1968 – A Year When Many in the Church Drank the Poison of the World

Corner of 7th & N Street NW, Washington D.C., April 8, 1968
There was something awful about the year 1968. Fifty years later we are still reeling from its effects. Perhaps we do well to ponder the deep wounds that still fester today.

I was a young lad at the time, and almost everything I saw on the television news terrified me. Harrowing nightly reports from Vietnam (where my father was stationed) detailed that day’s casualties; I always feared that my father had been one of those killed. There were frequent riots and anti-war demonstrations in America’s cities and college campuses. There were two high-profile assassinations: Dr. Martin Luther King in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June. Riots and burning cities followed Dr. King’s assassination. I remember my mother, who was teaching on the South Side of Chicago, having to flee for her life and finally be rescued and escorted out by police. The first stirrings of militant feminism were occurring.

The growing “hippie” movement was fresh off 1967’s “Summer of Love”—which was just an excuse for selfish, spoiled college kids to get high and fornicate while deluding themselves that they were somehow doing a noble thing. This ramped up to the even more hideous Woodstock festival in August of 1969. It popularized the sexual revolution, drug use, rebellion against all authority, and a lot of just plain bad behavior.

In the Church, sweeping changes were underway, adding to the uncertainty of those times. Even if one argues that such changes were necessary, they came at an inopportune time and fed into the popular notions of revolution. The revolt against Pope Paul VI’s magnificent and prophetic Humanae Vitae, published in July of 1968, ushered in a spirit of open dissent that still devastates the Church.

Yes, 1968 was a terrible year. When I mention that year and shake my head, I often get puzzled looks. I stand by my claim: 1968 was a cultural tsunami from which we have not recovered to this day.

Some years ago, I read an article by James Francis Cardinal Stafford, who also singled out 1968 as being a year of intense darkness. He focused particularly on the devastating effects of angry and open dissent, set loose by theologians and priests who rebelled against Humanae Vitae. The Cardinal asserted that the violent revolution raging outside the Church decisively entered within her during that time and that we still stagger from the effects today. Here are some of his observations of that year, when he was a priest in Baltimore:

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 or test] 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 [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 Humanae 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 communion … 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 (The Year of the Peirasmòs – 1968, J. Francis Cardinal Stafford).

Yes, a terrible year 1968 was, and we have yet to recover. Discussion in the Church has often retained its painful, divisive, “spiritually violent” tendencies. Clergy at every level are divided—priests against priests, bishops against bishops, cardinals against cardinals. Division is everywhere. The laity often see bishops as more resembling elected official than the anointed leaders and fathers they are. Sadly, politics do seem to infect ecclesial matters. Cynicism—whatever its source—has crushed our openness to be taught. Many today are neither docile nor loving and supportive of the Church. Discourse in the Church, which should be marked by charity and a family love, is instead modeled on angry political debate and the pursuit of power; an atmosphere of suspicion and scorn is in the air.

Our faith has been divided and politicized even within. Catholics who are passionate about the family, life issues, and sexual morality go to one side of the room; those passionate about the social teachings of the Church to the other. From their respective sides they hurl blame, venom, and scorn, debating 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, failing to understand that the Church needs two wings to fly.

Add to all of this the wars over the liturgy; scorn and contempt are often evident in discussions of something that should be the source of our greatest unity. Legitimate diversity has become adversity; preferences are dogmatized; arrogance is too easily on display.

It seems that it is easy to get Catholics to fight among themselves. We take the bait every time. The media know it; many politicians know it. Shame on them for doing it, but shame on us for being such an easy target.

To a large extent it goes back to those angry days 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 than the Body of Christ.

Perhaps such tendencies were decades in the making, but as Cardinal Stafford notes, there was something about that hot and fateful August of 1968. Something in that awful year infiltrated the Church and has grown like a cancer. It is still with us today and 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, 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.”

28 Replies to “1968 – A Year When Many in the Church Drank the Poison of the World”

  1. Dear Mrgs Pope, the video is lovely, but many of the people doing that in these days are independist Catalonians, who are close to Nazi thinking. The current Catalonian President called “beasts” to the Catalonian Spanish-speakers, and many more. Things here are getting worse every single day.

    1. Pedro: Just because they are Castilian doesn’t mean they are crypto-Nazis. Yes, Catalonia is home to some awful haters. It is also the home of the magnificent Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s splendid tribute to God and to all that is holy.

      Don’t focus first on political extremism and the antagonism of groups. Focus first and always on souls whom God created and loves so very much.

  2. Would a greater devotion to the holy Angels , esp. our own guardian Angels who bring us the presence of the holy spirit be the antidote !

