Pope Paul VI Countering the World
Blessed Pope Paul VI, who reigned as the Supreme Pontiff from 1963 to 1978, is closely associated with a single document, Humanae Vitae. This unfortunate reduction prevents many from realizing his entire contribution to life as a whole. For instance, in an official message given on January 1, 1977, he reminded the world in no uncertain terms that the road to peace involves the defense of life. In remarks he made to mark the World Day for Peace in 1976, he spoke on: “If You Want Peace, Defend Life.”
The former pontiff–soon to be canonized later this year–proclaimed, “Every crime against life is a blow to peace, especially if it strikes at the moral conduct of the people, as often happens today, with horrible and often legal ease, as in the case of the suppression of incipient life, by abortion.”
People the world over desire peace but ironically, all too often disparage Life and embrace the evils of contraception. Blessed Pope Paul VI’s message came nearly four years after Roe v. Wade, a time when American society was told that abortion is a “constitutional right.” Yet, can there be a “right” to oppose the development of a civilization? Could the demise of a nation possibly be inscribed in its Constitution? And why did it take nearly 200 years for seven Supreme Court justices to notice such a “right”?
Convenience and practicality have become more important to the world than the spiritual values that perfect each human person. Pope Paul VI reminds us, “We must think of human society as being primarily a spiritual reality” within which citizens can “share their knowledge of the truth . . . claim their rights and fulfill their duties . . . strive continually to pass on to others all that is best in themselves, and make their own the spiritual riches of others.”
Present society, however, has little affection for truth, an erroneous notion of rights, and a reluctance to perform moral duties, signs indicatory of how far it lies from peace. In fact, our society has entrenched itself in a ground that makes it impossible for peace to grow.
Peace and Openness to Life
How do we generate peace? It does not spring out of mere human desire, as Pope Paul VI explains, although “the deepest impulses of human nature tend toward peace.” Two years later, in 1979, John Lennon produced the enormously popular song “Give Peace a Chance.” As a heroin addict and shameless philander, Lennon’s conceptualization of peace was a pipe dream. His lyrics imply peace is readily available and easily obtainable, like a cup of coffee, simply for the asking. The song and the lyrics were a world-wide hit and given additional impetus by the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Elton John, and others.
Peace, nonetheless, requires fidelity to a moral purpose. Echoing the words of St. Augustine, who stated in City of God that “peace is the tranquility of order,” Pope Paul VI declares, “Peace is order, and order is what everything, every reality, aspires to as its destiny and the justification for its existence.”
Order is based on nature. We think of the natural order: from marriage to the conception of a child, to the birth of that child, to his education and integration into the family. Abortion disrupts this order. People cannot do whatever they want, willy-nilly, and expect peace to blossom. “Peace is a very long and very difficult task.” In the words of Paul VI: “Inner peace is not possible through selfish sophistries.”
Although there are many factors that go into the development of peace, the one factor that Blessed Paul VI refuses to be silent about is defending life: “Peace and life. They are supreme values in the civil order. They are also values that are interdependent. Do we want peace? Then let us defend life!”
We observe in the United States and Canada how those who defend life are commonly ridiculed, vilified, marginalized, and even incarcerated. We learn about pro-life reporters fired and university professors suspended from their teaching because they dare to defend life openly. Abortion is anything but a private matter. It sets in motion a movement towards a totalitarian society where everyone must think the same way. It is an enemy to democracy just as it is an enemy to the family.
An End to War
Peace, as the former Holy Father explains, is not only the opposite of war, but even war’s preventive. “If we base the logic of our activity on the sacredness of life,” he informs us, “war is virtually disqualified . . . . Peace is but the incontestable ascendency of right and, in the final analysis, the joyful celebration of life.” There are three imperatives, he goes on to say: “to defend life, to heal life, to promote life.”
Both abortion and euthanasia, as much as war, are enemies of peace. The heart of Blessed Paul VI’s message, contained in the following paragraph, succinctly represents the essence of the pro-life position: “The suppression of an incipient life, or one that is already born, violates above all the sacrosanct moral principle to which the concept of human existence must always have reference: human life is sacred from the first moment of its conception and until the last instance of its natural survival in time.”
Pope Paul VI’s message was intended for everyone. Nonetheless, he fully understands how people whose vision is limited to the natural order alone and who do not sense the working of God may find it difficult to link peace consistently with the defense of life. Faith is needed to fully appreciate the transcendent message that God has inserted in the world. We need enlightenment on a supernatural level from the “God of peace” (Phil. 4:9).
“If You Want Peace, Defend Life” is a superbly conceived document, relevant for our times. For ultimately, Blessed Pope Paul VI rightly regarded the sanctity of all human life and its defense as the single most important issue of our time.