The Papacy of Paul VI
by H. J. A. Sire
Over this scene of devastation presides the remote figure of Pope Paul VI. In two ways, the evaluation of this pope’s character has been coloured by attitudes to the revolution in the Church with which we still live. Firstly, admirers of that change are precluded from the criticisms that a ruler would naturally incur in such circumstances; and secondly, the assumption that the changes were right and inevitable ones has obscured the extent to which Paul VI was personally responsible for them. Such points of view have prevented a realistic assessment of what, by any objective test, would be judged the most disastrous pontificate in history. In substantiating that estimate, we should first examine the personality of Paul VI.
The son of a professional family of northern Italy, Giovanni Battista Montini chose an ecclesiastical career from his boyhood. At the age of twenty-five, soon after his ordination, he became an official in the secretariat of state, and he continued in it until his appointment as archbishop of Milan thirty-two years later. Such a distinctively curial training has not been exceptional in a pope, but Montini’s concurrent appointments as a chaplain to the Italian union of university students and professor to papal diplomats confirmed his links to intellectual rather than pastoral circles. Philosophically, Montini’s mind was distinguished by a taste for French culture typical of liberal Italian circles; he was an admirer of Maritain, although as pope he was to take the Church in a direction that Maritain strongly repudiated. In 1950 he met the French philosopher Jean Guitton, who became his closest lay friend and left an intimate portrait of him in his book Paul VI Secret. In church circles, Msgr. Montini’s most decisive friendship was with Cardinal Roncalli, who on his election as pope relied on him as his closest confidant. As we have seen, Montini had been appointed archbishop of Milan by Pius XII, and his tenure of the office from 1954 to 1963 was marked, among other things, by a courageous determination to bring the Church to the urban working class.
Perhaps more characteristic, however, were the archbishop’s links with a progressive bourgeois world in which he was temperamentally more at home. That influence was to be seen later in the personnel that he took with him to Rome and was reflected in his cultural style. In his Lenten pastoral of 1962 Cardinal Montini outlined to the Milanese faithful what he saw as the new direction of Catholicism, pointed out by his friend John XXIII: “The Church will divest itself, if need be, of whatever royal cloak still remains on its sovereign shoulders, so that it may put on the simpler forms modern taste demands.” In harmony with that view, Pope Paul, when he entered the Vatican, began to reform the baroque splendours that had satisfied princes and peasants, and to redecorate the palace in the tasteful grey and pink colour scheme favoured in recent years by the genteel middle class of Milan. The change may symbolise the tone of his pontificate: “Thou hast conquered, refined Milanese; the Church has grown grey with thy taste!”
On a more personal level, Pope Paul brought with him a group of his close associates, chief of whom was Don Pasquale Macchi, his private secretary since 1954. Macchi was the leading figure in what came to be called the “Milan mafia,” a phrase that turned out to be more appropriate than its inventors realised at the time. The secretary retained an influence with Paul VI well beyond his official position; in the mid-seventies, as Msgr. Macchi, he was to be named as a member of the “Great Vatican Lodge” of Freemasons, his Masonic initiation dating from 1958, while he was secretary to Archbishop Montini.
Beyond this personal circle, Pope Paul distinguished himself by his favour to the ring of liberal cardinals, especially Cardinals Lercaro, Suenens, and Döpfner, who had conspired illicitly before the conclave to bring about his election. These, who should by rights have been deprived of their cardinalate, were employed in the most influential positions in the Church. We have seen how the three cardinals mentioned were given a supervision of the Council that they used to push through the radical programme; and we have also seen how the reform of the liturgy was handed over to Cardinal Lercaro and Msgr. Bugnini to create a team of their own choosing. The latter provides a model of the self- expanding cliques to which Pope Paul’s methods of rule granted control, and which in the field of the Church’s finances led to the biggest Vatican scandal of the period.