    Having received a prayer card the other day , that said –
    St.Michael, I love you, please protect me’ , helped to realize negligent I have been in professing my love and gratitude to the glorious , powerful beings , including the guardian angel .
    The Angel of Peace was sent to Fatima to prepare the children for the coming of our Lady ; hope many would find solace and comfort in often turning to the guardian angels , often telling them that we love them and doing so esp. for those of persons we find hard to deal with and invoking them – seems forgiveness becomes easier too when we can do so .

    https://www.ewtnreligiouscatalogue.com/Home+Page/BOOKS/EWTN+Bookmark/HIS+ANGELS+AT+OUR+SIDE.axd – good timely book on the topic
    and let us thank the guardian angels of Msgr Pope and our priests too – priests said to have at least 2 guardian angels 🙂 for the Father love and presence brought into our midst through them .

  3. Equally distressing are the vast number of those who know better standing around allowing the festering to continue (and profiting from the infection).

    The movement today to withdraw from the public values of the nation are not so much the embrace of the minimalism but a firm rejection of the people and institutions that have allowed the clambake of 1968’s failures to take root.

    I am hoping to go back further this summer and rediscover the the debate between traditionals and modernists from the 1880s through the new century. That is the crack in the wall. The choosing of say communism over Distributism.

  4. Great historical interest, but…the issues noted are not ones of prudential choices in accordance with the Faith and moral teachings of the Church. We are talking about the smoke of the devil entering the house and some very heretical dissenting views. We are in a de facto split and the choice is between an orthodox Church and heterodox something else.

  5. The Msgr. has fallen into the trap of blaming the late 1960’s and the 1970’s for every perceived failing of society and the Church. Now he shakes his fist at a single year? Count me among those who give a puzzled look. Everything before 1968 was hunky-dory? No one questioned anything? You KNOW that was not so.

    1. Hello Larry,

      Just limiting ourselves to Church History, we could pick blindfolded any year between Pentecost and today and find heresies, splits and schisms, and even scandals, excommunications, and sinful popes and priests. No year in our history could be considered “hunky-dory” – by any stretch of our imagination. We are all sinful creatures and don’t often do our best.

      Monsignor Pope picked 1968 – maybe because he lived those days in a country divided by the Vietnam war and racial inequalities, maybe because that was the year also picked by Cardinal Stafford, maybe because of “Humanae Vitae,” which our Church plans to revisit soon and probably “edit.”

      For whatever reasons, Monsignor Pope picked 1968. He never says that everything before that was perfect in the world or in the Church. None of us can claim that. We can only ask God as often as we can to “deliver us from evil.”

      1. Jackie, I agree with you. The assertion of of one thing does not necessarily negate another thing not contradictory to it.

  6. I agree Raymond. The Church seems to be in-step with what Ven. Archbishop Sheen spoke about when he said the following…
    “The Western post-Christian civilization has picked up the Christ without His Cross. But a Christ without a sacrifice that reconciles the world to God is a cheap, feminized, colorless, itinerant preacher who deserves to be popular for His great Sermon on the Mount, but also merits unpopularity for what He said about His Divinity on the one hand, and divorce, judgment, and hell on the other. This sentimental Christ is patched together with a thousand commonplaces, sustained sometimes by academic etymologists who cannot see the Word for the letters, or distorted beyond personal recognition by a dogmatic principle that anything which is Divine must necessarily be a myth. Without His Cross, He becomes nothing more than a sultry precursor of democracy or a humanitarian who taught brotherhood without tears.”
    ― Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ

  7. Already shaken about the news this morning, I got to see this blog post today about the changes 50 years ago. St Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.

  8. 1968 may have been the year when the dissent in the Church reached an open declaration by liberals, but the seeds were planted years before in seminaries by heretical professors.
    [I saw this in later years first-hand in a seminary in 1973 where a professor openly stated that he believed Mary and Joseph had sexual relations, and there was no reaction].

  9. Thank you again for your courage to speak what needs to be said. The devil must laugh as we squabble about matters great and small, failing to distinguishing the difference, forgetting into whose faces we are gazing. I am certainly guilty.

  10. The worst problem has to be the continuing breakdown of the family. Some demographic groups have over 50% of the children being born out of wedlock. The church and the community have lost ground, and the government has filled this vacuum. Overall, government dependency is not doing too many people any favors. As far as Baltimore is concerned, in a recent poll conducted by USA Today, it is considered the 9th worst city to live in.

  11. We are still in the days of the Novena for fathers – what a lovely thing that we in The Church get to make the best of this ‘secular ‘ occasion .

    ‘Russia would spread her errors ‘ was the warning of Bl.Mother , in 1917 ; would that error be good bit from the contempt /scorn , like that of ‘ beast like a
    leopard ‘ mentioned in the Book of Revelation , biting off and wounding the sense of reverence for Father figures and thus for fathers and life itself .
    The Orthodox , with their stubborn refusal to have anything much to do with the Holy Father and the Catholic Church had been setting themselves up, for the effects of same to percolate through their lands for a good while .

