Pope Paul VI
Pope Paul VI; drawing by David Levine


Peter Hebblethwaite’s timely and well-documented biography of Giovanni Battista Montini (1897–1978), whom he calls “the first modern pope,” brings into focus the character of a remarkable prelate, whose intelligence, ecclesial background, and career paradoxically made him overqualified for the position of supreme pastor of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he was elected in 1963. Tacitus undoubtedly would have rated him capax imperandi nisi imperasset—“a capable governor, if only he had never governed.”

This would not be an unfair appraisal of the considerable achievements of Paul VI, who in 1963 reconvened John XXIII’s Vatican Council and brought it to a successful conclusion after four years of agonizing contention between the Church’s bishops and the Vatican bureaucracy. It was Paul’s painful, Hamlet-like indecision during the aftermath of Vatican II, in dealing with the old guard in the Roman Curia, that resulted in the disillusion, resignations, and rebellion among clergy and nuns who had expected speedy implementation of the council’s liberal decrees. His indecision also caused widespread disaffection and discontent among the Catholic laity, and almost brought down his papacy in the late 1960s. Hebblethwaite has succeeded in penetrating the enigma of this highly sensitive, sophisticated, and worldly Italian churchman who almost brought about the updating of the Church projected by his beloved predecessor, and then failed to do so.

Montini came from a family that was active in the pre–World War I social, religious, and political life of northern Italy. His parents met for the first time on a pilgrimage to Rome, prophetically on the steps of St. Peter’s. His father, Giorgio Montini, at thirty-three was an established banker and publisher of the daily Il Cittadino di Brescia; his mother, Giuditta Alghisi, at nineteen was an orphan, a well-to-do socialite and a moderate feminist. Her guardian, Giuseppe Bonardi, the mayor of Brescia, a rabid, anti-Catholic socialist and an old Garibaldian, had opposed their marriage. Of their three sons Ludovico became a senator, Giovanni a medical doctor, and Battista the Pope. Too delicate in health for seminary life or for service in the military, young Battista lived at his parents’ house with his grandmother and aunt while pursuing his ecclesiastical studies. In 1920, at twenty-three, he was ordained a priest by the local bishop, who was a family friend.

Intent on pursuing studies in literature and the arts, he enrolled in the Sapienza (University of Rome), where he was spotted by Monsignor Giuseppe Pizzardo of the Vatican Secretariat of State who encouraged him to register in the papal Collegio di Nobili to be trained as a diplomat. He developed a talent for writing and a deep interest in French literature and theology. As a junior cleric at the Vatican, he became chaplain of the Federation of Italian University Students (FUCI), the only lay Catholic organization that engaged in serious intellectual opposition to Mussolini’s fascist regime, which was also opposed by the reigning Pope, the redoubtable Pius XI, who was preparing an encyclical denouncing fascism.

FUCI was the target of political violence; during a pilgrimage members were beaten up by Mussolini’s goons. Montini, having arranged for a group of these students to have a special audience with Pius XI, had the unenviable task of informing them at the last moment, outside the audience chamber, that the Pope would not receive them—because he had learned that one of them had sent a telegram of congratulations to King Victor Emmanuel, and this was anathema to the self-proclaimed “prisoner of the Vatican” who was still protesting the 1870 usurpation of the papal states. This incident, as Hebblethwaite makes clear, is typical of the pitfalls Montini would experience throughout his career.

Having been brought into Vatican inner circles, Montini found that he was now favored by Monsignor Alfredo Ottaviani, the sostituto or right-hand man of Pius XI. In 1937 Montini was entrusted with the delicate diplomatic task of dispatching Monsignor Francis J. Spellman, the future cardinal of New York, to Paris where he was to release the closely guarded text of the encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno—“We have no need of this [nonsense],” the Pope’s condemnation of fascism. Montini then found himself removed as chaplain of FUCI, on a trumped-up charge of political meddling. After setting up courses in theology at the university, he launched a theological journal, Studium, and he seemed to retain the confidence of his patrons in the Vatican. In 1937 Pius XI issued his encyclical in German condemning Nazism, Mit brennender Sorge—“With burning care.”

When Cardinal Pacelli became Pius XII in 1939, Montini became the new pope’s sostituto, while Ottaviani moved to the head of the ancient and powerful Holy Office. Montini’s new job was not easy. Pius XII, who had a penchant for omniscience, asked him and his staff to research projected papal speeches on midwifery, mechanics, basketball, and similar arcane topics. Pius XII’s neutral policy toward Germany during the war was widely criticized, most harshly in Hochhuth’s play The Deputy. Montini disavowed the playwright’s charge that the Pope was cowardly and wrote that if he had taken up “a position of violent opposition to Hitler in order to save the lives of…millions of Jews,” this would have been “not only futile but harmful.” He also wrote: “It is not true to say that Pope Pius XII’s conduct was inspired by a calculating political opportunism.”