Determinant in Pope Paul’s style of government was his view of the state of the Church. He shared the liberal confidence in the modern age as one of enlightenment and reason, as having overcome the crude passions of the past. In his Lenten pastoral of 1962 Cardinal Montini had told the Milanese: “today there are no errors in the Church, or scandals or deviations or abuses to correct.” This pronouncement, to which the whole of his papacy constitutes a gloss, shows us the degree of acumen with which he judged the contemporary scene. Even if Paul VI had not noticed for himself the dangers latent in the new theological trends, he might have been alerted by the signs of the previous decade, when Pope Pius XII had closed the seminary of the Mission de France and deposed three Dominican provincials in France in his action against the incipient Marxism of the worker-priest movement. We may link Pope Paul’s insouciance with an impression Professor Guitton recorded: “With him one was not in the presence of a cleric, but of a layman who seemed to have been suddenly elevated to the Papacy.” Aside from the optimism dictated by his liberal point of view, one might suggest that Pope Paul simply did not know enough about his job as a Catholic priest to evaluate the Church he was called to govern.
The assessment of Pope Paul’s character was not easy even to himself. “Am I Hamlet or Don Quixote?” he once asked. A doubt between indecision and unreality might be creative in a private thinker, but was not the best qualification for a pope. His tentative style went with another trait that Jean Guitton noted: “When he had taken a decision, it was quite impossible to get him to modify it in any way whatsoever.” This firmness de l’escalier reveals a man who cannot bear to have his judgment questioned once it has reached the stage of public scrutiny. Such details of character go to explain why Giovanni Battista Montini, once raised to the papacy, provided an example of the perfect subordinate who proves a failure when entrusted with supreme authority.
Pope Paul’s most significant weakness was in his judgment of subordinates, displayed disastrously in the matter of the Vatican finances. Central to this was his appointment of Cardinal Jean Villot as secretary of state. The connexion of the two went back to the time when Villot, as secretary of the French episcopate, corresponded with Msgr. Montini in Rome in the days of Pius XII. An aloof and secretive figure, Villot was the typical énarque, promoting the mission of an enlightened elite to dispense progress to the multitude. When Cardinal Roncalli was elected pope, he had not thought that this jolly peasant was at all the right man to lead the Church on the proper liberal paths; if the pope had lived a year or two longer, he might well have verified such fears. Villot’s role in the Vatican Council, when he was coadjutor archbishop of Lyons, has already been noted. Paul VI raised him to the cardinalate in 1965, brought him to the Curia two years later, and in May 1969 appointed him secretary of state, replacing Cardinal Cicognani. Villot remained in office until his death in 1979. He benefited from a measure taken by Paul VI, in direct contrast to the professed aim of de-politicising the Church, whereby the secretary of state was given general authority over all the departments of the Curia, thus introducing a secularisation of the government of the Church under which it has laboured ever since. Villot became the driving force in the campaign to stamp out traditional Catholicism, a policy that Pope Paul, left to himself, might have hesitated to take so far. His efforts to persuade the pope to excommunicate Archbishop Lefebvre were however not successful. Cardinal Villot was named as one of the prominent Freemasons in the Vatican in the lists that began to appear towards the end of Paul VI’s reign, his date of admission being given as 1966.
As head of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, Villot was formally responsible for the thieves’ kitchen into which that department was turned in Paul VI’s papacy. The initiative there belongs, however, to Msgr. Macchi. From the 1950s he had had connexions with leading figures in the Milanese financial world, including Roberto Calvi and Michele Sindona. The latter was the most directly criminal of the circle; he was a Sicilian who moved to Milan after the war and made his fortune as an agent of the Mafia’s tax evasion, beginning from the late fifties to acquire a string of banks. At the same period he gained the friendship of the city’s archbishop, Cardinal Montini. In the sixties, Msgr. Macchi brought Sindona and Calvi into the world of Vatican finances, and an associated figure was Umberto Ortolani, like the latter two a member of the Masonic lodge P2, and whose status as right-hand man to Cardinal Lercaro brought him close to the centre of affairs under Paul VI.
