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Fifty years ago today a new pope

Fifty years ago today, to the surprise of very few, Giovanni Battista Montini was elected to succeed Pope John XXIII. I was in St. Peter's Square when the "Habemus papam" was sung, and a good number of us were pleased at his election because we were confident that he would continue the Church on the process of aggiornamento proposed by John and ratified by the world's bishops at the first session of the Second Vatican Council. And indeed one of the first acts of Paul VI was to announce that the Council would resume and pursue the same goals of spiritual renewal and pastoral reform. He presided over the final three sessions of the Council during which all sixteen of the conciliar texts were elaborated and promulgated. The Council is often thought of only or principally in terms of Pope John, but it was just as much Paul VI's Council. And of course, he presided over the tumulturous aftermath of the Council and did all he could to hold the Church together. During his fifteen-year pontificate he was often severely criticized from both left and right in the Church, which for me is an indication that he must have been doing something right.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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Thanks for this remembrance. I wasn't in Rome on 21 June 1963, but was present fifteen years later for the last Mass Paul VI celebrated in St. Peter's, 29 June 1978.

During Pope Paul's reign did he or the CDF censure many dissenting theologians or restrict their teaching? 

Was there anything special about Paul VI that was memorable? Like John XXIII being fat and having a sense of humor, or John Paul II using a popemobile and being a globetrotter, or Benedict's red shoes.

And if one was going to remember a single decision from their papacy, what would it be? John XXIII called a council, Paul VI ruled in vain against contraception, John Paul II apologized for sins of the church, Benedict resigned.


I remember Pope Paul as the target of loud complaints from both left and right -- from the left mainly because of Humanae Vitae and from the right mainly because of his liturgical reforms.  Nevertheless, he was called a Hamlet because he was seen as loathe to make decisions.  I say that wasn't fair --  it was because of his decisions that he was criticized in the first place.  Complex times.


As Father Komonchak has pointed out, Paul VI very soon after his election made the decision to continue the Second Vatican Council. There had been important discussions during the opening session regarding the organization and orientations of the Council, particularly regarding the liturgy, but no documents had been approved. Some conservatives in the Curia and among the bishops of dioceses thought that the Council should die with Pope John XXIII. Pope Paul very quickly indicated that the Council would continue. That was towering.

And much too off the top of my head (and at dawn, not my best time):

-- He was the first pope in close to 150 years to travel outside of Italy, but more important, the first pope, since the earliest centuries, to travel outside of Europe.

-- He decided that the whole of the Mass could be celebrated in the vernacular languages, including the Eucharistic Prayer.

-- He re-organized the Roman Curia and gave important posts to non-Italian cardinals, including Cardinal Jean Villot, former archbishop of Lyons, who served as Secretary of State.

-- He decided that cardinals on reaching eighty would lose their right to vote in papal elections.

Just a few highlights.




An afterthought or two:

Paul VI made the papacy much more visible. He celebrated Mass at St. Peter's, in the basilica or in the square, on major feasts. This had not been so previously. For example, Pius XII, and I believe this continued under John XXIII, celebrated Christmas Midnight Mass in the Sistine Chapel with only the diplomatic corps present. Also, I am fairly sure that Pope Paul began the Wednesday General Audiences, a major aspect of Pope Francis's papacy.

And Paul was the first to use the popemobile.

By contrast, George Weigel published his verdict on Paul VI at the First Things blog site last week.  Even taking into account Weigel's twin filters - John Paul II hagiography, and the incessant promotion of his new book - his summation of Paul VI's papacy struck me as notably uncharitable and unfair.  Even the headline, "The Last Counter-Reformation Pope" seems to me to be fundamentally wrong.

I've probably stated here before that I think Paul VI is underappreciated.  To John Page's excellent list of Paul VI's accomplishments - all of which laid the groundwork and set the context for John Paul II's papacy - surely we should add that he shouldered the burden of implementing the Council, and working out its implications for the life of the church.

Pope Paul had the misfortune to follow the most popular pope of the twentieth century, a hard act to follow, as they say. Paul was bookish and shy; the simple and free gestures of his predecessor did not come spontaneously to him.  Still he had organizational skills that Pope John lacked and he used them to see the Council through to its conclusion, often against great opposition. (It should be remembered that not a single complete conciliar document had been issued by the time Pope John died.)  

