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Historia Ecclesiastica

Blankets of Snow

On Paul IV.


It is something of a wonder that Paul VI does not have a great English biographer. The popular reputation of the saintly pope is a man of psychological complexity, though controlled by events more than controlling them. Who has not heard, most likely at a coffee hour in a dingy church basement, the story of John XXIII calling Cardinal Montini “Our Hamlet”? It is true that Paul VI is not a widely loved figure, nor even, in fairness, a figure with a cult following. But that is no impediment to a great biography in our age. Lytton Strachey, impelled upward by malice, was able to reach the heights of the biographer’s art in his chapter on Cardinal Manning, and I am confident no one ever called Manning “Our Hamlet.”

I mean no disrespect to Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography. His Paul VI was written in the early 1990s and has been reissued since. It covers Paul’s life in great detail, and Hebblethwaite has an eye for moments that reveal something of the man. For example, he recounts Paul’s remarks during an Angelus late in his pontificate (on December 8, 1975), in which Paul rhapsodizes about Our Lady spreading over Rome and not only Rome but the whole world a blanket of her own snow, a snow of “her purity, innocence, and beauty.”

Perhaps there is a great Italian biography of Paul VI: a national classic like William Manchester’s life of Churchill or Robert Caro’s behemoth series about Lyndon Johnson. That is to say, a biography that every educated Italian at least pretends to have read. Such biographies of churchmen are not unheard of. At one point in time, every Catholic owned at least one copy of George Weigel’s Witness to Hope. Many owned several, if the free piles outside used bookstores are any guide. Perhaps then, some great Paolo Sesto can be found on the bookshelves of educated Catholics and in free piles all over Italy.

Speculation aside, I think it is fair to say that in the English-speaking world at least Paul VI remains something of an unknown quantity. To be sure, everyone knows the summary version: the Council, Humanae vitae, the Novus Ordo, the tears in the sacristy on Whit Monday. Some might know of his long-running confrontation with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre or his policy of Ostpolitik, but even then we start to get into the weeds fairly quickly. Certainly, few people spend much time reading his encyclicals or other documents. I cannot remember the last time someone told me he was sitting down with Ecclesiam suam or Marialis cultus.

The most serious consequence of this is that we have lost much sense of Paul VI as a thinker or even as a man. We know the broad strokes of his life, but even that dissolves Paul into context. When Pope Francis canonized him in 2018, it was widely held that the canonization was actually a canonization of the Second Vatican Council and was praised or, as the case may be, criticized as such. We know much about the dramatic miracles attributed to the intercession of modern saints such as Saint John Henry Newman and Blessed Carlo Acutis. I wonder whether anyone knows anything about the miracles attributed to Paul VI’s intercession. (If you are playing along at home, both miracles involved the unexplained healing of infants in utero with serious health conditions.) If Paul’s heroic virtues were discussed at all, they were controverted.

For myself, I like to think of Paul VI as the last great Renaissance pope, much as I like to think of his doctrinal chief, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, as the last great Renaissance cardinal. Both men were urbane, cultured clerics: Christian humanists of unimpeachable orthodoxy in the tradition of Saint Thomas More. Paul’s great support for Christian democracy and the European project were of a piece with this. So too was the core of orthodoxy and private devotion one finds on the rare occasions one delves into his writings. The Church took fifteen hundred years or so to produce, through slow processes, a Montini or an Ottaviani.

Pope Francis’s Apostolic Letter on the seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death, Candor lucis aeternae, mentions that Paul had a keen interest in the great Italian poet and politician. In 1965, on the seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante’s birth, Paul sent a golden cross to Dante’s tomb. Months later he sent Florence a golden laurel wreath. Finally, he presented the fathers of the Council an edition of the Divine Comedy. In his own apostolic letter Altissimi cantus Paul found in Dante a pattern of authentic Christian humanism and the restoration of order through the harmony of “faith and reason, Beatrice and Vergil, Cross and Eagle, Church and Empire.”

