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Divided Man, Divided Legacy

Paul VI: The Divided Pope

By Yves Chiron. Translated by James Walther.

Publisher: Angelico Press

Pages: 384

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Inez Fitzgerald Storck

Inez Fitzgerald Storck is a writer and translator living in Westerville, Ohio. Her translation from the French of La Condottiera, a novel by Romanian Orthodox priest Virgil Gheorghiu, was recently published by Arouca Press. Her articles have appeared in several periodicals, including Homiletic & Pastoral Review and The Chesterton Review.

Translator James Walther points out in his introduction to Paul VI: The Divided Pope that there is no adequate translation for écartelé in the French title, which he renders as “divided.” The French term connotes being torn apart, harking back to the meaning of “quartered,” as in “drawn and quartered,” a particularly cruel form of execution. French author Yves Chiron presents Paul as torn between mind and heart, with strong emotional reactions tempered at times by rational thought. As Chiron traces the development of his subject from his youth to the last years of his pontificate, this constant counterplay is a leitmotif.

Giovanni Battista Montini, born in Brescia in northern Italy in 1897, experienced from his youth an anomalous life that set him apart from other students and priests and set the stage for his various competing attractions and emotions. He completed his secondary education with difficulty, due partly to ill health and partly to his disinclination to apply himself to his studies. Battista, as he was called, was attracted to a Benedictine monastery near Brescia, but the abbot advised him not to enter because of his ill health. His preference for the simplicity of the liturgy at this monastery presaged his support for a liturgy denuded of many traditional elements.

Battista then entered the diocesan seminary in Brescia, but due to his frail health was permitted to attend as a day student, and before long to complete his academic preparation at home, with several priests assisting him. This lack of a rigorous intellectual formation, particularly in Scholastic philosophy, possibly contributed to his difficulty checking his emotional responses to problematic situations. He requested a dispensation from the age requirement for ordination — he did not think he had much longer to live — and was ordained at age 23 in 1920. Too weak to serve as a parish priest, he was sent to Rome to study philosophy at the Gregorian University and literature at La Sapienza, a state university. A year later, Battista entered what is today the Pontifical Diplomatic Academy, which prepares priests for diplomatic service. He dropped his studies in philosophy, though not in literature, and took the required courses in canon law at the Gregorian in addition to following the program of studies at the Academy. Then he transferred to the seminary in Milan, where he was awarded a doctorate in canon law (after certain requirements had been waived).

Throughout his early career, Battista benefited from dispensations due to the influence of his father, Giorgio Montini, a politician and journalist who promoted the welfare of workers and the poor. Giorgio’s associates also lent their support to his son and were instrumental in rescuing him from his first diplomatic post at the nunciature in Warsaw, where he had ill-defined duties and, incredibly, no salary; the reason given was that due to his health, he would not be able to withstand the harsh Polish winters.

In 1923, after only a few months in Poland, Fr. Montini returned to Rome, where he intensified his earlier involvement with student groups, serving first as chaplain to the Roman chapter of the Italian Catholic Federation of University Students (known as FUCI, its acronym in Italian) and then as national chaplain. During the turbulent conflict between the Church and Mussolini, Montini directed FUCI toward religious and cultural activities, steering clear of political involvement. His approach, based on fraternal dialogue instead of confrontation, along with his rejection of the students’ traditional Marian piety, some of the manifestations of which he judged to be excessive, brought about his forced resignation in 1933. “He wept over it,” Chiron tells us.

By this time, however, Montini, now a domestic prelate, had responsibilities at the Secretariat of State that occupied more and more of his time. Starting as a low-level functionary in 1925, he was named substitute (undersecretary) for the Section of Ordinary Affairs in 1937. During World War II, he galvanized his energies to help displaced persons, establish a central source of information on political prisoners and those who had been freed, and furnish material aid to a devastated Germany. This period of intense activity contrasts with Montini’s absence from Rome for most of 1935 for health reasons, though he had been asked to return to his duties at the Secretariat of State. Chiron implies that this medical leave may not have been fully justified.

