Pope Paul VI & Natural Law: Follow-up to Latin and the Memory & Identity of the Catholic Church


In the course of the publication of my articles on Latin and the Catholic Church’s memory and identity (part one, part two, part three, part four), commentator “Michael” posed the question, “Can Catholics figure out, by Natural Law alone, the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of some writing?”  He also made the claim that, “…in removing the positive law associated with the Index, the pope [Paul VI] essentially moved the prohibition from ‘Secondary Natural Law’…to ‘Primary’….”  I address here these statements.

One of the first documents awaited from a new Pope is his first Encyclical.  This is because it is believed that a Pope’s first Encyclical contains a “blueprint” for his pontificate.  Pope Paul V’s first Encyclical was Ecclesiam Suam (ES) of August 6, 1964.  In it, he provides an outline of his thinking and his hopes for his pontificate, which was intricately bound up with the Second Vatican Council.

In ES, Paul VI took for his own Pope John XXIII’s principle of “aggiornamento” (“updating”).[i]  This principle was deeply rooted in John XXIII’s undying belief in the inherent goodness of man and the superiority of the Church—the latter understanding having sadly fallen into oblivion.[ii]  As the successor of John XXIII, there can be no question that Paul VI held to this spirit.

To carry out the reforms and believing in the joy and enthusiasm brought on by the Council, Paul VI was depending upon a pre-existing, well-ordered system that would faithfully carry out the reforms and desires of the Council.  In other words, it can be said that he looked at the Church and saw a well-greased wheel that he expected to work in implementing the Council.  Regretfully, the historical record questions the efficiency of that implementation with even Paul VI lamenting how the fruits of Vatican II are not being brought to fruition.[iii]  

My previous article series offers further information with respect to this implementation and so the reader is referred to them.  Particular attention should be paid to the “para-Council” spoken of by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz and the efforts made to stymie the appropriate implementation.

Before continuing, I wish to issue a disclaimer: I am not a canon lawyer.  What is offered here are considerations from my research on the Church’s theology of private revelation.  I am to be understood as coming from that background and not strictly from canonical studies.

The above in mind, let us turn to the statements being addressed in this article.  The first is the question whether or not a well-formed Catholic can figure out (based only on Natural Law) the “goodness” or “badness” of some writing.  Secondly (and also implied in the question) there was a claim that Paul VI collapsed “Secondary Natural Law” into “Primary Natural Law.”  These statements are essentially driving at the same point which I will address.

To say that Paul VI collapsed meanings of Natural Law is an error.  This is so not only because it “opens a can of worms” with respect to the doctrine of Original Sin and/or Paul VI’s practical adherence to it but because it does not take into consideration the entire history of the Holy Father’s reforms to ecclesiastical censorship.

An effect of Original Sin is the darkening of man’s intellect.  He needs help to discern what is true and good from what is false and evil.  It is at this juncture where the divinely-instituted Church comes in to clarify the Natural Law for the salvation and edification of the faithful.  The Church cannot abandon this duty but she can modify the way she fulfills her duty.  Paul VI understood this and acted accordingly as demonstrated in his official acts.[iv] 

Paul VI did not want the duty of protecting from matter harmful to faith and morals to fall squarely upon one group in the Church (i.e. Rome).  He desired that the entire people of God (hierarchy and laity) be mindful of their moral obligations in this regard.  For the laity, he spoke of the “mature conscience of the faithful” (fidelium maturae conscientiae) and for the Bishops, he called for their “vigilant solicitude” (vigili sollicitudine).

Why did the Holy Father desire the above?  The Vatican could not keep up with the number of books being printed that contained matter contrary to faith and morals.  Reform was necessary as well as a vision for that reform.  That vision found fertile ground in John XXIII’s aggiornamento upon which a structure was built — a structure that takes a more positive (some would say “humane”) approach to Church doctrine and the human person.[v]

To be clear, Paul VI reformed the system of censorship and did not abolish it.  He expected Bishops to maintain a “vigilant solicitude” and instruct the faithful entrusted to their care.  The faithful, for their part, were expected to have informed consciences, which would only come from reading, studying the Faith and obeying their Pastors.  Rome, of course, would also continue to exercise its right of censorship (and has).  One can again see the “well-greased” motif mentioned earlier, implying that Bishops and laity cooperate with Divine and Natural Law.

Heaven help us if they do not.

In conclusion, Paul VI maintained that censorship was to continue in the Church.  Because of this it is groundless to say that he collapsed Secondary Natural Law to that of Primary.  Rather, the Holy Father’s reforms expected of Bishops to fulfill their duties and the willing cooperation of the faithful with their Pastors as well as to study and inform themselves of the divine precepts.

