Blessed Paul VI and the Unborn Child

Paul VI’s steadfastness may have its own place of honor when the story of the defense of the unborn is chronicled

Official portrait of Pope Paul VI, who promulgated Humanae Vitae in 1968.
Official portrait of Pope Paul VI, who promulgated Humanae Vitae in 1968. (photo: Register Files)

For years, pro-life campaigners have been insisting that the unborn child is a person – with the right to legal protection from being killed. And the Catholic Church has strong affirmed this and opposed abortion, urging Catholics to be clear in defending the unborn.

Now it seems that, for the first time in history, the Church will formally confirm the status of the unborn in a very specific way – by establishing that an unborn baby, along with the rest of humanity, can receive the grace of a miracle. While women over the centuries have prayed for the safe delivery of a child, and there have been many instances of miraculous or semi-miraculous births following difficulties in pregnancy, it is only in modern times that, through ultrasound and window-on-the-womb technology, it has been possible to see an unborn child and to track visually the stages of his development. The child is, in a much fuller sense than ever before, recognized as a patient in his or her  own right.

The canonization of Paul VI may prove dramatic in establishing a new chapter in the Church’s recognition of miracles. A child — a baby girl, in Brescia, Italy — was dying in her mother’s womb following a break in the placenta, the lifeline through which nourishment and oxygen is provided. If this happens late in pregnancy, after 37 weeks or so, it may or may not prove fatal, as the child is already adequately developed with vital organs functioning appropriately. But if it occurs early on, the loss of vital nutrients mean that the child cannot survive or will be seriously brain-damaged. The placenta cannot heal itself if it has become tangled or broken, nor can the child resolve the problem. The mother is similarly powerless to help her child, but she will be aware of problems as symptoms will begin the appear — bleeding and, later, the loss of amniotic fluid.

Explaining that the child would be either stillborn or gravely brain-damaged, doctors offered the mother an abortion. But she refused, and instead went with her husband, on the advice of friends, to a shrine in Brescia associated with Blessed Paul VI. Here they prayed and asked for his intercession. Their baby girl was in due course safely delivered – prematurely but with no brain-damage or other serious problems – and is now a healthy 3-year-old.

A miracle? Doctors have attested to this and now the Church has accepted their verdict: it remains only for Pope Francis to make the final decision about Paul VI’s sainthood. It seems possible that he will be canonized in this Jubilee year of his landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae, which affirmed the sanctity of married love and denounced abortion and contraception. How appropriate – and how like the wisdom of God – that the required miracle for canonization should be the saving of the life of an unborn child.

Fifty years ago it may have looked as though things would work out differently. That encyclical brought waves of opposition, notably from people who had long held to traditional beliefs and were seen as pillars of the Church. I remember a popular local priest appearing on television opposing the pope. Like others following the same path he was articulate, good-looking and apparently well-versed in his theology. By contrast, the Pope – in those days presented as a more remote figure – was often photographed looking frail and somehow weak. I remember a leading figure in the parish shouting opposition in church when our parish priest read out a letter from our bishop affirming support for the pope. Later a friend’s mother asked my mother to sign a letter opposing Humanae Vitae: they were a much more traditionally Catholic family than us, had an uncle a priest and so on, which we did not. My mother quietly refused to sign – I am still proud of her for that – and it was vaguely indicated to her that as a convert and in a “mixed marriage” she was somehow all wrong anyway.

It looks different now. Paul VI’s words in Humanae Vitae seem prophetic: governments using contraception as a means of coercion, marriages threatened, women increasingly seen as objects.

Intriguingly, vocal opposition to the idea of the healing of an unborn baby as an authentic miracle seems to have come from people strongly affirming their traditional Catholicism – an echo of 1968. The health or otherwise of an unborn child can never be proved, they claim, in defiance of modern medical knowledge and technology. One “traditionalist” website dismissed it as a joke.

But they need to rethink. Paul VI, so often mocked during his lifetime, has come into his own again.

For many of us, Pope St. John Paul will always be the hero of our pro-life campaigning efforts: he of Veritatis Splendor, of forthright manly courage after an assassination attempt and in lingering illness, he of World Youth Day and the vigorous call to a new generation: ”Young people! Christ calls you, the Church needs you, and the Pope believes in you, and expects great things of you!”

But, in God’s design, perhaps the quiet courage of Paul VI – savagely criticized and as savagely disobeyed – will have its own place of honor when the story of the defense of the unborn is chronicled. Paul VI, a man whose personal choice of topic would not have been the intimacies of married love but rather the issues of social justice and human development that had inspired him when working with Pius XII in wartime and postwar humanitarian efforts – it was his voice that spoke out in 1968 when the Western world was embarking on the savage injustice of legalized abortion. Thank God for Paul VI – and for Amanda, the little girl whose life was saved through his intercession and who can go on to tell the next generation the story. And thus are God’s purposes revealed, and thus does the Church, through the saints, serve Him.

‘One of our Eucharistic ministers was running out of Hosts and, suddenly, there were more Hosts in the ciborium. God just duplicated himself in the ciborium,” an emotional Father Joseph Crowley told the faithful.

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