The Torn Mantle of Paul VI

Pope Francis seems to think he has taken up the mantle of Pope Paul VI, who one writer has called “the first modern pope,” where Francis thinks his successors turned away from it.

By now, everyone understands (or should understand) that Pope Francis thinks of himself as implementing the agenda of Vatican II. The unstated but occasionally explicit theme of his speeches, letters, and remarks is that his predecessors failed to do so. And his actions, from Amoris Laetitia to Traditionis Custodes, have all aimed to move Catholic teaching past where it was in the 1960s. 

He consistently criticizes those who “oppose the council” for being nostalgic for the pre-Vatican II Church and for what he calls “backwardism.” Like many who appealed to the “Spirit of the Council” to justify radical departures from Church teaching, Francis seems to divide Church history into two periods: that before the Council, and what comes after. 

Though Catholics who grew up under the pontificate of John Paul II might find this rhetoric unsettling, it did not originate with Pope Francis. As some have noted, Francis’ remarks about the novelty of the council and its irrevocable changes are almost identical to another of his predecessors, St. Paul VI. Francis seems to think he has taken up the mantle of what one writer has called “the first modern pope,” where he thinks his successors have turned away from it. Understanding Paul VI can help us make sense of what otherwise seems inexplicable in the reign of Francis. A recently translated biography by the French scholar Yves Chiron, Paul VI: The Divided Pope, gives witness to this.

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Giovanni Battista Montini was the son of a local politician in Brescia, and his father’s connections helped him advance his career throughout his life. Pious and devout, he was indebted to his mother for his piety. Later, as a priest, then as a bishop and pope, he would become skeptical about excessive Marian devotion and express contempt for popular forms of piety. At an early age, he began visiting Benedictine monasteries and became enamored with the simplicity of the monastic liturgy as he understood it. He would become a supporter later on of the Abbey of St. Anselmo in Rome, which today houses a liturgical institute that is the major center for progressive liturgical thinking in Italy. (Many of the leading lights behind the move to ban the old Latin liturgy, most notably Andrea Grillo, are associated with St. Anselmo.) 

Montini shared his father’s affinity for democratic politics. Montini was on familiar terms with virtually every major Christian Democratic figure in postwar Italy, including Gasperi and Aldo Moro, both future prime ministers. He came of age during the two World Wars, when Communism and Fascism clashed on the streets of Rome. Mussolini’s Fascist rule must have reinforced Montini’s support for democratic politics, as well as for his sympathies for “progressive” social causes. 

His most memorable foray into politics came in 1943 when, now a bureaucrat in the curia, he secretly met with the opposition to Mussolini to have him deposed by the king of Italy. This experienceopposing forces of political and cultural reactionmust have been formative for many a progressive Churchman of Montini’s generation and those that followed.

When Montini became bishop of Milan in 1955, he was able to put into practice his vision for the priesthood as a “sort of apostolic relativism,” a nod to St. Paul’s boast that he became all things to all men to spread the Gospel. In Paul VI’s view, “the priesthood is a social service. The priest exists for others.” As bishop, he reached out to those alienated from the Church, especially working-class Milanese, while maintaining ties with progressive theologians such as Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac. He also forged ties with Protestant clergy, such as those of the community of Taizé, and received Anglican dignitaries. 

Montini believed that the Church as an institution needed to adapt “to the spiritual needs of our era,” “reform” them, and “modernize” them, to reach a secularizing society. These efforts were punctuated by a grand diocesan mission, in which the clergy of Milan and elsewhere in northern Italy were requisitioned to preach not only in churches but in factories, schools, and other public spaces. Montini admonished his priests “to favor ‘goodness’ over ‘polemic’…attack no one; instead, let everyone be invited, informed, almost called and awaited.” To attract Milanese to the Mass, a pamphlet was distributed explaining its meaning, and a Sunday evening Mass was authorized. 

All these efforts to “go to the peripheries” came to nought. Mass attendance continued to decline in Milan, as did vocations. When Montini came to Milan, there were eighty-nine seminarians in the diocese; by 1960, there were only thirteen. Perhaps nothing could have stopped the secularization that was looming over Europe, but at that date it was not so obvious perhaps; and soon another chance would present itself for the future pope to try out his ideas.

Pius XII never made him a cardinal, seemingly because he (or the conservative element in the curia) did not want him to become pope. But John XXIII succeeded him in 1958 and made Montini a cardinal in 1962. 

According to Chiron, he voiced his opinions about “updating” the Church in some of the preparatory work done before Vatican II, including an impassioned plea to introduce the vernacular into the liturgy. But neither he nor anyone else apparently proposed to rewrite the Mass itself. (He had, however, as bishop of Milan, called for the Church to cast off “that old royal cloak resting upon her sovereign shoulders to dress herself in the simpler clothes that modern taste demands.”) 

Chiron depicts a man shy of imposing his views but who worked behind the scenes to achieve his aims. He joined progressive European cardinals to convince John XXIII to remake the commissions responsible for drafting the conciliar documents, ensuring their allies dominated the new commissions. He also helped convince John XXIII to throw out the preconciliar drafts already prepared and replace them with new ones, created by the new commissions. 