    Here , that same contempt manifested in the realm of cultural aspects , spread rapidly through the media .

    Would a Feast in honor of The Father be one way to counter the issues , even in line with the Consecration that was requested , seemingly heaven desiring to see the Fatherly role and honor for 6 the Holy Father , in all of His Church .

    July 1st , Feast of The Precious Blood is when there has been the approved apparition of The Father , to Mo.Eugenia .

    Our Holy Father , who commendably has declared the Feast of Mary , as Mother of The Church , declaring a Feast in honor of The Father to help many of His children to know better who they are – hope the concerns of Msgr Pope and others would help in that direction .

    Meanwhile , families recognizing that the Rosary devotion too is a way to counter the beast , with the help of our Mother , to open our hearts too, to the presence of the Holy Spirit , through the ministry of our holy angels , to bring back the sense of reverence and holiness into lives .

  12. Father I agree that 1968 was an awful year because of what you mentioned. Also international riots to include the uprising in France in May 1968 with the slogan “it is forbidden to forbid.” The invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact. The Nigeria civil War (Biafran War). And the diabolical cultural revolution seemed to be at it peak in 1968 China. The pre Olympic massacre in Mexico City… just an awful year.

  13. Our Blessed Lady warned us that Russia would spread her errors all through the earth it she were not converted.
    The error is this secular humanism, the fulfillment of the French revolution
    ‘Man is the measure of all thing.’
    1968 was the year of our defeat as a society.
    The remedy? Prayer, especially the Rosary and Penance.
    On the part of the Church, the long awaited Consecration, which i believe will usher in a glorious restoration.

  14. I was struck by the fact that1968 is exactly 50 years after 1918 when the Mother of God appeared in Fatima to eArn of these terrible things. Had we prayed as she asked during those 50 years we would have been prepared against those evils. Pray now anyway and pray alot. She will help.

  15. I personally think 1968 was an outstanding year…the year I was born! And in August, to boot. (Tongue in cheek.)

    I was born into a solid parish and learned from the Baltimore Catechism in the early 1970s. We moved to another state and wow, things were different. Very hippyish.

    I found out that the parish priest who married us and baptized my kids was one of the “dissenters” to H.V. and actually signed a protest letter that effect.

    Somehow God led us through all of this “confusion, uneasiness and unrest.” I believe that “dissenting priest” has since had a change of heart and mind. In my 20s I was led closer to the Eucharist and am now a Rosary prayer warrior. A child of the 70s. There is always hope! I have to remind myself that somehow God is using these divisions and dark times for a greater good.

    Outstanding article, and Dave’s comment above about history choosing communism over Distributism is intriguing. (Spell check doesn’t even recognize Distributism….see how obsolete that idea has been made? 🙂

  16. We always look for moments in time to blame our downfall.
    My thoughts always goes to the beginning of Our Lords passion.
    While agonizing in the garden and hanging upon the cross, the severity of His suffering was for “ALL” sin that had happened from Adam and Eve until the end of time,

    All that every generation is experiencing came before Our Dear Lord in His agony and suffering. He paid the price for all that will be right to the end. There is peace in knowing that in the end, God
    WILL reign.

  17. Put the house in order. Quit letting the un-catechized laity run the show and give priests back their authority. I’m tired of their ‘blender’ religion of Catholic ala carte.

  18. Monsignor,
    I think 1968 was, like 1848, one of those years where everything changed–you can almost see a heavy black line separating those years before from those years after. However, while the revolution in the RC Church blew up that year, it most certainly did not start in that year.
    My personal recollection, growing up in the far NW suburbs of Chicago, was that 1967 was the watershed year. I recall finishing up 7th grade with nuns in traditional habits, orthodox priests, etc. When we came back to school in the fall, everything had changed. The nuns announced they were changing their habits, they and the priests were talking differently, etc.
    In fact, a rather older nun and a very youngish assistant pastor made the rounds of the classrooms to announce that the beliefs of the Catholic church had changed, and that we did not believe in most of things that we had been taught to believe were Catholic, any more. Their entry wound, as I recall, was to attack the saints and the entire concept of personal sanctity. They told us that many of the saints were bizarre and today would be regarded as seriously mentally ill and hospitalized, that they practiced mortifications such as licking up vomit from the floor, etc. Then, they led the classes into laughing at, and mocking, the saints and the pursuit of personal sanctity.
    I was gobsmacked and tried to tell my father over dinner what had happened. He was of that generation that believed that one gave unconditional assent, and obedience, to anything and everything being taught by a nun or priest. He became almost psychotically angry and almost hit me!
    Needless to say, both my faith and my confidence were badly shaken. I am still trying to figure out what happened in those days.

