Why I Love St. Paul VI, the Pope of Humanae Vitae

Paul VI did not shy away from the suffering that would follow from reiterating the Church’s ancient teaching on contraception.

Pope Paul VI in 1969
Pope Paul VI in 1969 (photo: Fotografia Felici / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

My younger sister got married last Friday. At one point during the reception, my mother’s favorite song blared over the speakers. My siblings and I rushed to the dance floor, spouses and offspring in tow, to dance around her and my father. At that moment, surrounded by my eight siblings and holding my infant daughter in one arm and the hand of my eldest son in the other, I thought, rather humorously, of Pope St. Paul VI.

Paul VI, whose birthday is Sept. 26, has arguably had a larger tangible effect on my life than most popes have, even among the canonized ones. His 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, definitively affirmed the Church’s traditional teachings against the use of artificial contraception. It is to these teachings, and my parents’ faithful witness, that I owe the existence of my brothers and sisters.

I grew up in a home shaped in large part by the Church’s teaching on contraception, so beautifully explained by Paul VI, and it has followed me into my vocation as a wife and mother. Sometimes I receive it graciously, other times less so. Whenever I hold a positive pregnancy test in my hand there is abundant joy, but abundant fear as well. My husband and I have experienced miscarriage and extremely difficult pregnancies. Each time, I worry incessantly. How will I make it through nine months of illness and still be able to serve my family? What if this little one leaves us to join a sibling in heaven? What sacrifices will I have to ask others to make on my behalf as I grow this life? What sacrifices will be asked of me?

Paul VI did not shy away from the suffering that would follow from living out the Church’s call to be open to life. In the opening lines of Humanae Vitae, he immediately acknowledges that difficulty and hardship often accompany the joy of new life, and he recognizes this inherent tension throughout the entire encyclical. But even as he expresses his compassion for married couples, he gently reminds them that they are not, and cannot, act as God. To deny this truth is to signal that we “are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men” (HV). God is either an all-loving and all-knowing Creator, who knows the desires of our hearts and the plans for our lives better than we ever could, or he is merely an abstract entity whom we can follow as it suits our wants. He cannot be both.

Paul VI was beatified in 2014, following confirmation of a miracle owing to his intercession in the 1990s. A second confirmed miracle, this one taking place in 2014, paved the way for his canonization in 2018. Through a beautiful show of Providence, both miracles involved the healing of an unborn child. I love this. I love that the evidence we have that this great pope is in heaven, interceding for us before the throne of God, is the miraculous healing of two sweet unborn babies. How many babies owe their lives to St. Paul VI? How many people owe their very existence to this courageous saint, who stood in the gap, protecting his beloved flock from the ravages of the sexual revolution? Nearly 2,000 years before St. Paul VI’s papacy, Jesus radically altered the cultural perception of children as assets to gifts from God. More than 55 years ago this brave pope boldly proclaimed Christ’s teaching that children are not to be viewed as burdens or commodities, but as irreplaceable and unrepeatable individuals created for their own sake, beloved by their Creator.