Playing Devil’s Advocate: a case against Paul VI

In the run-up to the canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII (at which, Deo gratias, I was present), the illustrious ecclesiastical historian Roberto de Mattei expressed his strictly personal view that John XXIII should not have been declared a saint. The criticism is not only based on Francis’ use of equipollent canonization in Papa Roncalli’s case (when he Pope declares a saint on his own authority, and not on the basis of an attributed miracle verified by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints); of the Bergamasco Pontiff, de Mattei remarked:

Ebbene, per quanto riguarda Giovanni XXIII, nutro la meditata convinzione che il suo pontificato abbia rappresentato un oggettivo danno alla Chiesa e che dunque sia impossibile parlare per lui di santità.

Anyway, in the case of John XXIII, I hold the thoroughly-meditated belief that his pontificate represented an objective damage to the Church and that it is thus impossible to speak of his sanctity.

Clearly, the “objective damage” that de Mattei has in mind is the crisis which has plagued the Church since the Second Vatican Council– the council first convoked by Pope John. I might, however, wonder whether the great historian (distinguished as he might be, and as sympathetic as I may be to his interpretation of the post-Conciliar crisis) has argued post ergo proper hoc. Yes, John XXIII indeed convoked the Council which in later years was so thoroughly misinterpreted and poorly implemented, leading to a sharp drop in religious and clerical vocations, grossly irreverent and sacrilegious liturgical experimentation, dubious (and often heretical) theological developments, and a mass exodus of people from the Church. But John XXIII died before the Council ended, much less before the Church brought significant reforms to bear. Papa Roncalli’s complicity in the post-Conciliar crisis, while self-evident, is dwarfed by the responsibility of the man who finished the Council and executed the reforms: Pope (now Blessed) Paul VI.

In the old system of canonizations (in force until 1983), the Sacred Congregation of Rites (the old Curial dicastery encompassing the modern Congregation for Divine Worship and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints) employed an adversarial investigation process for the sake of a just and thorough examination. The postulator of the cause, usually from the diocese of the proposed Blessed/Saint, puts forth all the arguments in favor of sanctity. One of the officials of the Sacred Congregation of Rites was a canon lawyer called promotor fidei— “promoter of the the Faith”. His job was to thoroughly investigate the life and works of the purported saint and to refute the postulator’s case. The cause of a purported saint would only proceed only after the postulator satisfactorily answered all the promotor fidei‘s objections. Because he often challenged the causes of manifestly holy people, the promotor fidei earned the nickname advocatus diaboli— “devil’s advocate”. That’s what I’m doing here: playing devil’s advocate in the case of Paul VI.

[Analogous to the promotor fidei is the office of promotor iustitiae (promotor of justice) in modern Catholic marriage tribunals, whose task is to prove the nullity of a presumed marriage; he argues against the defensor vinculi (defender of the bond), whose job is to prove that an indissoluble marriage bond exists.]

In recent months, rumors from Rome have indicated that Francis could once again use equipollent canonization to raise Papa Montini to the glory of the altars. I believe that such a move would be far more objectionable than the canonization of Roncalli. If one pontificate of the last century were to “represent an objective damage to the Church”, that distinction belongs not to John XXIII but to Paul VI.

Let me be clear: I believe that Paul VI, for the most part, acted in good faith, believing that the reforms he implemented were truly for the good of the Church. I believe that he misplaced trust in a certain faction of high ecclesiastics (Lercaro, Suenens, Bunigni, et al.) and allowed them far too much latitude in the development and execution of reforms which the Council Fathers never imagined. Paul VI even sensed (albeit too late) that the reform had taken a gravely perilous turn (cf. the “smoke of Satan” homily of 29 June 1972) and tried to counter it by establishing the International Theological Commission, composed of many veteran periti of the Council, to help the Holy See by articulating a firm theological foundation for the post-Conciliar era. The brightest exponents of ressourcement theology, particularly connected to the journal Communio (e.g., Louis Boyer, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar) came to dominate the Commission, while theologians associated with transcendental Thomism, liberal theology, and the progressive journal Concilium (e.g., Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner) did not last beyond the Commission’s first term; Paul VI did not reappoint Lonergan, and Rahner resigned in protest of the Commision’s direction. One of the most significant acts of Paul VI’s final year on earth was the rapid promotion of Fr. Ratzinger to Archbishop of Munich-Freising and Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church– which we must surely read as an effort to implement the Council’s demands secundum ipsissimum verbum Concilii Patrum. Despite all this, I consider it highly imprudent to canonize a pope whose effect on the Church has been nothing more than controversial (even harmful in some respects). My reasons articulated here are not all-inclusive; I will mention just three of those points.

