Paul VI's Oversight of the Triumph of Liberalism throughout the Church

November 30, 2018
Paul VI and Metropolitan Meliton d'Héliopolis, Patriarch of Constantinople, during Vatican II

By introducing private judgment into the origin of the act of faith, Luther twisted the notion of freedom, placing it above any ecclesiastical authority. Nicolas Boileau’s famous quip says it perfectly: “Every Protestant is pope with his Bible in hand.”

Born of Protestantism, the philosophy of the Enlightenment accepts this false liberty seen as independence. It wished to admit only the truth attained by reason – thus dismissing the supernatural order – and ended up ridding itself of all absolutes. The only “truth” that remains is the refusal of all order that has not been established by man; liberalism leads to skepticism. Consequently, it rises up fiercely against the Church who has received the deposit of Revelation and safeguards natural law. Its opposition to Catholicism is radical.

And yet there were men in the 19th century who sought to reconcile the Church with the society formed by this liberal philosophy. This was the birth of “liberal Catholicism” that was not so much a doctrine as a practical attitude open to the ideas of the Revolution. The incoherency of this system lies in the coexistence of the Catholic Faith – that professes the divinity of Christ and His religion – with an open cooperation in the construction of a world in which man has no other rule than that of social peace. This accommodating – and quite convenient – attitude towards the persecutors of the Church nonetheless needed to find an argument to justify itself. And it was not hard to find. According to these reformers, the truth no longer needs any help to enlighten minds; the good always prevails; the Gospel can radiate by its own strength in the midst of a humanity that has reached “adulthood”; Our Lord no longer needs the throne that Christianity offered Him. In other words, the liberal Catholic is confident that under the reign of freedom, the Church will recover all her glory. Luther began by exaggerating the consequences of original sin, and liberal Catholicism denies its existence, at least in practice.

The names of the first liberal Catholics are well known: Lamennais, Montalembert, Bishop Dupanloup. Despite the condemnation by the popes all the way up to Pius XII, their numbers steadily grew. And Pope Paul VI? 

Testimony of Cardinal Daniélou

Was Paul VI liberal? It is a delicate thing to judge an authority and some do not hesitate to accuse anyone who tries to do so of “liberalism”. Is not a lack of submission to authority, as we have just explained, one of its characteristics? But in Pope Paul VI’s case, it was one of his friends, Cardinal Daniélou, who wrote in his Memoirs: “It is obvious that Paul VI is a liberal pope.” This quote is interesting not only because of what it claims but also because of the principle it suggests. When something is obvious, there is nothing “liberal” about seeing it. The opposite would be true. In this case, the caution imposed by the respect due to authority must take into account the reality of the scandal of the faithful after Vatican Council II. In the face of the self-destruction of the Church, many Catholics were confused and some thought there was no longer a pope. Archbishop Lefebvre, basing himself on Cardinal Daniélou’s judgment, always held to a solution that was “far more complex, difficult and painful [than Sedevacantism]”: Paul VI was indeed pope, but he was strongly marked by liberalism. 

Lamennais’ Ideal of Liberalism

When presenting his journal L’Avenir, Lamennais explained that the Catholic Faith had enabled the true sentiment of law to develop in souls. In speaking of the Church, he declared: “All the friends of religion must understand that she needs only one thing: freedom.” The phrase by his friend the Count of Montalembert at the Belgian Congress in 1863 is well-known: “A free Church in a free State, that is my ideal.” In 1864, Pius IX condemned this liberalism in his encyclical Quanta Cura. He quoted his predecessor Pius VII who had quoted Pope St. Leo the Great: “The royal power was given not only for the governance of the world, but most of all for the protection of the Church.” Pius IX condemned this expression of the liberal utopia. No, said the pope, it is not true that “that is the best condition of civil society, in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require.”

Now there is no doubt that Paul VI thought the same way as Lamennais. In his message to governors at the end of the Council, he made the same terms his own: “What does the Church ask of you today? She tells you in one of the major documents of this council. She asks of you only liberty” (December 8, 1965).

This one quote is enough to establish the fact that Pope Paul VI made the ideal of 19th-century liberal Catholicism his own. But other facts also show how familiar he was with the liberal attitude: he affirmed principles but rejected them in his concrete government of the Church.