Indeed, Montini himself had had a hand in the Pope’s Christmas message in 1942 denouncing the idolatry of the German state and condemning “the hundreds of thousands of innocent people put to death…because of their race or descent.” Von Ribbentrop vociferously objected to this message. After the war Montini supported the liberal Alcide de Gasperi to succeed Don Luigi Sturzo as head of the Catholic Partito Popolare Italiano. This gained him the ill will of the conservative bloc in the Curia, or papal administration in Rome (including the cardinals Canali, Ottaviani, Pizzardo, Mimmi, and Micara), which backed Dr. Luigi Gedda as leader of the Christian Democratic Party.

In December 1954, when Pius XII became gravely ill, Montini was unceremoniously removed from the Vatican to become archbishop of Milan, but without the cardinal’s hat that usually goes with this prestigious diocese, a familiar case of promoveatur ut amoveator—“upgraded, to be ousted.” This turned out to be fortuitous. The elimination of Montini from the papal conclave of 1958 opened the way for the election of Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the popular patriarch of Venice, as an “interim” pope who (so the electors thought) would not rock the boat, and would soon disappear. John XXIII, Montini’s close friend, immediately created him a cardinal. After John’s death in June 1963, Montini contradicted the ancient cliché, “He who enters a conclave as pope exits as cardinal,” by being elected Pope Paul VI.

Two veteran churchmen were prominent in their support of Paul VI’s determination to continue efforts to bring about major reforms within the Church. They were Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens of Belgium, and the Bavarian priest and theologian Bernard Häring, both now in their eighties, who have written the books under review. In Belgium Cardinal Suenens—a tall, stately, and fearless man—had barely escaped hanging by the retreating Nazis, whose interference with the University of Louvain and with the secular universities of Ghent and Liège he had courageously opposed. The timely arrival of American forces saved his life. This experience confirmed his imperturbable parrhesia (frankness in speech) and the boldness with which he acted as one of Paul’s main confidants during the council sessions. In the first session, under John, Suenens had taken his stand as a leader of the progressives, most of them residential cardinals and prelates, including over eight hundred missionary bishops. But Paul’s other chief adviser was Cardinal Ottaviani, his early patron and protector, who led the council’s conservative minority opposition.

Ottaviani was defeated in his attempts to block the revolutionary achievements of the assembled prelates in redefining the nature of the Church, the sources of divine revelation in the scriptures, the inviolability of individual consciences, and the absolute quality of religious freedom in both civil and ecclesiastical societies. He acknowledged at the council’s end, “I have always been in the minority.” This crafty veteran understood that minority control could outwit majority will—the familiar Bolshevik tactic. As “proprefect” of the Holy Office—in effect its chief administrator—he assumed the prerogatives of personal infallibility in dealing with the Church’s doctrines and moral teachings. He never hesitated to censor fellow-prelates and distinguished theologians, and he banned the Dutch bishops’ reform-minded early pastoral letter on the council from being translated for circulation to the council members. He also prevented the preparatory commission from inviting many prominent theologians to take part, including the French Dominicans Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu, the French Jesuits Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, the Swiss theologian Hans Küng, the German Jesuit Karl Rahner, and the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray. All were men of outstanding competence who attended the council itself and eventually made decisive contributions in the debates.

The irony of this situation was that Ottaviani was never a trained theologian. He was an expert in Church law who taught the subject at the Lateran seminary during much of his curial career. Though by the time of the council he was partially blind, he was possessed of an exceptional memory and a ready command of Latin, and through the power of his office he was able to intimidate many bishops and cardinals. Pope John tolerated the old warrior for his personal bonhomie and his Horatio Alger-like background. One of eleven children born to a baker’s wife in Trastevere, the poor section of Rome, he became a prince of the Church. He supported a school for deprived children within the Vatican grounds, with summer vacations at Frascati. In 1960, two years before John XXIII’s council opened, Ottaviani had republished a canonical textbook, Institutes of the Public Law of the Church, which defined the Church as a societas perfecta, a perfect society with all the prerogatives of a civil state.


This concept made of the Church a hierarchical institution along the lines of a political state, an outmoded concept.* It was rejected by most modern doctrinal theologians and repudiated by the tract “On the Nature of the Church,” proposed by the group around Cardinal Suenens. Portraying the Church as the Lumen gentium or the light of the world, as well as the traditional concept of the Church as the people of God, the Suenens group gradually replaced the old Ottaviani thesis, but not without bitter controversy within the preparatory commission. Lumen gentium was the title given to the final doctrinal constitution, which preserved the hierarchical structure of the papacy but stated that the bishops also have a collegial relation with the pope.