In 1952 Msgr. Montini was named Pro-Secretary of State. Yet he was not universally regarded with favor. More than once he ran afoul of curial authorities in his interventions to prevent the ecclesiastical condemnation of several books, including one on Mary by Jean Guitton, who had written that Mary did not know she would give birth to the Son of God when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Guitton, who would become one of Montini’s closest friends, revealed to Chiron that Pope Pius XII had begun to distrust Montini and took steps to make his election to the papacy less likely. Pius named him archbishop of Milan in 1952, which Montini, lamenting bitterly, regarded as an exile. Pius never held another consistory, presumably to avoid having to name Montini a cardinal. Chiron hypothesizes that the reasons had to do with Montini’s political views, which were out of sync with some in important positions at the Vatican. He advocated cooperation among potential political allies not exclusively Catholic and opposed the creation of a Catholic labor union. His characteristic modus operandi was dialogue, inclusion, and emphasis on commonalities rather than differences.

Though without experience as pastor of a parish, Archbishop Montini vigorously set about building up the faith in Milan. He visited parishes, met with politicians, welcomed Protestant clergy, and established organizations to assist the poor and immigrants from other parts of Italy. He built 72 churches, with another 20 under construction when he left Milan. He organized a massive archdiocesan mission in an attempt to win over nonpracticing Catholics, but after some initial enthusiasm among the people, religious practice deteriorated.

After the death of Pius XII, from whom Montini had remained distant, the election of John XXIII brought about a more favorable situation for him. Less than a month after his election in 1958, John named 23 cardinals, among them Montini. Two months later, the Pope announced the 21st ecumenical council. The archbishop, full of enthusiasm for the renewal he hoped the Second Vatican Council would ignite, was not involved in the preparatory commissions, though he was kept current by three close associates. At the end of 1961, Pope John appointed Montini to the central commission, tasking him with revising the schemas drawn up by the 10 specialized commissions. Around this time, Montini wrote in a letter addressed to his flock that the Church “will take care to update herself in casting off, if necessary, this or that old royal cloak resting upon her sovereign shoulders to dress herself in the simpler clothes that modern taste demands” (emphasis in original).

John XXIII, quite ill for some time, died in June 1963, predicting on his deathbed that Montini would be his successor. At the conclave, after six ballots, Montini indeed prevailed over conservative and other progressive candidates. He chose the name Paul in honor of the apostle. In his coronation address, he evidenced the ambivalence and ambiguity that would characterize his pontificate, pledging to defend the Church against doctrinal errors and praising the modern world as a source of grace.

When the Council resumed, Paul named four cardinals as moderators who would firmly control the remainder of the proceedings. Three were progressives, including the Belgian cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens. Amid sometimes contentious debates on religious liberty, collegiality, and other subjects, only two schemas were approved by the end of the second session, a relatively unimportant one on social communications, Inter Mirifica, and one on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

In August 1964 Paul issued his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, advocating that the Church engage in dialogue with the world, including Protestants, adherents of other religions, and nonbelievers. This desire for dialogue would continue throughout his papacy. It is significant that in this encyclical Paul explicitly condemns communism, in sharp contrast to the Council documents. Many Council Fathers hoped that avoiding this condemnation would allow them to obtain concessions from communist governments. This, in fact, was the policy Paul followed, termed Ostpolitik, which was ineffectual in lifting most of the communists’ restrictions on the operation of the Church.

Before the fourth and final session of the Council, the extent of the turmoil in the Church had manifested itself. Doctrinal disputes, disagreement on how reforms should take place, and increasing defections from the priesthood were signs that the renewal of the Church for which Paul had longed was in question. Emotionally affected by all this, in February 1965, during one of his Wednesday general audiences, he confessed that he sometimes felt at “the point of agony.” This anguish would increase during his later years.

