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An Interesting History on Pope Paul VI, and the Papacy in general

June 20, 2013

The Last Counter-Reformation Pope

by George Weigel on June 20, 2013

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.

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