Liberals will welcome his canonisation as a celebration of liturgical reforms. However, there’s one big obstacle.

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 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”.

Pope Francis will be canonising his predecessor in the year that marks the 50th anniversary of Paul’s momentous restatement and clarification of traditional Catholic teaching on sexuality – arguably his greatest achievement and one which, at the time, overjoyed Catholics who were unhappy about the changes ushered in by the Council.

If today’s conservatives choose to celebrate Paul as “the saint of Humanae Vitae”, they could pull the rug from under liberals who would prefer to ignore this cornerstone of his legacy. They may also annoy Francis, whose attitude to the encyclical is hard to pin down. He has repeatedly questioned the firmness of Paul’s opposition to contraception, telling the Corriere della Sera in 2014 that “Paul VI himself, at the end, recommended to confessors much mercy and attention to concrete situations”. We should not take the encyclical too literally, he cautioned: “The question is not that of changing the doctrine but of going deeper and making pastoral [ministry] take into account the situations and that which it is possible for people to do.”

This sort of statement is confusing, just as Pope Francis’s intentions in writing Amoris Laetitia remain unclear. Some Catholic theologians also consider it to be plain wrong. Paul knew that, by banning artificial birth control, he was outraging popular opinion. He agonised over the decision long after he made it. But he had no intention of reversing it. Likewise, he was content with the new Order of Mass that bears his name, so long as it was celebrated reverently, in Latin or the vernacular. He was a pope of both continuity and change, of theological rectitude and aggiornamento, the compassionate “bringing up to date” announced by St John XXIII when he convened the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Francis’s defenders believe that, in this respect, he is cut from the same mould as Paul. But this is a difficult argument to make. Indeed, it is hard to imagine two pontiffs more different than Giovanni Battista Montini and Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

When Paul died in 1978, he was described by a New York Times obituary as a “consummate bureaucrat in his Vatican career”, and not without good reason. He was painfully exact in everything he said and wrote. But he was so much more than a bureaucrat: he was a spiritual thinker whose intellectual quest continued until the very end of his life. And he was an outstandingly holy man.

The late Peter Hebblethwaite, in his magnificent biography of Paul VI, describes how, every Tuesday, he would “shut himself in his study to write, in his final elegant hand, his address for the Wednesday public audience”. Again and again, he would ask his secretary, Fr John Magee, to fetch him the writings of St Augustine, whose emphasis on God’s transformation of suffering into joy was a recurring theme in his own thinking. Paul spoke often of his suffering; it did not endear him to the crowds, but there is no doubt that he experienced a great deal of pain as he wrestled with theological and pastoral dilemmas.

Pope Francis’s fondness for breezy, self-confident improvisation would have been utterly alien to this most private of popes. So, to be fair, would the more theatrical, pugnacious aspects of St John Paul II’s pontificate; in personal manner the modern pope he is closest to is Benedict XVI, though he might have been troubled by the latter’s project to reclaim aspects of the old liturgy that he had tried to consign to history.

But it is still the contrast with Francis that is most striking. The current Holy Father, unlike John Paul and Benedict, appears to be relaxed about the finer points of doctrine. That could never be said of Paul, who was more concerned with being right than with being popular. That is why he came down so decisively against contraception, despite his encouragement of innovators at Vatican II. He was willing to rankle conservatives over the liturgy and progressives over moral theology if that was the price of following his conscience.

It is also why he promulgated the encyclical Mysterium Fidei in 1965. As Vatican II wound down, some progressives hoped that its documents would pave the way for theological realignment with mainline Protestants. This would inevitably involve compromise over the doctrine of the Eucharist. Paul was having none of it. Three months before the Council concluded, he issued Mysterium, reaffirming the Church’s commitment to transubstantiation – insisting that the unfashionable word as well as the concept must be preserved.

The clarity of Paul’s thinking on such crucial matters is often forgotten. Back when he was Cardinal Giovanni Montini, John XXIII gave him the nickname “Hamlet” because he agonised over decision-making. His aversion to conflict was evident even at the outset of Vatican II. But it is a mistake to confuse his peace-making instincts with a lack of intellectual rigour.

When Pope John announced that he was calling a Vatican Council, Montini allegedly told a friend: “This holy old boy doesn’t realise what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.” Actually, John was well aware of it. That is why, before he died, he made it clear that he expected the College of Cardinals to pass that hornet’s nest to Montini. He knew that the consummate bureaucrat, despite his habit of pondering questions until he made himself thoroughly miserable, also possessed a clear mind, steady hand and firm conscience. He was the right man for the job.

That is the example Francis will set for himself by canonising Paul: a pope who makes it his business to put out fires, not start new ones. The Holy Father’s critics believe that his reign so far has been characterised, not by heterodoxy per se, but by a refusal to affirm orthodoxy. That may be too harsh a judgment overall, but it is certainly true of Amoris Laetitia.

The Church has been paralysed by confusion over its interpretation since he issued the exhortation, two agonising years ago. It has created grave unease among cardinals, theologians and canon lawyers, and that unease is now being felt by ordinary Mass-goers.

Francis could offer no greater tribute to a future St Pope Paul VI than to state his position – clearly, unambiguously and in full accord with the Magisterium of the Church.

This article first appeared in the January 12 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here