When the Council reconvened in September 1965, 11 schemas had yet to be discussed and voted on, including a hotly contested one on religious liberty. Proponents included prelates from communist nations, notably Karol Cardinal Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II), several Americans, and the Pontiff himself, who relied on his close associate Charles Cardinal Journet to promote acceptance of the proposed text, which was overwhelmingly approved. Ever since its promulgation, it has been the most controversial of the Council documents, since in the eyes of some it contradicts previous Church teaching on the rights of the Catholic state.

Paul rejected requests for a fifth session of the council, so the remaining 11 schemas — 10 in addition to the one on religious liberty — were perforce discussed and consensus reached. The Council closed in December 1965 amid an atmosphere of optimism. Anticipating a renewal of the Church, Paul had opined in October of that year, despite the apprehension he had earlier expressed, that “there is not, happily, a crisis of the Church,” while acknowledging a crisis of faith in the world. Yet, only a few years later, he confided to the archbishop of Milan that “we were hoping for a springtime, and a storm has come.”

One of the major reforms Paul ardently desired was that of the liturgy. Contrary to some accounts, he was deeply involved in the minutiae of the changes. Not only was the Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular, but various elements were omitted, such as the prayers at the foot of the altar, or drastically reduced, such as the offertory. The Roman Canon was retained but became one of four options.

From this ensued a major crisis in the Pauline pontificate. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre had founded a seminary in 1970 to provide a traditional formation for candidates to the priesthood, with the approval of John Cardinal Wright, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. As is well known, Archbishop Lefebvre refused to accept the new Mass and the entirety of the Council documents, denouncing their neo-modernist and Protestant tendencies. After an apostolic visitation and intransigence on the part of both Lefebvre and Paul, the seminary was ordered to be closed. Paul wrote to the archbishop that Vatican II “holds no less authority than that of the Council of Nicaea, and under certain aspects is even greater.” Chiron, in one of his rare editorial comments, rightly terms this comparison between a dogmatic and a pastoral council as “audacious.” Both parties refused to back down, and after Lefebvre disobeyed orders from the Secretariat of State and ordained several priests in 1976, he was prohibited from exercising his episcopal and priestly ministry. Among the many who considered the punishment too harsh was the progressive Swiss theologian Hans Küng.

Küng himself was protected from sanctions, as Paul advised the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to “proceed with charity” in his case. Despite his own doctrinal orthodoxy, sublimely illustrated in his motu proprio Solemni hac Liturgia (“Creed of the People of God,” 1968), Paul tolerated dissidents on more than one occasion. A notorious example is the Dutch Catechism published in 1966, which contained doctrinal errors. A group of theologians and cardinals drew up a list of necessary corrections in early 1968. Not until June did Paul meet with Bernard Cardinal Alfrink, archbishop of Utrecht, asking him to include the corrections in future editions, after tens of thousands of copies had been placed in circulation in the Netherlands and in English and German translations. The cardinal protested that it would be difficult to amend the text. Paul gave in, insisting only on the publication of a list of clarifications, commenting, “We should not create intolerable situations for the Dutch bishops…. People of good faith will see where the truth is and what the Holy See desires.” Perhaps as a partial compensation for this failure, Paul appointed two doctrinally orthodox bishops to sees in Holland, ignoring the lists of three candidates for each see presented by the bishops. Paul’s severity toward Lefebvre and leniency toward the Dutch bishops, a betrayal of his office and of his own faith, is striking.

Paul promulgated Mysterium Fidei in 1965, defending Church teaching on the Eucharist, including transubstantiation. Two years later, he issued Populorum Progressio, his great encyclical on the social teaching of the Church, after seven drafts and much consultation. This document reaffirms the need for justice and charity demanded by Popes Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931), denounces unfettered economic competition, and addresses the difficulties many have in providing for their families. In addition, Paul calls for just economic relations among countries.

Confirming Church teaching in another area, Paul upheld the prohibition against birth control in Humanae Vitae (1968), after recommendations of theologians generally to the contrary and much consultation and hesitation. Here we see the divided Pope. His heart desired to avoid difficulties for married couples even as his intellect rejected what would have been a departure from Church teaching. Yet, in the face of widespread rejection of the document by bishops and theologians, Paul was silent. He never wrote another encyclical, though in 1975 he did issue, among other documents, an important apostolic exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi.

