The Enigma of Pope Paul VI


Forty years ago the regime of Giovanni Battista Montini, Pope Paul VI, began to reveal itself. Mythology had it that he was a good man who lost control, and that the disaster was caused by everything except his mistakes and pusillanimity. Msgr. F. D. Cohalan, a noted New York churchman and historian, contended there was a little more to it than that, and took a factual approach in this matchless piece, written under a pen name for National Review back in 1969.

THE contemporary challenge to authority in the Catholic Church has received so much attention from the press that little space has been given to the reaction of authority to the challenge. Practically no one asks publicly what the Pope is doing about the evils he deplores and to what extent he is responsible for them because of his refusal to act instead of just talking against them. Yet, as we see so clearly in the American universities today, the reaction to a challenge is often more important than the challenge itself. History is full of examples of regimes overthrown less through the virtue or wisdom or strength of their opponents, than through their own inept and pusillanimous defense of their position. It is hard to believe Charles I, Louis XVI and Nicholas II had to end up just as they did.

What we are witnessing in the Church today is the disintegration of the central administrative authority —and this is not because of the strength of the attack but because of the weakness of the defense. Hitler’s comment on the Czech border defenses—that the strength of the concrete mattered little when the will to resist was so weak—comes to mind. We all know that though the constitutional and legal powers of the American President remain substantially the same, each Presidency differs markedly from the others. This is so not only because no two Presidents meet exactly the same problems but because each has his own style, personality, temperament, character, etc. The same is true of pontificates and popes.

No one doubts there would be plenty of serious problems no matter who was pope. This is especially true in the wake of the Council and while the necessary and difficult task of decentralizing Church government is in process. Still, it is not the problems but the way they are handled that distinguishes one reign from another. No one ever had any trouble telling Leo XIII from Pius IX or John XXIII from Pius XII. What distinguishes Paul VI from all his predecessors is his refusal to act against any individual, no matter how grave the provocation. He contents himself with deploring the error or misconduct, sometimes tearfully, and is always careful to attribute only high motives to all the erring, whom he never identifies. He seems to feel he has discharged his obligation to defend the truth and his own position when he has done that much. When he praises the motives of high-ranking prelates who openly attack his authority he resembles President Perkins of Cornell smiling gamely through a confrontation with SDS and the black militants.

When Cardinal O’Boyle returned from the Consistory of 1967 with his hat, he preached on the current disorders in the Church and the distress they were causing the Pope. He stated that since his election on June 21, 1963, the Pope had not censured or punished any individual. As far as I know this is still true with one exception—the Belgian abbot of a monastery in Mexico who was removed for making psychoanalytical treatment mandatory for his monks and who, according to press reports, promptly left the Church and started a nonsectarian religious community.

Sensitive to Criticism

The objective causes of this state of affairs are mainly as follows. The Pope is trying hard to make the Church more acceptable to the non- Catholic world, whether Christian, non-Christian or anti-Christian. He is accentuating all points of agreement or mutual interest. As far as he can do so without altering fundamental Catholic doctrine or undermining his own position, he is willing to eliminate or tone down anything in Catholic doctrine or practice that repels or irritates that world. At the same time he wants to regain or retain the allegiance of many ordinary, nominal Catholics who in one way or another find the yoke of active membership too heavy.

Hence much of his stress on ecumenism, the Secretariat for Non-Believers, the campaign for peace and against poverty, the abolition of practically all fasting and abstinence, the abolition of papal ties to the Roman nobility from which nothing more is to be expected by the Holy See, the constant flattery of the common people in whom political power is seen or thought to rest, and many other facets of his plan to give the Church a new image.

In his speech in St. Peter’s on April 2, 1969 (quoted in the English edition of the Osservatore Romano, April 10) he said: “It has been rightly pointed out that a wave of sincerity and optimism has spread through the Church and the world from the Council: a consoling and positive Christianity acceptable and amiable, a Christianity friendly to life, to men, even to earthly values, to our society, to our history. We might almost see in the Council the intention to make Christianity free from all medieval rigorism and from any pessimistic interpretations regarding men, their customs, their transformations, their exigencies.” He then adds immediately and characteristically: “This is true, but let us be careful. The Council did not forget that the Cross is at the center of Christianity.”