1.  Betrayal of Cardinal Mindszenty

When one thinks of high-ranking churchmen who suffered under both the Nazis and the Soviets, John Paul II quickly comes to mind. Cardinals Jan Korec, Stefan Wyszynski, Aloysius Stepinac, and Josef Beran are other names often invoked. Yet there is another man whose cross was far heavier than that of either the Polish pontiff or of the persecuted eminences. That the Church has not bestowed the noble title of “confessor” upon Joszef Cardinal Mindszenty, Archbishop of Esztergom and Primate of Hungary is an injustice of the highest order; that Pope Paul VI publicly embarrassed him in the name of Ostpolitik des Vatikans is an indelible blight on the Pontiff’s record.

As the young Bishop of Vezsprem during World War II, he incurred the wrath of Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross government after refusing to quarter Axis soldiers on Church properties (Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany during the war). Imprisoned in November 1944, he was only released at the end of the war. On 15 September 1945, Pius XII appointed him Archbishop of Esztergom and Primate of Hungary. Just a few months later at the first consistory of the postwar era, Pius XII created Mindszenty Cardinal-Priest of Santo Stefano Rotondo. At the Apostle’s tomb on the eve of the Feast of Peter’s Cathedra, Papa Pacelli told the new porporato, “Of these thirty-two new Cardinals, you will be the first to suffer the martyrdom symbolized by this red color.” Pius was only partially right; Mindszenty would indeed bear his cross usque ad sanguinis effusionem but not usque ad mortem; the new Soviet-backed Hungarian government would indeed crush him under the hammer and sickle but rob the Primate of full martyrdom.

Within two years of the consistory, the Hungarian government essentially outlawed the Church. Catholic schools were forced to teach Communism, and in 1948, the state banned religious orders. Many Catholic intellectuals, priests, and religious were arrested and imprisoned. As under the Nazis, the secular power confiscated ecclesiastical properties and assets, nationalizing them. Mindszenty, the highest-profile advocate of the Hungarian people, vigorously opposed all these attacks on the Church’s liberty. As the outspoken face of anti-government policies, he too fell within Communist crosshairs. On 26 December 1948, the Hungarian hammer finally fell upon the Primate.

Mindszenty was arrested and falsely charged with treason, conspiracy, and a host of other offenses against the state. Before the impending arrest, he told the Hungarian people in a final pastoral letter to disregard any “confession” which might result from incarceration, for they would not be given unless under extreme duress. For five weeks, Mindszenty was beaten with clubs at night and interrogated in the day. He was deprived of sleep and fed meals laced with mind-altering substances in an effort to extort a confession. Initially, he heroically endured his pains, but by February 1949, his body broke. After innumerable physical, emotional, and mental tortures, Mindszenty finally “confessed” to 40 ridiculous trumped-up charges, including:

–planning the theft of St. Stephen’s Crown in order to crown Otto von Hapsburg as King of Hungary
–planning World War III
–inciting “American imperialists” to invade Hungary

On 3 February 1949, the Communists staged a globally-broadcast show trial, immediately denounced by the free world and global press as a transparently shameful miscarriage of justice. Mindszenty was found guilty of treason, a capital crime. Across the West, the kangaroo court drew the ire of President Truman, Francis Cardinal Spellman, and numerous world leaders. Even some Hungarian diplomats working in the United States resigned their posts in protest. To the Church in Hungary, Pius XII wrote the Apostolic Letter Acerrimo moerore, issuing a blistering condemnation of Mindszenty’s ordeal and excommunicating all those involved in his sufferings. The government commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, denying Mindszenty a martyr’s death. The Cardinal languished in numerous prisons until the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, in which he was briefly freed. When Soviet tanks crushed the rebellion, he sought asylum in the United States Embassy in Budapest, where he remained secluded until 1971.

