John XXIII, Paul VI and the role of the Pope
I am now in the process of reading (and digesting) Romano Amerio’s Iota Unum. Professor Amerio was chosen as perito from the Bishop of Lugano during the fateful years of the Second Vatican Council and therefore not only had all the documents going through his desks, but was also best informed on the background events.
Professor Amerio’s ruthlessly honest analysis of the changes experienced by the Church in the way it presents itself – and of how the Church hierarchy has modified the way of interpreting Her role – offers the starting point for a vast number of discussions. Today I would like to dwell on the role of the Pope.
Professor Amelio identifies the role of the Pope as being basically twofold: direction and prescription. The first is the identification and formulation of proper rules of conduct which are in themselves not binding but mere suggestions; the second the prescribing and enforcing of a certain behaviour. Historically, Popes have used both functions in various ways, but the ability of the Pope to act as a source of prescriptive law (that is: to demand and to enforce rather than merely to suggest) has never been downplayed.
With the Second Vatican Council, a dramatic change occurs. The papacy shifts, to use Amerio’s words, “from governing to admonishing”. The first function is clearly downplayed and considered more or less obsolete, the second one is now declared to be the weapon of choice.
Let us read from the Opening Speech of the Council: confronted with the problem of how to deal with error, John XXIII declares that the Church
prefers today to make use of the medicine of mercy, rather than of the arms of severity.
John XXIII indicates that the Church wants to resist error
by showing the validity of her teaching, rather than by issuing condemnations
This concept that mercy and severity be intrinsically opposed (so spread today, even in the everyday language) is a novel idea. It is, in fact, contrary to the firmly held belief of the Church that, as Amerio beautifully puts it,
the condemnation of error is itself a work of mercy, since by pinning down error those laboring under it are corrected and other are preserved from falling into it.
This tragically weak conception of the role of the Papacy rests on the rather naive idea that errors be, in the long term, self-correcting; that in other words be sufficient for the Church to merely point out to the right thinking in order for the straying sheep to, in time, see the errors of their ways and naturally come back to orthodoxy.
This new concept of the way a Pope exercises his powers – which Amerio aptly calls, with Isaiah, Breviatio Manus Domini or “foreshortening of the arm of the Lord” – does not die with John XXIII but continues unabated, and even in a dramatically accentuated form, under the pontificate of his successor Paul VI.
Paul VI is so weak that when the “Dutch schism” occurs (an unbelievable event in which a so-called “Dutch Pastoral Council”, a gathering of more than 5000 representatives of the Church in Holland, convened in the presence of the Bishops and voted with a 90% majority for the abolition of priest celibacy, the employment of secularised priests in pastoral position, the right of bishops to exercise a deliberative vote on papal decrees and even the ordination of women) his reaction is to point out to all the errors of the deliberation, but at the same time to ask the bishops: “what do you think that We can do to help you, to strenghten your authority, to enable you to overcome the present difficulties of the Church in Holland?”.
This is breathtaking. Paul VI is confronted with a compact group of heretical bishops and far from severely punishing them, he asks them what he can do to strenghten their authority. Here we see not only the great personal weakness of the Pope, but the utter inability of the new “soft” approach toward error to avoid its spreading and its becoming more and more aggressive. The Dutch schism was in fact not silenced until John Paul II demanded obedience rather than meekly suggesting it.
But Paul VI was not the only one. Let us read the words of Cardinal Gut, the then prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, regarding Paul VI’s approach to liturgical abuses:
“Many priests did whatever they liked. They imposed their own personalities. Very often unauthorised initiatives could not be stopped. In his great goodness and wisdom, the Holy father then made concessions, often against his own inclinations”.
Here, a Cardinal sees in the giving in to unlawfulness an indication of “goodness and wisdom”. Furthermore, the repeated indication of initiatives which “could not be stopped” by those whose job would have been to stop them reveals all the scale of the weakness dominating the Vatican corridors in those fateful years.
Even heresies can be stopped. Even extremely spread ones. It just takes the right people at the helm.
Only two days ago I have pointed out to the great courage and firmness showed by Pope Pius XII in front of Nazi evil. Today I point out to the “self-demolition” (not my words: Paul VI’s) started just a few years after the death of that great Pope.
The contrast couldn’t be more dramatic.