The Ottaviani forces never accepted the full significance of this doctrine. When Pope Paul, at Suenens’s suggestion, organized the first Roman synod of bishops—a bi- or tri-yearly assembly in Rome of the elected representatives of bishops from different countries and regions—to discuss with the Pope, their fellow-bishop, specific issues of church policy, Ottaviani managed to undermine the synod’s power by announcing, obviously with the Pope’s consent, that its conclusions were only consultative and not binding. So much for the doctrine of collegiality, promulgated with the full force of a Vatican council.


In early February 1964, Bernard Häring, the Redemptorist moralist, entered the refectory of the college of Sant’ Alfonso on the via Merulana in Rome. Ashen and breathless, he blurted out, “I have just been asked by Pope Paul to give the Holy Week retreat to the Curia!”—that is, to the assembled high officials of the Vatican. The community to a man greeted the news of this honor with shouts of joy and congratulations. That morning Häring had been summoned by the Pope, who told him personally that in addressing the Curia he was to speak sine timore, senza paura—“without fear or trepidation.” In a sense it was a strange assignment, since most of the senior officials in the Vatican bureaucracy considered Father Häring an upstart, if not an out-and-out heretic, because of his advanced teachings in moral theology.

Among the theologians at Vatican II, no one was the object of greater veneration and more intense repudiation than Bernard Häring. Born in the Black Forest region of Germany in 1912, he was educated at the studentate of the Redemptorist order at Garsam-Inn and was ordained a priest in May 1939. Inducted into the German army as a medical corpsman, he was adopted by a Polish village as their parish priest after the rout of the Germans at Stalingrad. After the war he completed graduate studies in sociology and religion at the University of Tübingen. In 1954, long before Vatican II was held, he achieved recognition as one of the Church’s leading moralists with the publication of “The Law of Christ” (Das Gesetz Christi); it fulfilled the need of a radical updating of the Church’s moral teaching, which for decades theologians had clamored for.

When this book was translated—the Italian version was praised by Archbishop Montini of Milan—it was a crucial factor in changing the direction of Catholic moral theology from an a priori approach to sin and human conduct to an existential realism. According to Häring, the Gospel solutions were to be applied to moral dilemmas only after a comprehensive understanding of the factual human situations in which they occurred. This was, he argued, particularly the case in sexual ethics where the law of love is being introduced to offset the absolutistic morality of natural law in matters such as contraception, artificial insemination, sterilization, etc.

Called to Rome in 1958, as a co-founder of the Redemptorist Accademia Alfonsiana, which was a faculty of Moral Theology of the Lateran University, Häring quickly achieved recognition as a leading moralist who was putting forward fresh ideas. John XXIII appointed him a peritus or expert adviser to the preparatory commission of Vatican II. He was soon attacked personally by Cardinal Ottaviani for his advanced views, but he served as a reliable and articulate supporter, competent in Latin as well as French and Italian, of cardinals Doepfner, Ritter, Léger, Lecaro, and other progressive prelates. One of Pope John’s last actions before his death was to send a thank-you note to Häring for his optimistic book on the first session, The Johannine Council, which the dying pontiff kept on his bedside table.

Häring produced many books on the central moral issues troubling bothChurch and civil society. He served on panels concerned with economic and social problems in his native Germany, and gave invaluable support to hundreds of convents and orders of women, whose attempts to carry out the renewal authorized by the council were being blocked by Vatican bureaucrats. The bureaucracy of the Vatican is organized in “congregations” or offices governing various activities. In the years following the council the prefect or head of the Congregation for Religious (priests and nuns) was Cardinal Ildebrando Antoniutti, who seemed much more concerned about the new length of nuns’ skirts than about spiritual renewal. In his book My Witness for the Church, Father Häring documents his forty-year-long battles with this and other curial congregations, who made no bones about their determination to get him.

The book is deeply disheartening to read. Struck with cancer of the throat some twenty years ago, Häring has shown heroic patience in carrying out his religious duties, teaching, lecturing, counseling. Having undergone surgery and been provided with artificial voice boxes, he has had at least three remissions of the disease. A principal complaint against him by the Holy Office was his monthly article in Famiglia cristiana, a popular magazine with a readership of over six million, in which he discussed moral dilemmas affecting the younger generation daily, such as unhappy home conditions, sexual indulgence, exam cheating, and teen-age courtship. He advised his teen-aged readers to seek authentic information regarding the evil involved in cheating, lying, backbiting, parental abuse, and sexual matters from intelligent counselors, thus apparently downgrading traditional Catholic teaching. The editor of the magazine received fierce warnings from underlings at the Holy Office with every new issue, and Häring got angry phone calls from the assistant to the cardinal-prefect.

