“The Church, from the very beginning, has always recognized the special and unique role of Peter,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl at the closing Mass of a Catholic University of America symposium on the 50th anniversary of papal encyclical Humanae Vitae.
The role of Peter – as an authoritative teacher of faith and morals – was reaffirmed, Wuerl believes, by the US bishops’ response to initial controversy over Humanae Vitae.
During the Mass, celebrated in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Wuerl spoke of his personal experience as a young priest at the time of Humanae Vitae’s promulgation. He noted that he was taken aback by negative attitudes towards the encyclical.
“As a newly-ordained priest, I came very quickly in ministry to recognize that not every encyclical or apostolic exhortation meets with immediate acceptance,” he said, to laughter among the congregation.
Having begun his first priestly assignment just the year before, Cardinal Wuerl said that he was “surprised” by the “vehement rejection” of the encyclical, particularly in the archdiocese he now leads.
The Archdiocese of Washington, he said, was “one of the largest flashpoints of opposition.”
“I remember attending a lecture on this very campus [The Catholic University of America] in which it was explained to us that the teaching of Paul VI was his own personal views, and that it was not truly a part of the papal magisterium,” said Wuerl.
However, the dissent was far from universal, he said. Priests who agreed with the document and supported the pope as the “universal shepherd” were assisted by the United States Catholic Conference (a precursor to the USCCB) in writing a pastoral letter to help better explain and support the teachings outlined in Humanae Vitae. This letter, titled “Human Life In Our Day,” was published about four months after the encyclical was released.
Wuerl said this experience helped to confirm his beliefs in the importance of the teaching ministry of the pope, in addition to the overall teachings of the document.
“I was impressed then with the alacrity of the response in defense of the teaching office of Saint Peter and therefore the validation of the teaching of Humanae Vitae,” explained Wuerl.
“But there was another lesson that I saw confirmed in those days of dissent from Humanae Vitae – the importance of the teaching role of Peter. The issue was not just what was said, but also who said it.” The pope, regardless of which pope, is “Peter” and has the role of Christ’s vicar, Wuerl said.
Wuerl conceded that there is still much to be done in terms of implementing the teachings of Humanae Vitae for the good of the faithful.
“One half century later, we continue to set forth the teaching of Blessed Pope Paul VI concerning the proper regulation of the propagation of offspring, and over these five decades we have learned that it is not sufficient simply to announce the teaching and repeat the words of the encyclical.”
To assist with this endeavor, the cardinal suggested that this 50th anniversary be viewed as “a call to [….] whom we go out, announce, engage, and walk with as we try to help them grasp and appropriate the teaching of this encyclical.”
“Today then, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as we commemorate the encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, we renew our own fidelity to the Vicar of Christ. It is his voice that gives us assurance of the truth of what we profess.