I arrived in Washington, D.C., early in September of 1969 to undertake my junior and senior college years at Catholic University in the school of philosophy. This was precisely one year after Pope Paul VI had issued his Humanae Vitae, upholding the Church’s teaching prohibiting artificial birth control. The Catholic U. neighborhood where I lived and studied (sometimes) was an excellent observation point to watch not just the controversy over the papal teaching but to observe up close how the university itself and the Church at large were divided within themselves, in part by the birth control teaching, in part by interpretations of Vatican II itself, and in part by how Catholic universities were sorting out their identities as institutions of free speech and thought.
Catholic University, then and today, is chartered to award both civil degrees and ecclesiastical degrees [i.e., degrees chartered by the Vatican as “pontifical.”) The “pontifical status” carries both an approbation of the Church and the expectation of orthodoxy, that the recipient’s views and writings represented those of the Church. About eighteen months before I arrived, in April of 1967, the “Coup of Catholic University” took place when a professor of moral theology, Father Charles Curran, was refused tenure and contract renewal because of his teachings on sexual morality, specifically his contention that the ban on artificial contraception be lifted. This was over a year before Humanae Vitae was promulgated, which gives an indication of how heated the subject of contraception had become in the 1960’s. Curran was reinstated after a campus-wide strike of students and fellow faculty.
When Pope Paul issued his July 1968 teaching, most bishops of the United States maintained a gentleman’s silence. This is not surprising: it was not the practice of the time for individual bishops to publicly rebuff or criticize papal pronouncements. Cardinal Cushing of Boston, arguably the senior bishop in the United States in 1968, issued his famous national summary of the situation to the secular press, “Roma locuta, causa finita.” What individual bishops thought privately about the teaching can, in most cases, never be known. What would become a matter of record is how each bishop enforced the encyclical. [The Canadian Conference of Bishops took a different direction, issuing the famous “Winnipeg Statement” as an interpretive key to Humanae Vitae.]
Complicating matters further in the late 1960’s was the general distrust of authority often attributed to the management of the Viet Nam War. I went to Washington one month after the countercultural event known as Woodstock, and a year after the acrimonious 1968 Democratic National Convention. Of the latter, veteran reporter Haynes Johnson wrote in Smithsonian in 2008:
“The 1968 Chicago convention became a lacerating event, a distillation of a year of heartbreak, assassinations, riots and a breakdown in law and order that made it seem as if the country were coming apart. In its psychic impact, and its long-term political consequences, it eclipsed any other such convention in American history, destroying faith in politicians, in the political system, in the country and in its institutions. No one who was there, or who watched it on television, could escape the memory of what took place before their eyes.”
It would be foolish to pretend that the turmoil across the United States had no impact upon Church parish life. One tiny sample: the Woodstock event occurred within the territory of one of the Franciscan parishes next to my junior seminary, and the pastor was significantly traumatized by the “relaxed morals,” shall I say, of the 500,000 participants. This was not an uncommon reaction of clergy to changing American life in general, who came to see Pope Paul’s teaching on sexual morality as a bastion of order and reason in the face of disintegration. My parents back home in Buffalo were participants in the Christian Family Movement, a popular home group discussion movement of the day. They recalled that birth control was a significant topic of discussion even before HV, and that it was not unusual for a participating priest to contradict the preceding visiting clergyman in his advice to the group.
Given that parish priests were divided, the prudent stance of a local bishop after the encyclical would be quiet discretion, not making a bad situation worse. (Despite years of ongoing controversy, Father Curran remains a priest in good standing at age 82 with the support of his home bishops in Rochester, NY.) Where bishops felt compelled to act on behalf of the encyclical were in circumstances of public defiance. Cardinal O’Boyle—my bishop for five years in DC—was quite public with his unhappiness over the 1967 unpleasantness at Catholic University, though his hands were tied somewhat by the University’s governance by a board of national bishops-trustees.
But another diocese encountered its own public conflict over the encyclical, which coincidentally was my home diocese of Buffalo. In that situation, several priest faculty members of (then) St. John Vianney Seminary signed a public statement of dissent against Humanae Vitae. Living away from home, I could not quite follow the details, but in fairness, the Bishop of Buffalo (whose predecessor died in 1962 at the Council, of shock, some wags observed) had inherited debt and the first serious waves of Buffalo’s economic decline, not to mention the changes from Vatican II. He was not a particularly popular bishop—prophets of bad news rarely are—and he never became an icon. The roots of his troubles are probably complicated: the seminary professors who had studied the moral theories of Bernard Haring and Charles Curran would almost naturally have had a visceral reaction to moral decision making by papal fiat. Whether the Buffalo bishop took note of how his confreres were dealing with restive clergy is unknown, but he probably should have.
Perhaps the Buffalo professors, one of whom had been a favorite youthful confessor of mine, thought that the success of dissenters in Washington might help them carry the day. However, Bishop McNulty summarily fired four of the signers from their positions on the seminary faculty. I do not know if other church sanctions were levied against them. By pure dumb luck I came upon a blog site called BeliefNet which interviewed the ordination class of the Buffalo seminary’s class of 1969; it contains a remarkable summary of how young priests navigated these difficult days.
By the time I arrived at Catholic University in September 1969 the student unrest on campus had shifted to the Viet Nam War. In fact, I did not take final exams in the spring of 1970 because the students had closed the campus again. The instruction in my junior year was rather poor; the School of Philosophy put its best faculty and money into advanced courses for those seeking higher degrees. The “bread and butter seminarians” were lucky to get jelly, truth be told. I would be hard pressed to recall anything I learned that junior year in the classroom. But on weekends I did work at several parishes in Alexandria and Arlington, VA, as a musician and cantor, where the parishioners were at each other’s’ throats over both loyalty to papal teaching and patriotism/protest over the Viet Nam War.
From 1969-74 I lived in a friary with about twenty-five theological doctors and seminary professors. How they were impacted by Humanae Vitae (or not) and what we learned in theology will be the subject of next week’s Monday entry.
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