In 1964, setting out on a lecture tour of the US, he was warned that the apostolic delegate in Washington, Archbishop Vagnozzi—besides supervising the construction of the Water-gate apartment complex for the Italian construction firm, Immobiliare—was setting up a spy system to monitor his speeches. Taking along an American colleague, Father Harry O’Meara, as secretary, he made recordings of all his talks and sermons to document exactly what he had said. Summoned to Rome to answer false complaints, he presented his interrogator with a complete set of tapes. In 1975, the Yugoslav Cardinal Seper replaced Ottaviani as the head of the Holy Office, with the Dominican Jerome Hamer as his new assistant, and Father Häring thought his troubles would now be over; but he was soon called on the carpet again.

To his amazement the new complaint against him concerned the Italian edition of his book Medical Ethics, which had appeared four years earlier in several other languages. While never explicitly stated, the objections seemed to refer to judgments regarding abortion, sterilization, and artificial birth control, topics on which his positions were essentially orthodox. Despite his difficulties in speaking caused by cancer, Häring counterattacked by demanding the names of his accusers and of the theologians who had examined the book. All that Archbishop Hamer would say was that “two first-class moralists” had read it. On reading their criticisms, Häring was able to demonstrate that either they had not read the full text or had not understood what they did read, and bid the unhappy archbishop goodbye.

As Hebblethwaite’s book points out, Cardinal Ottaviani had his revenge against his opponents in 1968, three years after Vatican II, when Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control, Humanae vitae, appeared. During the third session of the council, Ottaviani had persuaded the Pope to withdraw from discussion the topics of birth control and clerical celibacy, despite the vigorous protest of Cardinal Suenens and others. It was Suenens who pleaded personally with Paul VI, saying, “Let us not have another Galileo case.” Of some sixty-four members of the papal committee on the problems of family life and population, only five moral theologians stood firmly against any change in the Church’s prohibition of the use of artificial contraceptives.

The five admitted they could not substantiate their positions either by appealing to scripture or by arguments based on natural law. The sole basis for their opinion was authority, in particular the savage statement of Pius XI in his encyclical Casti connubii (1930):

Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of grave sin.

Later in the encyclical Pius XI mitigated this total harshness by acknowledging:

Nor are those considered as acting against nature who, in the married state, use their right in the proper manner even though, for natural reasons of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth.

All but a few of the members of the commission agreed that the Church could and should modify the ban, in view both of the situation of the modern family and of demographic considerations as well. This consensus was accepted by a majority of the prelates voting in the episcopal committee. Despite this fact, Ottaviani had the American Jesuit John Ford prepare what he termed a “minority report,” challenging the consensus, although there was no such document emanating from the episcopal commission of cardinals and bishops, to which the papal committee reported.

When Paul VI seemed to waver in favor of change, the Franciscan Father Lio and Cardinal Ottaviani tried to intimidate him, as they later admitted, by arguing that he was in danger of damaging papal authority. In June 1968 the Pope retired to his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, to weigh the problem and draft his encyclical. He sent for the French Jesuit Gustave Martelet, who put together a text which was submitted for comment to the conservative Redemptorist Father Jan Visser, as well as to the intransigent moralists Lio, Ford, Zalba, and Lestapis.

Visser proposed a loophole (known technically as epikeia) that would allow for restoring a benevolent interpretation of the ban. This clause (paragraph 25) admonishes married couples and their confessors not to despair if at first they cannot live up to the required perfection. The Pope told Visser that Father Lio had insisted on just the opposite view—no possible alleviation of the ban. When requested to give the document a final going-over, the guileless Father Visser told the Pope he could not do so in conscience. It had suddenly come to Visser’s attention that there was a discrepancy between the section on contraception and the opening section, devoted to conjugal love, in which a fundamental change in Church teaching on the essence of marriage had been achieved—it made consensual love, and not procreation, the essence of the marriage bond. Realizing that they could not prove that the use of contraceptives was illicit either by scripture or by natural law, fathers Lio and Ford insisted that the authority of the Pope was at risk; they argued that Paul could not change a decision so definitively proclaimed by Pius XI, and thus the ban must stay in force. Visser’s objections were then put aside.

