The Papacy of Blessed Paul VI


(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Paul VI’s life of heroic virtue will be recognized by the Church in his beatification Sunday at the Vatican.

While he is perhaps best known for his decisive 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth, Humanae Vitae, he will also be remembered as a man of prodigious gifts who was burdened by the cultural and ecclesial tumult the Church faced during his 15-year papacy.

Giovanni Battista Montini was born in the village of Concesio, Brescia, in northern Italy in 1897, the son of a lawyer who was active in lay Catholic circles. The future pope was ordained to the priesthood in 1920, but, because his diplomatic gifts were apparent at this young age, he spent virtually no time in parish work — devoting his entire career to the service of the Holy See in Rome, with one year as a Vatican diplomat in Poland.

He did some specialized pastoral work, however, in Rome, mainly as a chaplain to university students. Father Montini was strongly anti-Fascist during the Mussolini era, and his students were sometimes physically assaulted by Blackshirt gangs. During and after World War II (1939-45), he organized services for refugees.

During the papacy of  Pius XII (1939-58), Father Montini was a consummate diplomat and, although not even a bishop, was recognized as one of the most important men in the Vatican, holding the office of substitute secretary of state for ordinary affairs.

Montini had a warm relationship with Pius, who greatly valued his services. The pope, however, effectively excluded Father Montini as his successor by making him archbishop of Milan in 1954, neglecting to make him a cardinal. (The reasons for this are uncertain.)

Many thought Archbishop Montini worthy of the papal office in 1958, and when the elderly John XXIII was elected, it was often said — quite erroneously, as it turned out — that he would be only a “transitional” pope, meaning that he would occupy the papal throne for a short time until Archbishop Montini was ready. Pope John XXIII immediately made him a cardinal.

His nine years in Milan were Cardinal Montini’s only full-time period of pastoral work. He traveled extensively throughout his large diocese, comprised of more than 1,000 parishes, and he experimented with new kinds of evangelization. He participated in the first session of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1963) but said relatively little.

His election as Pope Paul VI in 1963 was thought of as almost a foregone conclusion — no one in modern times was better prepared to assume the papal office. It then became his responsibility to bring the Council to a conclusion and to oversee its implementation. He was considered a political “moderate” in an atmosphere of sharp polarization, a position he attempted to maintain throughout his papacy.

Having reportedly taken the name Paul to signify the Church’s mission to evangelize the whole world, he made nine overseas journeys, beginning with the Holy Land. He was the first pope to travel outside of Italy in 150 years and the first to visit all of the inhabited continents. Included in his list of papal trips was a one-day visit to New York City — marking another first, as no reigning pope had ever traveled to the United States.

Tragically, however, his pontificate would prove to be, in many ways, a long series of crises. Both “liberals” and “conservatives” in the Church considered him weak and indecisive, albeit for opposite reasons, and he was anguished to the point of once saying that “the smoke of Satan” had entered the Church.

A number of small groups calling themselves “traditionalists” questioned the Council’s authority, especially its decrees on liturgy, ecumenism and religious liberty. The most important of these was the Society of St. Pius X, founded by the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was suspended from office for ordaining priests and consecrating bishops without canonical authority.

It was an era of rapid change in the Church, and Paul VI quickly implemented many of them: the internationalization of the Italian-dominated Curia, the increase of the College of Cardinals from 70 to 120, the abolition of the Index of Forbidden Books, reform of the procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office), elimination of the monarchical trappings of the papacy, such as the triple tiara and the coronation ceremony,  and the establishment of permanent Vatican Secretariats for the Laity, the Family, Christian Unity, Non-Christians and Unbelievers.

Paul VI’s pontificate was a time of far-reaching new developments in the Church, which it was his task both to encourage and to moderate when necessary.

Pope St. John XXIII began the ecumenical initiative even before the Council, establishing the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. Paul VI continued that initiative, even though the Church had previously discouraged ecumenical activity.

Both John XXIII and Paul VI gave priority to relations with the Eastern Orthodox. Fifty years ago this year, Paul VI met formally with the ecumenical patriarch in the Holy Land, and mutual excommunications were officially rescinded.