Subjectively, Pope Paul’s attitude is rooted in his temperament. He is an intelligent, sensitive, introspective, high-minded, patient and well-trained man. He is also well-informed, austere, modest, industrious, timid and indecisive. He shrinks from making irrevocable decisions and, like most who do, finds it easier to say yes than no. His vacillation comes from a reluctance to accept responsibility. Like many professional diplomats he thinks he can attain almost any goal by patient negotiation and flexibility. He spent thirty years in close association with two particularly forceful superiors, Pius XI and Pius XII. In that time he neither made nor executed policy. His role was to transmit orders and decisions, for which others bore the responsibility. Now that responsibility is his, and he finds it almost too heavy to bear. He is a fine example of the excellent second who is over his head as number one. Tacitus describes him in his famous comment on Galba: “He seemed greater than a subject while he was yet in a subject’s rank, and by common consent would have been pronounced worthy of the crown if he had never reigned.” Paul VI is intensely sensitive to criticism; since most of the public criticism comes from liberals he makes strenuous efforts to placate them. Moreover, he is afraid of being disobeyed.

Every pope’s task is to rule, teach and sanctify the Universal Church, in that order. Few will heed his teaching if he is unable to enforce it and keep order in the Church. If he cannot rule or teach effectively his contribution to sanctification will be minimal. It is a tragedy for Paul VI and the Church that he is placed where his chief weakness—a congenital incapacity to govern—is so evident and so important. His admirable intentions are not enough. As Pius XI said in another connection, “piety does not allow us to dispense with technique.” It is obvious that he finds his role as ruler uncongenial, and that, like Adlai Stevenson, he is uncomfortable with authority. He rarely gives an order. He is always exhorting, entreating and recommending, but that is all. When he teaches with supreme authority as in his Creed and in the Encyclical Humanae Vitae he never orders his teaching to be accepted but merely recommends it. There are no penalties for disobeying it or even for repudiating it publicly.

Uncorrected and Unpunished

We could hardly find a clearer example of the Pope’s refusal to act firmly and openly against dissidents than the one provided by the NY Times Magazine (May 11, 1969) in the article on Father Hesburgh of Notre Dame. It states that the Pope has received from Father Hesburgh serious charges against two priests teaching theology at Notre Dame. One of them attacks the doctrine of the Resurrection and the other the papal teaching on birth control. The first is a basic Catholic teaching expressly restated in the Creed of Pope Paul VI (April 30, 1968). The other attacks the authority and competence of the Encyclical Humane Vitae in which the Pope expressly states that he is teaching with the authority conferred on his office by Christ. Yet, nothing is done and the article suggests that Father Hesburgh deals directly with the Pope, bypassing the regular channels, because he knows that is the way to make sure that nothing is done.

There are other instances, e.g. the claim of the Theology faculty at the Catholic University of America that academic freedom allows them to attack, in a pontifical university, the formal public teaching of the Holy See in matters of faith and morals. The editors of America, who took such a lofty stand when National Review criticized Mater et Magistra, have openly criticized Humanae Vitae. The point is not that criticisms are made but that they go uncorrected and unpunished. No wonder the ordinary people are bewildered and that their uncertainty as to what the Church really teaches leads many to doubt all her teaching.

Marriage and the Clergy

The wave of serenity and optimism from the Council to which the Pope referred is not evident now either in the priesthood or in the religious orders, and once again his own role is pivotal. He has stated repeatedly that the existing law on celibacy for the clergy of the Latin Church will never be relaxed. Very recently he asked the various Episcopal conferences of the world to reaffirm their support of that teaching. If he intends to retain it, why does he allow it to be discussed endlessly as an open question in the official Catholic press? He personally made the decision to relax the ancient discipline and make it very easy for priests to marry. By so doing he has substantially devalued the vow of celibacy. By that and by tolerating the endless discussion of celibacy he has unsettled and confused large numbers of the younger priests and seminarians. Moreover, by making clerical marriage both easy and respectable he has served notice that the clergy are fair game for husband hunters. Recently released statistics indicate that the number of applications for release from celibacy have increased over 1,000 per cent since the election of Paul VI, and that the rate is increasing steadily. It is hard to believe he neither foresaw nor intended the consequences of his decision, though he may not have foreseen that it would spread to bishops and to his own entourage.

With the exception of the more extravagant innovations in the liturgy, no developments under Paul VI have surprised ordinary people as much as the changes in the religious orders. The speed and extent of the collapse would have been incredible in 1962. In all his speeches on the reform of the orders, the Pope has stressed the necessity of preserving the basic principles of each congregation and the spirit of its founder. Once again there is the gap between precept and practice. He has released such a torrent of dispensations, exemptions and permissions that many sober observers wonder if the religious order will last another twenty years. The flight from the cloister, which in this country led to the 1969 Catholic Directory listing nine thousand fewer sisters than the 1968 volume, would be serious enough but would leave the institution intact. Now the institution itself, in every form the Church has known since the third century, is under attack from within. The stricter orders have suffered most. The spectacular collapse of discipline among the Jesuits has done them more damage than all the attacks from within and above. No one supposes Paul VI approves of all these changes but no one expects him to do anything about them.

