“You look at 1968 and it was truly the year that shook the world. The world was really completely upside down.”
2018 marks 50 years since the world was forever changed by the events of 1968. Between the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, anti-Vietnam protests erupting across the nation, and the founding of Intel, a company that will change the course of technology and computing forever, Catholicism was facing some of its greatest challenges that would test the new ideologies that were born out of Vatican II. Every aspect of American life, from politics to religion, were disrupted in some form during 1968, and in 2018, we are still feeling the reverberations from the voices and actions that shook the nation to its core.
As Msgr. Charles Pope said in his article, “1968 – A Fateful and Terrible Year Where Many in the Church Drank the Poison of the World”, 1968 ran rampant with “riots and anti-war demonstrations in America’s cities and college campuses. The first stirrings of militant feminism. A second hideous year of hippies with their “summer of love” nonsense, which was just an excuse for selfish, spoiled college kids to get high, fornicate and think they were some how doing a noble thing. There was the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, later that year also of Robert Kennedy, the riots and burning cities that followed King’s assassination. I remember my mother who was teaching on the South Side of Chicago have to flee for her life and finally be rescued by and escorted out by police. There was the ramp up to the yet more hideous Woodstock festival that would happen the following year.”.
This past week I had the privilege of attending the Global ’68 Symposium: Days of Past Present. I attended two panels: Resistance and Riots, Murders and Martyrs, and Catholics at a Crossroads. Each of these events dug into some of the most significant historical landmarks in 1968 surrounding the nation’s political state, as well as the state of the American Catholic Church.
Let it be known that I am not the most avid historian, and my associated knowledge is rather limited. I have decided to specialize my focus on the hard sciences, and as a result, my knowledge of some of the most important historical events in America and in the world is lacking. So, when I was exposed to all that occurred during that fateful year of 1968, my breath was simply taken away, and that is to say the least. What struck me the most, however, was the sheer magnitude of conflict between the post-conciliar theology of Vatican II and the wave of popular ideologies from mainstream America.
During the past few weeks in Seminar, we have discussed a variety of topics in relation to the Catholic Church. From Civil Rights to immigration to gender roles, we have touched on all of these topics and where American Catholics play their parts in this continual dialogue of the evolution of Catholic politics in America. What I realized about all of these events is that they all seem to connect and build up to 1968, where everything just seems to explode.
During this symposium, we heard from speakers Susan Ross, Aaron Pidel, S.J., and Miguel Diaz, who “[explored] developments and tensions in the changing church of 1968- from questions of doctrine, dogma, & style to the lived theologies of peace, justice & inclusion– questions that remain central”. The most touching testimony came from Susan Ross, a professor of Theology and a Faculty Scholar at Loyola University Chicago, who shared her first-hand experiences of life as a young woman in 1968. She gave a lot of context on the racial and political tensions that plagued the nation, as well as the limitations she faced as young woman. She then commented on her experiences with the Catholic Church, and how her participation in it has caused her great amounts of both joy and frustration.
I will readily admit that contemporary society has sheltered me from the struggles that others have faced in history’s past. While Dr. Ross was sharing her stories from her adolescent years, I was shocked by all of the cultural norms that would just be abhorrent in contemporary America. But it wasn’t just mainstream American culture that surprised me, it was also the catastrophic state of the Catholic Church.
Vatican II introduced new theologies to the Catholic Church, which eventually reverberated their way to the states. Humanae Vitae was one of the biggest changes that shook the Catholic Church and clashed with the evolving values of American society. The 1960’s are known for the sexual revolution that ravaged the nation, which “liberalized the established social and moral attitudes toward sex, as the women’s liberation movement and developments in contraception instigated greater experimentation with sex, especially outside of marriage”. And, at the opposite end of that spectrum, Humanae Vitae “affirmed the sanctity of life from conception to natural death and rejected the use of contraception; both abortion and euthanasia were considered to be murder”. The Church’s condemnation of contraception, especially condoms, provoked massive amounts of criticism from those who were experimenting with the ideas of the sexual revolution, and even from those in countries where sexually transmitted diseases were rampant and could be widely prevented with contraception.
This was just one of many examples where the new doctrine of the Church directly clashed with the changing views of American culture. Not only was the Church itself facing disputes and riotous discussion from its traditional followers and the rising generation of youth, as a result of the changes in theology that were introduced post Vatican II, it faced an immense amount of social backlash from the evolving state of American society that was being paved in the “year of the student”.
With a new generation of Americans being raised in an era filled to the brim with controversial wars and political practices, rigid traditions in marriage and sexual relations, and the murders of some of the most though-provoking leaders who paved the way for more peace and unity, it is no wonder why the Church clashed with modern Americans in 1968. In fact, the backlash that the Church faced from the changes that it attempted to impose on Americans shook the nation to its core, and we have yet to recover from the aftermath of the riots and protests that were born out of this one year of American history.
Msgr. Charles Pope says “1968 was a terrible year, a year that I do not think we ever recovered from. It popularized the sexual revolution, drug use and lots of just plain bad behavior. In the Church sweeping changes were underway and this added to the uncertainty of those times. Even if one will argue they were necessary changes they came at a terrible times and fed into the notions of revolution. And then the whole revolt against the magnificent and prophetic Humane Vitae, thus ushering a spirit of open dissent that still devastates the Church”.
It is clear that 1968 was a year that attacked the very foundation of traditional, American ideologies. Between racial and political tensions that reshaped how Americans looked at one another and the place of their federal government, the Catholic Church in America was facing backlash that it could not have even imagined after trying to bring a better, more contemporary theology to the Church is the Western world. 1968 could have, and in my opinion is, one of the most divisive years in American history and has altered the way Americans look at Catholics and how Catholics look at their place in America.
1968 is a crucial aspect in our continual discussion of the Catholic vote, the foundational topic that we connect all of our discussions in seminar to, in that all that took place in 1968 has forced Americans and American Catholics to reevaluate the place of the Church in American society, and see if the Church was as Charles R. Morris described it, “in America, vehemently for America, but never of America”.
Notes “1968 - A Fateful and Terrible Year Where Many in the Church Drank the Poison of This World.” Community in Mission, 10 June 2015, blog.adw.org/2012/03/1968-a-fateful-and-terrible-year-where-many-in-the-church-drank-the-poison-of-this-world/.  Loyola University Chicago, Global '68 Symposium brochure. “Sexual Revolution.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Oct. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_revolution. “History of the Catholic Church since 1962.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Oct. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Catholic_Church_since_1962. Millies, Steven P. Good Intentions: a History of Catholic Voters' Road from Roe to Trump. Liturgical Press, 2018.