Msgr. Charles Pope: 1968 – A Year When Many in the Church Drank the Poison of the World

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Photo:  Corner of 7th & N Street NW, Washington D.C., April 8, 1968

By Msgr. Charles Pope • June 19, 2018

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.”