On the ecclesiastical side, the cast was completed by Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, a crude-mannered cleric from Chicago who enjoyed the Paul VI’s high favour from the beginning of his pontificate. Marcinkus was also a crony of Msgr. Macchi, and in 1971 he was appointed president of the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, popularly known as the Vatican Bank. That body was already being used by Sindona to transfer large sums of money from his Italian banks to Switzerland, an activity that he accompanied with currency speculation. In 1974, however, an American bank that he owned collapsed in what was called il crack Sindona, and the Holy See lost an estimated thirty million dollars. The dénouement to this affair only came after the death of Paul VI, when Sindona was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of the lawyer who was liquidating his banks and was himself murdered in prison by his Mafia creditors. In the meantime, Archbishop Marcinkus had by 1972 come under investi- gation by the FBI in connexion with counterfeit bond fraud, but the case was not pursued. As with Sindona’s misdeeds, the disclosures came after Paul VI’s death. In 1981 Roberto Calvi was sentenced for currency offences, but Archbishop Marcinkus continued to do business with him, citing the comment he had heard from somebody, “If you’re not caught you’re not worth anything.” Nemesis came the following year, when Calvi’s Banco Ambrosiano collapsed with gigantic debts. The IOR had been its main shareholder, with Archbishop Marcinkus as a director, and had been used as a channel to move the Ambrosiano’s funds abroad. The drama was soon taken further by the Mafia murder of Roberto Calvi, who was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London. In 1984 the Vatican agreed to pay 224 million dollars to the Ambrosiano’s creditors in recognition of its responsibility in the collapse. Archbishop Marcinkus, however, did not resign as president of the IOR, and he still refused to do so, being sheltered by the Vatican’s sovereignty, when a warrant was issued for his arrest in 1987. Not until 1989 was Pope John Paul II inspired to remove him from his position. The postscript to the story came in 1992, when Licio Gelli, head of P2, and Umberto Ortolani, his deputy in the lodge, were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for fraud in connexion with the bankruptcy of the Banco Ambrosiano.
These events have a bearing on the estimate of Pope Paul VI as an administrator of the Church. Those who find him blameless in the loss of many millions of the faithful may think the loss of many millions of dollars less commendable as a mark of wisdom. The criminal involvement begun in his time was not the fault of an uncontrolled Curia; it was the work of men—Villot, Macchi, and Marcinkus—whom Pope Paul had himself brought into the Vatican and in whom he rested his special confidence. On another side, the case throws light on the claims of the conciliar reform of recovering a fresher, untainted Christianity. The scandals in which it involved the Church eclipse the complaints that were made of over-material interests in Pius XII’s pontificate. The Church’s financial manager of the time, Cardinal Canali, had been accused of relations with the papal banker, Count Enrico Galeazzi, that were less than spiritual. At that period, however, the Vatican had not taken to choosing its advisers from the criminal fringes of Milan and Sicily, and one can hardly imagine Cardinal Canali associating with such characters: he would have thought it beneath his ecclesiastical dignity. In the 1960s, however, the voice of the new democracy urged the pastors of the Church to get their hands dirty, and that they certainly did.
The closed circle of Vatican finance was drawn together by the Masonic links of many of its members, and that web was one that during Paul VI’s papacy spread into every part of the Curia, notably in the departments of finance, of the secretariat of state and of the liturgy. The public disclosures of more than a hundred names of clerics who were Freemasons began in 1976, and after Paul VI’s death they were confirmed to John Paul I by the journalist Mino Pecorelli, himself a disaffected member of the P2 lodge. Pecorelli was an acknowledged expert in the secret ramifications of Italian society and was to be murdered a few months later by those whom his revelations threatened. He made known to John Paul I the existence of a “Great Vatican Lodge,” whose members he knew personally, and including some of the most influential names in the Curia. The figures in the Masonic lists included Cardinal Villot, secretary of state from 1969 to 1979, Archbishop Casaroli, the second man in the secretariat of state from 1967 and Villot’s successor in office, Msgr. Macchi, Archbishop Marcinkus, Cardinal Suenens of Mechlin, the driving force behind much of the Modernist campaign throughout Pope Paul’s reign, Archbishop Bugnini, the architect of the liturgical revolution, Cardinal Poletti, president of the Liturgical Academy and a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship, and Cardinal Baggio, who as president of the Congregation of Bishops initiated the proceedings to suspend Archbishop Lefebvre a divinis in 1976.