I would add to the list of accomplishments already mentioned his two great contributions to the Church's social teaching, Populorum progressio and Octagesima adveniens, as well as his apostolic exhortation on preaching the Gospel, Evangelii nuntiandi.  The firestorm that greeted his encyclical Humanae vitae moved him not to issue another encyclical.  As John Page  noted, the liturgical reform which he saw through went, in many cases (e.g., the vernacular), beyond what the Council prescribed. While he was pope, the Synod of Bishops still had some signficance, had not yet been emasculated.

My recollections are not sharp. Do I recall correctly that Yves Congar was less than happy with the way Pope Pius dealt with the Council during its sessions and in the implementation of its work?

Is it correct that it was Pope John Paul II who "emasculated" the Synod of Bishops?

Sorry. That's Pope Paul, of course.

Yes, it was under John Paul II that the Synod of Bishops, along with most other nascent institutions for co-responsibility in the Church, were allowed to atrophy.

Congar admired much about Paul VI, but he felt that he did not have a theology adequate to his grand gestures, especially the ecumenical ones, e.g., the encounter with Patriarch Athenagoras or his meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He may have had other criticisms also, but I doubt that his over-all judgment about his role at the Council was negative. Others, e.g., Giuseppe Alberigo, are more critical, particularly of Paul VI's search for the largest agreement possible and his concern that the minority at Vatican II not have any ground to make the same accusations made by the minority at Vatican I, namely, that their voices were not heard.

Wasn't Pope Paul concerned, and with reason, about the likelihood of schism following a council and doing some exquisite, if illogical, bureacratic tricks (a liberal #1 and conservative #2, or vice versa, in each Vatican office) to head it off? Taking birth control off the Council's table may have been part of that (the part that really backfired).

When the schism came, it was (fortunately for the council's cause) the right rather than the left that hived off with its antisemitic paranoia showing. Less conspicuously, there was a lot of what Germans might recognize as "inner immigration" to the Church of Trent or the Church of the Future while going through the required motions. But I think that, measured against what's possible, Paul VI did better than should have been expected.

Paul VI also normalized relations between the Catholic and Anglican Curches to a very substantial degree. When Paul met in 1966 at the Vatican with then-Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, it was the first personal encounter between a Pope and an AoC in more than 400 years. They signed a declaration that expressed their desire to work together on issues of common importance to both churches, and as Ramsey was leaving and getting into his vehicle, Pope Paul handed him his episcopal ring. I believe Ramsey said later that the magnanimous gesture brought tears to his eyes. And to this day, the AofC wears that ring when he comes to Rome to visit the Pope, as the new AoC did last week:

The first modern encounter between an archbishop of Canterbury and a pope occurred in 1960 when Geoffrey Fisher met John XXIII.  

Hello All,

I guess I want to second part of Fr. Komonchak's initial reflection. From everything I have read about Paul VI, he tried constantly to do right by all sides he worked with, including sides that disagreed both with him and with each other. And (here's my own opinion), at least in the short run Paul VI suffered the usual fate of people who try to be fair to every bickering side. Almost everyone despised him then or despises him now, especially those who ought to be especially grateful to him. (Jim P. has just pointed us to an example in his earlier post.)

My own impression is that John Paul II differed from Paul VI in that John Paul II didn't worry about those who disagreed with his vision of what the Roman Catholic Church should be. At least in the short run, John Paul II is often hailed as John Paul the Great, while Paul VI is nearly forgotten, although I think everything John Paul II is best remembered for such as his visits to countries outside of Europe Paul VI did before him (admittedly on a smaller scale). I think in the long run Paul VI will be remembered will be remembered as one of the greatest of all popes.

I also have a question of scholarship. I have heard from multiple sources that Paul VI argues that if just war is possible, then so is just revolution. But I have been unable to track down any confirming statement by Paul VI. Did he really say or write words to this effect?

Paul VI took off the papal tiara and used the proceeds from its sale to feed the poor.


Since Francis spoke today about bishops not having the psychology of "princes" this aspiration to humility appears to be needed still.

Apparently Pope Paul expected the opposition to HV in the West, but he expected it to blow over:  " He fully anticipated this reaction to be a temporary one: 'Don't be afraid', he reportedly told Edouard Gagnon on the eve of the encyclical, 'in twenty years time they'll call me a prophet'.]"

