50 years ago: Pope Paul VI’s election

June 20, 2013
Source: District of the USA

50 years ago Pope Paul VI was elected Supreme Pontiff, and thus a pontificate fraught with indecisiveness reminiscent of the Shakespearean character, Hamlet—so where's the heroic virtue required for beatification?

On June 20th, it will be 50 years since the Conclave elected Cardinal Montini to succeed John XXIII. Without holding a supreme judgment known to God alone, it is good to return to this key historical figure who fashioned much of 20th century Catholic Church.

Is Paul VI to be beatified soon?

As rumors have it, Francis has recognized the decree that affirms the “heroic virtue” practiced by Pope Paul VI, a step in the canonization process. Most likely, “Paul VI will be beatified in 2013 at the end of the Year of Faith,” wrote La Stampa journalist Andrea Tornielli adding that, just like with John Paul II, Francis “has closely followed the steps that have led to today's decree.”

The process of Paul VI’s canonization in fact had been already at work in 1992. His “devil’s advocate”, Msgr. Luigi Misto, was in full sympathy with the cause, which would be a first timer for a beatification [the purpose of a “devil’s advocate” is to oppose the proposal for beatification and thus find evidence to support his opposition, hence ensure an objective investigation]. Yet, at that time, the cause was temporarily dropped, perhaps thanks to evidence given by Fr. Luigi Villa in his book Paul VI… beatified? A few weeks after the passing of Fr. Villa (end of 2012), it seems as if the road to sainthood is open again.

The fall and rise of Giovanni Batista Montini

After he had worked for decades at the Secretary of State office, Monsignor Montini seems to have been pushed aside by Pius XII who refused to receive him further for a private audience, while “promoting” him to the famous diocese of Milan, but unexpectedly withholding from him the red hat. No sooner had Roncalli been elected pope with the name of “John XXIII”, than he immediately raised Montini to the cardinalate. He was generally seen as Pope John's heir apparent, a fact acknowledged by John himself, though he jokingly used to tease Montini as being “Our Hamlet” on account of Montini's alleged indecisiveness. Montini was an enthusiastic supporter of Pope John's decision to convoke the Second Vatican Council. When John died of cancer in 1963, Montini was finally elected to the papacy, and when he took the name “Paul VI”.

He brought the Second Vatican Council to completion in 1965 and directed the implementation of its directives until his death in 1978. He was also the last pope to be crowned, though he donated his own papal tiara to the Basilica of National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC. In 1965 he established the Synod of Bishops (the de facto “steam roller” of Tradition), but controversially withdrew two issues from its authority:

  1. priestly celibacy and
  2. the issue of artificial contraception, both becoming the subject of controversial encyclicals.

A liberal pope under the guise of Hamlet

Pope Paul VI became the first pope to visit all five continents, and until the election of Pope John Paul II, was the most travelled pope in history, earning the nickname of the “Pilgrim Pope”.

It is noteworthy that those who praise the pontificate of Pope Paul VI see his ‘mistakes’ simply as the Hamlet side of his personality. He seemed paralyzed in dealing with the Dutch catechism scandal, as well as some US prelates. In the controversy about the contraceptives, Pope Paul VI, acting in solo against his friends’ advice, produced the momentous encyclical Humanæ Vitae against the pill. But the experience had been excruciating: two years of indecision and his moral paralysis to go against his entourage revealed that he was not capable to lead the Church against a world quickly going mad. It was noteworthy that after Humanæ Vitae in 1968 he issued no further encyclicals for the rest of his reign. At one point, Paul even said that he understood why St. Peter went back to Rome—to be crucified.

Pope Paul presided over a Church in transition from the pre- to the post-Vatican II eras. That transition witnessed a revolutionary revision of the Roman Catholic liturgy, a changing priesthood (marked by a wave of priests leaving the priesthood via the easier method provided by Pope Paul), a changing world with the crisis of authority and the liberation of taboos. Yet, it may be more accurately said that the pope was, more than a complacent witness, an active promoter of the changes which were best described by Sr. Lucy of Fatima as “a diabolical disorientation.” It is obviously difficult to assess the guilt and responsibility of the men in charge of the destiny of the world, but one thing is clear in all this: the pope was far more decisive concerning the case of Archbishop Lefebvre and the traditional movement at large.

Archbishop Lefebvre studied Pope Paul VI’s strange behavior and concluded:[1]

The real solution… is given us by a friend of Paul VI, Cardinal Danielou. In his Memoirs, published by a member of his family, the cardinal clearly states, 'It is clear that Paul VI is a liberal pope.' Paul VI repeated the exact words of Lammenais at the end of the Council: 'L’Eglise ne demande que la liberte'—the Church only seeks freedom—a doctrine condemned by Gregory XVI and Pius IX. This explains the historic evolution experienced by the Church over the last few decades, and it describes Paul VI’s personal behavior very well. The liberal, as I have told you, is a man who lives in constant contradiction. He states the principles, and does the opposite; he is perpetually incoherent."

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