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The last decade of the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, who will be canonized on Sunday, was not a happy one. The global controversy over his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which became quite rhetorically violent at times, had to have wounded Giovanni Battista Montini, a sensitive spirit. His teaching on the appropriate means of planning a family was often misrepresented as an ideology of “reproduction at all costs,” when in fact he taught that family planning was a moral obligation and a delicate exercise in the virtue of prudence. Many of his brother-bishops abandoned him amid the Humanae Vitae wars, determined to push other moral-theological agendas or cowed by the ambient public culture and the sexual revolution. Faced with widespread and public dissent from his encyclical, the pope seems to have made a conscious decision not to enforce doctrinal and moral discipline in the hope that rational discussion would prevent further divisions in the post-Vatican II Church. But that strategy, like his Ostpolitik of accommodation in east central Europe, failed; the results are much with us today, in the crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal pusillanimity and malfeasance.
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Pope Paul never wrote another encyclical. But toward the end of what had begun as a successful and dynamic pontificate and was ending in papal and ecclesial exhaustion, he rallied himself in an effort to put an end to the post-conciliar drift—and issued the first trumpet call summoning the Catholic Church to what his second successor, John Paul II, would call the “New Evangelization.” It’s ironic, and may ultimately prove consoling, that this Sunday’s canonization will take place during a welcome pause in Synod-2018. For the occasion for Paul VI to challenge the world Church to its evangelical and missionary birthright was a failed Synod.
The Synod’s theme in 1974 was “Evangelization...
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