Prior to the conclave that elected him, he met in Rome in 1963 with the heads of the major European bishops’ conferences, most of whom were “progressives.” According to Jean Guitton, his close friend, Montini knew “from the age of fifteen or twenty…that one day he would become pope.” He was duly elected in 1963. 

Chiron quotes one observer as stating that there was “the underlying sentiment that the Church was likely headed towards a crisis which the Council had created, so that it needed a regulator with whom all sides could associate in order to broker a resolution.” They saw him, and Paul VI saw himself, as the one man who could reconcile the opposed tendencies emerging during the council. 

And Paul VI did try: he retained two critics, Cardinals Siri and Ottaviani in office, despite their vast differences in outlook. One gets the impression, however, he did so primarily out of a sense of loyalty to the Church, rather than conviction. His real instincts were to make a break with the Church’s immediate past and proclaim that it would embrace democracy, pluralism, openness—demonstrating the Church’s solidarity with those modern elements of society that seemed most impervious to her message.

Paul VI demonstrated this in numerous ways that his successors, and not only Francis, have echoed. His encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (1964) enshrined “dialogue” as the Church’s primary mode of engaging with the world. Paul VI began the papal habit of making photo-op “gestures” to indicate the papacy’s willingness to shed its wealth and privileges: in 1964, he gifted his tiara to the “poor of the world.” He projected his tolerance for other religious faiths while visiting India, citing Hindu texts in his homily. All of his successors have performed similar acts in this regard.

Many Catholics have been upset at the way Pope Francis has contradicted the teaching of his immediate predecessors. But as Chiron notes, Paul VI was the first pope to do this openly and obviously. In speeches after his election, he proclaimed religious freedom to be a teaching of the Church (in line with Dignitatis Humanae, of course), and he later published an apostolic letter which suggested that socialism was compatible with the Christian faith, contradicting numerous, earlier papal encyclicals on both points. 

His desire to break with the past was perhaps most clearly evident in the liturgical reform which he oversaw. Paul VI pursued the reform of the liturgy with uncharacteristic firmness. Chiron points out that he oversaw every text personally, making annotations and suggestions to Annibale Bugnini, the secretary to the Concilium. Paul VI was hostile to criticism of the new Mass, ascribing to those who opposed the “new scheme of things” a “poor understanding” of the liturgy and “spiritual laziness.” 

Despite the opposition of the Roman Synod of Bishops, the majority of whom were dissatisfied with the celebration of the new Mass they experienced in 1967, few changes were made to the new missal. When theologians issued their Brief Critical Study of the New Mass in 1969, on the eve of the new missal’s promulgation, Paul largely ignored their concerns, seemingly agreeing with Cardinal Seper that it was “superficial, exaggerated, inaccurate, biased.” For Paul VI, his reform could only be “Christ’s will…the breath of the Holy Spirit that calls the Church to make this change.” Only the pope and his “authoritative experts of Sacred Liturgy” could discern the will of God on this matter.

It was only when this conflict between his desire for innovation and his loyalty to the Church became acute, as with Humanae Vitae, that Paul VI reigned in his instincts in favor of the institution. A story told by the late moral theologian, John Ford, S.J., (but not recounted by Chiron), illustrates this. Given an audience with Paul VI in which he tried to persuade him not to alter the Church’s teaching on contraception, Ford asked him, “are you ready to say that Casti Connubii can be changed? Paul came alive and spoke with vehemence: ‘No!’ he said. He reacted exactly as though I was calling him a traitor to his Catholic belief.” It was this sense of loyalty to his predecessors that prevented Paul VI from giving into progressive critics on this issue. 

Paul VI genuinely did not want to upend Church teaching. But he took John XXIII’s admonition that the teaching of the Church was one thing and its presentation another as an article of faith. Paul VI believed that by altering the Church’s “presentation” of itself but not its formally defined doctrines, the modern world would be more receptive to its message. Instead, the signal that both the secular world but also many Catholics received was that the Church was abandoning those doctrines most out of step with the times. As any teacher could tell you, the way you present something to your students is just as important as what you are attempting to communicate. They are inseparable, in fact; something papa Montini seemingly never grasped.

He was, indeed, as Chiron’s subtitle states, a “divided pope,” torn between loyalty to the Church’s past and the desire to make it compatible with the modern society he cherished. He is often described as a tragic figure, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the tragedy was his refusal to acknowledge that his own actions, however well-intentioned, were an important cause of the crises that erupted during his pontificate. 

The Church’s authority rests upon its connection to the distant past. And, until now, his successors have experienced the same sense of division that bedeviled Paul VI. Many adherents to the mantle of Paul VI today, however, including Pope Francis, have no such compunctions. Instead, they want to “finish the job” that Paul VI started and break that connection once and for all. They are wrong, of course; but they are right about one thing. The Church cannot fully retain its heritage and fully adapt itself to contemporary society at the same time. At some point, it must choose one over the otherno one can serve two masters


  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor earned his PhD in History from the University of Kansas. He lives in Central Florida and teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. He also produces a podcast, Controversies in Church History, dealing with controversial episodes in the history of the Catholic Church.

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