Pope Benedict XVI (more accurately, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger) is often quoted as saying that he envisions a day when there will be a “smaller, more faithful Church.”
Though not precisely verbatim, the quote is derived from a series of radio addresses given by the future Holy Father in 1969-1970, a print version of which is available in the book, Faith and the Future (Ignatius Press).
According to Ignatius Press, Fr. Ratzinger said that the church “will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes … she will lose many of her social privileges. …As a small society, (the Church) will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.”
In that day, the 42 year old priest-theologian predicted, ours “will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate… It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek …”
Ignatius Press describes Fr. Ratzinger’s commentary as “surprisingly prophetic,” but if his vision for the future belongs in the category of prophecy at all, one would perhaps do well to add the qualifier “self-inflicted.”
Let’s be honest, the current crisis in the Church, wherein priest shortages, empty pews, parish closings and bankrupt dioceses are commonplace, was all but guaranteed as Fr. Ratzinger wrote for a number of internal reasons, including, but certainly not limited to, the following:
• The Second Vatican Council had five years hence adopted a church-state policy modeled after the U.S. Constitution’s pluralistic approach to religious freedom, thereby setting in motion an Apostolic ceasefire wherein the Church relinquished any positive claim to its unique rights and privileges, effectively transforming the body Apostolic into a corps diplomatic.
• In 1964, a faction among the Fathers of this very same ecumenical council had surreptitiously declared mutiny through a contrived notion of “collegiality” so deliberately ambiguous that the pope had to take the unprecedented step of inserting in Lumen Gentium an explanatory note; though it ultimately did little to stem the rebellious tide going forward.
• The 1967 Land-O-Lakes Statement , after meeting with little meaningful resistance from the Holy See, quickly became a manifesto for so-called Catholic institutions of higher learning that were determined to assert “freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind;” read, freedom from the pope and whatever sanctions he may, or may not, impose.
• The Novus Ordo Missae had just been pressed upon the faithful of the Latin Rite, in spite of the strident objections of honorable churchmen like Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani who warned of the ill effects it was likely to have on the children of the Church.
What do all of these unfortunate episodes in the life of the Church, each of which played a part in practically inviting the firestorm of which Fr. Ratzinger forewarned, have in common?
They happened on the watch of Pope Paul VI, who, in no small twist of irony, was recently recognized for a life of “heroic virtue” by Pope Benedict XVI (making him a Venerable) on December 20, 2012.
News of Paul VI being “raised to the altar” sparked mixed reactions, about which the inimitable Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (better known simply as Fr. Z) posted some useful very insights on his excellent blog "What Does the Prayer Really Say."
For instance, he points out that “heroic virtue” and “doing heroic things” are not exactly the same thing, and yet, “some people… are saying things such as ‘Paul issued Humanae vitae! That sure was heroic! I’d canonize him for that!’”
Excellent observation, and I would go a step further.
While many Catholics simply accept the proposition that Humanae Vitae is a great achievement on the part of Paul VI, a more sober assessment is that the circumstances surrounding its promulgation is far more a “black eye” on his pontificate than it is a crowning glory.
There are several modes, or organs, of infallibility; e.g., ex cathedra statements given by the pope, de fide teachings issued by an ecumenical council, and the universal ordinary magisterium of the Church. This latter mode refers to those doctrines that have been taught constantly and definitively over a period of many centuries by the bishops of the world, in union with the Roman pontiffs.
As an example of the latter, consider:
When a Dubium was sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1994, asking whether or not the teaching given by Pope John Paul II in the Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, concerning the restriction of the priesthood to males only, is infallible, Cardinal Ratzinger replied in the affirmative by virtue of the Universal Ordinary Magisterium of the Church.
According to numerous theologians, not the least of whom is the eminent moral theologian Dr. Germain Grisez, who also happens to have been a member of the commission appointed by Pope Paul VI to study the so-called “question of contraception,” the doctrine at hand had long since belonged in that very same category.
Furthermore, the Second Vatican Council, in the document Gaudium et Spes, stated in 1965, two years before Humanae Vitae:
“Sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law. All should be persuaded that human life and the task of transmitting it are not realities bound up with this world alone. Hence they cannot be measured or perceived only in terms of it, but always have a bearing on the eternal destiny of men (GS 51).
This being the case, it would seem that in giving Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI wasn’t so much pressing the limits of Christian fortitude as simply reiterating that which was already infallibly taught, a doctrine ever moored to Tradition as evidenced by the Universal Ordinary Magisterium.
As such, I cannot help but ask an important question that few, to my knowledge, seem to be asking:
What exactly moved the Holy Father to appoint a commission to study a doctrine that was already part of the Universal Ordinary Magisterium?
When one considers how much the simple fact of the commission’s creation contributed to the atmosphere of anticipation that existed before Humanae Vitae, and therefore also contributed in no small measure to the havoc that ensued in its aftermath (to say nothing of the Holy Father’s handling of the rebellion), the answer to this question would seem highly relevant.
Fr. Z states, “Some will scratch their heads saying, ‘But Father! Maybe Paul was personally holy, and he prayed and was sincere, but can he have lived a life of heroic virtue if he wasn’t a very good Pope?’”
“In trying to make sense of this, in connection with Paul VI and what seems to many to be a lack of positive accomplishments according to his state in life, perhaps we have to take more and more seriously the circumstances in which he was Bishop of Rome,” he continued. “I don’t have an answer to this difficulty right now.”
I don’t have an answer either, but as I sit here today, it certainly seems to me that a sober assessment of the pontificate of Paul VI gives the children of the Church far more to lament than to celebrate.
As for Humanae Vitae specifically, rather than viewing it as an achievement of Paul VI, it is perhaps more appropriate to recognize it as solid evidence of the protection of the Holy Ghost who would allow no other outcome.
Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio was a columnist for Catholic News Agency from April 2009 to 2013. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com