Paul VI (1897–1978)

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PAUL VI (1897–1978)


Pope from 1963 to 1978.

Giovanni Battista Montini, cardinal of Milan, was elected pope on 21 June 1963 in the midst of the uncompleted Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) called by his predecessor, John XXIII. Taking the name Paul VI, the new pope faced a growing divide in the council deliberations between conservative and liberal prelates. His approach to the remaining two council sessions was to support the progressive majority while at the same time ensuring that the rights of the conservative minority were respected. Thus Paul championed collegiality and established the synod of bishops; he mediated the issue of religious liberty in favor of the progressives and launched the practical methods to realize John XXIII's ecumenical dream. At the same time, he angered liberals by his unwavering support for the primacy of the pope and clerical celibacy, his condemnation of birth control, and his unilateral establishment of Mary as "Mother of the Church."

In certain ways Paul's entire papacy was a grand and precarious effort to lead the church in a time of great change and turmoil without permanently alienating either conservative or liberal Catholics. His five encyclicals echoed this approach, ranging from the call for renewal and dialogue within the church (Ecclesiam suam, 1964) to his reinforcement of traditional teachings on the Eucharist (Mysterium fidei, 1965) and celibacy (Sacerdotalis caelibatus, 1967). In Populorum progressio (1967), Paul focused on human development and criticized the divide between the rich and poor nations. He pointed out the shortcomings of the free market as a cure for poverty and called for "global solidarity." In Humanae vitae (1968), the pope's eloquent defense of human life was reduced by the world's media into a simplistic condemnation of artificial birth control. The negative reaction that it evoked among the liberal and secular press so stunned the pope that he never again, in the ten remaining years of his papacy, issued another encyclical.

Nonetheless, Paul never wavered in his support for "the preferential option for the poor" reflected in his worldview and social policy. His historic speech at the United Nations on 4 October 1965 condemned war and called upon cooperation between communist and capitalist nations. His Ostpolitik initiative toward Eastern Europe's communist bloc sought better diplomatic relations in order to improve the lot of Catholics in these countries. Ahead of his time, he was convinced that communist domination of Europe was a passing phenomenon and that the church must prepare for the future of free, democratic Eastern European states. At the time, however, conservatives saw his policy as a "sell out" to communist tyrants. The pope used the concessions that Ostpolitik brought him from Eastern bloc nations to appoint like-minded bishops, such as Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II), who would eventually play a significant role in the fall of communism in Europe.

The pope's travels often took him to the Third World, where his focus on justice and peace and social reform was generally well received. In 1968 Paul's appearance in Medellín, Colombia, at the Latin American bishops' conference reinforced the church's option for the poor. Paul's support and elevation of key "liberation theology" bishops, such as Helder Câmara, Aloísio Lorscheider, and Paolo Evaristo Arns, gave impetus to a "third way" of development in Latin America, led by the church, between communism and capitalism, much criticized by conservative elements of society. His launching of the World Peace Day project on 1 January 1968, with the support of the United Nations, and his brokering of the Vietnam peace talks underscored his sustained and vocal opposition to war.

In the United States and Europe, Paul filled episcopal vacancies with pastoral priests who would support the implementation of the council's decrees. He also sought to "internationalize" the curia and the College of Cardinals, putting a mandatory retirement age on cardinals eligible to vote in a papal election. But his message of peace and social justice was often overwhelmed in the First World by controversies surrounding the flight from religious life, the new Mass, women in the church, and birth control.

In the latter years of Montini's papacy, Catholicism seemed wracked by fissures between right and left, conservative and liberal. Paul, however, stayed the course that he chose when he ascended the papal throne in 1963. He never wavered in implementing the social, theological, and liturgical reforms of Vatican II, but he never went beyond them either. In effect, he supported the progressive majority within Catholicism and ensured the rights of the conservative minority. In this, he was truly Catholicism's bridge to the modern world.

See alsoCatholicism; Vatican II.


Primary Sources

John XXIII, Pope. Giovanni e Paolo, due papi: Saggio di corrispondenza (1925–1962). Edited by Loris Capovilla. Brescia, Italy, 1983.

Montini, Giovanni Battista. Discorsi e scritti sul Concilio (1959–1963). Brescia and Rome, 1983.

Secondary Sources

Hebblethwaite, Peter. Paul VI: The First Modern Pope. New York, 1993.

O'Reilly, Sean, ed. Our Name Is Peter: An Anthology of Key Teachings of Pope Paul VI. Chicago, 1977.

Richard J. Wolff