When these and many other names were made public, the response of some was to call the list a Lefebvrist invention. That explanation can be discounted. Apart from the individuals mentioned, there was very little correlation between the list and the enemies of traditionalism. Moreover, the information given— merely a list of names, code names, and dates of admission—did nothing to promote the Lefebvrist belief in an infiltration of Masonic agents into the clergy, trained to rise to the top and subvert the Church. All the dates of initiation given in the lists are from the previous twenty years or so, when the clerics in question were already well established in the Church; and one may suppose that the majority had joined the society from motives of self-advancement. In fact, the disclosures seem to represent a leak of the confidential list of members that, under Italian law, secret societies are obliged to deposit with the government. Most of the ecclesiastics mentioned had probably not become Freemasons for ideological reasons, let alone as part of a conspiracy. Nevertheless, their membership displays a contempt for the law of the Church, which at that time decreed excommunication ipso facto for adherence to Freemasonry; and in some cases, such as Cardinal Villot’s, it reflects an attachment to the Masonic ethos of liberal humanism, mediated by a favoured circle of political directors to the backward populace.
It is said that one of the unrealised intentions of Pope John Paul I in his thirty-three-day pontificate (August to September 1978) was to clear some or all of the men named as Freemasons out of the Curia. Like most details of the affair, this will only be verified when the Church someday decides to reveal the inner facts of its vast subversion in the reign of Paul VI. It is known, however, that John Paul’s proposed changes dismayed Cardinal Villot, who described them as “a betrayal of Paul’s will, a triumph for the restoration.” That restoration never took place, for John Paul II chose to ignore the information and to keep the government of the Church under the men advanced by Pope Paul VI.
Against these strands of Paul VI’s pontificate we can set the conventional estimates given by biographies and other works. The premise of these is to ignore the obvious facts of the reign—the secession of tens of thousands of priests from the ministry (eased by Paul VI’s policy of granting laicisation automatically to those who asked for it), the loss of countless thousands of religious vocations, the tumultuous desertion by the laity of the Mass reinvented for their benefit, the collapse of the papacy’s authority—and to present the period as a catalogue of reform. Eamon Duffy in Saints and Sinners finds it possible to describe Paul VI’s pontificate as the greatest of the twentieth century. Judgments of this sort put one in mind of praises of the statesmanship of Marshal Pétain in the heyday of the Nazi regime, a genre of writing in which acknowledgment of reality is replaced by deference to the ruling ideology.
Paul VI was certainly responsible, partly by inaction, for the revolution in the Church that was seen in his fifteen years, but much of that revolution took place from no initiative of his and against his will. If we look at his rule, we find some policies which are certainly due to him. The first of these was the handing of the Council into the control of the Modernist wing, the decision from which the whole current of his pontificate flowed. Yet even here Pope Paul’s influence was only procedural: there was no doctrinal direction such as a great teaching pope might have given, nor even the following of the structured plan for a council that Montini had outlined in 1962. The second policy was the liturgical revolution, which Paul VI pushed forward personally from beginning to end; here again, however, his part consisted merely in putting the liturgical Consilium under Cardinal Lercaro and Msgr. Bugnini and letting them do what they pleased. Pope Paul VI himself had no competence in the liturgy; in October 1965, as we have seen, he had no notion that the reform was being directed to the composition of a new liturgy; and the only personal contribution of his that we find in the process was to excise some of the more radical details of the Novus Ordo.
Aside from that, we can certainly ascribe it to Paul VI that the Curia was transformed from the Italian trade union that it had been into an international body chosen from the whole Church. In other circumstances that would have been commendable, but in practice it was of limited use to reform government while undermining its effective powers. The keeping of Cardinal Ottaviani as secretary of the Holy Office (renamed in 1965 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) reflected Pope Paul’s conviction that both the dicastery and its head were obsolete relics. The policy of placing a well-informed theologian at the head of the congregation, to give the Holy See an effective hand on the pulse of modern theology, did not enter into Pope Paul’s thinking. The redundancy of that department was one example of the curial impotence introduced by his rule, while the rise in number of Vatican officials during his reign from 1,322 to 3,150 recalls the well-known analysis of growth in bureaucracy as the mark of a declining institution.