The case of Cardinal Mindszenty remained a most inconvenient issue for both the Holy See and the Hungarian government; Hungary repeatedly offered him safe passage to exile in Austria, which the Primate adamantly refused. Enter Paul VI. In 1969, he ushered the disastrous tenure of Jean-Marie Villot as Cardinal-Secretary of State, who failed to fill the shoes of his highly competent predecessor, Amleto Cicognani. In the name of rapproachement, and in order to secure the establishment of four new dioceses in Hungary, the Pope– through Card. Villot’s Secretariat of State– brokered this “solution”: the Church would absolve Hungary’s crimes against Mindszenty by declaring him a “victim of history” rather than a “victim of communism”; Paul VI would revoke the excommunications imposed by Pius XII on those involved in the Cardinal’s imprisonment; and in exchange for Vatican support for the publication of his uncensored memoirs, Mindszenty would resign from the Primatial See of Hungary and live in Rome, as is custom for Cardinals not exercising active governance of a diocese. Indignant and offended by this proposal, Mindszenty agreed to leave his homeland but lived the rest of his life in Vienna rather than in Rome, and he publicly refused to abdicate the primatial see of Esztergom.

Adding insult to literal bodily injury, Paul VI declared Esztergom a vacant see in 1973, and accordingly, Mindszenty lost his titles of Archbishop of Esztergom and Primate of Hungary. Supposedly out of “respect” for the Cardinal, the Pope did not appoint a new Archbishop-Primate until after Mindszenty’s death in 1975, though this “concession” pales in comparison to the fact that Paul VI unceremoniously threw Cardinal Mindszenty under the bus in order to placate the Soviet-backed Hungarian government. The public humiliation of this holy and heroic bishop is surely one of Paul VI’s greatest sins, and on this matter, we might imagine Christ admonishing the Pope as he admonished his first Vicar: vade retro, Satana, quia scandalum mihi es: quia non cogitas, quae Dei sunt, sed quae hominis (Matthew 16:23).

2.  Reform of the Roman Liturgy 

A personal anecdote from Fr. Zuhlsdorf illustrates the effect of the radically unwarranted path of the liturgical reform.

Some years ago… gosh, it was decades now… I was told this story by a retired Papal Ceremoniere (Master of Ceremonies) who, according to him, was present at the event about to be recounted.

You probably know that in the traditional Roman liturgical calendar the mighty feast of Pentecost had its own Octave.  Pentecost was/is a grand affair indeed, liturgically speaking.  It has a proper Communicantes and Hanc igitur, an Octave, a Sequence, etc. In some places in the world such as Germany and Austria Pentecost Monday, Whit Monday as the English call it, was a reason to have a civil holiday, as well as a religious observance.

The Novus Ordo went into force with Advent in 1969.

The Monday after Pentecost in 1970, His Holiness Pope Paul VI went to the chapel for Holy Mass. Instead of the red vestments, for the Octave everyone knows follows Pentecost, there were laid out for him vestments of green.

Paul queried the MC assigned for that day, “What on earth are these for?  This is the Octave of Pentecost!  Where are the red vestments?”

Santità,” quoth the MC, “this is now Tempus ‘per annum’ [Ordinary Time].  It is green, now. The Octave of Pentecost was abolished.”

“Green? That cannot be!”, said the Pope, “Who did that?”

“Holiness, you did.”

And Paul VI wept.