Settling Things

One of the major causes of the success of the Reformation was the administrative chaos in the Church. It has often been said that the smoothly functioning, highly centralized system of the past century would make it impossible for anything remotely resembling the Reformation to occur now. But no system can help if the man on top is unable or unwilling to put it in motion.

There is a striking parallel between the attitude of the liberals in the American universities and the present situation in the Church. All the blame is assumed by the institution. All guilt and blame are removed from the dissidents and wreckers, there is a wallowing in self-reproach and in protestations of moral inferiority to those who reject or wish to change or wreck the status quo, and there is a general attitude of universal, indiscriminate, spineless—and often mindless— benevolence. There is above all a failure to stress and act upon the basic principles that mature human beings are accountable for their conduct and that their freedom to act or not to act brings no immunity from the consequences of their free choice. In the academic world as in the Church, weakness masquerades as compassion. Unfortunately, in the administrative order weakness often does more harm than vice does.

In these circumstances the liberal attacks on Paul VI are ungenerous and unjust. There never will be a pope who has tried so hard to please them and who so sincerely shares so many of their beliefs. Like so many of them he believes in law without sanctions, a policy most Catholics reserve for the Church Triumphant and the Millennarians for the reign of the saints. It is strange how few, who criticize Pius XI and Pius XII for not stopping Hitler, ask what Paul VI would have done. Fortunately we will never know. The thirtieth anniversary of Pius XI’s denunciation of Hitler, in the composition of which Pius XII played an active role, passed unnoticed by the Catholic press. No one could imagine such a document being issued.

The Pope himself has defined the crisis in the Church as one of faith and of authority. In his speech to the cardinals on June 23, he described two current problems as being of greater import than all others. These are a diminished sense of doctrinal orthodoxy and a certain diffuse lack of confidence in the exercise of the hierarchical ministry. They are closely linked. If it is true that those who have real trouble with faith can easily reject authority, it is equally true that those who find the voice of authority an uncertain trumpet may easily develop trouble with the faith. It is important to keep in mind that there is nothing new in the present attacks on the faith. The Catholic teaching of the Eucharist, the sacraments, the veneration of the saints, original sin, the authority of the Hole See, the celibacy of the clergy, etc. has been attacked for centuries by those outside the Church. When people inside it began to advance such views they generally went out of their own accord or were put out. What is different now is that people in good standing in the Church attack her fundamental doctrines with impunity. The Holy See will do nothing.

Paul VI is well aware of the difference between himself and his predecessors and is confident that he has chosen the correct path. He has convinced himself that he is not obligated to interfere, and that for high religious motives. On December 7, 1968, he addressed the students of the Lombard College in Rome and said in part: “The Church finds herself in an hour of disquiet, of self-criticism, one might even say of self-destruction. It is like an acute complex interior upheaval that no one expected after the Council….” This sad fact has become most notable: The Church is wounding herself. Many expect from the Pope dramatic gestures, energetic and decisive interventions. The Pope does not deem that he should follow any line but that of confidence in Jesus Christ, to whom he has entrusted his Church more than to anyone else. “It is for Him to calm the tempest.” Again on June 23, 1969, in speaking to the cardinals in Rome he said, in reference to the attacks on papal authority:

“It would be easy and perhaps even obligatory for us to rectify certain assertions relative to those dense and clamorous objections, but we believe the good People of God, being informed of the true state of matters and enlightened by that wisdom that proceeds from charity, can easily do this for itself.” On February 17, 1969, he addressed the Lenten Preachers of Rome and said in part: “Notice please, dear friends, how the style of our ecclesiastical government aims at being pastoral, that is, aims at being guided by duty and charity, open to understanding and indulgence, demanding in sincerity and zeal but fatherly, brotherly, humble in sentiment and in its forms. From this point of view, if the Lord helps us, we would like to be loved.”

With the exception of that hardy substitute for thought, “Love is all that matters,” no slogan has been more used more frequently since the Council than that authority is a form of service. Many who use it think it is new, though it is surely as old as Christianity and was already venerable when Gregory the Great wrote on it circa 600 A.D. It appears frequently in the writings and speeches of Paul VI. The one service rendered by authority, that is peculiar to it and one of its specific functions, is to settle things. This is not always easy, agreeable or popular, but that is unimportant. We need not look beyond our own time to see in both Church and state the evils that accumulate for both authority and the community it is intended to serve, when that task is shirked.   

Editor’s note: The introductory paragraph is courtesy of The Traditionalist, Spring 2009, p. 11. Msgr. Cohalan’s essay is reprinted at OnePeterFive with the permission of Jack Fowler, publisher of National Review.

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