On the other hand, it is to the credit of Pope Paul that he began the programme of world-wide papal travel with which we are familiar today, a policy from which Pius XII had thought himself debarred, and for which John XXIII had been too old. Without that personal contact of the pope with the world, the campaign of populist recovery that John Paul II carried out in his pontificate would hardly have been possible.
Another change that certainly expressed Paul VI’s will was the creation of bodies designed to promote collegial government of the Church. The most important of these was the Synod of Bishops, which began to meet in Rome from 1967 onward. Yet one has to say that the character of that body as an organ of episcopal control is one of the myths of the conciliar reform. This was illustrated especially in the synod’s first meeting, when its opposition to Bugnini’s new Mass was blatantly overridden; the new liturgy was imposed almost unchanged in the form that the synod had rejected and the procedures to introduce it took care to avoid any further consultation of the bishops.
Nor can one see Paul VI as the inspirer, for better or for worse, of the doctrinal movements that marked his reign. Their leading features, such as the revolutionised model of the priesthood and the acceptance of Liberal Protestant biblical criticism, owed nothing to any teaching of Paul VI, though he took no action to prevent or regulate them. After the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968, Pope Paul was so unnerved by its vituperative reception that he dared not publish another encyclical for the rest of his reign. Even the statement of the Church’s social teaching that was traditionally published on every tenth anniversary of Rerum Novarum took the form, in 1971, not of an encyclical but of a public letter to Cardinal Roy. The paralysis of the papacy’s teaching authority in Paul VI’s reign was thus given constitutional expression.
We can assess the implication of these facts by reflecting that, if the Modernist view of the Church were true, it would be possible for radical change to be made by a strong reforming pope, an ecclesiastical Gladstone or Franklin Roosevelt. It is no such figure that we find in Paul VI. What we see in his reign is not enlightened direction but anarchy spreading under the pressure of Modernist leaders and “public” (in fact, journalistic) opinion, accepted by Pope Paul with every sign of hesitancy and reluctance. His feelings were expressed in wellknown pronouncements, such as in December 1968 when he bewailed the “selfdestruction” of the Church, or in June 1972 when he spoke in a sermon of “an adverse power, the devil, whom the Gospel calls the mysterious enemy of man, something preternatural which came to suffocate the fruits of the Vatican Council.” This less than hearty valuation of the movements of his time also fails to suggest a high sense of his own skill in guiding them. In fact, if we ask why Paul VI is approved by those who believe in the conciliar revolution, it is mainly because he did nothing to check it. One cannot help seeing what an unpopular pope Paul would have been if he had been a conservative, governing the Church along conventional lines. His ineffectiveness, his remoteness from popular feeling, and his lack of doctrinal knowledge would be easily recognised as fundamental defects. But it was only under a pope of that character that the revolution could have been put through; and what it teaches us is that the highest ideal of a pope available to the liberals is of one who fails to rule the Church.
Leaving aside the question of doctrine, few popes in history have shown such an array of disqualifications for their office as Paul VI did: the exclusive dependence on the point of view of the Western European intellectuals, the one-sidedness in promoting the influence of a single party, the reliance on a small circle of confidants, the misjudgment in the choice of subordinates, the amateurishness in doctrine and legislation, the weakness and indecision, and withal the absoluteness in enforcing a partisan policy, all these mark off Paul VI pointedly from his predecessors; one would surely have to go back to one of the obscure popes of the eighteenth century or earlier to find even a distant parallel. But Paul VI was not granted obscurity. It fell to him to govern the Church at a time when a council had been called, and when the need to preserve the Christian vision against the pressures of the contemporary world was especially urgent.
