Pope Paul VI will be beatified Sunday at the Vatican.
While he is perhaps best known for his decisive 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth, , he will also be remembered as a man of extraordinary gifts who was burdened by the tumult the Church faced during his 15-year papacy.
His election as Pope Paul VI in 1963 required of him to bring the Second Vatican Council to a conclusion and oversee its implementation. Having 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.
Unhappily his pontificate was marked by a series of crises. Both heterodox and traditionalist Catholics considered him feeble and vacillating, though for differing reasons, and he was tormented to the point of once saying that “the smoke of Satan” had entered the Church. It was this phrase which caught my attention to the point of research for a book on the Church in the U.S. since Vatican II.
As the story unfolds in the book, a number of traditionalists questioned Vatican II’s authority, especially its decrees on liturgy, ecumenism and religious liberty, prominent among them the , founded by the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was suspended from office for ordaining priests and consecrating bishops without canonical authority.
It was a time of swift change in the Church, and Paul VI was to oversee the internationalization of the Curia, an increase in size of the College of Cardinals, the elimination of the Index of Forbidden Books, reform of the procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, eradication of frills of 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 continued Pope St. John XXIII’s ecumenical initiative, establishing the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.Vatican II also declared 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.
The crux of my book centers on the gravest crises of Paul’s papacy, caused by those who were set on going beyond the Council documents. In the late 1960s, a global cultural revolution mounted an assault on all forms of authority. Paul VI was sympathetic to the nouvelle theologie that ruled the Council — ressourcement, 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 “” (“updating”) — represented by Hans Küng — that took the demands of modern culture as its principal issue.
The Council defined episcopal “collegiality” such that bishops had apostolic authority in their own right, but Paul VI’s intervention guaranteed that such authority respected papal infallibility. Of all the changes wrought by the Council, none were more dramatic and far-reaching than those affecting the liturgy, as I Take up in my fourth chapter. The exemplified a theology that had been emerging for a century — speaking of the Liturgy it in mystical terms, as a foretaste of the New Jerusalem, as a glimpse of heaven itself.
As is not well-known by all Catholics, Vatican II did not mandate a change from Latin to the vernacular. The Council decreed that this 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, as we know, for reasons I discuss at length, 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 eliminated; permanent altars were often replaced by wooden tables, as 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 vindicated unlawful experimentation. After all the changes had been made, Paul VI indicated his displeasure with Archbishop Bugnini by in effect exiling him from Rome. Sadly, little was done to roll back the changes.
In some ways, the most severe crisis of faith in following the Council was experienced in priestly and religious life. For many priests and religious, renunciation of the world for the sake of the kingdom of God seemed oppressive. Thus many gave up their vocations, and many of those who remained were distressed. Religious discipline declined sharply, and vocations waned.
Moral theology also underwent a state of crisis during Paul VI’s pontificate. During the Council, there was substantial agitation for the Church to allow some kinds of artificial contraception, and Paul VI intervened to take the issue off the Council floor, appointing a special commission to study it.
As recounted in The Smoke of Satan in the Temple of God, the very fact that the commission was called caused many to assume that Church authorities themselves were ambiguous, and traditional teaching was therefore likely to change — an expectation that was confirmed when a majority of the commission recommended acceptance of contraception.
I was then that the Holy Spirit came to the Holy Father’s assistance, as Paul VI reaffirmed traditional teaching in his 1968 encyclical earing an exodus from the Church, he appeared loath to mandate acceptance of his 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 the Pope’s death, his former confessor eulogized, “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.” After years of research into the papacy of Baptista Montini, I wholeheatedly agree, and await with hope coverage of the event.