The renewed relevance of Paul VI.

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Bruce Duncan.

pope paul vi 1
Papal Visit 1970, Kvasir79, flickr cc

Paul VI has been almost forgotten in the public mind, except perhaps for his 1968 letter on human life and marriage, Humanae Vitae. Few people today will have read what he intended as an inspiring reflection on human love and relationships, and know only that he finally said no to contraceptive methods of birth control.

The furore that resulted shook Pope Paul profoundly, and obscured for many his profound commitment to justice and peace, spelt out most strikingly in his 1967 encyclical, Development of Peoples, and his landmark address to the United Nations in October 1965, the first by a pope. At the height of the Cold War, he famously declared in the UN General Assembly: ‘No more war, war never again. It is peace, peace which must guide the destinies of peoples and of all humanity.’

Nor must we forget the impact of Pope Paul’s visit to Sydney in 1970, which did so much to dissipate the old sectarian climate in that city and encourage ecumenical collaboration.

Of the 80 popes recognised as saints, many martyred in early centuries, in the last thousand years only seven popes have been acknowledged as saints by the Church, including the recently canonised John XXIII and John Paul II. But Pope Francis is keen that the Church also acknowledges Paul VI as a saint, and on 19 October declared him ‘Blessed’, with his feast day as 26 September.

Pope John Paul II, as his name suggested, wished to carry forward the initiatives of both his predecessors, particularly on matters of peace and justice, but he was such a superstar on the global stage during his 27 years as Pope that both John XXIII and Paul VI were overshadowed.

Concerns for peace and justice

Pope Paul’s concern for justice and peace stemmed from his conviction that Church thinking needed thorough renewal. His father had been a prominent anti-Fascist lawyer, a journalist – the Fascists smashed his printery – and a member of the Italian parliament. The future pope, J-B Montini, was keenly interested in political philosophy and debates, and read avidly the works of the so-called New Theology, arguing for new approaches derived from the best scholarship in Scripture, church history, and theology.

For much of his career, Montini worked in the Secretariat of State, and though never publicly critical of the restrictive policies of Pius XII, tried to protect the new writers and thinkers from reactionary groups in the Vatican. Nevertheless, many of the leading scholars were silenced during the 1950s, until they re-emerged among the experts guiding the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in its fundamental reworking of Catholic thought and practice.

Influence of Maritain

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002 Pope Paul VI in Pope Mobile – IEC 1964, SSSInternational J3s, flickr cc

Montini was also strongly influenced by the French philosopher, Jacques Maritain, especially for his interpretation of Catholic political thinking so as to embrace contemporary concerns for human rights, democracy, and political liberties. Maritain had been one of the leading opponents of the reactionary movement Action Française, and had campaigned in the mid-1930s for the Church in Spain and elsewhere to promote vigorous social reforms.

As a member of the French Peace Committee during the Spanish Civil War, Maritain tried to negotiate an end to the war and denounced atrocities on both sides. He particularly attacked the ‘crusade mentality’ which typified opponents in absolute terms, as if engaged in a metaphysical struggle between the forces of Good and Evil. He said the mentality affected both sides, but he castigated Catholics particularly for not rejecting this mentality totally, as it resulted in human rights abuses and war crimes. To kill in the name of Christ risked blasphemy, he said.

Marooned in the United States on a speaking tour when France was invaded by Germany, Maritain joined in activities to rescue Jews (his wife was Jewish) and broadcast for the Free French radio. After the war, de Gaulle made Maritain French ambassador to the Vatican until 1948. During this time, Maritain used to dine occasionally with Montini.

In earlier years, Montini had been chaplain to the university Catholic youth organisations, encouraging them to develop their anti-Fascist political and social programs in support of democracy and social justice. Many of these people emerged as leaders of the Christian Democrats after the war, including Aldo Moro and Giulio Andreotti.

During and after the war, Montini was also at the forefront of efforts to care for the millions of refugees flooding though Europe, mobilising Church resources to find food, shelter and support, including facilitating migration to countries like Australia, and helping to trace friends and relatives and reunite families.

Montini was moved out of the Vatican and made Archbishop of Milan in 1954 in an attempt by conservative factions in Rome to reduce his influence. But the next Pope, his friend John XXIII, in 1958 made him the first of his cardinals, and he succeeded John as Pope Paul VI in 1963.


Immensely learned (his personal library numbered some 8,000 books) and experienced in politics in the Vatican, Pope Paul ably steered the Vatican Council to a remarkably successful conclusion. But he realised that the implementation of the Council would be contentious. Hence in 1964, he wrote his first encyclical, On Dialogue, on the need for civilised and open discussion in the Church about correcting defects and encouraging renewal (#13).

Bearing in mind how sharp were differences among the bishops, the document was not meant just for the Council Fathers themselves, but more broadly for an increasingly polarised Church struggling out of the cocoon of an authoritarian culture and tradition.

It is not surprising that, after decades of the so-called ‘culture wars’ in the US Church and elsewhere, Pope Francis is again highlighting the need for honest and open discussion of sensitive issues, some of which had been off the agenda.


Pope Paul’s greatest document is widely considered to be Development of Peoples in 1967, which carried forward many of the ideas in the Vatican Council’s Church in the Modern World. Pope Paul saw the struggle for human fulfilment – for oneself, for others, and especially for the poor and marginalised – as summarising our moral duties in the world. He spoke of a renewed ‘Christian humanism’, endorsing all that was genuinely human, and wishing to collaborate with all promoting human wellbeing. He rejected an excessive spiritualising of religion which ignored secular responsibilities.

Pope Paul in 1967 set up the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace to educate Catholics about their social duties and to advocate for social justice. The Australian Bishops in turn set up the National Commission for Justice and Peace in Sydney in 1968, and the social justice agenda gradually assumed greater importance in Catholic education, life, and works.

It is not surprising that Pope Benedict XVI in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, highlighted Development of Peoples; just as Pope Leo XIII’s document, The Condition of the Working Class in 1891 was the foundational stimulus for Catholic social thought and action from the late nineteenth century, so Development of Peoples must be the key document at this time of globalisation and rapid social change worldwide.

Liberation movements

Development of Peoples was followed by the 1971 Synod of Bishops in Rome. Both of these works had immense impact in Latin America and the Philippines, and helped mobilise Catholic social movements in terms of liberation theology.

The final social achievement of Pope Paul was the 1975 document, On Evangelisation, reportedly written with some input from Cardinal Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II.

The document insisted: ‘The church… has the duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings, many of whom are her own children – the duty of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete. This is not foreign to evangelisation (#30). The Church was ‘trying more and more to encourage large numbers of Christians to devote themselves to the liberation of men.’ (#38).

After many setbacks along the way, liberation theology is now back in favour. However, it is within the new context of rapid globalisation, economic and environmental crises, recurring military conflicts, growing population pressures, and stubbornly high levels of extreme poverty in many countries.

Like Pope Francis, we are all invited to follow this path blazed by Paul VI.



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