(The quotation is from Wikipedia's article on Pope Paul VI, which footnotes NCR:   National Catholic Reporter, 26 August 1988, p.10.)

I wonder if Pope Francis expects African and the Eastern Church to continute to accept the teaching.

The quote sounds uncharacteristic of Paul VI, but quite characteristic of Cardinal Gagnon. Maybe it got a bit garbled in the re-telling.

I think that opposition to Humanae Vitae in the West is finished. One young and devout Catholic to whom I mentioned it recently answered: "Humanae Vitae? That's an encyclical against abortion, isn't it?" - The contraception controversy has indeed blown over, and in the West contraception is so well accepted that even the memory of the controversy has started to fade!

Unfortunately that generation is at risk of forgetting what our parents learned from Paul VI: that when we hear church authorities, it's our own decision what to do with what we hear, and that we are responsible for our decisions.

It is nice to hear so many in the church beginning to speak up about what have been dangerous subjects to broach in public.  How much we owe,o those brave souls who spoke up when they knew for sure they had much to lose. Let's hope for a future when Catholics will find it  harder and harder  to imagine the degree of intimidation that once existed in the church. 

Sorry, " to those brave souls" of course.

Most Africian Catholics are not abiding by the ban on the use of condoms for the millions of Africans married couples with a seropositive spouse. To anyone's reason as well as faith, it is both irresponsible and unreasonable that such couples, many of whom are young, must, according to the Church, must practice lifetime sexual abstinence. The Church believes these couples must practice heroic virtue to an extreme.

Unfortunately, celibacy or sexual abstinence is a gift from God given to the very few. Many seminarians don't complete their final vows because of it. Does God give this gift to every or most married couples who have a seropositive spouse? If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale. The last time I check Aquinas, the prudence ensures that Catholics practice virtue that is closer to the mean that to one extreme end. There is no fixed mean of any virtue because it depends on the person and cirumstances. In fact, most volunary human acts do not point to "one virtue" per se, but are the result of a combination of several virtues that vary by circumstances and goals.

In this case, what is more important to God?...Ensuring that the male seed is placed in its proper place for procreation regardless of the circumstances, or to safe-guard your spouse from a deadly disease and preserve the marriage? Even if one uses a double condom to ensure safety, the Church considers condom use during sexual intercourse as intrinsically evil. 




The contraception controversy has indeed blown over, and in the West contraception is so well accepted that even the memory of the controversy has started to fade!

I'm 51 years old, and I have no memory of it - it came and went without my ever being aware of it.  I was married for five years before I ever learned that contraception is illicit for married couples.




In his autobiography, Archbishop Rembert Weakland has an appreciation and assessment of Paul Vi during Weakland's time in Rome as head of the Benedictines (Chapter 10). Among the items mentioned are the Pope's difficult relationship with many members of the curia--echoing some of the comments already here. Weakland has a genuine respect for Paul's efforts to implement the council and for supporting Weakland's efforts at bringing the council into Benedictine practices. It was Paul, of course, who appointed Weakland to be archbishop of Milwaukee.

Jim Pauwels,

I'm 67 years old and had only a vague memory of the contraception controversy. However, when I got married and had 2 children and wanted no more for good reasons, I asked my parish priest about birth control. After a short conversation, he told me that the decision of birth control was up to me and my wife's informed conscience, so don't worry about it.

Many sexual ethical teachings suffer from a divided clergy. A  2011 survey of Australian priests shows only 19.2% support the Church teaching on birth control, and only 40.2% said sex before marriage was always sinful. In the US, 44% of priests say using artificial birth control is seldom a sin. When there is such profound inconsistency and contradiction between doctirne and pastoral practices, something is wrong with the teaching. 



It is very common, but still so sad, that the pontificate of Paul VI is made to center upon Humanae vitae.

Fr. Komonchak's 6/22 4:03 comment is surely warranted. Unfortunately, here in the U. S. today, the contraception issue is front and center in the ill-advised round 2 of "Fortnight for Freedom" campaign. It is HV that provides the ammunition for those so loudly beating the drum for "Fortnight 2."

I do agree, of course, that Pope Paul is not to be held responsible for everything that has flowed from his encyclical.