In fact the earlier Pope’s indignation had been occasioned by the Anglican decision legitimizing the use of artificial contraceptives under certain conditions. Traditionally the Church insisted that “procreation was the primary end of marriage.” Vatican II changed this radically, asserting that mutual love and support were the constituents of the marriage bond, and adding that the begetting of children was a gift of God. During the conciliar debates, this crucial change had not escaped the attention of Cardinal Ottaviani and his cohorts. They had used every tactic possible, right down to the final revision of the document on marriage, to insert four modi, or changes, calculated to restore the “primacy of procreation” doctrine, even though the text had already been approved definitively by the council.

In 1965 Ottaviani had met a formidable opponent in the person of the American archbishop of Detroit, John Dearden, known to his seminary students as “Iron John,” although he was in fact a mild-mannered professional theologian. Dearden, having been entrusted with the final revision of the document, informed the irate Ottaviani in Latin: “Concilio locuto, causa finita“—“Vatican II having spoken, the case is closed.” The cardinal had attempted to intimidate him with a letter purporting to come from “higher authority,” which usually meant the Pope. If higher authority so ordered, Dearden said, let his name be put on the letter.

The next day, however, a letter from the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Cicognani, was produced that requested the commission to reconsider inserting the four modi into the text. This the commission was able to do by putting them in footnotes, where they were taken to be harmless and did not alter the essential doctrine already approved. The price Dearden paid for standing up to this “higher authority” was that his cardinal’s hat did not come at the close of the council; it was postponed for two years. It is interesting to note that Father Visser’s reaction had so gravely worried the Pope that, in publishing the encyclical, with its reaffirmation of the ban on contraception, he made it explicitly clear that it was not an infallible statement.

When Paul’s encyclical appeared in 1968 Cardinal Ottaviani had his vengeance and in getting it he did a great disservice to Paul’s papacy. That he prevailed raised a question which has since been embarrassing to the Vatican: How, and with what authority, could a group of celibate officials, princes and near-princes of the Church, who had never experienced the ills and horrors of family life in drug-infested slums, dictate the rules of family planning for the entire world? Before the encyclical was issued, Cardinal Suenens, in a campaign to rescue the council from the domination of the Roman Curia, met Paul VI in a private audience, at which, his book Memories and Hopes maintains, all went well. But Hebblethwaite indicates that a confrontation took place. He cites the evidence of Suenens’s courteous but straight-from-the-shoulder letter to Paul, which he sent the following day: “Holy Father, we know that your holiness has engaged in private and secret consultations [regarding birth control]. This type of consultation creates unease in the Church. If your holiness were to decide these matters in isolation, there would be an immediate danger of inner refusal”—i.e., by faithful Catholics everywhere.

The following year the Belgian prelate undermined his position, as far as Paul and the Curia were concerned, by giving a completely frank interview to Documentation Catholique, the French press service, in which he accused the Vatican of abandoning the spirit of the council. Apparently it was his last blast. He then devoted his energies to the ecumenical field, meeting with many figures, such as the archbishops of Canterbury, particularly William Ramsey, as well as getting involved in a confrontation in Belfast with Ian Paisley’s bigots, whose raucous reception he bested with true Gallic poise. Suenens succeeded in resuming his good relations with Paul VI before the Pope’s death.

A veteran British commentator on Rome and the Vatican and the author of an earlier biography of John XXIII, Peter Hebblethwaite is acute in perceiving that Paul’s spiritual father was Saint Augustine and that this accounts for the spiritual malaise he at times apparently experienced. He cites Paul’s tragic and often stated belief in the misery of every human life, including his own, a miseria that can be alleviated only by misericordia, or divine compassion. Hebblethwaite’s detailed account of the Pope’s last hours in 1978 is a model of necrological narrative: the deathbed watchers were startled by the ringing of his tiny alarm clock, which went off exactly as he drew his last breath.

Ottaviani’s revenge consisted in persuading Paul VI to issue in his 1968 encyclical a statement of moral norms based on a partial truth. The statement insisted that every conjugal act had to be open to the transmission of life; but this simply was not in accord with the biological fact of a woman’s menstrual cycle. The Church tacitly acknowledged this fact by recommending the rhythm and natural family-planning systems of birth control, unreliable as they have proved to be. But Ottaviani’s revenge affected the whole human race. It kept the Catholic Church, one eighth of the world’s population, from cooperating fully with the humane efforts of the UN and many governments and other organizations to regulate the earth’s population without interfering with basic human rights. Many conscientious Catholic couples felt themselves to be in sin when for good reasons they were forced to use artificial contraceptives. And, despite Paul’s accomplishments within the Church and in the world, his encyclical cast a shadow over his reputation as a great pontiff.

This Issue

August 12, 1993