Pope Paul VI died less than three years ago. Desmond O'Grady assesses his reign.
"Do you remember what Jacqueline said?" asked Paul VI.
Jean Guitton wondered if the Pope was referring to Jacqueline Kennedy. But his reference was to the French writer Jacqueline Pascal.
It is a typical incident in the conversations between Paul VI and Guitton: the Jacqueline who would come most readily to the Pope's mind was not the one who was making headlines.
Another typical incident: when the pair strolled in the Vatican Gardens. Guitton just happened to have the preface to his Collected Works with him and read to Paul VI from it, It is a literary friendship which gives a slightly unreal impression with Paul VI asking, for instance, if there is interest in France nowadays for writers such as Maupassant and Bourget.
Guitton is a French philosopher whom the future Paul VI had saved from Vatican censure when he wrote a book on Our Lady. He was a lay participant at the Vatican Council and in 1967 published a book of his dialogues with Paul VI: "The Pope Speaks".
It was an irritating book because the reader was never sure if the words attributed to Paul VI were actually his. In the preface, Guitton said "in many cases, I respected his very words 'insofar' as my memory allows". Then he claimed that the reproduction of literal words is "often tiresome, unreliable and useless" and that many of Paul VI's sayings in the book were not historical but "authentic. true."
His method is the same in Paul VI; secret although for some reason it is less irritating. Perhaps he is more candid this time: he says this report on the later meetings with his friend between 1951 and 1977 is partly a rewrite of that earlier book. And perhaps it is now possible to understand his method better: he is aiming at something like a Platonic dialogue which captures the soul or spirit of the person portrayed.
For Guitton this means mainly the person's ideas which is why Paul VI emerges rather ethereally. as if he is detached from most humans' pressing concerns. Guitton can sound like a fuddy-duddy but he is also capable of perceptive remarks and of challenging Paul VI.
His intimate portrait of Paul VI is somewhat unfair to the man and somewhat unreal because it detaches him to a large extent from his historical context.
This historical context is necessary to understand Paul VI's tragic dimension. In the 1950's he was the leading liberal in the Vatican. If the Council had not been convoked, he would have led the Church from the top on the path of reform. He became Pope with the task of concluding a Council which had raised great expectations. However these were followed by the delusions of the post-conciliar period.
His Italian experiences, so important for him, were also marked by dashed hopes. He had favoured the alliance of the Catholic Christian Democratic Party with the Socialists as he believed the social reforms this coalition could introduce would reduce the Communist Party's appeal. These reformist hopes were sadly disappointed. In Italian politics, as in the Church worldwide after the Council, it seemed that enlightened reformers merely opened the way to radical extremists. Introduction of divorce in Italy despite a Church campaign against it was, for Paul, a bitter awakening to how far Italians had moved away from the Church.
The Red Brigades' kidnapping and killing of Paul VI's friend, the ex-Prime Minister Aldo Moro, was the last blow for Paul VI. He rose to the occasion magnificently with his letter to the Red Brigades and his moving words during the Moro commemoration Mass when he said God had not heeded his prayers.
A tragic figure who, on a human estimate, lived too long for the exacting demands of his office. But he showed his stature in the Moro affair; and his achievement in leading a different church from the one he knew all his life will be better appreciated as post-conciliar turbulence recedes.
How "unknown" is Guitton's Paul VI? He describes him as "indecisive and authoritarian" which is what the Pope's critics claimed and also, more originally, as "gaily melancholy".
The most unknown aspect of the Pope Guitton presents is his spiritual or even mystical aspect. Guitton says more than once that the future Pope's mother noted that he did not open out on some
subjects even with her. This strong reserve persists when he is Pope, hinting at secret depths.
The Pope was extremely interested in suffering, death and the experience of souls in purgatory. This aspect of Paul VI seems confirmed by the statement of his secretary, Father Pasquale Macchi. that the late pontiff sometimes wore a hair shirt.
It would take a gifted novelist to portray such a spirituality effectively but Guitton at least suggests its presence. From the conversations there is also the sense of the Pope's isolation and the pressure he was under: asking Guitton to develop certain lines of thought, he says at a certain point that he is at grips with one crisis after another.
It was odd that Paul VI should tell Guitton that it is impossible to portray a Pope for he is "impersonal by essence or should be". Paul VI was extremely personal, he confessed his anxieties in public audiences. He was personal but most people preferred the more reassuring paternal figure of John XXIII.
There is nothing impersonal about these conversations. If they can be believed, they record judgements right and left such as the comment that Karl Rahner's theology is rather confused. that Paul saw the post-conciliar church involved in "selfdestruction" even though he recognised the church must change to conserve its identity.
These comments are often tantalisingly incomplete: for instance, in one paragraph, Paul VI asks Guitton's help to define the notion of 'nature' which he considers of capital importance for the theology of marriage. The next paragraph skips to the dinner table (it is 27 September 1967) where they eat vermicelli, meat and vegetables, cheese, fruit. Guitton records that the Holy Father ate vermicelli abundantly. little of the rest and drank white wine. But the conversation moves on to memories of Paul VI's stay in Paris rather than concentrating on "nature" and marriage.
Two subjects are treated at some length. One is artificial birth control .
He was convinced that what is called the pill upset the nervous system. that it was not natural, that it did not encourage selfmastery and that nothing is yet known of the effects it could have on heredity and descendants ...
he hoped that the progress of biology and physiology would lead to the discovery of (contraceptive methods) which would not upset nervous equilibrium or heredity."
Later (12 September 1968) Guitton has Paul VI say "... a
commission (of experts for the birth regulation study) was formed in a way I consider artificial because its composition and majority predetermined the answer it would give; therefore it was not truly representative". This is difficult to understand as the Pope had authority regarding the composition of the commission whose conclusions he ignored.
Guitton does little more than register the Pope's comments on birth control but he challenges him on his handling of the ultratraditionalist French archbishop Marcel Lefebrve. This clash produces the liveliest pages of' the book in which Paul VI's acuteness emerges. Guitton is not a sympathiser with Lefebvre but maintained that if non-Catholics were received by the Pope in an ecumenical spirit this should apply also to Lefebvre.
But Paul VI described Lefebvre's activities as an open revolt against him; if Lefebvre was received, said Paul VI, he might insult me and later deform my words.
Paul added he was willing to pardon Lefebvre but that. as Lefebvre was so incoherent, submission could quickly be followed by a contrary declaration. He further said all Archbishop Lefebvre's entourage needed a change of heart and mind.
Guitton offered to go to Lefebvre on Paul VI's behalf seeking proofs of a sincere desire for reconciliation but Paul VI suggested he go as a responsible. autonomous philosopher rather than as his emissary. Paul VI said he thought it inevitable that within months (it was September 1976) Lefebvre would be excommunicated.
With hindsight, it can be seen that this drama was avoided. Perhaps too much importance was given by both Paul VI and Guitton to Lefebvre. There were signs of hope, such as Mother Teresa. which do not receive a mention.
Karol Wojtyla was still a littleknown Archbishop of Cracow when Paul was approaching 80 and wondering if he had the energy to handle the Church's problems.
In the comparison with his Polish successor. Paul's qualities such as his reluctance to censure and his defects such as failure to give clear signals emerge more clearly. Guitton helps understanding of the complex Paul who for 15 years was Peter.