Monday, August 29, 2011

Papal Profile: Pope Paul VI

It has very often been said by many Catholic clerics and learned men and women that it is absurd to apply terms like “liberal” and “conservative” to the Supreme Pontiffs. Nothing is said about the laity, however, and it says something, I think, that if you ask a liberal Catholic to name the most controversial pope of the twentieth century they will most likely say Pope Pius XII and if you ask a conservative Catholic the same question they will most likely say Pope Paul VI. Vehemently opposed by many staunch traditionalists, Pope Paul VI is likewise often just as despised by the liberal extremists, usually a sign of being right on target. However, the shared opposition to Pope Paul VI comes from very different sources. Generally, conservatives dislike him for what he changed and liberals dislike him for what he did not. Many things changed during the reign of Paul VI, and being very much reluctant to see changes of any kind, to this day I still fail to see the sense in most of it. Yet, when it came to the things that mattered most, particularly the very issue of life and death, Pope Paul VI was always on the right side and did his best to lead the Church in such a way that would be both steadfast in doctrine and friendly toward progress. It was a tightrope act that, in the end, even the Pope himself seemed to recognize as realistically impossible.

Paul was born Giovanni Battista Montini in Concesio, Italy on September 26, 1897. After becoming a priest he served as Archbishop of Milan and Cardinal Secretary of State of the Vatican. After his election to the Throne of Peter on June 21, 1963 it was left to the new Pope, Paul VI, to conclude the Second Vatican Council and begin dealing with the changes and problems which were a sure result. Controversy was already to be found in ample supply. Paul VI had always been known for his opposition to certain Papal traditions, at one time he even suggested that the Pope be removed from the Vatican -a drastic idea to say the least that was quickly discarded. Numerous acts, from almost the very beginning, had traditionalists in an uproar. He gave up the Papal Tiara, ancient symbol of papal authority and did away with numerous other things he viewed as out of step with modern times, from the Papal court to the military corps. Princely Roman families who had given up their place in secular society to stand with the papacy were suddenly told their services were no longer needed. The Noble Guard was disbanded, as was the Palatine Guard and Paul VI even thought to discharge the Swiss Guards but was dissuaded from this given the centuries of tradition they represented.

Naturally, changing so much so fast caused some painful divisions, most famously the schism of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who opposed any changes to the old “Tridentine Mass” (aka the Latin mass). Even those not intricately familiar with the minutia of Church ceremony could see some confusion in the more diverse countries where masses had to be scheduled in various different languages, depending on the congregation, whereas before it had been Latin for all. The traditionalists were outraged further by the fact that liberals seemed to think that the changes of the Council, put into effect by Paul VI, gave them free reign to pretty much do as they pleased with the apostolic blessing of the Pope himself. This was when guitars and hand-holding started showing up in Church and those were among the tamer innovations in some areas. However, Paul VI was to prove almost as good at attracting progressive condemnation as he was the traditionalist sort. He began to travel around the world calling for Christian unity and worked feverishly on paper after paper explaining the documents Vatican II had produced.

One of these was the great encyclical Humanae vitae, issued in 1968 which in no uncertain terms, firmly and strongly condemned any methods of artificial birth control or human interference in the process of life. Contraception, Paul VI wrote, far from being part of women's liberation, removed all responsibility from the man and reduced women to being simply objects of pleasure for men. Needless to say, the "free love" crowd of the 60's was not very happy with this stern warning from a Pope they thought was going to let them do whatever they wished. Pope Paul further defended the tradition of priestly celibacy, which many of the Vatican II spin doctors had predicted would be dropped. This caused further uproar among the liberal community. Such an uproar in fact that Humanae vitae would be the last encyclical the disheartened pontiff would ever write.

Pope Paul VI broke plenty of new ground during his reign. He was the first pope to travel to the United States, where he met President Kennedy and held mass in Yankee Stadium. He was the first pontiff to travel by way of planes and helicopters, the first pope of modern times to go to Israel, the first to ever visit India and the first to address the United Nations, which the Vatican joined as a permanent observer. However, this was a time of great hardships and instability, for both the world and the Church. The Cold War was raging, Southeast Asia was covered by war, international terrorism was on the rise and the Church was torn by divisions. In 1970 the Pope himself had been the subject of an assassination attempt in Manila. The Pontiff was, contrary to what some think, greatly distressed by the reaction to Vatican II, both by those who opposed it and even more so by those who seemed to willingly misinterpret it. When he defended traditional Church teachings, in some cases, the Church leadership across whole countries simply refused to obey. Paul VI lamented that, "the smoke of Satan" had entered the Church.