You can almost hear the rhetorical force of the underlying Italian: E pianse Paolo VI. Paul VI wept because he felt the shock of an almost overnight change in the solemn worship of the Church. I find it mind-boggling to hear those people who, when the 2011 improved English translation of the Roman Missal took effect, decried the changes as “breaking tradition”! Imagine those people who, after having grown up with essentially the same liturgy that formed countless generations of Roman Catholics (including many of our most beloved saints), suddenly found themselves thrust into an almost-unrecognizable atmosphere at Advent 1969. An entire cultural system, a system which inspired countless saints and many of the greatest artists in history, was de facto silenced. The spiritual reflections of Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Aquinas, Charles Borromeo, John Vianney, Teresa of Avila make little to no sense outside of the Traditional Roman liturgy. Famous Mass settings like Mozart’s Requiem in D minor and Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli find their proper place in the Traditional Mass, not in the Novus Ordo. The Church thinks in millenia, not in decades; if we consider the practice of the past 40 years as “tradition”, should we not all the more revere and protect a liturgy which grew organically from the time of the Apostles? On the contrary, what we got was not reverence but the “wreckovation” of beautiful churches, altars, and works of inestimable artistic and cultural value.

The reform as implemented is no question of mere aesthetics (as some may regard the shift to the vernacular and the altered direction of liturgical prayer); the prayers themselves and the Order of Mass were changed. Dr. Lauren Pristas’ masterful comparative study of collects in the Traditional Mass vs. collects in the Novus Ordo depict a modern liturgy that has been mutated not only in external signs but in theology. The suppression of so many beloved saints’ feasts and the loss of the offertory prayers (justified only by spurious theology) deprived the liturgy of some of its most uniquely Roman elements. Thus, such a radical change in the Church’s lex orandi has brought about, in a fundamental and concrete manner, a change in the practical lex credendi, the result of which is a loss of continuity between the faith of our forefathers as handed down since the Apostles, and the faith of the newer younger generations of Catholics.

This was not the intent of Paul VI, and this certainly was not the intent of John XXIII; and yet, the practical result– irreverent liturgies, empty churches, declining vocations, and two whole generations of poorly catechized Catholics– are apparent to all.

3.  Communion in the hand

This is an issue we have addressed before (here and here), but it is worth mentioning again. In the late 1960’s, the practice of communion in the hand (unauthorized at the time) had already arisen in many countries, especially in Western Europe, against the teaching and tradition of the Church and with no basis in the Second Vatican Council’s doctrine. Pope Paul VI sent a survey to all the
bishops of the world on the question of permitting communion in the hand. The instruction Memoriale Domini of the Congregation for Divine Worship, dated 29 May 1969, summarized the findings of the survey.

1. Do you think that attention should be paid to the desire that, over and above the traditional manner, the rite of receiving holy communion on the hand should be admitted?

Yes: 597
No: 1,233
Yes, but with reservations: 315
Invalid votes: 20

2. Is it your wish that this new rite be first tried in small communities, with the consent of the bishop?

Yes: 751
No: 1,215
Invalid votes, 70

3. Do you think that the faithful will receive this new rite gladly, after a proper catechetical preparation?

Yes: 835
No: 1,185
Invalid votes: 128

With such overwhelmingly clear responses, I scratch my head as to why communion in the hand has become the de facto (not de jure) norm in the Church. In fact, on the basis of these survey results, Memoriale Domini remarks:

From the returns it is clear that the vast majority of bishops believe
that the present discipline should not be changed, and that if it were,
the change would be offensive to the sentiments and the spiritual culture of these bishops and of many of the faithful.

Therefore, taking into account the remarks and the advice of those whom
“the Holy Spirit has placed to rule over” the Churches, in view of the
gravity of the matter and the force of the arguments put forward, the Holy Father has decided not to change the existing way of administering holy communion to the faithful.

The Apostolic See therefore emphatically urges bishops, priests and
laity to obey carefully the law which is still valid and which has again
been confirmed.
It urges them to take account of the judgment given
by the majority of Catholic bishops, of the rite now in use in the
liturgy, of the common good of the Church.

Strangely, despite “emphatically” urging all the faithful “to obey carefully the law which is still valid and which has been confirmed”, the instruction goes on to say:

Where a contrary usage, that of placing holy communion on the hand,
prevails, the Holy See—wishing to help them fulfill their task, often
difficult as it is nowadays—lays on those conferences the task of
weighing carefully whatever special circumstances may exist there,
taking care to avoid any risk of lack of respect or of false opinions
with regard to the Blessed Eucharist, and to avoid any other ill effects
that may follow.

