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Home Analysis Humanae Vitae: The Church's own “1968 moment” — Part Two

Humanae Vitae: The Church’s own “1968 moment” — Part Two

In this second part, of a two-part exclusive series, Fr Anthony Egan, a Jesuit moral theologian and ethicist at The Jesuit Institute South Africa, does a socio-historical reading of one of the most contentious of the Church's documents in the modern period – Humanae Vitae. In the first part, he introduced the factors that led to the production of the document and why its impact was so profound to the society and the Church of the time. Next, he looks at the global situation in the 1960s which, he argues, explains the Church's decision to promulgate the document .

Critics of Vatican II itself have said that it was over-optimistic about human nature. There could be some truth in that but the Sixties was an age of hope, even optimism.

The world of the 1960s

Despite the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Cold War between the Soviet and Western blocs began to thaw (admittedly temporarily) by the mid-1960s. In the Soviet Union Stalinism was denounced and the global Left was experimenting with new forms of socialism that stressed personal freedoms and freedom of speech (the New Left). In the United States the young President John F Kennedy was speaking of a ‘new frontier’ and progress – and African Americans were taking to the streets to demand their political and civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

At the same time decolonisation and the end of European empires was taking place – mostly peacefully, sometimes (as in French Algeria and Indochina) by force. New ideas, celebrating Negritude (‘blackness’) and the possibility of a Third World that adhered neither to Washington nor Moscow, were making the rounds not simply in new countries but also in the Northern hemisphere. Post-war French existentialism celebrated freedom and responsibility. Old ideas from the 19th Century about women’s equality (feminism) were being further developed, and (in the early Sixties beneath the surface until the end of the decade) ideas of gay rights were being mooted. In every sphere the main (but never exclusive) agents of this ferment of change were young people – students and workers, academics and activists. Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed desirable.

Only the Establishment seemed in the way. It was the Establishment that slowed things down. It was the Establishment, the United States government, that was prolonging the war in Vietnam, which became a kind of universal symbol of everything that was wrong: the West, led by the USA, was propping up yet another corrupt dictatorship (South Vietnam); the ‘old’ were drafting the young to defend their economic and ideological interests. And a significant section of the young was not having it any more.

As a result the Sixties were a decade of protest, a demand for a new world. Marches, rallies, ‘sit-ins’ and ‘teach-ins’ were the norm, from New York, Washington and Berkeley to Prague, Paris and London, from Cape Town to Bangkok, Mexico City to Tokyo. Spurred on by decolonisation and the successes of the Civil Rights movement by the mid-1960s, there was a mood of hope for those who saw change as both inevitable and necessary. Many young Catholics shared in this hope for renewal, both in society and the Church. Some were in it as individuals from the start; others embraced it as an expression of the call of Vatican II for the Church to be involved positively in public life, promoting all that advanced human dignity and freedom.

If we look at Vatican II, one way of interpreting it was that it echoed, embraced and balanced these aspirations. By at once emphasising continuity with the past (a past that looked beyond the last hundred years to the long tradition of Catholicism) and change, the Council can even arguably be seen as an expression of the Sixties desire for the new without denying the good things of the past. Some young activists, even secular ones, found themselves quoting (or sometimes plagiarising) the words of John XXIII in manifestoes like the ‘Port Huron Statement’ of the US Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

The unravelling

Everything started to unravel in 1968. In that year where protest reached its apex, the reaction became most forceful. Hundreds of student protesters were killed in Mexico City by security forces weeks before the Olympic Games. Riot police fought open battles with students in Paris. The ‘Prague Spring’, an attempt by reformists to create socialism with a human face in Czechoslovakia, ended with Soviet tanks seizing control of Prague. In what later was called a ‘police riot’, Chicago police attacked protesters outside the Democratic National Convention.  Earlier that year Robert Kennedy, Democratic presidential candidate and opponent of the Vietnam War, had been assassinated in San Francisco by a mad gunman. And Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King Jr, who had also joined the resistance to Vietnam, was murdered by a white supremacist.

It seemed to many activists that, directly and indirectly, the forces of the status quo or its supporters, had declared war on them.

The hope and enthusiasm turned to despair. To borrow from the title of a book by academic and Sixties activist Todd Gitlin, the ‘years of hope’ turned into ‘days of rage’. Years of rage, in fact. Protests and state reaction became more aggressive, even violent. Some activists even gave up nonviolent resistance, opting for urban guerrilla warfare in groups like the Red Army Fraction (aka Baader Meinhof Group) in Germany, the Weather Underground and Symbionese Liberation Army in the USA, and the United Red Army in Japan. Other activists withdrew in disillusionment into alternative lifestyles, embracing the ‘hippie’ movement that had already emerged and was living in ‘back to the land’ communes.

What has this to do with the Church and Humanae Vitae?

The continuing fallout

Whatever the inherent theological and ethical merits and limitations of both the Commission Report and Humanae Vitae, Humanae Vitae can be seen as part of the 1968 reaction, the crackdown on the promise of change so deeply desired by many during the 1960s. While many ordinary Catholics felt hurt by the seeming pastoral insensitivity of the encyclical, theologians felt that it betrayed the very principles of collegiality and dialogue Vatican II had established. For Catholics in the social movements, it felt that the Church – which many felt were to a large degree with them in their struggle for a better, more just world – had betrayed them, joined the riot police and the old men in government.

The effect of Vatican II, as I noted, paralleled the crackdowns of 1968. Hostility to the Church, anger, bitterness and a sense of betrayal felt by many, led to the reactions experienced across the world: defiance, defections and a culture of dissent from which the Church has never recovered. Even the ‘crackdown’ on open dissent from the late 1970s onwards, under the pontificates of one of the architects of Humanae Vitae and a Tubingen theology professor (Josef Ratzinger) whose experiences of student protest shifted him away from his earlier embrace of change in the Church at Vatican II, has not stemmed this. All in all, the Church is the weaker for it.

Though Humanae Vitae will almost certainly not be discussed at the Youth Synod in Rome later this year, many of the underlying issues behind it – personal responsibility vs. following authority, scientific credibility of church teachings, the balance between dogmas and experience – underpin the questions the Synod faces. The outcome of the Synod will determine how a new generation – which around the world through new movements like ‘Occupy’ show signs of stirring once again – will see itself in the Church.

Further reading (for those who may wish to go deeper):

Michael J Barberi & Joseph A Selling, “The Origin of Humanae Vitae and the Impasse in Fundamental Theological Ethics”, Louvain Studies Volume 37, 2013: 364-389.

Charles E Curran (ed.), Contraception: Authority & Dissent (London: Burns & Oates 1969).

Ronald Fraser, 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (London: Chatto & Windus 1968)

Peter Hebblethwaite, The Runaway Church (London: Collins 1975).

Robert Blair Kaiser, The Encyclical That Never Was: The Story of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth, 1964-1966 (London: Sheed & Ward 1987) (1985).

Arthur Marwick, The Sixties (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999) (1968).

Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (revised edition) (New York: Bantam 1993).

Thomas D Roberts et al, Contraception & Holiness: The Catholic Dilemma (London: Collins 1965).

Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux 1981) (1960).

Images: Wikipedia, remixed by Ricardo da Silva SJ

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Anthony Egan SJ
Anthony Egan is a Jesuit priest who works at the Jesuit Institute South Africa. He teaches at Steve Biko Ethics Centre Faculty of Health Sciences at WITS University. He also teaches in the Ubuntu Programme for Fordham University at the University of Pretoria. He writes for various journals and publications and regularly offers analysis and comment on politics and the Catholic Church.

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