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1968

 

1968                  Gerry OShea

The Latinists with good reason named 1968 as annus horribilis, an awful year, a terrible time in America. It started with the Tet Offensive in January when the North Vietnamese launched surprise attacks in thirty-six major cities and towns that completely flummoxed the American and South Vietnamese forces. Tet signaled the beginning of the end for America’s mistaken involvement in that jungle war which a few years later left them scampering to evacuate the country after a major military defeat.

At home, huge anti-war protests took place every week, and sections of the big cities were torched as thousands of young Americans came home in body bags. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Atlanta, and two months later Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles.

In the spring, President Lyndon Johnson, bewildered by the Vietnam imbroglio, announced that he would reject his party’s nomination for re-election, and Richard Nixon defeated the vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, in the November election.

Meanwhile the Catholic church was going through a catharsis of its own. Pope Paul V1 published his encyclical Humanae Vitae – Of Human Life – in July. The pope hoped it would clear up all the ethical questions on reproductive rights for Catholics and in particular settle the debate about the use of contraceptives.

Pope John XX111, his predecessor and the most admirable of the modern men at the top in the Vatican, set up the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control to advise him on this crucial question: should the Catholic Church approve or at least tolerate the use of any medication or device that would preclude pregnancy when married couples engaged in lovemaking?

Paul V1 expanded the Commission to include more theologians, and a clear majority recommended that married couples should be allowed to use contraceptives. Paul, however, faced a major dilemma, which, as we shall see, still reverberates in the Vatican today. His predecessor, Pius X1, had issued the encyclical Casti Connubi  - Of Chaste Wedlock - in 1930, explicitly rejecting the Anglican decision at their Lambeth Conference that year which allowed a limited use of contraceptives by married couples. Pius accused the Protestants of yielding to modernist thinking which, in his words, relativized truth. If it was deemed morally wrong to use a contraceptive in previous times, then, in his opinion, logic compels the conclusion that it should be condemned for all time.

Paul decided to reject the cogent recommendation of the clear majority his distinguished advisors because he felt that he couldn’t contradict his predecessor without undermining the standing of the papacy. So, he chose to give his imprimatur to the outmoded thinking that sexual intercourse could not be morally disentangled from procreation, and, ironically, in the process doing immense damage to the credibility of the institution he wanted to protect.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) stressed the belief, widely affirmed in the early church, of communal responsibility in deciding controversial moral issues. Theology 101 teaches that the Spirit moves the hearts of all people and so looking solely to clerical perspectives on difficult issues runs counter to mature Christian decision-making.

Very few Catholics believe that married couples using contraceptives are somehow in breach of any divine or natural law. In fact, most ethicists applaud a single man who uses a condom rather than risk his partner getting pregnant. However, the official church teaching on this important subject has still not changed since the papal pronouncement in 1968 – in fact since Pius X1 in 1930.

 In the crucial area of who exercises decision-making power the buck still stops in the sizable cohort of Vatican bureaucrats – nearly all male clerics, middle-aged or older, serving popes, who, apart from John XX111 and Francis, showed little appreciation of the Council’s stress on collegial decision-making.

The current synodal process is engaging many Catholics throughout the world. It involves the bishops conferring with the people in the pews and eventually reporting to the pope on the results of their deliberations. Francis faces the same conundrum that Paul confronted in 1968.

Let’s take an example. Many of the synodal gatherings throughout the world are rejecting the Vatican teaching on homosexuality which condemns same-sex love as depraved and essentially evil. The argument heard from the pulpits is the same as it has been for hundreds of years. Male – female sexual activity is natural and is morally permitted but only between married couples.

There has been a sea change during the last half century in the public acceptance of the gay lifestyle. Vatican declarations are out of tune with the new beliefs of the people in the pews. The old thinking has lost its grip and is damaging the church. The current ruling by the American hierarchy, true to the traditional mind frame, that a loving gay couple may not receive a church blessing qualifies as backward thinking and is certainly unchristian.

In this regard, papal pronouncements have been superseded by common sense and by popular attitudes of compassion and caring very much in line with the spirit of the New Testament. The main obstacle to modernity in religious education is revealed in Rome’s insistence on maintaining consistency with past pronouncements. Models that sufficed in other times are clearly inadequate today. There is something seriously amiss when a church claiming its genesis in the New Testament refuses a blessing to a loving gay couple.

Pope Francis’ synodal approach is attempting to deal with this moral conundrum. How do you accommodate old certainties that satisfied popes and scholars in the past with new moral perceptions and insights? In Galileo’s time, the pope was certain, based on his reading of the bible, that the earth was the center of the universe. Poor Galileo was forced to recant his scientific conclusions but was still held under house arrest to make sure he would stay quiet. Three hundred and fifty-nine years later in 1992 Pope John Paul 11 apologized to him and to church members for this arrogant ecclesial blunder.

In more recent times, Rome was insisting that slavery was just fine for fifty years after Britain condemned it in the 1830’s. How did a self-proclaimed arbiter of morality get the biggest issue of good and evil during the last thousand years wrong for so long?

Synodality, which involves listening carefully and appreciatively to the views of Catholics everywhere will demand major changes by the Catholic Church led by an ailing Francis. He faces exactly the same dilemma that Paul V1 had to deal with in 1968. Does he stick with the old certainties handed down from the past or trust the Spirit and launch a new era of compassionate thinking leading to major church reform?

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com

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