Breaking with tradition, Paul made several journeys outside Italy: to the Holy land, where he met with Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, hoping to advance the cause of unity with the Orthodox; twice to the UN headquarters in New York to plead for peace; to India, where he both preached the Gospel and met with representatives of non-Christian religions; to Colombia for the meeting of the Latin American Episcopal Conference, where he promoted a “preferential option for the poor” without endorsing liberation theology; and to Uganda, honoring the 19th-century martyrs he had canonized in 1964 and meeting with Muslim leaders, seemingly unaware, as Chiron points out, that Muslims were persecuting Christians in Africa. Paul continually sought meetings with those outside the faith, receiving them warmly, giving the impression that the distinction between Catholicism and other religions was not important. For example, in an unprecedented gesture, when Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey made the first official visit of an Anglican prelate to the Vatican, Paul removed his episcopal ring and placed it on Ramsey’s hand. Yet in no way did Paul consider Ramsey to be a bishop or, for that matter, a priest.

While insisting on the necessity of safeguarding the Deposit of Faith, Paul called for the recognition of the spiritual goods preserved among the separated brethren. He envisioned dialogue with those ecclesial communities as a way of carrying out the Church’s apostolate. Even though his outreach to other religions bore little fruit, he regarded ecumenism as the most important aspect of his pontificate. A notable example of Paul’s misplaced good will is seen in his attitude toward China. He made favorable remarks about the country during its barbaric Cultural Revolution, and he implied that the state-controlled patriotic church was not in schism.

As conflict in the Church increased, the Pope withdrew more and more into himself. He seemed helpless to confront dissent and liturgical abuses of the Novus Ordo Missae. In Italy he was late in lending support to a campaign to hold a referendum on divorce, which parliament had approved in 1970, as he was afraid of the division this would cause in society. The referendum failed to overturn the law. This is another instance of a tendency to be accommodating when staunch opposition was called for.

Paul’s ambiguous policy of openness to modernity while criticizing it accomplished little. He was slow to grasp the degree of dissent within the Church and equally slow to condemn some of its main promoters. He lost the opportunity to reconcile Archbishop Lefebvre, ignoring a potential source for renewal within the Church. Perhaps his most outstanding achievements were Humanae Vitae and the “Creed of the People of God,” the first rejected by most Catholics and the second largely ignored. Paul realized his pontificate had been ineffectual and offered up his suffering for the Church, abandoning himself to the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s was a heart longing to give itself, checked at times by his reason. We have benefited from the triumphs of his intellect, yet the errors stemming from his excessive good will still plague us. It is impossible to avoid giving offense to some people, and futile to attempt to build bridges that lead to nowhere. We cannot help but share his sense of frustration at the end of his pontificate, and to feel immense pity for him. Whatever the extent of his purgatory, it lasted no longer than the moment of his canonization in 2018. We are not obliged to regard him as a model of sanctity, only to believe that he is in Heaven. May he intercede for the Church he loved so much.

Henry Sire, in his introduction to the English edition, provides a brief yet apt comparison of Paul and Pope Francis, which the reader cannot avoid making over the course of the book. Sire, a traditional Catholic and author of The Dictator Pope: The Inside Story of the Francis Papacy (2017), understandably criticizes Paul’s imposition of the Novus Ordo. James Walther, in his translator’s note, gives his assessment of the pontificate, pointing out that the divisions in Paul’s complex personality are mirrored in the divisions in the Church. Walther’s translation is fluent, readable, and faithful to the French, with very few instances of mistranslation. He has added numerous biographical and bibliographical footnotes to those Chiron provides. The more than 30 pages of photographs are a welcome addition to the English edition.

This excellent biography should be read not only by those interested in Paul and his pontificate but by anyone wanting to gain a better grasp of a period of tumultuous transition in the Church.


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