There was something awful about the year 1968.
I was but a lad at the time, merely seven or eight years of age, but almost everything on the T.V. terrified me. Terrible reports from Viet Nam, (where my father was at the time), the Tet Offensive nightly reports of death and casualties (was my daddy one of the ones killed?). Riots and anti-war demonstrations in America’s cities and college campuses. The first stirrings of militant feminism. A second hideous year of hippies with their “summer of love” nonsense, which was just an excuse for selfish, spoiled college kids to get high, fornicate and think they were some how doing a noble thing. There was the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, later that year also of Robert Kennedy, the riots and burning cities that followed King’s assassination. I remember my mother who was teaching on the South Side of Chicago have to flee for her life and finally be rescued by and escorted out by police. There was the ramp up to the yet more hideous Woodstock festival that would happen the following year. 1968 was a terrible year, a year that I do not think we ever recovered from. It popularized the sexual revolution, drug use and lots of just plain bad behavior. In the Church sweeping changes were underway and this added to the uncertainty of those times. Even if one will argue they were necessary changes they came at a terrible times and fed into the notions of revolution. And then the whole revolt against the magnificent and prophetic Humane Vitae, thus ushering a spirit of open dissent that still devastates the Church.
1968 was a terrible year. When I mention that year and shake my head, I often get puzzled looks. But I stand by my claim, 1968 was a cultural tsunami from which we have not yet recovered.
Thus my interest was peaked when I saw an article by James Cardinal Stafford also singling out that year also for being a year of intense darkness. I’d like to share some excerpts of the Cardinal’s article. He focuses particularly on the devastating effects of angry and open dissent set loose in August of that Year by theologians and priests who rebelled against Humanae Vitae. In that decisive moment the Cardinal sees that the violent revolution raging outside the Church decisively entered within her and that we still real for this today.
English historian Paul Johnson dubs 1968 as the year of “America’s Suicide Attempt.” It included the Tet offensive in Vietnam with its tsunami-like effects in American life and politics, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee; the tumult in American cities on Palm Sunday weekend; and the June assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Southern California. It was also the year in which Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical letter on transmitting human life, Humanae Vitae (HV). He met immediate, premeditated, and unprecedented opposition from some American theologians and pastors. By any measure, 1968 was a bitter cup….
The summer of 1968 is a record of God’s hottest hour. The memories are not forgotten; they are painful. They remain vivid like a tornado in the plains of Colorado. They inhabit the whirlwind where God’s wrath dwells. In 1968, something terrible happened in the Church. Within the ministerial priesthood, ruptures developed everywhere among friends which never healed. And the wounds continue to affect the whole Church. The dissent, together with the leaders’ manipulation of the anger they fomented, became a supreme test. It changed fundamental relationships within the Church. It was a Peirasmòs [i.e. a trial, a test of faith] for many.
During the height of the 1968 Baltimore riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I had made an emergency call to [an] inner-city pastor…He described the view from the rectory while speaking on the phone…his parish was becoming a raging inferno. He said, “From here I see nothing but fire burning everywhere. Everything has been set ablaze. The Church and rectory are untouched thus far.” He did not wish to leave or be evacuated. His voice betrayed disillusionment and fear. Later we learned that the parish buildings survived.
Memories of the physical violence in the city in April 1968 [following the king Assassination] helped me to name what had happened in August 1968 [in the explosion of dissent against Humanae Vitae]. Ecclesial dissent can become a kind of spiritual violence in its form and content.
What do I mean? Look at the results of the two events. After the violent 1968 Palm Sunday weekend, civil dialogue in metropolitan Baltimore broke down and came to a stop. It took a back seat to open anger and recriminations between whites and blacks. The…priests’ August gathering [against Humane Vitae] gave rise to its own ferocious acrimony. Conversations among the clergy…became contaminated with fear. Suspicions among priests were chronic. Fears abounded. And they continue. The Archdiocesan priesthood lost something of the fraternal whole which Baltimore priests had known for generations. 1968 marked the hiatus of the generational communio….Priests’ fraternity had been wounded. Pastoral dissent had attacked the Eucharistic foundation of the Church. Its nuptial significance had been denied. Some priests saw bishops as nothing more than Roman mannequins.
Cardinal Shehan later reported that on Monday morning, August 5, he “was startled to read in the Baltimore Sun that seventy-two priests of the Baltimore area had signed the Statement of Dissent.” What he later called “the years of crisis” began for him during that hot… August evening in 1968….Its unhinging consequences continue. Abusive, coercive dissent has become a reality in the Church and subjects her to violent, debilitating, unproductive, chronic controversies.
The violence of the initial disobedience was only a prelude to further and more pervasive violence. …Contempt for the truth, whether aggressive or passive, has become common in Church life. Dissenting priests, theologians and laypeople have continued their coercive techniques. From the beginning, the press has used them to further its own serpentine agenda. (These are excerpts, Click HERE for the full article).
Yes, a terrible year, 1968. And we have yet to recover. Discussion in the Church has often retained its painful, divisive, and, as the Cardinal notes, “spiritually violent” tendencies. Bishops are excoriated by the right and left in the Church, and even by priests, who promised them obedience and respect. In effect, Bishops are treated more like elected officials, than the anointed leaders and fathers they are. And whatever imperfections the bishops have individually and corporately, this does not excuse our treatment of them as though they were simply elected officials accountable to us. We are neither docile nor loving and supportive of them. And when we have concerns about the course they set, we do not speak to them, or of them, as Fathers, but we lay them out as though they were political enemies. Discourse in the Church which should be marked by charity and a family love is, instead, modeled on angry and protesting political discourse, the acquisition of power and the hermeneutic of suspicion and scorn.
And this is true not only in our treatment of Bishops but also of one another. Catholics who are passionate about the family, the life issues and the sexual issues go to one side of the room, and Catholics passionate about the social teachings of the Church to the other. And from their sides they both hurl blame, venom, scorn, and debate who is a true Catholic and who really cares about what is most important. We do this rather than appreciate the work that each of us does in essential areas and we fail to understand that the Church needs two wings to fly.
The easiest thing in the world is to get Catholics fighting and divided. And we take the bait every time. The media knows it and so does the President. Shame on them for doing it, but shame on us for being such an easy target.
And to a large extent it all goes back to those angry August days back in 1968 when priests and laity took the violence and discord of that awful year and made it the template for Church life; when there emerged a kind of spiritual violence, and discord, when there developed a hermeneutic of suspicion; and when there was an embracing of a distorted ecclesiology of the Church as a political entity rather the Body of Christ.
Perhaps such tendencies were decades in coming, but, as Cardinal Stafford notes, there was something about that hot and fateful August of 1968, something in that awful year slouched into the Church and grew like a cancer. It is still too much with us today and it is has infected us all. Somehow it’s still August, the scorching heat wave lingers, and the hazy air reminds us of the summer of our discontent, that awful and fateful year of 1968. Usquequo Domine…usquequo? (Ps 12:1)
This song says, I need you, you need me. We’re all part of God’s Body. Stand with me, agree with me, you are important to me, I need you to survive.