Pope Paul VI with Protestant Ministers, April 1970

A Few Facts from the Pontificate of Paul VI

The incoherency of the liberal Catholic causes a real torture for those who practice it, since it claims something that it does not actually allow. Perhaps the sadness that could be seen on the sometimes tortured face of Paul VI finds its explanation in this contradictory attitude illustrated by the following examples:

  • In the opening speech for the second session of Vatican Council II – the first session over which he presided as pope – Paul VI declared that he had “no plan for human dominion, no jealous attachment to an exclusive power”. However, about ten days before this session began, he had announced a reform of the general direction of the Council’s work. The Council would no longer be directed by the presidents nominated by John XXIII, but rather by four “moderators”, three of whom were known for their liberalism – Cardinals Döpfner, Suenens and Lercaro – the fourth being “considered by all the liberals as the most acceptable of the cardinals of the Curia”, commented the Council’s first historian, Fr. Ralph M. Wiltgen, who concluded: “It thus seemed that in choosing these four men, Paul VI was giving his support to the liberal wing of the Council.”[1]
  • At the end of this session, a petition signed by more than two hundred Council Fathers was submitted to the Holy Father to ask that he condemn Communism in the Council. Paul VI responded in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, on August 6, 1964. He said he was “driven to repudiate such ideologies as deny God and oppress the Church. These ideologies are often identified with economic, social and political regimes; atheistic communism is a glaring instance of this.” Nonetheless, within the Council, it was requested over and over that this Council of the 20th century not remain silent on Communism that was persecuting the Church. A petition from four hundred and thirty-five Conciliar Fathers requested that the draft on the Church be modified to insert a mention of Communism. But the pressure from other bishops, and more importantly the secret deals with Moscow that today are undeniable[2] made Paul VI step back. The only excuse offered was the public admission by Cardinal Gabriel-Marie Garrone that the petition had been mislaid in the office of the Commission entrusted with modifying the draft.[3]
  • On April 4, 1965, Passion Sunday, Paul VI celebrated Mass in a church in the Roman suburbs. He spoke of the Jewish people that had been prepared by God to receive the Messiah but did not recognize Him and even “fought Him, calumniated Him, insulted Him and in the end put Him to death.”[4] But on this point, too, Paul VI gave in to pressure. The Jewish issue was mentioned in the declaration Nostra Aetate[5] that simply admitted that “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ”, but only after declaring that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues”, and without recalling that these gifts and this call invite them to convert to Catholicism in which the Old Alliance is continued after having been fulfilled.
  • On September 3, 1965, in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei, Paul VI recalled that “the Catholic Church fittingly and properly calls transubstantiation” the change worked by the consecration of the host and the wine. Four years later, he promulgated a rite – elaborated with the active collaboration of six Protestant experts – that of all the signs of respect due to the Real Presence, kept only those that underline their relations with the assembly of the people. The long introduction to the new missal (Institutio Generalis) does not mention the term transubstantiation even once.
  • On June 24, 1967, in his encyclical Sacerdotalis Coelibatus, Paul VI reaffirmed the value of priestly celibacy: “We consider that the present law of celibacy should today continue to be linked to the ecclesiastical ministry.” But in the constitution Lumen Gentium, Vatican Council II only mentioned the mystery of the Catholic priesthood in the context of the “common priesthood of the faithful”, no longer allowing priests to recognize the sublimity of their vocation. The New Mass presents them simply as presidents of the Eucharistic assembly. The ecumenism practiced by Paul VI also had an indirect influence on the priesthood since this error considers that non-Catholic ministers who have not been validly ordained have powers that only belong to the priests of God (such as that of blessing an assembly, as Dr. Ramsey, “archbishop and primate” of the Anglican Church, did at Paul VI’s request and in his presence). The consequences soon made themselves felt. Never had the Church seen so many of her ministers betray their engagements. Before Vatican Council II, reductions to the lay state were relatively rare. Paul VI multiplied them at an unprecedented pace. More than twenty thousand priests obtained this reduction between 1962 and 1972[6] and many others did not even bother requesting it.
  • On June 30, 1968, he professed and orthodox Creed, but he suppressed the Index and took no measures against those who denied the Faith.
  • On July 25, 1968, in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, he recalled the traditional teaching of the Church, but he did not impose silence upon the episcopal conferences and Catholic publications that publicly opposed his decision.
  • On May 29, 1969, in the instruction Memoriale Domini, he praised the traditional practice of receiving Communion on the tongue, but in the same Roman document, he encouraged the episcopal Conferences to make the expedient decisions for the practice of Communion in the hand to “be established as it should be”.
  • On November 26, when presenting the New Mass, he praised the Latin language, but only to sacrifice it: “It is no longer Latin, but the vernacular language, that will be the principal language of the Mass.”

Liberal Catholicism keeps the soul from giving itself completely to God. Its triumph can only be the dethronement of Christ and incoherency in every aspect of life. May the unfortunate example given by Paul VI at least encourage Catholics to live in conformity with the principles of their Faith.

- Fr. Thierry Gaudray


[1] Ralph M. Wiltgen, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, 4th edition, p. 82.
[2] Roberto de Mattei, Il Concilio Vaticano, p. 174.
[3] Wiltgen, op. cit., p. 273.
[4] L’Osservatore Romano, April 7, 1965, quoted in Vatican II, l’Eglise à la croisée des Chemins, MJCF, vol. 1, p. 206.
[5] October 22, 1965.
[6] Number given by Matthias Gaudron, Catéchisem catholique de la crise dans l’Eglise, 2nd edition, p. 9.