JAK ==

And the rest of Humanae Vitae is far from a disaster.  I can speak only from observation, not from experience, but from the outside  it seems that except for the contraception prohibition Humanae Vitae is a much more realistic and  wiser theology of matrimony  than JP II's.  At least his view of women isn't the romanticized and trivialized one of JP II.

Yes, he was somewhat like Hamlet -- a very complex, cautious yet brave man.

[email protected]:03: Yes, sad for the memory the church (us) have of him. But more than sad for the institution  itself. This is a turning point that failed to turn and has colored the arguments about many things ever since.

If I have the chronology right, the idea of discussing this came from some European bishops (Suenens? et al) thinking it was an important issue for the council to discuss. It was delegated (John XXIII? Paul?) to a special commission that met, considered the issue and agreed the teaching should change. Paul overrode that (some say at the advice of Karol Wojtyla) and issued HV.

Supporting the commission decision would have allowed the church to modify the teaching in some, but not necessarily all ways; put the church's teaching on abortion in a more defensible position; and, at least in my view, not have so thoroughly undermined the church's moral authority.

The nature of the dissent against Humanae Vitae was, for the most part, uncharitable.  For me, it weakens the point of view of the dissenters. 

On Saturday afternoon, 22 June, Pope Francis met in St Peter's with a large group of people from the diocese of Brescia, the native diocese of Paul VI. They had come on pilgrimage for The Year of Faith as well as the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul's election. Pope Francis spoke warmly of and with great appreciation for his predecessor, dividing his talk, as he often does, into three points -- Paul's love of Christ, his love for the Church, his love for his fellow human beings.

Pope Francis said of Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi (1975), mentioned above by Fr. Joe Komonchak, "for me the greatest pastoral document that has been written up till now."  ("per me il documento pastorale piu' grande che e' stato scritto fino ad oggi ....") (I am unable to find an English translation of the talk.)

Frank Gibbons (9:25 p.m.). I am surprised at your "uncharitable" characterization. Memory is furtive, but as I recall, the first wave of reactions was "responses" by national conferences of bishops (probably the point when the future JPII decided to defang them). The bishops were anything but uncharitable to the pope. The decision was his, but the consequences were theirs -- in the local clergy and in the local faithful.

Things got a little hotter quite a while after the initial wave of responses when one side settled into "Rome has spoken, the pope doesn't have to consult, he has a pipeline to the Spirit and, by the way, shut up" and the other side had dug into "it isn't binding, almost all the world's bishops say so, and if he is going to ask for advice, he ought to either take it or say why he isn't taking it, neither of which he did, and, by the way, shut up."

Ann Oliver is right (5:50) that a lot of good stuff in HV has been forgotten. I have often said that an aging Italian was able to predict Paris, Lindsey and the Kardashians 40 years before the paparazzi found them.

This looks tangential, but I don't think it really is.  Some of the Victorians thought that too much sex could drive a person mad.  Maybe  they had a point:  A National Inquirer segment of the American population (a very large one) has in effect canonized the Kardashians as the ultimate American success story, i.e., as the ultimate sexy humans.  Kim Kardasian and Kanye West (who is the father of her brand new baby)  are naming the baby -- get this --  "North West".  How insane can a culture get?  What a barking mad circus!  The center cannot hold.

It must be galling for Paul, if a deceased person can be galled, that his entire pontificate is remembered by most Catholics mainly for a self-inflicted wound that continues to divide the Church and diminish the credibility of its leaders. But perhaps it was a necessary and inspired rebuke—a bank shot by the Holy Spirit—to the claim that self-straitened ecclesiastics can infallibly rule the lives of billions of people whose struggles they know only by report.

Some of the Victorians thought that too much sex could drive a person mad.

Ah, the threats we humans face! Madness on one side and extinction on the other. What to do? What to do?

Paul VI is my favorite pope, but let's not gild the lily. The liberal theologians at Vatican II were often enraged by him, especially in the famous black week, and he did not give the synods the power they could have had (nor did he follow through on reforming the cdf). Humanae Vitae was of course a total disaster. In many way the downfall of Vatican II was prepared by Paul's lack of decisiveness in pushing through the key reform, collegiality.

Perhaps the bishops' exercise of collegiality in their critical reception of HV was what froze collegiality thenceforth and ensured the downgrading of episcopal conferences.

Agreed that the lucid text of HV (Martelet?) is far better than JP2's murky ToB porridge.

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