Have the desires and will of the Roman Pontiff been carried out?  I leave that to the reader to decide.

[i] Ecclesiam Suam 50 (ES).  <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_06081964_ecclesiam_en.html> (Accessed 23 March, 2011).  It is interesting to note that the official Latin text of ES does not contain the Italian word used by John XXIII.  The Latin is available on the Vatican’s web site: <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_19640806_ecclesiam_lt.html> (Accessed March 23, 2011).  The text begins, “Nostrae antem eiusmodi hortationes non illuc sane pertinent….”

[ii] There is an often quoted saying of Pope John XXIII that goes, “The Church has no enemies.” <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9505E7DD123AF933A25755C0A96E958260> (Accessed 23 March, 2011).  Within the context of Communism, John XXIII’s remark was about the superiority of the Church over error and falsehood and that Catholics need not fear these.  For some context of the remark, I refer the reader to Christian Feldman, Pope John XXIII, A Spiritual Biography.  (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000), 122.  See also <http://lasa.international.pitt.edu/members/congress-papers/lasa2009/files/HolbrookJoseph.pdf> (Accessed 23 March, 2011).

[iii] A famous statement to this effect was the Holy Father’s “smoke of satan” remark of June 29, 1972: <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/homilies/1972/documents/hf_p-vi_hom_19720629_it.html> (Accessed March 23, 2011).  See also a follow-up to this comment by Cardinal Noe in a 2008 interview <http://wdtprs.com/blog/2008/05/petrus-amazing-interview-with-card-noe-paul-vis-smoke-of-satan-remark-concerned-liturgy/> (Accessed March 23, 2011).

[iv] C.f. the Decree of the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), “Post Litteras Apostolicas” (PLA) of June 14, 1966.  It is available in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS) Volume 58, 1966, p 445 as well as online in .PDF format:  <http://www.vatican.va/archive/aas/documents/AAS%2058%20[1966]%20-%20ocr.pdf> (Accessed March 23, 2011).

[v] Much of that structure can be found in the March 19, 1975 Decree, “Ecclesiae Pastorum” issued by the CDF.  See also the two documents entitled “Ratio Agendi” of January 15, 1971 and May 30, 1997 also by the CDF.

(© 2011 Kevin Symonds)


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  • Mr. Symonds:

    This is a great reply. Thank you for taking the time to respond.

    It will take me a couple of days to develop a cogent response, so any lengthy reply that I may have will likely come around the middle of the Octave of Easter.

    One quick point, however. My first reply to Part Two wasn’t that the pope “collapsed meanings of Natural Law,” but a reply to the statement in your penultimate-but-one paragraph:

    Namely, that the faithful were still bound by the natural law not to read matter contrary to faith and morals even though they would not incur canonical censures if they did read any such material. [My emphasis]

    I believe that if this characterization is correct, the pope is saying that the faithful will be able to recognize books which are malum in se (written on their hearts) v. malum prohibitum (law derived from Natural Law but which requires some exercise in “line drawing”); Natural Law being “Do good and avoid evil.”

    However, I’m going to read the article a couple of times and then develop a full response.

    Again – much thanks for the time you’ve taken to develop your reply.

    In Christ,
    Michael (really, that’s my name)

    • Dear Michael,

      Peace be with you! Thank you for your comments.

      I think the real question we should be asking is:

      “What was the vision of Paul VI for reform to ecclesiastical censorship?”


  • Again thank you for your thoughtful reply to my comments.

    First, I should not have used the phrase “Secondary Natural Law;” that was inaccurate. I should have, and later did, refer to “derived law;” those derived from Natural Law, which are codified in some manner, such as Canon Law. I think that by removing the laws associated with the Index (and their related penalties) and referring the faithful to “Natural Law,” the intended effect may have been to make the local Episcopal Conferences more involved but the practical effect was to place upon the faithful the burden of determining which books were contrary to moral or doctrinal precepts. Not a “collapse,” then (I’m not even sure what a collapse of derived law into Natural Law would mean), but a “translation” (a change, movement or conversion) from one to the other.

    Perhaps, when thinking of the prohibition of reading books contrary to the faith, the pope had in mind those books so identifiably, egregiously bad that there could be no mistake about their objectionability. The flip side is that there were books on the Index which are probably not as objectionable as the cardinals responsible for the Index (two at a time, only) may have thought. I think it unlikely that Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame will lead anyone to think worse of the Church or that the machinations of the Archdeacon will be seen as representative of her clerics – unfortunately, we have far too many real examples of clerics behaving badly. It would, however, be useful to have the Index republished with notes as to why a book was listed for the edification of the faithful and assistance in developing the well-formed conscience.

