Paul and Francis – a selective reading of two Popes

Paul-VIIn this month’s edition of our diocesan magazine I came across an odd statement: Pope Francis has freed the Church from the strict doctrines regarding human sexuality and procreation as laid down by Pope Paul VI (pictured) in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The same Pope Francis who has beatified Paul VI and repeatedly called him a courageous prophet, exactly for Humanae Vitae

Where do these claims come from? It isn’t the first time I’ve come across similar statements. Pope Francis is undoubtedly a people’s person, even more so than Saint John Paul II was, I suspect. But Pope Francis is also Catholic, and is unafraid of underlining even the unpopular teachings: he is staunchly opposed to abortion and euthanasia, continuously speaks of the dangers of sin and the devil, and, like I said above, is fully in line with the teachings of Blessed Pope Paul VI.

It is risky business to isolate Popes from one another. Humanae Vitae does not show us the full person of Paul VI, and today’s General Audiences don’t tell us everything about Francis. Both those parts of their teaching and person are important, but if we do not look any further, we run the risk of making such faulty and misleading statements as the one that opened this blog post.

In the case of Pope Francis, let his open personality be an invitiation to find out more about him and thus about the faith. His appreciation for Paul VI should likewise be reason to read Humanae Vitae anew. The papacy is no popularity contest, and nor does it revolve around superficial niceties. It is a teaching office, and sometimes that teaching reaches across the years, decades and centuries. And sometimes it is expanded or we look at it from a new perspective. In the case of Paul VI and Humanae Vitae, it is more than policy, more than old-fashioned opinions that need correcting. On the contrary, as Pope Francis has said, it is prophetic.

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