Paul VI: Refounder of Catholicism

Religion Department Academics of a certain sort love to scandalize undergraduates by telling them that Jesus is a marginal figure in Church history; the real founder of the religion, they whisper, was Paul. In fact, they persist, the religion should really be called Paulianity.

From the standpoint of Roman Catholicism, there is some truth to the claim.

The Mass as Roman Catholics celebrate it today received its form under Paul. Paul changed the formula of consecration during the Mass, as well as the rites of baptism, marriage, confession, extreme unction (anointing of the sick), and burial. He entirely restructured ordination, banishing the seven-step structure Holy Orders had once known. To the governing apparatus of the Church, Paul gave the definitive power structure it enjoys today. Very nearly every religious community in the Church altered its formation, daily life, habit, governance, bylaws, and prayer life in response to Paul’s demands for change. Church thinking changed as well, with wave after wave of innovative theological ideas ushered in by Paul. In almost every respect, Church life can be described dualistically: either Prepaulian or Postpaulian.

I speak, of course, of Paul VI, Giovanni Battista Montini, who died in 1978 after a remarkably consequential fifteen year pontificate – one of the four or five most consequential pontificates in the history of the Church. Despite this fact, and even despite Paul’s recent canonization, he remains remarkably understudied. Any other pontiff of comparable transformative power would have been called “the Great” long ago. But real deep engagement with Paul’s pontificate has suffered from multiple causes. For one thing, Paul’s extraordinarily unappealing public persona has smothered interest in him: scholars work from some form of passion, and the seemingly joyless (the Italians said Paulo Sesto Paulo Mesto, “Paul the Sixth Paul the Sad”) pope has not generated it. Paul was also the archetypal bureaucrat; the transformations of his pontificate came mostly via committee, and in response to the Second Vatican Council. They have been variously assigned to the pope, the members of the committees, the faithful themselves, or the Holy Spirit.

2023 marks sixty years since the beginning of Paul VI’s pontificate, and the time has come for sober judgement and assessment. The changes Paul VI decreed have come under increasing criticism, due largely to the fact that the Postpaulian Church has been so obviously diminished in the West. One key fact has clearly emerged: Paul’s implementation of the Second Vatican Council, which had decreed things like “no innovation should be undertaken unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires it,” was not in accord with Conciliar decisions themselves.

Paul undertook a systematic program of innovation covering every detail of Church behavior, from how often a priest should kiss the altar during Mass to whether or not Carmelite nuns can live according to the rule of St. Teresa of Avila (Paul didn’t think they could, a decision which is still being contested). Paul’s changes to the liturgy, since they affect the daily life of the faithful so much, are the obvious ones: where the Council had decided to keep Latin, Paul jettisoned it; where the Council decreed keeping “the treasury of sacred music,” Paul consigned it to oblivion; where the Council had said nothing at all about building new altars, communion in the hand, or versus populum masses, they all became Catholic practice during Paul’s pontificate – in at least one instance, however, directly contrary to his wishes.

The best place to start with a serious engagement with the legacy of Paul VI is with Yves Chiron’s short biography, Paul VI: The Divided Pope (Angelico Press, translated from the French by James Walther, which a forward by Henry Sire).

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