    Certainly there is no way of maintaining an exhaustive list, but the USCCB does a better job of rating movies than it does literary or even theological books. One can easily find movie reviews, but real digging has to be done to find the most recent statement about a book – the critique of Sr. Johnson’s Quest for the Living God. As much as there was a problem of keeping an Index up-to-date forty-plus years ago, so the problem is extant and multiplied today; not only by the ease of obtaining traditional publishing products (Amazon.com, e-Bay, Overstock.com), but by the explosion of both publishing channels (Internet, e-books, e-pubs, apps), forms/media (blogs, television, satellite radio, Facebook), and (as you pointed out) vocal dissent from both “the Spirit of Vatican II” and “Uber-Traditionalist” groups, which sow confusion and obfuscate the authentic voice of the Church.

    My thoughts about the subject seem to agree with yours; that the bishops’ conferences of the various countries should be responsible for maintaining a representative list of works or authors that may be harmful to the faith and morals of those under their care. Indeed, I pointed out in a reply to Part Two of your series:

    If the Catholic had recourse to simple (“Primary”) Natural Law in matters as nuanced as selecting good books and rejecting bad, it is unlikely that there would be a need for a magisterium, since knowledge would “spring from the heart of the baptized” with regard even to sound precepts and doctrine. ES 37 and 38 could almost argue that there is still a place for the Index or like guide in the body of ecclesiastical publishing, despite the overall appeal to the well-formed conscience of the Christian.

    I’m afraid I still don’t understand the “can of worms” you reference. I fail to see how suggesting that Paul VI’s action of abandoning derived law associated with the Index while stating (through Card. Ottaviani) that it retained “moral force” via Natural Law in any way impinges on the doctrine of Original Sin.
    Paragraph nine, from your most recent article, would seem to agree with the position I hold, but for (perhaps) the last sentence:

    An effect of Original Sin is the darkening of man’s intellect. He needs help to discern what is true and good from what is false and evil. It is at this juncture where the divinely-instituted Church comes in to clarify the Natural Law for the salvation and edification of the faithful. The Church cannot abandon this duty but she can modify the way she fulfills her duty. Paul VI understood this and acted accordingly as demonstrated in his official acts.

    This seems to argue definitively for canons on censorship, not merely an appeal to Natural Law. But the administration under Paul VI failed to develop a sound framework through which his vision would be executed. He established a negative obligation without a method for determining a breach of the obligation. John Paul II’s revision of the Code of Canon Law established a positive obligation, in certain circumstances, for a member of the faithful to have a book published, but there is still no method for discovering what the moral/doctrinal objections were for the books on the Index for the purpose of examining new publications for which the Index may serve as a guide, even though canons 823, 830 should have been the seed from which local conferences should have been able to establish, locally, lists of media which may be dangerous to the faith and/or morals of the flock – but I’ve never found such.

    The ultimate paragraph of Part Two of your series states:

    As it relates to book publishing and reading, the above confusion did not favor people paying close attention to Paul VI’s distinction between natural and ecclesiastical law. Once the floodgates were open, the subsequent tsunami known as the “spirit of Vatican II” was unstoppable.

    I suppose, as summary, I contend that people could not pay attention to the distinction because there was no method for doing so, nor any authority but “conscience” to which one could quickly turn in the absence of either an Index or, as Paul apparently hoped, a local body of censors developing a localized Index. Natural Law is to “do good while avoiding evil.” But the Index did not solely represent those works which were “evil.” The Count of Monte Cristo might have been “dangerous,” the scribblings of Marx “pernicious,” or Pascal’s Pensees “erroneous,” but none rose to a level which comes within striking distance of an “evil to be avoided” except as it applies to violating the validly exercised authority of the magisterium, codified in canon law and promulgated by the Index. In the absence of such, I see little ability to appeal to Natural Law except in the most extreme, manifest examples.

    In Christ,


    • Michael,

      Peace be with you! Thank you for your comments.

      Some pithy thoughts:

      1) I am relieved that I explictly stated that I am not a canon lawyer.

      2) Regarding “collapsed,” perhaps I spoke too colloquially. I have done a lot of work in youth ministry of late. While I try to maintain intellectual acuity, making things “concise and relateable” as one would to a younger audience might have overly influenced me.

      By “collapsed,” all it was intended to be was a response to your point about Paul VI doing things between derived law and natural law.

      3) I would encourage you to do a study on the history of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum if you have not done so already. Your point in the response concerning the classification of books on the Index is answered.

