Following the beatification of Pope Paul VI, we reprint this editorial on his life and legacy that originally appeared in America on Aug. 19, 1978.
Each pope in the history of the church has brought to the special challenges of his era his own special gifts of intellect and spirit. The historical character of his tenure in the chair of Peter is then determined in the dialectic of the person and the time. In many instances, the institution of the papacy itself has been redefined, subtly or radically, as a result. This recurrent interplay of individual, institution and historical moment was never, in the history of the modern papacy, more forcefully and dramatically at work than during the papacy of Paul VI.
Has any pope reigned over a more volatile age than Giovanni Battista Montini?
On June 21, 1963, when the then Archbishop of Milan was elected by the College of Cardinals to head the Roman Catholic Church as the Bishop of Rome, few realized the convulsions that would wrench both church and world in the next decade. In less than five years, John XXIII had humanized the papacy and launched an ecumenical council that captured the imaginations and raised the hopes of many outside the Roman Catholic Church, as well as within. The public ordeal of John’s final passion and death had evoked an extraordinary wave of affection toward the man and, inevitably, sympathy for his church. The process of aggiornamento—bringing the church up to date, opening its windows and transforming its face—promised a newer, more vital and more positive relationship between the church and the modern world. And that world, though surely not without its dangers, seemed an inviting place; its memories and its fears of war were for the moment dimmed, its economy steadily expanding in the industrialized nations, its confidence in itself and its own rationality typified by the attractive American, also named John, who brought to the White House and the leadership of the Western world the buoyancy of hope.
Yet, only a few months later, the young president of the United States was murdered, the first in a series of political assassinations that would be succeeded by an epidemic of terrorism that mocked the rationality of the political process. A distant struggle in Vietnam became a global preoccupation, and the proclaimed end of colonialism seemed illusory when the realities of world poverty were faced. In a time, then, of pervasive social change, in a time of violence and protest, Paul VI was asked to lead his church through the final sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and into the years that followed, when it would be his responsibility to implement the reforms that embodied the principal theme of the council: the church in the modern world.
The council document that dealt most explicitly with this central theme began with the words “joy and hope,” but that joy and hope could never be unthinking or uncritical. The church was being called to express its solidarity with the world, but never its conformity to the world. The church would change and yet remain itself. The Gospel would be incarnated in different cultures and in different times, but it would always be the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Throughout his papacy, Paul VI was caught at the center of these tensions that are the very nerves of Christian faith. Inevitably, he would be criticized by those tugged more by one current than another. Unfairly, he would be characterized as ambivalent and indecisive by those less sensitive to, or even oblivious of, the paradoxes of the Incarnation.
During the sessions of the council and in the years immediately following, Paul VI overcame the resistance of reactionaries and implemented the reforms established by the council in the areas of liturgy, church governance and the attitudes of Catholics toward other religions. Liturgical reform was not always and in all places executed with the greatest grace, but it was clear as the years moved on that Catholic spirituality was being enriched by a greater sense of Word and Sacrament. The Italian dominance of Vatican bureaucracy was tempered by the presence of more cardinals and bishops from the international church. To pursue the council’s accent on episcopal collegiality, national conferences of bishops were established, and Paul VI would preside over five synods of bishops from around the world. The pope’s highly personal encounters with other religious leaders dramatized a new openness of the Roman Catholic Church to other faiths.
But the most important of Paul’s achievements as he sought to extend the inspiration of the council to an increasingly troubled world was his campaign for world justice and peace. It was a campaign waged by personal witness as well as by written document. He broke all precedent by traveling to distant parts of the world to urge his message of human rights and human development. He listened to the voices and saw the faces of the forgotten poor of the world in places like Calcutta and Manila and Medellin. And he urged his message on the most powerful leaders of the world, traveling to the great halls of the United Nations to issue his plea that there would be “never again war.” In his 1967 encyclical, “The Development of Peoples” (“Populorum Progressio”), he employed modern methods of social and economic analysis to underscore the injustice of a world where material resources were so unevenly distributed that they failed to serve the purpose of human development. It was a message that disturbed many in the wealthy nations of the world, but its ring of truth still echoes 11 years later as the debate over a new world economic order continues. As the wealthier nations begin to take that debate more seriously, whether they realize it or not, they are at last responding to the message of Paul VI.
It was another encyclical, however, that proved to be the most controversial of Paul’s tenure. In 1968, he rejected the majority report of a special commission appointed to study the question of Catholic teaching on artificial contraception and, in the encyclical “Of Human Life” (“Humanae Vitae”), the pope condemned the use of any artificial contraceptive, a prohibition that provoked widespread dissent and disaffection among Catholics. The pope lived just long enough to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this famous document, and he reaffirmed its content on that occasion and expressed his appreciation for those who continued to uphold its teaching.
Some of those supporters point today to the phenomena of permissive abortion, homosexual campaigns and widespread promiscuity and insist that these are the inevitable consequences of an acceptance of artificial methods of contraception. In certain quarters, acceptance of the encyclical’s teaching on this particular point is even proposed as the litmus test of Catholic orthodoxy, something that the encyclical’s author, Paul VI, consistently refused to do. But 10 years is too short a time to assess the ultimate impact of “Humanae Vitae” on church and world. The encyclical’s condemnation of the “contraceptive mentality” does have prophetic echoes at a time of popular disregard of the deeply human linkage of sexuality and family life. Yet many thoughtful theologians and committed Christians continue to believe that the “contraceptive mentality” cannot be defined in simply biological terms. In other words, the Christian meaning of sexuality as both love-giving and life-giving is not contradicted because every act of conjugal love is not open to the possibility of conception, and family bonds and conjugal intimacy can even be supported at times by a more deliberate control of these possibilities.
Precisely because marital fidelity and family responsibilities are so often ignored and even derided among those who most influence our popular culture, it is regrettable that the controversy over methods of contraception has obscured the real advances made in “Humanae Vitae” in presenting a personalist understanding of Catholic sexual ethics. Whatever differences may exist on the question of contraceptive methods, a compelling vision of the relationship of sexuality, marriage and family can be developed from the encyclical, and it is a vision desperately needed by an eroticized culture that has come to accept the dehumanization of sex.
It is also unfortunate that the argument over contraceptive methods has obscured the significant differences in the pastoral approach adopted by Paul VI toward the crisis of modern marriage. The abstract strictures of the past were replaced by an attitude of compassion, sympathy and greater respect for the individual conscience. These differences in style have encouraged the development of a more mature Catholic moral conscience and a clearer concept of the role of the church and the pope as a moral teacher. A new understanding of the relation of moral authority and personal conscience may, in time, prove to be the most significant legacy of “Humanae Vitae.”
In the final years of his life, Paul VI often spoke of the burdens of age and the imminence of death. Yet these shadows did not paralyze his spirit or cause him to shrink from the challenges of a dangerous world. He condemned the increasing violence of the age and sought repeatedly to strike a responsive chord in the moral conscience of his contemporaries. He was saddened by the contempt for human life that seems to characterize our time, and his sadness was sharpened because he saw the possibilities of human life transfigured by the glory of the risen Jesus. There was an ironic beauty, then, to the timing of his death. Paul VI, who had waged so valiant a campaign for a world of justice and peace, died on August 6, the day on which the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, and an age began when the capacity to darken all life assumed awesome proportions. Yet August 6 is also the feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus, and the terrible searing flash of Hiroshima is in the end overcome by the light of the glorified Lord. After 80 years of pilgrimage, Paul VI found his own transfiguration in that Light.