Last month, La Stampa reported that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints had recognised a miracle attributed to Pope Paul VI. The road is now clear for Paul’s canonisation, possibly in October. Vaticanologists immediately hailed 2018 as “the Year of Paul VI”.
At first glance, this looks like a propaganda victory for those liberals who regard the beginning of the Second Vatican Council as the Church’s Year Zero – as if the 19 centuries that preceded it were little more than an irrelevant costume drama. They hope that canonising Paul will be interpreted as canonising the Council and, just as important, the new liturgy that followed in its wake.
This may indeed be Francis’s intention. He presents himself as a post-Vatican II pope – not only the first to be ordained since the advent of the vernacular Mass in 1969, but also one who is determined to resist the “reform of the reform”, an attempt by mainstream conservatives to introduce elements of pre-conciliar worship into parishes. Last August, he declared “with certainty and magisterial authority” that the liturgical changes promulgated by Vatican II were irreversible. In 2016 he was even more explicit. The changes to worship “must be carried forward as they are,” he said, insisting that “to speak of ‘the reform of the reform’ is an error!”
What better way to drive home this point than to canonise the pope who promulgated the reforms of the 1960s? Yet, as Catholics who were around in the 1970s will remember, Paul himself was visibly unhappy with the liturgical and theological experiments favoured by the more extreme enthusiasts for “the spirit of Vatican II”. These liberals – some of whom are still alive and claim to have the ear of Pope Francis – may have been whom he had in mind when he said mysteriously in 1972 that “the smoke of Satan” had entered the Church.
We can be sure that we will hear little about the smoke of Satan if Paul is raised to the altars. Instead, progressive Catholics will portray the canonisation as a corrective to revived traditionalism in the Church; even a repudiation of Benedict XVI’s “hermeneutic of continuity”, about which Francis is less than enthusiastic. The fact that Benedict received his red hat from none other than Paul VI will be glossed over. There will certainly be commentators who portray the event as a papal slap in the face for conservative Catholics – and especially the young priests and seminarians who revere the Tridentine Mass.
There is, however, one indisputable obstacle to the celebration of Paul’s canonisation as a great liberal feast. For it was Paul, of course, who wrote the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the ban on artificial contraception. This document shocked liberals more profoundly than anything in the pontificates of John Paul II or Benedict XVI. One need only read the archives of the Catholic Herald to grasp the depth of their horror. By outlawing the contraceptive pill for Catholics, Paul was going against the advice of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, which had voted 64 to 5 in favour of allowing hormone-altering drugs that prevent insemination – that is, “the Pill”.
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