Francis reminds us that Paul saw in Dante the exaltation of human values—“intellectual, moral, emotional, cultural and civic”—but only as “the fruit of his deepening experience of the divine, as his contemplation was gradually purified of earthly elements.” I think one sees a key to Paul’s personality and outlook in this approach to Dante: for Paul, Christian humanism was the fruit of Christian devotion. And Paul’s Christian humanism demanded engagement with the world and the world’s problems.

This is why Paul’s social encyclical Populorum progressio has been excepted from the general forgetting. It attracted some notice in 2009 when Benedict XVI chose to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Populorum progressio with Caritas in veritate. It has been routine for modern popes to mark the anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum by issuing their own interventions on the burning social and economic questions of the age. Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno and Saint John Paul II’s Centesimus annus are two of the most notable commemorations, but Pius XII marked the fiftieth anniversary with a 1941 radio address and John XXIII issued Mater et magistra for the seventieth anniversary. Pope Francis has routinely cited Populorum progressio in his social encyclicals, Laudato si’ and Fratelli tutti, and in Querida Amazonia, his apostolic exhortation following the Amazon Synod.

But Paul himself commemorated Rerum novarum—on schedule as it were—in 1971 with the Apostolic Letter Octogesima adveniens to Maurice Cardinal Roy, archbishop of Quebec and president of various pontifical councils under Paul. Octogesima adveniens is less well known than Populorum progressio, but it is a rich document that in many ways anticipated the developments in the Church’s social teaching under Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.

One can go down the list of headings in the English edition of Octogesima adveniens and see the social issues of the last fifty years laid out in a kind of summary. Paul anticipated Francis’s concerns in Querida Amazonia about the effects of relentless urbanization and industrialization on traditional ways of life and on families and neighborhoods. He also considered the precarious situation of emigrants, compelled by economic or environmental factors to leave their homes and seek opportunities in foreign countries.

More striking still, Paul seems to have foreseen the problems of modern communications technology that have concerned the current pontiff. Paul wrote eloquently and clearly about the responsibility of the owners of the means of communication and asked probing questions about them, their goals, and the relationship between technology and individual liberty. Paul saw that the question of our freedom extends beyond narrowly political or ideological dimensions to social, economic, and cultural life.

While it is unlikely that Paul could have imagined the rise of Facebook and Twitter, to say nothing of Amazon. But he did not need to do so. He understood that the question of liberty was not merely a juridical or political question. It concerns all aspects of life, and Paul called upon public authorities to exercise their power for the common good by defending individual citizens and promoting the fundamental values of society.

This included care for the natural world. Paul anticipated Pope Francis’s legendary quip about the earth becoming an “immense pile of filth” when he warned that our common home was in danger of becoming a “permanent menace.” He expressed concern that environmental catastrophes were slipping beyond human control. While Paul’s treatment of this question in Octogesima adveniens was by no means as extensive as Francis’s in Laudato si’, the fundamental concerns of the latter are contained in Paul’s brief comments. History has shown Paul’s concerns to be entirely justified.

Octogesima adveniens did not limit itself to concrete social concerns. It touches, in keeping with the popes’ interventions going all the way back to Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, on the broader ideological conflicts that still raged in 1971. Paul taught that the Catholic cannot share a worldview that contradicts his faith or his understanding of man:

He cannot adhere to the Marxist ideology, to its atheistic materialism, to its dialectic of violence and to the way it absorbs individual freedom in the collectivity, at the same time denying all transcendence to man and his personal and collective history; nor can be adhere to the liberal ideology which believes it exalts individual freedom by with drawing it from every limitation, by stimulating it through exclusive seeking of interest and power, and by considering social solidarities as more or less automatic consequences of individual initiatives, not as an aim and a major criterion of the value of the social organization.

