What Does The Timing of Pope Paul VI’s Beatification Mean?

Our Australian correspondent, Andrew Rabel, says the choice to beatify Paul VI now, at the end of the Synod on the Family, may be Rome’s way of saying Francis will be like Paul in 1968…

The Extraordinary Synod for the Family ended with a Mass on Sunday, October 19, to commemorate the beatification of Paul VI (1963-1978) by his successor Pope Francis.

Giovanni Maria Montini, a former archbishop of Milan and secretary of state, brought the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council to a conclusion, in a period of the world’s history marked by immense societal change.

He received both praise and criticism for his reform of the Roman liturgy, making it looser and more accessible to an ordinary worshipper.

With all the debate over the significance of the Relatio Post Disceptationem (the Synod’s Message seemed far more cautious later on), a possible motive for holding the beatification at the conclusion of the Synod may have been overlooked.

The Synod of Bishops was, ironically, a creation of Paul VI “to make ever greater use of the bishops’ assistance in providing for the good of the universal Church” and to enjoy “the consolation of their presence, the help of their wisdom and experience, the support of their counsel, and the voice of their authority.” The decree establishing the Synod was issued on September 15, 1965.

So the Synod did not even exist when, in 1963, Paul’s predecessor Pope John XXIII announced the creation of a commission to examine the question whether in the light of contemporary realities, the Church’s age-old teaching regarding the spacing of births should be revised.

On the minority side, a member of the commission was Dr. Daisy Kulanday of India who famously said, “The earth has enough resources to feed the neediest, but not enough to feed the greediest.” But the majority of the voting members of the Papal Commission on Human Reproduction had another view and by a vote of 72-7 in 1966, advocated a change of the Church’s teaching against artificial birth control.

Two years later, however, in 1968, the world was shocked — including large parts of the Catholic Church which expected Paul to follow cue — when Paul reiterated the traditional teaching against artificial contraception in his document Humanae Vitae, perhaps the most controversial papal encyclical of the 20th century, considering the widespread criticism it received from theologians, bishops, priests, and ordinary believers. (Two episcopal conferences, in Canada and Austria, publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the encyclical.)

What could be a reason for holding the beatification of Paul VI at this time?

Saints are alluring characters, and it is no secret that their official recognition is used at different times in Church history to promote a particular cause. (The secular media obviously picked that up with the canonization of St. Maria Goretti in the Holy Year 1950; here was the new “poster girl” to encourage chaste young ladies!)

Synods, like commissions, do not have any sort of juridical authority. They are consultative bodies, with any recommendations they make having no permanent bearing except by the decision of the Pope. (In this case, no decisions will be made until after a much larger Synod in 12 months’ time.)

For instance, not so long ago, there were a number of continental Synods held in Rome. In 1998, it was the turn of the Synod for Oceania. Early the next year, the Australian TV current affairs show Four Corners, in an episode called “The Vatican’s Verdict,” spoke about what happened. One of the reporters noted that the Australian bishops “argued for major changes: married priests, a greater role for women in the Church, an understanding of homosexuality, and more emphasis on social justice.” Obviously, there were no limitations on mentioning any perspectives regarding issues of concern by the hierarchy. But in stark contrast, the Holy See stunned the world at the synod by issuing a very brusque “Statement of Conclusions,” which was a criticism by a number of curial heads, with the approval of John Paul II, of a perceived laxity which had become part and parcel of ordinary Catholic life in Australia.

Similarly, at this current Extraordinary Synod for the Family, the whole world has witnessed an apparent openness by the Holy See, to receive progressive opinions from Church leaders in matters of sexuality, which only a short time ago would have been inconceivable.

But by beatifying at the end of this meeting a recent Pope who was the scorn of both the secular world and large parts of the believing community for writing an encyclical that seemed to similarly belie the attitudes of modern persons, Rome may be quietly sending a discreet message to certain Synod watchers which is, “Don’t get your hopes up.”

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