When he was elected as Paul VI just 50 years ago, Giovanni Battista Montini seemed the perfectly prepared pope. He was the son of a middle-class family of Italian professionals with good Vatican ties. A competent linguist who had enjoyed a distinguished career in the Holy See’s diplomatic service, he was also a man of pastoral sensibilities, having done a lot of youth work as a young priest and curialist. He had seen the papacy from the inside, as a key aide to Pius XII, and he had been the successful archbishop of a major Italian see, Milan. In 1963, all of that was “the more-or-less normal way” a man became pope, as one of those who helped elect Montini, Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna, put it to me in 1997.
Yet this broadly cultured and deeply pious man suffered through such a turbulent pontificate that, when he died in August 1978, many wondered aloud whether anyone could do the job under late 20th-century circumstances. With John Paul II, the answer to that skepticism turned out to be a resounding “Yes”—but only if a pontiff was prepared to challenge the traditional managers of popes and re-boot the Petrine Office as one of evangelical witness.
Thus, in the retrospect of a half-century, the troubled pontificate of Paul VI comes into clearer focus as the last papacy of the Counter-Reformation Church—and the threshold to the papacy of the future, the papacy of Evangelical Catholicism.
Paul VI, to be sure, helped hasten that transition. He brought the Second Vatican Council to a successful close—although he did not provide keys for the authentic interpretation of the Council’s accomplishment, leaving that task to John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The lack of such keys during the 13 years between the Council’s conclusion and Pope Paul’s death was one reason why the wheels seemed to fly off the Catholic Church for two decades. Amidst the chaos, Paul VI tried to craft an exercise of the papacy adequate to the Church’s reformed self-understanding as a communion of disciples in mission. Yet virtually every one of his accomplishments in implementing the Council had its shadow-side.
He largely dismantled the papal court; but at his death, the Roman Curia was seriously dysfunctional, and today serious questions are being asked about Pope Paul’s decision to make the Secretariat of State a kind of super-agency at the apex of a curial pyramid.
He implemented a reform of the Church’s liturgy that was broadly accepted throughout the world Church; but the abuses of the Missal he introduced in 1970 were so grave that his successors were obliged to institute a “reform of the reform” in order to salvage the dignity of Catholic worship—and to remind the Church that worship is what liturgy is about.
He correctly decoded the impact of the oral contraceptive pill on society; but his defense of the Church’s teaching on the morally proper means of regulating fertility was couched in a language that few could hear, and it was left to John Paul II to devise a compelling Catholic response to the sexual revolution in all its dimensions.
He wanted the Church’s bishops to follow the lead of Vatican II and see themselves first and foremost as teachers and sanctifiers; but he not infrequently appointed bishops with a tendency to liberal authoritarianism to key positions in their respective countries, with grave effects on episcopal leadership throughout the world.
There was one accomplishment of the man we now know as Venerable Paul VI that remains unshadowed, however: and that was his insistence, at the end of his life, that the Church recover its missionary fervor, seeing both the evangelization of the unevangelized and the re-evangelization of the lax and fallen-away as its first order of business. Pope Paul’s 1975 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi (Proclaiming the Gospel), was a crucial moment in the emergence of the Evangelical Catholicism of the 21st century and the third millennium. That great document is the bridge between his time and ours.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. Mr. Weigel’s syndicated Catholic press column, “The Catholic Difference,” is the most widely circulated Catholic press column in the country, reaching a combined readership of some two million persons each week.