What a strange and confusing document. It essentially says, “communion in the hand is not OK, but you can do it anyway”. Memoriale Domini goes
on to enumerate the many situations in which communion in the hand can be administered. Above all, introducing communion in the hand requires
proper catechesis, whose end result

should be to remove any suggestion of wavering on the part of the Church
in its faith in the Eucharistic presence, and also to remove any danger
or even suggestion of profanation.

and that

No matter which method [of receiving communion] is adopted, one will be careful not to allow any fragment of the host to fall.

If we survey the common practice of most Novus Ordo parishes, it seems that the “ill effects” and “danger or suggestion of profanation” has not been mitigated. In fact, such ill effects, dangers, and suggestions have increased since 1969. Memoriale Domini is both an indult (an exception to a norm) and a rescript (retroactively permitting what was once forbidden), essentially sending the message that if you keep doing forbidden practices, the Church will eventually legitimize it. The Church’s experiment with communion in the hand has been an unquestionable disaster, and blame lies squarely with Pope Paul VI who, against the better judgment of the majority of bishops, introduced a practice which has led undeniably to greater sacrilege and a diminishing of faith in the Real Presence. This constitutes, to use Professor de Mattei’s words, the true “objective damage” to the Church.


Paul VI, in large measure, betrayed the vision of Pope St. John XXIII for the Second Vatican Council. However, Papa Montini’s reign is not entirely negative. Among his better achievements include the articulation of a correct hermeneutics of liberation, as expounded in Evangelii nuntiandi. These theological points would be further articulated and developed in an unabashedly Christocentric manner, with the help of Cardinal Ratzinger, in the magisterium of John Paul II. Against the tide of social, intellectual, and political revolutions which rocked Europe in 1968, Paul VI’s Credo populi Dei was a much-needed re-affirmation of the perennial and immutable truths of faith.

However, if we had to summarize the greatest achievement of his pontificate, we could do it in two words: Humanae vitae. Against the cultural tide of licentiousness and death which arose after the advent of the birth control pill, Paul VI affirmed the Church’s stance on the sacrality of all human life. In Pope Francis’ words, by issuing this encyclical, Paul VI demonstrated a “prophetic” farsightedness:

Ma la sua genialità fu profetica, ebbe il coraggio di schierarsi contro la maggioranza, di difendere la disciplina morale, di esercitare un freno culturale, di opporsi al neo-malthusianesimo presente e futuro.

His genius proved prophetic, for he had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a cultural pause, and to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism.

[Paolo VI] è stato un profeta, che con questo ci ha detto: guardatevi dal neo-Malthusianismo che è in arrivo… Guardava al neo-Malthusianismo universale che era in corso. E come si chiama questo neo-Malthusianismo? Eh, è il meno dell’1% del livello delle nascite in Italia, lo stesso in Spagna. Quel neo-Malthusianismo che cercava un controllo dell’umanità da parte delle potenze.

He was a prophet, who with [Humanae vitae] told us: guard yourselves from the neo-Malthusianism which is coming… He looked at that neo-Malthusianism which was in progress. And what is this neo-Malthusianism? It is that less-than-1% birth rate in Italy as well as in Spain. It is the neo-Malthusianism of the powers that be who attempt to control humanity.

Although Paul VI was brave enough to affirm human life, adherence among Catholics to Church doctrine on contraception and abortion stands at abysmal levels. He may have been a prophet, but he remains that “prophet without honor” (cf. Matthew 13:57, Mark 6:1, Luke 4:24, John 4:44). It was his almost uncritical openness to the world, an openness so different than John XXIII’s, that allowed into the Church that “smoke of Satan” which has sown the confusion of the last 40 years. It is the same openness that led him to shamefully abandon Cardinal Mindszenty. It is the same openness which has severed modern Catholics from their robust and glorious cultural patrimony. It is the same openness which has allowed the easy and frequent desecration of Christ in the Eucharist. All these are no small matters, for they have all imperiled innumerable immortal souls. They are all manifestations of the “smoke of Satan” in the Church. The Church would do better to name other men and women of unquestionable holiness in the number of saints.

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