Next up for beatification: Paul VI, the “Hamlet Pope”

Pope Paul VI (Photo: PA). Accessed at, May 18, 2014.

Pope Paul VI (Photo: PA). Accessed at, May 18, 2014.

In my heart, I maintain a very special category of person. I call these people “Popes I Would Like to Have a Beer With.” I’ve already written about one of them, Pius XI.

But while I am charmed by the blustery, scholarly Pius, I feel a deeper kinship–indeed a brotherhood–with Paul VI, one of the two Vatican II popes. His life and mine have followed parallel tracks.

We were both extremely shy kids who talked like we had swallowed the dictionary. We both came to prefer cats to dogs, to loathe the telephone, and to have the same bad knee (the right one). We would both feel caught in some way between “new church” and “old church.”

In our youth, we both edited student publications. (Mine was called The Megaphone. His was called The Slingshot.) We both puzzled over whether to pursue a journalistic vocation or some sort of religious one. We both struggled with major decisions, period. How do you explain to people not just all the things that can go wrong, but your ability to see all of them at once? I know what it’s like. So did he.

Suffice it to say he is somebody I think about a lot. And now I will think about him even more. Pope Francis recently announced his intent to beatify Paul VI–make him a “blessed,” one step below saint–on October 19, 2014, exactly one week before my thirty-first birthday. 


Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini, “Battista” to family and friends, was born in the Lombard town of Concesio, near the industrial center of Brescia, on September 26, 1897. The Montinis were middle-class Italians. Battista’s father was a journalist, lawyer and politician.

Battista went to a Jesuit high school. An asthmatic in delicate health, he then attended seminary from home. Ordained in 1920, he went to Rome for graduate studies. He served briefly on the Vatican diplomatic staff in Poland, returning to Italy in 1923.

There, Montini impressed his superiors with his frighteningly photographic memory. As Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts wrote in their book Pontiff, “he could recall totally documents he had seen years before.” And nowhere was such a talent more useful than in the Holy See.

For the next decade, Montini held down a typewriter in the Vatican while also doing young adult ministry in Rome. In the end he became sostituto, or undersecretary, to Secretary of State Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli. After Pacelli was elected Pope Pius XII in 1939, Montini kept the job for another fifteen years. Then Pius suddenly made him archbishop of Milan.

On the surface it was a promotion. But Pius had made the abrupt transfer without giving Montini the cardinal’s hat that normally accompanied it. In the dappled subtleties of Vaticanese, this gesture meant much. And what it meant was not good.

It was whispered that Pius, who to this day remains far more an emblem of conservative, traditionalist Catholicism than either John Paul II or Benedict XVI has ever been, purged himself of Montini after discovering he was a closet liberal. Possibly this was true. A casual glance at Montini’s overloaded bookshelves (he was said to own ninety crates of books) revealed atypical reading tastes for a Vatican employee: pacifist literature, sociology, French Catholic humanism, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Graham Greene novels.

In any case, Montini’s upward trajectory recovered itself. He took possession of the duomo, or cathedral, of Milan on January 6, 1955; he became John XXIII’s first cardinal (a sign of papal favor) on December 15, 1958; and he was enthroned as Pope Paul VI on June 21, 1963, emerging from a conclave in which he had been the obvious front-runner.

Montini was dear to Pope John. Before his death, John made sure this was understood outside the Vatican. So when the cardinal-protodeacon stood on the balcony of St. Peter’s and announced “Montini” to the crowd, they blew up in a delighted roar.


But Montini, now Paul, was not delighted. He had been left in charge of a revolution: Vatican II. And liberal sympathies aside, revolutions were incompatible with the new pope’s personality.

When John announced the council in 1959, Montini observed to a friend: “This holy old boy doesn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.” As pope in 1963, Paul muttered to an aide that he was now driving a train on a track he had not chosen. Still, he gritted his teeth and went forward. He continued the council in the direction John had indicated: openness to the world.

As it happened, Paul may have done better than John ever could have if he lived. With his thirty years of Vatican bureaucratic experience, something John lacked, Paul finessed the thousand details of the council and its aftermath in a way that achieved landmark reforms, while assuring conservative stalwarts of continuity. Such an outcome was not necessarily foreseeable. And Paul was right: this was a hornets’ nest of practical politics that could have gone very, very wrong. As Anglican scholar J.N.D. Kelly wrote of Paul in The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, “it was to his credit that he was able to steer the church through a period of revolutionary change without schism.”

Presiding over the council seemed to embolden Paul in other areas. He became the first papal globetrotter: India, Africa, the United States, the Middle East, the Philippines, Latin America. He advanced ecumenical dialogue with Protestants and Orthodox, embracing Patriarch Athenagoras in Istanbul in a very Johannine gesture. He sold his papal crown (popes, like kings and queens, had coronations through 1963) and downsized the grand Vatican court, sweeping away its phalanxes of princes and princesses and ornamental soldiers. Only the Swiss Guard survived.

