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Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul VI, born Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini, (September 26, 1897August 6, 1978) served as Pope from 1963 to 1978. He presided over the Catholic Church during most of the Second Vatican Council and played a central role in implementing its decisions.


Early career

Giovanni Montini was born in Sarezzo in Brescia province, of a family of local nobility. He entered the seminary to train to become a Catholic priest in 1916 and was ordained a priest in 1920. He studied at the Gregorian University, the University of Rome and the Accademia dei Nobili Ecclesiastici. His organisational skills led him to a career in the Curia, the papal civil service. In 1937 he was named Substitute for Ordinary Affairs under Cardinal Pacelli, the Secretary of State under Pope Pius XI. When Pacelli was elected Pope Pius XII Montini was confirmed in the position under the new Secretary of State. When in 1944 the Secretary of State died, the role was assumed directly by the pope, with Montini working directly under him.

Some of his work in the period remains shrouded in mystery, with claims and counter-claims, most notably concerning his involvement in the diplomatic activities of the Vatican during the conflict. For example, the Vatican's repeated contacts with Count Galeazzo Ciano, fascist Minister of Foreign affairs and son-in-law of Mussolini, remains an issue of some criticism. Montini, who worked as a diplomat, has been accused of having obtained from the Fascists, at the beginning of the war, some promises of uncleared advantages for the Vatican, in exchange of its eventual support. However many other historians dispute this analysis. Those events, and the suspicion of secret treaties between the Vatican and Nazi Germany, was the subject of a "historical drama" (Der Stellvertreter) by Rolf Hochhuth, in which the behaviour of Pope Pius XII and his Curia, which included Montini, was criticised. Montini, however, challenged both the factual accuracy and the interpretation placed on established facts by Hochhuth.

The unique complexity of the war-time period saw Montini procure large sums of money to aid European Jews, while he is also alleged to have been involved in enabling some leading Nazi officers to escape the collapse of the Third Reich. Formally a simple administrative employee of the Vatican government, but effectively the closest supporter of Pius XII, he has often been recognised as one of the most important political figures of the period. No official confirmation exists, but evidence indicates that he (along with Alcide De Gasperi) attempted to set up a channel of communication between Crown Princess Maria José (daughter-in-law of the King of Italy and wife of the Prince of Piedmont, Umberto) and the United States, in order to find a separate peace for Italy with the United States; the Princess however was not able to meet Myron Taylor, Roosevelt's special representative in Vatican, and no one knows if Montini was unable to organise this meeting or unwilling to do so.

Archbishop of Milan

Montini was eventually appointed in 1953 to the senior Italian church post of Archbishop of Milan. Traditionally such appointment would be followed by being made a cardinal at the next Consistory (when vacancies in the College of Cardinals are filled). To the surprise of many, Montini never received the red hat (as the appointment to the cardinalate is often called) before Pope Pius's death in 1958; what was not known was that at the Secret Consistory in 1952 Pope Pius revealed that Montini had declined the cardinalate. Though many viewed him as the person who would have succeeded Pope Pius, since Montini was not a member of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli was elected pope and assumed the name Pope John XXIII. Roncalli almost immediately raised Montini to the cardinalate.


The Coronation of Pope Paul VI
The Coronation of Pope Paul VI

Montini 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 establish the Second Vatican Council. When John died of cancer in 1963, Montini finally was elected to the papacy, where 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; his successor Pope John Paul I abolished the ceremony during his reign, though it could be reinstated. 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 but controversially withdrew two issues from its authority, priestly celibacy and the issue of artificial contraception and made both the subject of controversial encyclicals.

Humanę Vitę

Coat of Arms of Pope Paul VI
Coat of Arms of Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul's most controversial decision occurred on July 24 1968, when in his encyclical Humanę Vitę, "Of Human Life", he rejected the recommendations of a commission established by John XXIII and reaffirmed the Catholic Church's disapproval of artificial birth control. His decision was unexpected, as many in the Catholic world expected the Church to accept with some reservations the technological advances that had produced the contraceptive pill. In subsequent decades, many baptised Catholics opted to use birth control in spite of church teaching. To its supporters, Humanę Vitae is seen as a valued and welcome reaffirming of the sanctity of human sexuality and the procreative act, unencumbered by a modern drift away from absolute to relative concepts of morality. To its many opponents, Humanę Vitę is seen as a calamity akin to Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors, with the church turning its back on technological advances that could help humanity deal with the problems of serial births and climbing birth rates, particularly in the Third World. External observers noted that many lay Catholics reacted by moving towards the more typically protestant attitude that after listening to the Church's teaching, they could judge for themselves what was sinful and what was not.

While Paul's successor, Pope John Paul I in a meeting with United Nations population experts during his short reign did give some indication that Humanę Vitę might be changed somewhat, Pope John Paul II unambiguously supported the encyclical.

"Our Hamlet"

His predecessor and great friend, Pope John XXIII, once called Montini "Our Hamlet" for his notorious bouts of indecisiveness. Paul's most famous case of indecisiveness revolved around his inability to decide how to deal with the scandal-ridden American Cardinal Cody, who was surrounded by allegations of financial and sexual impropriety; Cody even invited his female 'friend' to pose in a picture with him and Pope Paul taken when Cody was being awarded the red hat. Paul constantly changed his mind over whether or not to remove Cody, on one occasion contacting a Vatican official at Rome Airport, whom he had sent to inform Cody of his dismissal, and telling him to return as he had changed his mind. Cody remained in office until his death.