Today, the failure of the second of these ideologies is perhaps more obvious to us than it was in Paul’s day. But as alternatives to liberalism are sought, Marxism remains very much a live option for many young people. Here Paul’s tone, though forceful, is not reflexively dismissive; he  understood the appeal of Marxist thought for some Catholics. Christians are attracted to socialism as an expression of their ideals of solidarity, justice, and equality. But Paul, who writes at some length about competing definitions of socialism—as “a struggle—at times with no other purpose—to be pursued and even stirred up in permanent fashion,” as “the collective exercise of political and economic power under the direction of a single party,” as an “ideology based on historical materialism and the denial of everything transcendent,” and as a scientific theory that “gives a privileged position to certain aspects of reality to the detriment of the rest”—saw what so few do: that these definitions do not exist independent of the history of socialism and the “totalitarian and violent society to which this process leads.”

Paul was equally strident about liberalism, unafraid of cautioning that even as Christians embraced it during the Cold War as a response to the threat of the Soviet Union, they should be on their guard. He saw that “economic efficiency” and concerns about “the totalitarian tendencies of political powers” should not blind us to the fact that “at the very root of philosophical liberalism is an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty.”

Paul’s suspicion of “every system and every ideology” is best understood not in the narrow historical context of the era, but in terms of the connection he draws in Altissimi cantus between the exaltation of human values and the contemplative life. Aristotle and Aquinas held that the contemplative life is the highest happiness of man. However, as Charles de Koninck argued in The Principle of the New Order, all modern revolutionary ideologies have rejected the primacy of the speculative in favor of the practical reason. In Marx’s thought, there is no room for the contemplative life, which is nothing more than an outgrowth of the forces of production; under liberalism it is either a luxury good or else an obstacle to a technocratic conception of order that is all too frequently reducible to unrestricted commerce.

Paul’s Christian humanism finds its highest expression here. One could perhaps say that he understood in terms of poetry what Aristotle understood in terms of philosophy: the contemplative life produces the exaltation of human values—not the other way around. Aristotle teaches us that complete happiness is the contemplation of noble and divine things in accordance with the virtue of such contemplation. Aquinas teaches us that the maximum in any genus is the cause and measure of all in that genus. Paul’s emphasis on the primacy of the speculative—expressed in his rejection of socialist materialism and technocratic capitalism—reflects a deep philosophical insight. Contemplation, Paul says, is the best part of man and the cause of man’s happiness. From contemplation comes all the other happiness worth having. The rejection of contemplation therefore makes man less than a man.

This is why throughout Octogesima adveniens, one finds Paul insisting that the only way to happiness, to true progress, is through understanding the truth about man and God. The errors he decries —dialectical materialism, totalitarianism, utopianism, scientism—all distort the truth about man and God. And the effects of those distortions, for Paul, inevitably and paradoxically lead to restrictions on man’s temporal happiness. His denunciations of ideology are of a piece with his warnings about urbanization and pollution, and all form part of his proposal for “the integral development of man.”

Paul’s unflinching confrontation with modernity continued long after Octogesima adveniens. An example of this: his stringent condemnations of drugs. At his general audience on September 13, 1972, Paul drew a startling connection between the modern attack on chastity and the rise of illegal drug use. He lamented the debasement of man through provocante immondezza—“provocative filth”—that corrodes our reason and our spiritual sensibilities, a theme to which he would return again that year, in a long speech to the Carlo Erba Foundation on December 18. Later in November 1976, addressing an American congressional delegation on drug abuse, he observed that a drug user was “profoundly affected in the exercise of intellect and will, in the fulfillment of his or her true role as a human being, and finally in the attainment of a high spiritual destiny.” The last fifty years of widespread—and indeed now quasi-legal—drug use and pornography have proven Paul correct.

What does this mean for the legacy of the pope who is most commonly associated with the missal he promulgated in 1970? I would not deny that the events of Paul VI’s papacy were significant. But to focus on them exclusively at the expense of the man himself does an injustice to Paul. His vision of Christian humanism speaks even now to the truth that man’s highest happiness is found in the contemplative life, and that this happiness is the cause and measure of all other human values.

Patrick Smith blogs at Semiduplex.

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