Bl. Paul VI was not the greatest pope ever. He is not on my Top Five Popes list and I am not sure he even makes my Top Ten. Paul VI was often feckless and he made some terrible episcopal appointments, appointments whose reverberations hinder us to this day. But for all that I owe Paul a special debt of gratitude, one I can scarcely ever hope to repay. It goes back nearly 40 years.
Like most reasonably bright sophomores in college, I knew pretty much everything about everything and I was certainly an expert on anything I chose to take a position on. That included, among matters ecclesiastic, contraception. Not that I had ever read Pope Paul’s Humanae vitae, mind, or knew anything whatsoever about the topic beyond what I had picked up from groovy 1970s clergy (who smirked whenever they talked about Paul VI, or about sex, or, come to think of it, just about anything else), but I was quite sure that the funny-looking pope was out to lunch on contraception and that the Church was only embarrassing herself by pretending otherwise.
Anyway, one day at lunch in the dorm the topic of contraception came up and I began dropping omniscient quips about Pope Paul and his silly teaching, whereupon a classmate (who, not being afraid to admit his own limitations, was not afraid to point out others’) asked me point blank, “Have you ever read Humanae vitae?” Thank God I answered honestly, “No”, because he it freed him to say, “Well then, you really don’t have much to add to this conversation, do you?” I was instantly convicted, not just in the eyes of all at that table, but in my eyes, too, of laboring under ignorance and arrogance, and my teenage world suddenly widened to reveal that some people in it were not much disposed to indulge people spouting nonsense rooted in both at their lunch table.
I drove immediately to the local Catholic bookstore, asked for a copy of Humanae vitae and was handed a 20 page pamphlet (surprising me for I had figured that Humanae vitae must be a large book to have generated so much attention). I returned home, went to my room, closed the door, sat down at my desk, and read Paul’s VI little booklet straight through.
I’ll never forget it: I reached the last paragraph, closed the text carefully, sat up straight, and heard myself say aloud (I think I said it aloud, but the words were just as clear): “My God, if the Church is right about contraception, it could be right about everything!” And neither my many sins since, nor the Church’s frequent bungling of her divine message, nor any other factor taken singularly or in combination, has ever led me to doubt, since that day, that the graces guaranteeing the Church’s proclamation of the truths contained in Humanae vitae are at work in her always and everywhere. It has been an unswerving consolation to me ever since.
That’s what I owe to Pope Paul VI. I’ll never be able to repay him.