National Catholic Register


The Great Eights: 1968

The Age of the Council

BY The Editors

August 24-30, 2008 Issue | Posted 8/19/08 at 2:16 PM


Nineteen Sixty-Eight: The year itself summons images of upheaval.

The Paris student riots.

The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

The riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention.

The Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre.

The Prague Spring.

The Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics.

The sexual revolution.

It was not a time amenable to authority. Yet, in 1968, Pope Paul VI chose to exercise his authority in the most dramatic way imaginable. The resulting earthquakes are still shaping the Church.

The first earthquake was Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), the papal encyclical affirming traditional Christian orthodoxy on the immorality of artificial contraception. Published in July 1968, the teaching met with widespread rejection from theologians, an equivocal reception by bishops’ conferences, lukewarm support even in the Roman Curia — and outright ridicule from the mainstream culture.

Forty years later, many now praise the courage of Paul VI in taking a lonely stand for orthodoxy, but at the time, it was widely judged a disaster. The Holy Father was so traumatized by the open dissent that he did not write another encyclical in the remaining 10 years of his papacy.

Pope Paul VI had received the advice of his advisory commission on the birth-control question in 1966. The commission was divided, with a “majority report” advocating a change in the teaching, and a “minority report” advising upholding the teaching as true.

For two years, the Holy Father deliberated on the question, as pressure mounted upon him to change, and expectations grew that he would. When he finally ruled in 1968, the timing could not have been worse.

“In its first major post-Vatican II confrontation with the sexual revolution — the most potent manifestation of the notion of freedom as personal autonomy — the Church had been put squarely on the defensive,” wrote George Weigel. “It would be more than another decade before the Church would attempt a teaching offensive on sexuality with Pope John Paul II’s ‘theology of the body.’”

The earthquake of dissent from Humanae Vitae produced a tidal wave of heterodoxy that crashed down upon Catholic universities, religious orders and diocesan bureaucracies in the decades following 1968.

From the perspective of 2008, as one Christian denomination after another has given its approval to cohabitation, divorce, homosexual relations, same-sex “marriage,” lethal experimentation on embryos and even abortion, it is clear that Paul VI’s teaching prevented the whole of the Church’s moral tradition from being swept away entirely.

The Holy Father was not only courageous; he was correct.

The other earthquake was less noticed at the time. The liturgical reform called for in a general way by Vatican II had to be implemented.

In 1968, Paul VI would choose to do this in one of the most audacious acts of papal power in history. For all practical purposes, the then-current Order of Mass would be suppressed, and a new one promulgated. The key decisions were taken in 1968, with the new rite of ordinations published in June. The new Roman Missal would follow early in 1969. By the end of 1969, the “old Mass” would be gone.

The scope of the papal decree was without precedent. After the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Pope Pius V extended the Roman Missal to the entire Church, but permitted any other rites to continue if they were more than 200 years old. Paul VI’s decree that the entire Church would change its liturgical prayer in a matter of months was altogether more unrestrained.

It was not a propitious time to announce that it was out with the old, in with the new.

The sweeping decrees of Paul VI were taken further than he ever intended. A period of liturgical chaos and confusion set in. Translations of the Mass were hastily prepared, sentencing several generations of Catholics to faulty and uninspired prayers at Mass.

Ideological agendas took hold in liturgical guilds. Abuses in the liturgy became widespread. It is doubtful that the liturgical reforms alone were responsible for the catastrophic decline in Mass attendance, but they manifestly did not stop it.

As time went on, the cultural decline in morals increasingly vindicated Paul VI’s stand in Humanae Vitae.

At the same time, the rapid decline in Catholic liturgical sensibility, reverence and beauty increasingly raised questions about the Holy Father’s liturgical reforms. The most searing indictment came from the highest possible source, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

“I was dismayed by the prohibition of the old missal, since nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy,” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger in 1997. “The old building was demolished, and another built, to be sure largely using materials from the previous one and even using the old building plans. There is no doubt that this new missal in many respects brought with it a real improvement and enrichment; but setting it as a new construction over against what had grown historically, forbidding the results of this historical growth, thereby makes the liturgy appear to be no longer a living development but the product of erudite work and juridical authority; this has caused us enormous harm.”

The repudiation by the congregation prefect of a key decision of a recent pope is almost unheard of. Indeed, before Cardinal Ratzinger’s criticism of Paul VI, it was unheard of. Why did he do it? He considered the crisis that grave.

“I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy, when at times has even come to be conceived of etsi Deus non daretur; in that it is a matter of indifference whether or not God exists and whether or not he speaks to us and hears us.”

In the mind of Pope Benedict XVI, the aftershocks of the 1968 earthquakes are with us still.

Next week: The Year of Three Popes, 1978, and Pope Benedict XVI’s evaluation of Paul VI.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

was the Register’s Rome

correspondent from 1999-2003.