      4) I might have to disagree with you about the USCCB keeping good lists. My thoughts in this regard turn to the debaucle of several years ago concerning the initial review of “Brokeback Mountain.”

      5) I do not recall making a remark about “uber-traditionalists” in any of my articles. I remark upon this because you stated:

      “…and (as you pointed out) vocal dissent from both “the Spirit of Vatican II” and “Uber-Traditionalist” groups, which sow confusion and obfuscate the authentic voice of the Church.”

      The former, not the latter, were remarked upon to my recollection. Perhaps you did not intend this, but your grammar between the text in parenthesis and the coordinating conjunction “and” can be read as a conflation of the two realities which is not reflective of my thought.

      The above is not to defend “uber-traditionalists,” or express solidarity with them. Rather, it is only to point out what is in keeping with my thought as expressed in my articles.

      6) I do not think it necessary here to discuss the “can of worms” that I mentioned in the article.

      It suffices to say that there are canons on censorship in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The question is how strictly they are enforced and obeyed. There is also the matter of “in what spirit” these canons were written and what the “intellectual furniture” was that makes up the climate. These are not something I’m entirely competent to discuss and so defer to more educated persons.

      7) If you could explain further what you are saying in the following paragraph:

      “…but there is still no method for discovering what the moral/doctrinal objections were for the books on the Index for the purpose of examining new publications for which the Index may serve as a guide.”

      8) In your last paragraph, you give the example of the Count of Monte Cristo (amongst others). I would like to ask you a question: why was this book considered “dangerous” (as you put it)?

      I look forward to your replies.

      -Kevin Symonds

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    Here’s a point worth pondering, if only because no one will take it seriously as an enunciation on a moral norm. But it does shed light on a natural one. Of late I have taken to running barefoot, and I’ve got the blisters on the bottom of my left foot to prove it. In doing so, the pain in my right knee has all but disappeared, and I can feel the hot spots as the toes on my right foot strive to straighten out to their more natural course. I can run as fast or faster as before, but the runs have to be shorter because the callouses on my feet aren’t yet thick enough and those toe-straightening hot spots are persistent.

    Nor is barefoot running to be deemed an anomaly. Humans are more hobbit-like than we give ourselves credit for. Callouses will develop and protect the feet. And humans are designed by the Creator to be running creatures. You can tell this by feeling for the tendon on the back of your neck. This nuchal tendon is present in every mammal that runs and absent in every mammal that does not run. A final point for this discussion (which does not exhaust the points that could be made, however) is that among human populations where going barefoot is still common, incidences of flat feet are far less common among the barefoot folk than among their shod brothers and sisters.

    Now no one in the Church has written anything about the phenomenon in recent years. However, the available evidence raises at least two moral points. One is somewhat orthogonal to this discussion – should charitable organizations dedicated to shoe distribution in the developing world obligate themselves to re-evaluate their activities in light of the available natural evidence? A corollary: given the enormous cultural pressure to wear shoes, how would such a charitable organization ever educate itself properly on the matter?

    The other, however, is this: many books written about barefoot running are either highly secular or pantheistic or both. But they shed light on a genuine natural phenomenon in a way that more orthodox documents completely ignore. Now, this is a very minor point, except for three less-than-obvious items:

    1) The Catholic Church has been the historical proponent in the West in fostering barefoot living (an actual modern term). In the Church, as in the many of the Eastern traditions which similarly foster this approach of living, going barefoot has been viewed primarily as an expression of poverty and legitimate corporal mortification. The written expression of such living, however, is almost completely relegated to historical writings. If there is a modern religious order in the Church that promotes this, I am unaware of it.

    2) The benefits of barefoot living, given the paucity of available orthodox information, are articulated in English almost exclusively by a cohort which has found the benefits in the absence of Divine guidance. By this, I mean that this cohort is largely atheist or pantheistic and explicitly so. This means that the books are full of lots of information about meditation in an Eastern tradition or science that conveniently ignores the Western tradition in the Church of living barefoot. Thus, the only way of discerning good from evil content in these writings is to sift through them in light of the teaching of the Church.

    3) These writings shed a genuine natural light on a phenomenon that the modern Church (and her orthodox members) have chosen to ignore. I cannot help but believe that there would be no hesitation in placing most of these works onto a proscribed index, were a new one to be promulgated. Who would defend them, after all, in a Church that has largely abandoned its own tradition of barefoot friars?

    I for one cannot help but imagine Thomas Aquinas running blissfully through the fields on his hardened feet, once he got away from the gawking crowds. And he would have been morally justified to do so.