Paul VI was certainly not traditional, but neither could he be called a total modernist as he upheld consistently fundamental Church teachings. The worst thing he could be accused of is seeing the hold modernists had gained in the Church and failing to take any direct action to stop them as his predecessor St Pius X had done. He was very aware of this, but feared that making use of his disciplinary authority would only drive more people away. Instead, he reacted in the pastoral way he was most comfortable with, writing encyclicals upholding Catholic doctrines. For defending human life at any stage, the special role of the family, which he called "the domestic Church" and condemning contraception he was just as often attacked for being old fashioned and autocratic as he was for failing to remove all modernists from authority. He was the favorite whipping boy of many for all the problems of his time.

Because of all this, it is safe to say that his final days were not happy ones. Perhaps he had been a bit too idealistic upon coming to the papal throne but, whatever the case, he was certainly distressed by the state of the Church and the world during his reign. Things had definitely taken a turn for the worse in terms of vocations and even the public image of the Church which did not change despite all of the efforts to more or less 'make nice' with the modern world. The liberals may have welcomed such changes but so long as fundamental truths were upheld, their opposition to the Catholic Church, or indeed any organized religion, was not about to change and Paul VI seemed rather dismayed by it all. It would be left to his successors to try to put the changes into the proper perspective and to come out with the "correct interpretation" of the Second Vatican Council, the consequences of which so dominated the reign of the "pilgrim pontiff".Pope Paul VI died on August 6, 1978 after suffering a heart attack while hearing mass at Castel Gandolfo. Most of the positive feelings attached to his memory revolve around his defense of Church teachings on life and although not given much attention a cause for his beatification has been initiated.


  1. Again speaking for the Byzantine East, I would like to respectfully add one great ministry the late Pope Paul VI embarked upon, may his memory be eternal. Paul VI in cooperation with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras revoked the anathemas passed in 1054, the official declaration that West and East had separated. With the reign of these two great patriarchs of the Church,we finally became close enough to begin speaking and, although it shall be a long time in coming, working towards the reunion of the Christian Church.

  2. I agree, I only left it at a reference to ecumunism because I didn't want to go on too long and if I mentioned the meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch someone would complain that I didn't mention the meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury and so on and so forth.

  3. Didn't Plato say in Laws that any change which is not made to correct an evil is itself an evil? Something to think about.

    I can't say that I am a huge fan of Pope Paul VI or his cause for sainthood, but I do maintain that he embodies proof of the doctrine of papal infallibility. In particular, I view the promulgation of Humanae vitae as on a par with Clement VII's refusal to annul the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. In both cases, you had Popes who were themselves personally weak and vacillating; you had immense pressures on them that might in other circumstances have overcome stronger men; you had the papal authority in jeopardy; you had the grave threat of schism. And yet both Popes did the right thing. For this there can be no explanation except the guidance and support of the Holy Spirit.

    By the way, I think the abandonment of the tiara was a huge mistake. Symbols are important. Laying aside the tiara looked an awful lot like laying aside not just a piece of headgear, but also the authority it represents -- precisely the wrong message to send in turbulent times. It should be brought back.

    (But Paul VI's own tiara can remain in mothballs, as it is ugly.)

  4. I disagree with alot, probably most, of the changes Paul VI made but I also think he is often unfairly treated and is never credited for positive accomplishments. I regret his giving up the Papal Tiara for a number of reasons though I don't doubt his sincerity in doing it as a 'gesture of humility'. The problem with such gestures is they imply that previous popes had not been humble and it backs succeeding popes into a corner. Now no one can revive the tradition without appearing arrogant or vain.

  5. Was just rereading reading the book 'His Holiness" about JPII' and in one chapter it quoted a a flight attendant who said in so many words' He gets along with everyone and not like the other pope who was always standing on s pedastal' it stated earlier in paragraph she wss referring to Paul VI nine years earlier. My point is Not all popes are charismatic as JPII was, Paul VI was probably shy talking to women, not meaning to come off as arrogant, but perseverance so. Since he got rid of the tiara,maybe mistakingly so,or not, bUT he doesn't appear to be the arrogant type to me. RE:I thinkmost don't wanted the job as pope, but do best they can. He was under soo much pressure to deal with, inside and oUT of the Vatican, and I commend Him for writing g Human Vitae at such a turmultuous time in history. And very much angry at those priests and especially bishops in the West who were silent or encouraged the laity to ignore Humane Vitae and ' follow their own conscience'.


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