Pope Saint Paul VI: Hope in the desert of Catholic renewal

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 30, 2019

The very first feast of Pope Saint Paul VI was yesterday, May 29th, and his canonization late last year ought to be taken as a sign of hope for the rest of us. Yes, I know that some Catholics think this pope was a weak, imprudent and ineffective man who should never have been canonized, but disagreeing with the Church about whether a saint is a saint is one of those things that calls our own Catholicism into question.

Certainly Paul VI’s abilities were limited in a variety of ways. He himself felt (and said) that all he had been able to do for the Church was suffer. But that, I think, is the whole point.

It won’t do, of course, to ignore Paul’s real achievements. Whatever people may think of the implementation of the reforms called for at Vatican II, anybody with an ounce of sense should be able to see that a clash was inevitable between the literal intentions of the Council’s program of renewal and its reception, given the public explosion of secularization throughout the length and breadth and height of Western culture, an explosion which corresponded chronologically with the close of the Council.

If one goes back and reads the documents today in order to understand what the Council sought to accomplish, the faithful reader will be generally impressed by the richness and solid good sense of the documents. But much of the good was distorted in the implementation by secularizing trends which dominated huge numbers of bishops, priests and laity in the Church—simply because such trends dominated even more fiercely the secular culture from which the Church drew her members, and within which she educated and formed her professors and priests and bishops.

No wonder Pope Paul VI was frustrated. For all that, though, when he could rely completely on himself, he was unerring in his commitment to truth. The clearest example of this is his famous rejection of the conclusion reached by the majority of the theological commission he had charged with studying the problem of contraception in light of the new means available. The result of this rejection was the positive, beautiful, decisive, and prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) (1968), which was anything but the work of a coward or a fool.

Besieged on all sides

We who are smug—and all who, unlike Paul VI, are not saints tend to be smug—also like to forget that Paul was beset on all sides. The reception of Humanae Vitae may be taken as an indication of the pressures of the secularization to which I have already alluded. The near-total rebellion of Catholic scholars, the rejection to this day by the vast majority of Catholic couples, the failure even among bishops to defend and advance the Church’s teaching on human sexuality—all of these prove the thesis that the very factors which placed the Church in such great need of renewal, the very factors which Pope Saint John XXIII sought to combat by calling the Council, were so far advanced as to render the Church all but impossible to renew without some form or period of purgation.

At the same time, however, a great many of those who reacted negatively to the secularizing trends were all too eager to place their own vacuous modernity on display by exercising a distinctively private judgment in defense of Traditional-ISM. I spell the word this way to indicate what was, in effect, an ideology, incapable of distinguishing the essential from the inessential, or even what was permanently helpful from what was simply old and ossified—a seriously deficient formalism. For an audience (like CatholicCulture.org’s) which rightly reveres the Revelation perennially carried forward in Sacred Tradition, it is important to emphasize how often those who claimed the banner of Tradition were seriously off the mark—merely attached to human traditions, an error for which Christ Himself not infrequently rebuked those whom He vainly hoped would listen. Thus was Paul VI besieged on all sides. No wonder he lamented:

It is even affirmed that the Second Vatican Council is not binding; that the faith would be in danger also because of the post-conciliar reforms and guidelines, which there is a duty to disobey to preserve certain traditions. What traditions? Does it belong to this group, and not the Pope, not the Episcopal College, not an Ecumenical Council, to establish which of the countless traditions must be regarded as the norm of faith!
For references and a more complete discussion of the authority of Vatican II, see my 2011 essay, Paul VI and Vatican II.

We are failures too

The vagaries of human culture make Providence very mysterious indeed. Who can say, with perfect clarity, why Catholic culture in the West appeared to be on the rise for a millennium between, say 300 and 1300 AD, only to rot from within as the medieval revolving door between the nobility and the episcopate ensured that so many Church leaders were worldly, vain, and preoccupied with political power and political immorality, so as to seriously undermine the Church from within, in a manner which arguably rivaled what we face today? And who can say why, in God’s Providence, the deChristianization of Western culture proceeded steadily over the past six hundred years only to explode into the universal and decidedly public reign of secularism circa 1965?

I know there are conspiracy theories to explain everything but, in truth, we do not and cannot fully understand the progress and regress of centuries and millennia, which are God’s to know and ours to suffer. Moreover, sometimes what we perceive as progress is regress, and vice versa.

Instead, we struggle to live fearful Christian lives in our own restricted worlds; we strive (sometimes unsuccessfully) to raise our children Catholic; we make more compromises with our own secularity and laziness and vice than we are capable of recognizing, given the state of our souls; and then we lament daily how little we can accomplish for the good of the Church. Even those of us who strive to be involved in Catholic renewal “full time” (but only, of course, within reason and primarily for the benefit of others) are constantly amazed—when we are not thoroughly disheartened—by how little we are able to accomplish, even throughout an entire lifetime, for the good of the Church. How many priests and religious daily confront the same sadness?

And yet despite our bitter ineffectuality, we would like to be saints. This is why I repeat once again the mantra of Catholic renewal in our time: We are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful. At the level of visible results, there is no necessary correlation between the two.

It is just this that makes Paul VI a saint from whom we should draw hope. It is just this that makes him a saint for the rest of us. The next time we condemn anyone for his or her failure in the task of renewing the Church, we should look in the mirror and pray for mercy—through Pope Saint Paul VI.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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