The Holy See recently announced that Venerable Pope Paul VI will be beatified in October at the conclusion of the Synod of Bishops on the Family that is being convened by Pope Francis. It is likely to be seen as a powerful symbol of the Church’s commitment to the family that the man who took so much heat from the great encyclical Humanae Vitae, which was on the importance of human life and the family, that he said after it was written that he would never write another papal encyclical for the duration of his pontificate, and he didn’t. Humanae Vitae was and remains right, but it certainly wasn’t popular, and Venerable Paul’s beatification shows us that what is right right and what is popular are usually not synonymous, especially within the context of modern culture.
When he wrote Humanae Vitae, however, perhaps the most important and easily-overlooked thing that soon-to-be Blessed Paul VI asserted was the Church’s competency within the context of the Magesterium to interpret the moral law. He wrote:
No member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her magisterium to interpret the natural moral law. It is in fact indisputable, as Our predecessors have many times declared, that Jesus Christ, when He communicated His divine power to Peter and the other Apostles and sent them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law. For the natural law, too, declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men’s eternal salvation. (Humanae Vitae 4)
“No member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her magesterium to interpret the natural moral law.” To us in 21st Century America, that is a loaded statement. All of us are very used to this notion that we go to Mass on Sunday and make decisions on our own independent of the Church the other six days of the week. We often tend to take the idea of “primacy of conscience” to the extreme and believe that in the name of following our own conscience we may simply ignore the Church’s teaching on whatever the issue at hand might be. When I say “we,” I truly include myself, for there was a time when I, too, behaved in this manner. If you read the Catholic blogosphere and sample Catholic websites you will often read denunciations of so-called “cafeteria Catholics,” usually those who openly dissent from Church teaching on a certain set of issues.
However, those who “sample the cafeteria” aren’t just those who ignore the Church’s teachings on abortion, birth control, marriage, or euthanasia. It is quite possible to be at the front of the line in the “cafeteria” and embrace the Church’s teachings on abortion, contraception, matrimony et cetera, because there are those who reject the Church’s teaching on the death penalty, on the preferential option for the poor (who God says he prefers), on the need for the economy to serve people, and that workers have dignity and the right to a good and decent wage for their labor (if we claim to be a follower of Christ and fail to pay our employees well enough for them to live a decent life or follow God’s laws concerning them, the Lord says we are hypocrites). The Church’s competency to interpret the moral law through the magesterium goes beyond merely those things we might like or agree with.
Pope Paul VI understood this explicitly, and he knew that when he wrote and published Humanae Vitae that there were going to be a lot of people who weren’t going to agree with what he was saying, and a great many of these people would say that they are Catholic. The Holy Father published Humanae Vitae anyway, knowing that it was the right thing to do, because as Successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ, Paul VI knew that he had a duty to guard and keep the deposit of faith. We owe a great deal in the era of the Church in which we live to the pontificate and the work of soon-to-be-Blessed Paul VI. Pope Paul presided over three of the four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and then saw to it that the reforms of the Council began to be implemented, without him the Council might never have been completed. However, Paul VI taught us the most important lesson that a Pope could possibly teach, and that is that what is ultimately right according to God’s law yesterday is still right today, and it will be right tomorrow. Pope Paul VI reminded us that yes, the Church still has the competency to speak with moral authority, and that whether people listen or not doesn’t effect the truth of the Church’s teachings, whether those teachings are about abortion, contraception, the death penalty, or social justice.