Yet as the years passed, it was harder and harder for Paul to get credit for any of it.


Part of it was the public impression he conveyed. “Good Pope John,” with whom Paul was relentlessly compared, exuded peasant warmth and bonhomie. Paul was reserved, fastidious and nervous. His shy smile sometimes froze over, as if he were vaguely alarmed by everything happening around him. When he wasn’t smiling, photographers tended to catch him looking grim or stiff.

But there was more to the problem than P.R.

Shortly before his death, John XXIII had appointed a special papal commission to reexamine the ban on artificial birth control. The Catholic world waited with bated breath for the report. Paul inherited the commission; he expanded it, adding laypeople, married people and women (including Chicago’s Patty Crowley, later a prominent luminary of Call To Action); and then he worried they would recommend he change the teaching. Which they did.

Paul was not unconcerned for family planning. But he also perceived that sex was an area where he needed to build a Maginot Line, shielding the church’s authority from the heedless turbulence of a secular world. For a while, he hemmed and hawed. In 1965, the pope gave an extraordinary interview to Italian journalist Alberto Cavallari, in which he lamented that the birth control question was a “strange subject for men of the Church to be discussing. Even humanly embarrassing.” He then seemed to slight his own commission (“Oh, they study a lot, you know. But then we still have to make the final decision.”), and also pleaded for divine guidance: “God will simply have to enlighten us.”

In 1968, Paul at last decided. He overruled the commission. He issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae,reaffirming the ban on all forms of artificial contraception. He was then genuinely shocked and appalled when his Maginot Line worked about as well as the original one had: many Catholics dismissed Paul as out of touch, proceeding to criticize and disregard him in unprecedented droves.

A similar dynamic underlay the 1976 document Inter Insigniores, released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Paul’s imprimatur. Here he reasserted another ban, this one on women’s ordination. Again, Paul ignored a commission. This time it was his biblical commission, which had reported there was no clear scriptural obstacle to women in the priesthood.

But if these decisions were, in retrospect, woefully wrong, they were perhaps inevitable. Paul, try as he might, was a company man: in the hierarchy, there is rarely any other kind. Born in Victorian Europe, he now reigned amid second-wave feminism, the sexual revolution, Watergate, and student takeovers of universities. And the church of 1968, the year of Humanae Vitae, was radically different–in some ways unrecognizable–compared to the church of 1958, when Pius XII died and John XXIII was elected.

Paul had done a lot to contribute to the flux. Now he sensed he had done quite enough, perhaps too much. And the effort had drained him. During his last decade on the throne, he seemed as much wracked by the papacy as he was by the worsening arthritis in his hip and knee. When Paul VI died at the age of eighty on August 6, 1978, he looked–and assuredly felt–much older.


I don’t think Paul should be beatified. Some of it is his mixed record. Even the heroic parts, which are indeed there, will take several more decades to fully shake out. Historically, we do not and should not raise popes to the altars quickly: they are the ultimate models, and therefore “too big to fail.” The April 27 canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II was an aberration not only because it was double-barrelled, but because it was fast. Since the year 1000, the gap between the death of a pope and his beatification or sainthood is more typically centuries.

I have also learned something over the years about the politics of the process. The “St.” or “Bl.” before your name is a ratification of something the Vatican considers important. It is not just a natural outcome of your virtue. My spidey sense suggests that certain powerful parties are more fond of Humanae Vitae and Inter Insigniores than they are of “the spirit of Vatican II,” just as my spidey sense equally suggests that the only reason John XXIII made it was that he came packaged with conservative counterweights (Pius IX for beatification in 2000, John Paul II for canonization in 2014).

But given that Paul VI is coming down the pike, I think it’s a good time to highlight something for which he takes so much flack, but which in the context of recent papal history is in fact a virtue: his agonizing over decisions.

He certainly agonized over birth control. And that was hardly all. Vatican diplomat Agostino Casaroli, who worked with several popes, observed that Paul’s immediate successor–Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I–could make astute diplomatic evaluations in only minutes, while Paul might take a year. Even John XXIII reportedly worried that Montini was “a little like Hamlet.” If Paul’s decisions could throw people into a tizzy, his stalling did it more often.

But was Hamlet always so bad? Peter Hebblethwaite, in his biography Paul VI: The First Modern Pope, noted that a return to Paul’s sometimes-tortured ambiguity would be a relief after the breathtaking, charge-ahead certainty of John Paul II. And Hebblethwaite, who died in 1994, might well have amplified the observation had he lived long enough to see Benedict XVI.

Paul, perhaps more than any other recent pope, knew in his gut the manifold and kaleidoscopic ways he affected people’s lives. And he knew when he did not know. Hence his painful hesitations and his great mistakes, as well as his shrewd brokering and his conciliar victories.

There are far worse ways of being a pope. There are far worse ways of being in the world. I stay close to Paul VI because I know that, for both better and worse, it is also my own way of being in the world.

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