One asks, then, how Paul VI has been spared the evaluation due to him, how he can be seen as a promoter of collegial government when his most distinctive policy, the new liturgy, was imposed in contempt of collegial process, how commentators can ignore that the salient fact of his time was the collapse of papal authority, that his pontificate was a trail of scandalous appointments and unheard-of losses. He escapes because everything that he did, or failed to do, tended to the submission of the Church to the world. Since the world was looking for a Church without authority, a pope without authority seemed the appropriate model. With every error of Paul VI’s, secular opinion, instead of marking it against him, saw with satisfaction the victory of modern standards, the weakening of the Church. Far from judging his failures, observers would have blamed him if he had followed a different course, if he had favoured the middle ground of the Council instead of the European radicals, if he had listened to the bishops instead of the liturgical vandals, if he had given away less, if he had inflicted less damage on the Church’s heritage.
In the short term, therefore, Paul VI escapes a realistic estimate, but the idols of the present age will not last for ever, either in the world or in the Church. When they have passed, he will be judged in the light of the anarchy that he promoted in the Church, the reflexion of his own division of mind. Even as he imposed acceptance of the new Mass, he wrapped it in remorseful phrases: “It is no longer Latin,” we find him saying, “but the common tongue, that will be the principal language of the Mass. For whoever knows the beauty, the power of Latin, its aptitude in expressing sacred things, this will certainly be a great sacrifice, to see it replaced by the common tongue. We are losing the language of the Christian centuries; we are becoming like intruders and outsiders in the literary domain of sacred expression. We are thus losing to a great extent that admirable and incomparable artistic and spiritual richness that is the Gregorian chant. We have reason, to be sure, to feel regrets and almost a confusion over this.” Confusion indeed is the mark of a man who knew the treasure of which his policy was depriving the faithful but who pursued it nevertheless; pursued it, moreover, with blind intolerance, proscribing the liturgical tradition of the Church; pursued it while invoking the pastoral needs of a laity who were deserting the new worship in their millions.
Paul VI’s psychological peculiarities, held in the glare of modern scrutiny, perhaps throw light on the failures of earlier popes whose characters are lost in the darkness of their times. We know nothing of the weaknesses of Honorius, whose submission to the Eastern emperor earned him fifty years later the stern condemnation of Pope Leo: “We anathematise Honorius, who did not seek to purify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of apostolic tradition, but by a profane betrayal permitted its stainless faith to be surrendered.” It may be, however, that the Church’s censure will one day be passed on Paul VI, as on Honorius, as one “who did not, as became the apostolic authority, quench the flame of heretical doctrine as it sprang up, but quickened it by his negligence.”
 One may mention in this connexion that in 1968 Paul VI took the extraordinary step of publicly denying scabrous rumours that had appeared regarding his relations with another priest in Milan years before. The scandal is probably beyond enquiry, but it may suggest that Pope Paul had exposed himself to misunderstanding by his noticeable dependence on those close to him.
 See David Yallop, In God’s Name (London: Cape, 1984), p. 175.
 One eminent traditionalist, the late Michael Davies, even expressed to me his belief that the list was a smoke-screen put up to obscure the real Masonic affiliation of Archbishop Bugnini.
 A more typical example of the right-wing conspiracy theory is to be found in the improbable allegation that Cardinal Liénart, of Lille, had been a Freemason from as early as 1912, long before he began his career as a champion of workers’ rights within the French hierarchy.
 Yallop, op. cit., pp. 296–97.
 A comparable judgment was when, at the end of his life, he remarked to Jean Guitton, “There is great unrest at this time in the Church and what they are questioning is the faith. I am alarmed, when I reflect on the Catholic world, that non-Catholic thinking sometimes seems to prevail within Catholicism. . . .” The analysis, however, is rather as if someone had remarked in 1916, “It almost seems as if Europe were at war.”
 Pope Paul’s speech of November 26, 1969, quoted by Archbishop Lefebvre in They Have Uncrowned Him (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 1987), p. 227.
This excerpt was taken from H. J. A. Sire’s Phoenix from the Ashes, available here (USA) or here (UK) or here (Germany).