from being "natural birth control," Natural Family Planning, or Fertility Awareness, invites a couple to find other ways to express intimacy and increases opportunities for communication and shared discernment of God's will for their family. They remain cooperators in God's creative work instead of taking the reins from Him. As Pope Francis has said, "God loves surprising us!"

Though many people in our culture, and even members of the Church, bemoan this teaching as being "outdated," countless couples who use Natural Family Planning testify to the bountiful effects that it has on their marriage and their family life including better communication, increased attentiveness to their spouses' emotional needs, and an increase in their generosity. We also know that many forms of artificial contraception have been harmful to women - some of the more widespread forms have been classified as carcinogenic. The Church has never been "behind the times" when it comes to its teaching on contraception. Conversely, she continues to proclaim that following God's plan for us is our surest path to happiness.

In "Humane Vitae," Blessed Pope Paul VI predicted that an acceptance of contraception would introduce unintended, harmful consequences into the culture: the sterilization of populations by governmental authorities; the objectification of women; the lowering of moral standards, especially for the young; and an increase in marital infidelity leading to the weakening of marriages. Many scoffed at his warnings, unable to see how the choices of individual couples would produce societal harms.

46 years later, we see how right he was. There are many countries throughout the world in which women are sterilized, and family size is regulated by governments; freedom to determine their family size has been taken from men and women. Moreover, the objectification of women in our society should be immediately recognizable. The plague of sexual assault on college campuses, the epidemic of pornography, human trafficking, and the hypersexualization of women and girls in the media is alarming, and in fact, destructive of human dignity and worth.

Furthermore, young people have difficulty discerning good and evil in a relativistic culture in which they are told that the only sin is not to tolerate someone else's idea of what is good. Their freedom to stand for enduring, objective moral truths is being weakened. Lastly, the bishops at the Extraordinary Synod noted that the weakening of marriage is taking place at a rapid pace. People no longer see a connection between sexual union and procreation or procreation and marriage. We live in a culture in which people construct the family that they desire, at the time they want it and in the manner of their choosing. Paul VI's prophetic call to the faithful to embrace the Church's teaching on the design of human sexuality and procreation is perhaps more necessary now than at the time he so courageously proclaimed it.

Surely, Blessed Pope Paul VI knew well the words of Christ that "a prophet is not accepted in his own home" (Lk 4:24). At the close of the beatification Mass, Pope Francis shared Blessed Pope Paul VI's notes from the end of Vatican II: "Perhaps the Lord has called me and preserved me for this service not because I am particularly fit for it, or so that I can govern and rescue the Church from her present difficulties, but so that I can suffer something for the Church and in that way it will be clear that He, and no other, is her guide and savior." Let us thank Blessed Pope Paul VI for courageously pointing us to Christ in all that we do, and let us fervently seek his intercession to be faithful to Christ and the Church as he was!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014