The Catholic Church has a profound sense of history and is fascinated with anniversaries.
The modern tradition of Catholic social teaching, for example, has been a sequence of papal encyclicals published to mark the anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891). They include Quadragesimo anno in 1931, Mater et Magistra in 1961, Octogesima adveniens in 1971, Laborem Exercensin 1981 and Centesimus Annus in 1991. If it is true that tradition is not the same thing as history, it is also true that tradition cannot be understood without history and a sense of historicity.
The year 2018 presents us with an interesting set of challenges. The Church is entering the fiftieth anniversary of 1968 cautiously, given the cultural tensions around everything that has to do with the period following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and “the Sixties.”
The problematic relationship Joseph Ratzinger had with the events of 1968 is well known. But also Pope Francis, in his speech to the diplomatic corps this past week, referred to the Sixties in a revelatory passage.
“It should be noted, however, that over the years, particularly in the wake of the social upheaval of the 1960’s, the interpretation of some rights has progressively changed, with the inclusion of a number of ‘new rights’ that not infrequently conflict with one another,” the pope said.
“This has not always helped the promotion of friendly relations between nations, since debatable notions of human rights have been advanced that are at odds with the culture of many countries,” he added.
(It is remarkable to note that the pope used the word “sessantotto” or “sixty-eight” in the original Italian version of the address, while the English translation rendered it “the 1960’s”).
In a way very different from Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, and despite his being wrongly labeled a “liberal,” Francis also takes some critical distance from the “social upheaval of the 1960’s.”
Nobody should expect the Synod of Bishops’ assembly on young people – which Pope Francis is to convene in October 2018 — to match the symbolic significance the student uprisings of 1968 had for youth culture. It is very unlikely that Catholic young people invited to the Synod will march in St. Peter’s Square just as French youth did through the streets of Paris in May 1968 — what Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau called “la prise de la parole.”
But there is something that the Catholic Church could definitely learn from fifty years ago as it tries to understand the present situation. This is particularly true concerning the history of the magisterium and theology, as well as the role that world and “secular” history has played in the Church.
The history of the magisterium since 1968 tells us, above of all, that papal authority has seen more difficult times than the current criticism of Pope Francis’s exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia. No one has been more criticized in the modern history of the papacy the Pope Paul VI after he issued the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, on July 25, 1968. If you want to see what massive dissent and rejection of papal teaching looks like, 1968’s Humanae Vitaewas the beginning. Amoris Laetitia is going through a very different process of reception.
The difficult relationship between the particular section of Humanae Vitae against artificial contraception was signaled by arduous hermeneutical exercises in documents published by entire national bishops’ conferences. The encyclical was basically rejected through statements signed by hundreds of theologians and by a “silent schism” that was no less devastating for papal authority.
So conscious of this was Pope Paul that he never issued another encyclical in the final ten years before he died. Immediately after Humanae Vitae, bishops’ conferences understood the need to leave room for the rights of conscience and put it in writing — and this was unprecedented.
But 1968 meant not only the explosion of dissent in the Church. It also meant a development of the Church’s teaching on peace and war, due to many Catholic reactions against the war in Vietnam. This marked the first serious test for steps taken at Vatican II towards a new theology of peace and war. There is no question that the Catholic Church today is working much more for the prevention of war and the construction of peace rather than for elaborating theological arguments for “just war.” This is because the nuclear bomb inaugurated a new kind of warfare, but also because there was a magisterial shift of the Catholic Church around this issue.
This led Paul VI to institute the World Day of Peace in 1968, an event the Church has continued to celebrate each year on Jan. 1. But the 1968 Catholic peace movement did not rely so much on papal teaching as it did on the mobilization of the Catholic laity — something that is difficult to see today.
Secondly, 1968 should be remembered as the year when numerous seminal works were published, giving an impulse to theological studies and contemporary religious conscience. They form a long list, but here a few examples will suffice: the second edition of Yves Congar’s True and False Reform, whose afterword (written during the students’ uprising) started to elaborate on the challenge for the Catholic Church of the students’ protests in the street of Paris in May of 1968; the publication of the official papers of the German bishops dealing with Hitler – this was the beginning of the Catholic Church taking public responsibility for its support for Nazism (and, with works published in Italian, for Fascism in Italy) through the help of historians; Mary Daly’s The Church and the Second Sex, which opened the chapter for feminist theology in the Catholic Church — a chapter that is still being written and is probably the most crucial for the future of Catholicism in the west.
A third reason to remember 1968 is the fundamental interconnectedness of Church/religious history and secular history. There is no doubt that secular events at the time influenced the Church and religion. For example, the war in Vietnam played a factor in convincing Paul VI of the necessity of a new engagement of the Church in the culture of peace and therefore of the idea of the World Day of Peace. The impact of modern medical technology on bio-politics and religion formed an essential background leading up to and following after Humanae Vitae.
Neither can the social and political situation in Latin America be separated from the post-Vatican II period on that continent. This especially true regarding of the most important ecclesial event of 1968, the conference of the Latin American bishops in Medellin (Colombia), which opened a new period in the history of global Catholicism.
This intimate connection between Church/religious history and secular history is not unique to the 1960s; it has always been part of the historical consciousness of the Church. But today the phenomenon of “fake news” is causing a general weakening of the sense that historical facts exist independently from your ideological orientation. This has consequences for Christian and Catholic theology because Christianity is inseparable from historicity — first of all because of the Incarnation.
It is particularly important to remember the relationship between Christianity and historicity today, because there exist strong ideological currents in the Catholic Church that tend to dismiss the importance that facts of history play in theology. These same ideological currents encourage ideologically militant believers to be very selective when it comes to the facts that they use to support their particular, idiosyncratic “orthodox” understanding of Catholicism.
Good theology does not come from bad history. The challenge is particularly serious in this moment in time, when the longing for utopia has been replaced by what Zygmunt Bauman calls retrotopia — the longing for a past that never was.
Retrotopia is for Catholics a particularly powerful, deceptive and dangerous temptation. It is, at the same time, one of the major differences between the utopias of 1968 and today.