Everybody to Pope Paul: Drop Dead

I recently read Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae the way it was principally meant to be read: in Latin. There’s something illuminating, I find, about reading in the original a work that is familiar to you in translation. It becomes unfamiliar. You can’t catch the gist of a clause unless you pay unusually close attention to the words. You can’t dismiss something before you have quite determined what that something is.

What struck me this time was the final portion of the text, 40 percent of the whole, a gentle and heartfelt appeal to various groups of people in positions of responsibility. The pope knew that he was delivering a message that would dash some false hopes. He also knew that, in the newly seething sensualism of his times, it would be hard to move people even to understand what he was saying.

It is never easy to rouse a sensualist, not just to heroism, but to the self-sacrifice of an ordinary life of virtue. Yet he retained a belief – one that now seems poignantly naïve – that wise people would see the beauty of the Christian teaching, and, even if they did not worship in the Catholic Church, even if they did not acknowledge Christ as their savior, would yet work to bring about a world at least open to the good that he was holding forth.

They all told him to drop dead.

First he appeals to teachers and to all those whose duty it is to look ahead for the common good.  He begs them to see the need to fashion an environment qui colendae castitati faveat, which would assist in the fostering of chastity. The principal aim was not utilitarian but moral and human: ut scilicet germana libertas licentiam vincat, so that, as it were, genuine liberty would triumph over license.

I do not recall that any promoters of the Pill, mistaken as they were, redoubled their efforts by way of compensation to make chastity appear in all its true beauty, or ever talked about license, the evil parody of liberty. No, I believe that it was just then that teachers began to import smutty books into their classrooms; and the drive-in theater in my Irish Catholic town sold its soul to porn for a few more grubby years of life.

Then, he appeals more directly to the politicians. Law, after all, is about more than keeping stuff on the shelves. It is about making a people good. He begs them to keep watch over public morals, ne umquam patiamini honestos corruere mores vestrorum populorum, lest you should ever suffer the decent folkways, the honest morals of your people to fall to ruin.

They must assist families, not work for their destruction, if indeed liberty is what they desire. But that was about the time when the burgeoning political class discerned that it was to their benefit to cultivate the dissoluble and the dissolute. Crumbling families, fattening State.

His third appeal was to men of science. How quaint his respect for their probity!  He begged them to conduct research into more and more precise means of determining ovulation, and into showing the harmony between the laws of nature and the law of God.

Pope Paul never worked at a research mill.  Cherchez l’argent, mon Père.  The money is not in self-control and chastity. The money is not in tamping the fire, but in stoking it.  Ask the publishers of magazines.

Pope Paul VI

Then he appealed to Christian spouses. His words wring my heart. He begged them to show forth to the world a Christian testimony – they could only be salutary to their neighbors if they made clear both the holiness and the sweetness of the truth.

Pope Paul did not deny that that would sometimes be difficult.  The Lord Himself warns us that the way is narrow that leads to life. But yet the hope of that life so shines upon our pilgrim way, that Christians forti contendunt animo, enter the lists with a brave heart, living, as Saint Paul says, “soberly and justly and piously in this world,” because we understand that it is passing away.

The pope called for our courage in the fight. I remember tepidity and ducking out instead. He called for a new apostolate, of married Catholic couples who would instruct and strengthen their fellows. The married couples couldn’t be bothered.

He appealed to doctors. He reminded them that their aim was greater than mere human utility. If only we could attain that low aim now, when people in hospitals are treated as little more than living tissue, and unborn children as far less than that.  So much for the medical profession – now purveyors of disease and death.

Then come the most painful appeals of all. First to the priests and theologians.  Paul says he is moved by great trust in them: magna fiducia. He’d have done better with a common bribe-taking politician; at least the man on the take need not be positively hostile or treacherous. He recalls with gratitude their obedience; perhaps he was trying to persuade by gentle over-praising. In any case, he reminds them that the unity of the Church is always to be safeguarded.  Surely, they would not want to veer away into practical schism. But divorce of one kind led to divorce of another.

The last appeal is to his fellow bishops. He petitions them to go before the faithful with great care and without delay, to preach to them the sanctity of marriage and to show them why their deference to that sanctity will assist married couples in attaining to the perfection of a human and Christian life.

Pope Paul called for their help! He was always, temperamentally, timid and shy.  He the Vicar of Christ needed them, and they instead left him alone in the garden while they played to the crowd.

God have mercy upon us. We need it.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.