    1. I, too was in Chicago, in high school in 1968 and my family suffered the same experiences with the nuns seemingly evaporating into thin air, replaced by the same women in street clothes and “attitudes.” As a result, my 9 brothers and sisters left the Catholic Church and joined various Protestant denominations and still have not returned. My older sister suffered an even worse fate. She was a nun. Her entire class left the convent, and my sister has been a “New Ager” ever since.
      1968 was a satanic year, imho!

  19. Two more recollections from that era (I beg your, and your listeners’ indulgence)”
    (1) The Land of Lakes statement from Winnipeg, Canada came out in 1967. The bishops and theologians of our neighbor to the north issued some kind of blanket statement that from that point forward, they were independent of Catholic belief. The Vatican never disciplined any of them, and as far as I have heard, almost none of the original signatories ever retracted it. The full text and many articles can be found online.
    (2) I have heard from several sources that Pope Paul VI had sought input from bishops, cardinals, theologians and other “experts” on human sexuality on many of the points he so excellently put forth in Humanae Vitae. Reportedly, these were organized into a kind of panel. About 1-2 years before Humanae Vitae was actually released, they voted amongst themselves, and reportedly, 69 out of 74 voted in favor of contraception. They then leaked the results of this informal, nonbinding vote to the press.
    When Humanae Vitae came out, there was a firestorm of dissent in response. Again, as far as I have ever heard, no one was ever disciplined for extreme rebellion against faith and morals, and almost no one, if anyone, ever retracted his/her extreme views in favor of contraception, etc.
    We have been living out the results of that hideous deformation of faith and morals known as the Sexual Revolution ever since.

  20. This is truly a prophetic reflection of what has happened to the Church in the 20th century – the heat of evil did enter and cause damage, the scars of which remain, the festering occlusions of which surface as an open wound. But many of the wounds, having opened already, are now bandaged and healing, and new life is filling in where once there were scars and festering occlusions. There is hope for healing and renewal once all of the festering occlusions are out.

  21. Yes, 1968 – a truly memorable year for me – That was the year of my ordination after 4 years of theological darkness. An erudite classmate told me one day that he didn’t believe like me anymore. I was stunned. When I returned to my room to study, I looked at my bookshelf and realized how diverse where the theological perspectives presented to us – classical and progressive. I realized that I had to anchor myself in the classical if I were to remain faithful to the faith of the ages. – When eventually I was sent to study in Rome, the ‘collegio’ where I was residing was filled with progressive minds that referred to me as “the perfect 12th century priest”. I took that as a complement: first, I was ‘perfect’; I presumed that they meant the 1200’s, which was the age of such Saints as Francis and Dominic, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure. – Sad to say, the leading progressive minds we read in the seminary eventually left the priesthood and the Church – as did many of those ordained around my time. I had the joy of celebrating my 50th anniversary of ordination this year – 2018.

    1. Thank you for you faithful priesthood, Father.
      The evil one is always prowling about, wherever he thinks he can do the most harm… seminary, newsrooms, college faculties,

      We need to pray unceasingly.

  22. “From their respective sides they hurl blame, venom, and scorn, debating who is a true Catholic and who really cares about what is most important.”

    This part of the otherwise excellent article jumped out at me. I do not see the need for the false moral equivalence regarding the main factions in the Catholic church.

    It can be reasonably argued that there is no left or right in the Church but instead there are Catholics and non-Catholics.

    Nobody on the so-called “right” is opposed to love, charity or mercy. However the other “side” is opposed to fundamental aspects of the Faith.

    So let’s call them what they are (modernists, communists, socialists, homosexualists, feminists, etc…) and stop pretending that they are “liberal” Catholics. These ideologies are not compatible with the One True Faith.

  23. My perspective of 1968 is totally different.

    My parents tried very hard to keep the news away from me. All the footage of Vietnam got me confused to think it was archival footage of WW2.

    I was starting first grade, and a whole new world was opening up.

    I was only allowed to listen to childrens’ albums, and very limited “REAL” music (radio, television).

    I had to go to bed at 8:00 (on a school night) and 9:00 on weekends…but not without a fight to stay awake and fighting sleepiness to the death.

    Milk was still delivered to the house, there was diaper service (no disposable diapers), and doctors still made house calls when I got sick.

    Since I was Episcopalian we went to church on Sundays, unless my brother or I was sick with the typical childhood diseases (and it sometimes seem as we got them all—despite immunizations).

    Neither my brother and I took advantage of the sexual revolution. Heck, we didn’t even know was “sex” let alone reproduction was for another three years.

    My television programming was very selective, parent approved, and depending on the day and hour it was either watched or not. Adult programming was strictly prohibited at all times.

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