In practical terms, the immediate effect of ecumenism was to alter Catholics’ and Protestants’ attitudes towards one another, as for the first time they were allowed and even encouraged to pray together. However, formal theological dialogue between Catholics and Protestants brought only limited results.

The Council proclaimed the Church’s acceptance of religious liberty and her coming to terms with the modern democratic state — although the full implications of this has remained unresolved.

By far, the gravest crises were caused by those who claimed to go beyond the Council. In the late 1960s, a worldwide cultural revolution mounted a frontal assault on all forms of authority. Rates of church attendance and religious vocations declined rapidly, and the newly popular idea of “dialogue” had the affect of seeming to leave all questions on dogma permanently open.

Paul VI was sympathetic to the “new theology” that had dominated the Council — the attempts to understand doctrine in ways other than traditional Thomism, a return to the Church’s scriptural and patristic roots, led by Henri De Lubac, Jean Danielou, Louis Bouyer, Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

However, he was persistently pressed by a second new theological approach, called “aggiornamento” (“updating”) — represented by Hans Küng — that took the demands of contemporary culture as its chief concern. It was in increasing tension with official doctrine.

The Council defined episcopal “collegiality” to mean that bishops were not simply agents of the Holy See but had apostolic authority in their own right, but Paul VI personally intervened to ensure that such authority respected papal infallibility. After the Council, he established the triennial Synod of Bishops as the principal means by which collegiality could be exercised.

Of all the changes wrought by the Council, none were more dramatic and far-reaching than those affecting the liturgy.

The conciliar decree on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, embodied a rich theology that had been developing for a century — speaking of it in mystical terms, as a foretaste of the New Jerusalem, a glimpse of heaven itself.

Vatican II did not mandate a change from Latin to the vernacular but decreed that such might be appropriate in some parts of the liturgy. Newer styles of music were encouraged, but Gregorian chant was still to have “pride of place.” However, both Latin and Gregorian chant all but disappeared after the Council. Mass was celebrated facing the people; many of the prayers of the “old Mass” were revised or dropped; permanent altars were often replaced by wooden tables; the Mass was “purified” of what were deemed unnecessary rituals; vernacular translations were not entirely faithful to the official Latin; and the Mass as a communal meal was emphasized over the Mass as a sacrifice.

Responsibility for implementing liturgical reform was given to the Italian Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, who justified unauthorized experimentation. After all the changes had been made, Paul VI indicated his displeasure with Archbishop Bugnini by in effect exiling him from Rome. Little was done, however, to reverse the changes.

In some ways, the most severe crisis of the post-conciliar period was experienced in priestly and religious life. For many priests and religious, renunciation of the world for the sake of the kingdom of God — celibacy especially — seemed burdensome. Many gave up their vocations, and many of those who remained were troubled. Religious discipline declined sharply, and there were fewer vocations during Paul VI’s papacy.

Moral theology in particular was in a state of crisis during Paul VI’s pontificate, especially as it affected marriage. During the Council, there was considerable agitation for the Church to accept some kinds of artificial contraception, and Paul VI intervened to take the issue off the Council floor, appointing a special commission to study it.

The very fact that the commission was called led many people to assume that Church authorities themselves were uncertain and the teaching was therefore about to change — an expectation that was confirmed when a majority of the commission recommended acceptance of contraception.

When Paul VI finally reaffirmed the traditional teaching in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), there was an explosive rebellion almost everywhere, and he became the target of sometimes vicious personal abuse.

He arguably seemed reluctant to mandate acceptance of the encyclical. Several national bishops’ conferences appeared to dissociate themselves from it, and when Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of Washington suspended a number of priests who had rejected it, he was required by the Holy See to reinstate them.

After Paul VI’s death, his former confessor said, “If he was not a saint before he became pope, he became one while in office,” citing the Holy Father’s many sufferings, which he had endured with “abandonment to divine Providence.”


James Hitchcock is a Church historian

and professor emeritus of history at

Saint Louis University.