Developing the Seminal Theology of Pope Paul VI: Toward a Civilization of Love in the Confident Hope of the Gospel of Life

By Bulzacchelli, Richard H. | Ave Maria Law Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Developing the Seminal Theology of Pope Paul VI: Toward a Civilization of Love in the Confident Hope of the Gospel of Life


Bulzacchelli, Richard H., Ave Maria Law Review


In his Regina Coeli Address for Pentecost Sunday, May 17, 1970, Pope Paul VI introduced the world to the phrase "civilization of love," grounding that image in the mystery of the day's feast. (1) Though this Address is quite short, it represents a kernel of theological reflection that has formed the foundation of later considerations. It builds, clearly, upon an already well-defined trajectory of thought, both magisterial and merely theological, so that while what Pope Paul VI says, in this brief and largely forgotten Address, is not altogether new, his words had their own far-reaching effects. Under Pope John Paul II, Pope Paul VI's reflection on Pentecost 1970 would lead to the concept of "The Gospel of Life," which would frame the language of the Church's moral teaching and her understanding of human rights for the foreseeable future. It would be impossible to treat all the documents within which the phrase "civilization of love" appears in magisterial writings, so thoroughly infused has the magisterial tradition become with Pope Paul VI's insight. (2) The very factor, however, that would render such a project impossible also renders it unnecessary, since the phrase has become so much a part of the Church's patrimony as to find itself repeatedly on the lips of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We do not need to demonstrate the influence of Pope Paul VI's phrase, but we would be served by an examination of its theological content and the historical context within which it first came to be used. Doing so would serve an important hermeneutical purpose, helping us to recall with greater clarity, and perhaps simplicity, what the pastors of the Church, in recent magisterial interventions, have sought to accomplish. Without going into details, we can frame the whole context of the Church's teaching in the terms of an anthropological datum, rooted in the promise of the eschaton.

It is significant that Pope Paul VI's Address was given on Pentecost Sunday, a day that commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit in the upper room. From a typological point of view--a view Pope Paul VI acknowledges in his Address--this scene represents an inversion of the story of the Tower of Babel. (3) Indeed, the Roman Lectionary juxtaposes these two passages on the day's feast. An alternative account of the Fall, the story of Babel describes an attempt on the part of humanity to appropriate the divine Life--the life of grace--which can only come to us as a gift. (4) Grace is an effect of Love, and Love cannot be appropriated. It is a gift to be received by the beloved, and can be acquired in no other way. The story of Babel reminds us that the turn toward an appropriative engagement with the divine necessarily means a corresponding turn toward an appropriative engagement with other human beings. It is a movement away from communion and into alienation, because it is a referencing of the Other to the Self, rather than a referencing of the Self to the Other. So, as the Tower collapses--as we necessarily fail in our attempt to appropriate the divine Life--the world's common language, culture, and communion, is reduced to ruins, and each withdraws into himself, alone, and abandoned, leading to a history of intercultural and international conflict.

By contrast, the story of Pentecost shows the Holy Spirit--the "Lord and giver of Life" (5)--descending of his own accord upon a people open to his initiative and ready to receive. They have introduced no preconceived expectations to bar the way to God's initiative, and have stepped outside of themselves to make room for God's presence within them. (6) Now, the purifying fire of God's love alights upon them as upon the bush on Mt. Horeb, (7) setting the disciples ablaze with the divine Life, and leaving them unharmed. (8) It is in this context that the apostles are able to bridge the gap of alienation forged at Babel, when they speak in their own tongue and communicate across cultural and linguistic barriers. …

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