Blessed Pope Paul VI, beatified last month by Pope Francis, acquired his halo the hard way. He had the thankless job of saying “No” at a time when the whole world was expecting and demanding that he say ”Yes.” Science and technology had produced a near-miraculous solution to a profound and ancient problem. A wife could now pop a pill and she would no longer need to say no to her husband even when they had good reason to avoid pregnancy. To many within and without the Church this was obviously a liberation. To oppose this technological blessing seemed unbelievably wrong-headed, like a rejection of science, of reason and of the whole modern world. People, of course, didn’t know at the time about the serious side-effects of the pill. Nor did they know that, while the pill acts in ways that can prevent pregnancy, sometimes conception can occur anyway and the pill may then terminate a new human life by preventing implantation in the uterus. And almost no one took seriously the moral and social consequences, accurately foretold by the Pope, which have accompanied the general acceptance of contraception, including increased infidelity, a lowering of moral standards and a lessening of respect for women (Humanae Vitae, 17).
In up-holding the teaching of the Church, and enduring the wrath of the world, Blessed Paul VI opened a way for his successor, St. John Paul II, who we could call the Pope of “Yes.” St. John Paul II developed his “Theology of the Body” to explain in modern language the great and beautiful “Yes” behind the sometimes difficult teaching against the use of contraceptives. St. John Paul II enables us to get a glimpse of marriage as a reflection of the love of Jesus for the Church and as a sharing in the fruitful community of love that is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He explains God’s design for sex within marriage as a model of the way in which we are called to make the invisible and life-giving love of God visible and tangible in this material world.
And that brings us to the current pope, whom we could call Pope of “the gospel to the people.” The teaching of St. John Paul II, as beautiful as it is, is often caught up in dense theological language. To unleash its power to transform lives in the gospel message of Jesus Christ, it needs to be presented from the heart and in the context of people’s lived experience. The wisdom of Church teaching must always be presented in light of God’s astonishing love for us. This is the approach of a new book for engaged couples, Your Love Story, which presents Catholic teaching on marriage in light of God’s astonishing love for us.