Saturday, August 9
"It's a bird.....it's a plane.......it's Paul VI!"
The always excellent John Allen at NCR gives us a great piece this week about "Paul VI, the superhuman pope." Some highlights:
Reflecting on the anniversary of Paul VI's death, which fell on Wednesday, Benedict wielded a striking adjective indeed in characterizing his predecessor, who led the church through the storms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and its aftermath: "Superhuman."
The past two weeks have provided fresh confirmation of the point. Last week's 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Paul's encyclical reiterating the church's ban on contraception, triggered a predictable flood of commentary (in which I participated, penning an Aug. 3 op/ed for the Times at the editors' request); the 30th anniversary of Paul's death this week has been met with a fairly deafening silence. In the popular mind, Paul's pontificate has essentially been reduced to its most controversial moment.
Such summary dismissals are terribly unfair to a pope who was among the most consequential, and, in many ways, most admirable Catholic personalities of the 20th century.
If the key word of the papacy of John XXIII was aggiornamento, bringing the church up to date, and that of John Paul II evangelization, boldly urging Catholicism to "set out into the deep," Paul VI's leitmotif was very much dialogue -- gentle, respectful conversation, never vacillating about the truth of the Christian message, but always open to what he called "the elements of truth in the opinions of others."
Among Catholics, Paul VI looms as the great exception to the normal tendency to put a positive spin on anything a pope says or does. In Paul's case, everybody seems to lead with their favorite beef. Liberals can't forgive Paul for not being John XXIII, forever lamenting his rulings on birth control and women's ordination. Conservatives won't forgive Paul for not being John Paul II, deriding his handling of liturgical reform and his Ostpolitik, a policy of dialogue with Socialist states. Self-styled experts often characterize Paul as a tragic or sad figure, which usually functions as an indirect way of minimizing his accomplishments.
In an era in which ideological tribalism has become the dominant mode of social organization, even within the church, it seems to me that Paul VI suffered the fate of anyone not clearly identified with a particular tribe. Because he tried to see the wisdom in all points of view, he had no natural constituency, no "base," to use today's political jargon, and thus no lobby to ride to his rescue when times got tough.
Paul's willingness to resist quick judgment earned him the moniker of the "Hamlet pope," but those who knew Paul insist it wasn't spinelessness or angst, but rather a keen sense of the insufficiency of simple answers.
Paul VI, in other words, was animated by the deeply Catholic instinct to seek both/and solutions to what others saw as either/or problems. The price he paid is that he was never a hero, either in his own time or now, to those who think in either/or terms; he was, instead, a prophet of that "not too numerous center" famously described by the late Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan.
All in all, Allen's piece is one of the most beautiful tributes to Pope Paul that I've seen, and certainly a heartening piece for those, myself included, who are tired of entrenched ideological battling within the Church and seek to appreciate and negotiate the goods that are available on all sides. Let us all, with Benedict XVI, strive to imitate Paul VI's " obvious gifts of intelligence and his passionate love for the church and for humanity" and recognize that superhuman courage and love can often appear as very little in the sight of the world.