All critics agree that Paul VI was a holy man. While meeting people, Pope Paul was very keen to know their nationality, names, age, native town or village, occupation, health condition and relationships. He would touch each of the visitors, personally giving them souvenirs. This is real holiness, viz., faith-based human relationships, and Christianity is essentially hope-oriented, Joyful, servant-like relationships. Peter Hebblethwaite, an ex-Jesuit, who wrote the definitive biography of Paul VI has described him as the first Modern Pope. His rejection of the triple crown (tiara), was symbolic of the rejection of Medievalism. What struck everyone was Paul’s desire to touch the visitors’ hands, to look into their eyes, giving personal touches to all in the crowd, until he was escorted away by security men.

Catholics all over the world, both the clergy and the laity, considered Humanae Vitae as a betrayal of their trust and hope. Overruling the Commission of Cardinals set up to advise the Pope on this topic Paul baldly said: “In morals and in dogma, all should obey the magisterium of the Church.” Paul has forgotten that collegiality was the structure of the Apostolic Church and that monarchism was an aberration, a Trojan gift from (pagan) Constantine. Many National Episcopal Conferences questioned the legality and validity of Paul’s Encyclical as there was no collegial consultation or consensus on a matter of such vital importance. Paul conceded that his teaching was “difficult” but he urged Catholic couples to experience the “sweetness of the yoke of Christ.”

Pope Paul’s legacy is a mixed bag. “He shrank from hurting people,” observed Peter Hebblethwaite. But compromises tend to leave both camps dissatisfied. For every step forward in committing the Church to social justice, he seemed to take a step backward in Church reform. Paul VI was the first and perhaps, the only Pope, openly to acknowledge the value of Liberation Theology, by travelling all the long way to Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, to support Latin American bishops’ ground-breaking meeting to study the social problems of poverty and justice. Negatively, he also reaffirmed compulsory priestly celibacy. His statement that homosexuality is, “necessarily and essentially disordered,” lacks empirical proof and it is not based on Scripture; nor is it sound theology or psychology. On the positive side, Pope Paul stated in his famous encyclical, Octogesima Adveniens, that, that there are different kinds of socialisms and that not all of them are bad. Contrast it to the blanket condemnation of socialism by Pius IX in his famous Syllabus. But Paul was taking a retrograde step when he ruled out women’s ordination to priesthood, even after the Biblical Commission had concluded that the New Testament evidence cannot settle this question. But liberation theology got a shot in the arm when Paul VI, in his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, acknowledged the great pastoral value of Base Christian Communities, originating in Latin America, while John Paul II and Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) were frowning upon it.

Swami Vikrant, SDB