Pope Paul also could not decide on how to handle the controversial anti-Vatican II Archbishop Lefebvre, who challenged papal authority by refusing to accept the New Mass and liturgical reforms produced by Vatican II. In the end, Lefebvre remained largely unchallenged until the election of John Paul II in 1978. Paul was also increasingly critical of the direction taken by the Church after Vatican II, he expressing his dislike of some of the translations of the New Mass produced by the Vatican, specificially their "pedestrian" language. Yet as in other areas Pope Paul chose not to intervene after much agonising indecision.

As he became increasingly elderly, Pope Paul openly spoke of abdicating the papal throne and going into retirement. As in other areas, his indecision led to no decision; he remained in the papacy until his death.

A few months before his death, he celebrated the solemn funeral of Aldo Moro (after his murder by the Red Brigades), who had sent him a famous letter from his prison. Moro and Montini had been together in the FUCI, a Catholic association for university students, many years before, and in time had become perhaps the two most important Catholic figures in Italy.

The Pilgrim Pope

Pope Paul VI meets Archbishop , former .
Pope Paul VI meets Anglican Archbishop Fisher, former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Pope Paul VI became the first pope to visit all five continents, and was until the election of Pope John Paul II the most travelled pope in history, earning the nickname the Pilgrim Pope. In 1970 he was subject to an assassination attempt in the Philippines, at Manila International Airport. The assailant, a Bolivian Surrealist painter named Benjamin Mendoza y Amor Flores, lunged toward Pope Paul with a kris but was subdued. While the Vatican denied it, subsequent evidence suggests Pope Paul did indeed receive a stab wound in the incident.

Pope Paul became the second pope to meet an Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, after the visit of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher to Pope John XXIII on December 2nd 1960. He was also the first pope for centuries to meet the heads of various Eastern Orthodox faiths. Notably, in 1964 he met Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople and they rescinded the 1054 excommunications of the Great Schism and produced the Catholic-Orthodox Joint declaration of 1965.

Controversial sermons

On June 29 1972 Pope Paul VI in a homily delivered a strikingly downbeat analysis of the state of the Roman Catholic Church post Vatican II. He told a congregation:

We believed that after the Council would come a day of sunshine in the history of the Church. But instead there has come a day of clouds and storms, and of darkness ... And how did this come about? We will confide to you the thought that may be, we ourselves admit in free discussion, that may be unfounded, and that is that there has been a power, an adversary power. Let us call him by his name: the devil.

His fears of satanic infiltration of the Church were even more pronounced in a later sentence which is widely quoted by conservative Catholics. He said:

It is as if from some mysterious crack, no, it is not mysterious, from some crack the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.

What he was alluding to was never explained. Some members of the traditionalist movement have used that quote as a defense of their positions on the direction the church has taken following the council.

An overview

A man of many virtues, Pope Paul VI spent his pontificate plagued by attacks from all sides. Liberals condemned him on Humanę Vitę and for not reforming the Church and its curia further. Conservatives within the Church condemned him as too liberal and for "destroying the Tridentine Mass". Other conservatives on the far right condemned him as an anti-pope (an illegitimate and invalid pope, a claim that had not been made against a reigning pope for centuries). It was claimed by some conservative Catholics that the real Pope Paul was kept drugged in the Vatican while an actor "played" his role publicly. Even today there are websites devoted to comparing pictures of Pope Paul in the 1960s and the 1970s to "prove" that the Holy Father seen in public in the latter decade was not the real Pope Paul at all but an Italian actor "impostor" put in place by leading liberal cardinals. Few however give such theories any credence.

Pope Paul VI meets of in 1964
Pope Paul VI meets Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in 1964

Pope Paul presided over a church in transition from the pre- to the post-Vatican II eras. That transition witnessed the most fundamental revision of Roman Catholic liturgy in centuries, a changing priesthood (marked by a wave of priests leaving the priesthood in the easier method provided by Pope Paul), a changing world in which non-marital sex became widespread, as did the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality and the liberalisation of divorce laws. Towering over Paul VI's pontificate remains Humanę Vitę and its teaching on sexuality, which some regard as an inspiring statement of Christian sexual morality, while others regard it as a colossal blunder that saw the Church opt out of the modern world and retreat to a nineteenth-century world that on sexuality at least was more in touch with the papal absolutism of Pope Pius IX than the collegiality epitomised by Vatican II.

Whatever the reality, the negative public response to Humanę Vitę deeply wounded Pope Paul, who, according to close friends, withdrew into himself and became increasingly critical of, and alienated from, a world he saw as being conquered by evil. It was noteworthy that after Humanę Vitę in 1968 he issued no further encyclicals for the rest of his reign. At one point, Paul even said that he understood why Saint Peter went back to Rome—it was to be crucified.

Pope Paul VI died in Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, in August 1978.


In theory any male Catholic, irrespective of his ordination, is eligible for election to the papacy by the College of Cardinals, so technically Archbishop Montini could still have become pope.  In fact, at the 1958 election, Montini did receive a couple of votes.  But the cardinals in modern times invariably elect a fellow cardinal to the post.

Additional reading

  • Peter Hebblethwaite, Paul VI


External links

Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13