The “Truce of 1968,” once again

In 1968, Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of Washington, D.C., disciplined nineteen priests who had publicly dissented from Pope Paul VI’s teaching in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Three years later, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy decreed that Cardinal O’Boyle should lift canonical penalties against those priests who informed the cardinal privately that they agreed that the Church’s teaching on “the objective evil of contraception” was “an authentic expression of (the) magisterium.” The Congregation explicitly avoided requiring that the priests, who had dissented publicly, retract their dissent publicly. A new biography of O’Boyle, Steadfast in the Faith (Catholic University of America Press), suggests that the decision not to require a public retraction was made by Paul VI himself.

In his O’Boyle biography, Morris J. MacGregor, who’s not immune to the regnant Whig interpretation of contemporary Catholic history, does an able job of laying out the complexities of what came to be known as “The Washington Case;” his narrative is based in large part on interviews with those who had personal knowledge of the negotiations between the Archdiocese of Washington and the Congregation for the Clergy (then led by an American, Cardinal John J. Wright). But MacGregor badly misstates my views on what I termed the “Truce of 1968″ when he writes that, like others, I “have claimed that removing the sanctions sent a message to the laity that resulted in its widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae.”

I have claimed no such thing. What I did argue in my 2002 book, The Courage To Be Catholic, and what I would still argue today, is that the Truce of 1968 (exemplified by the settlement of the Washington Case) taught various lessons to various sectors of the Church in America.

The Truce of 1968 taught theologians, priests, and other Church professionals that dissent from authoritative teaching was, essentially, cost-free.

The Truce of 1968 taught bishops inclined to defend authoritative Catholic teaching vigorously that they should think twice about doing so, if controversy were likely to follow; Rome, fearing schism, was nervous about public action against dissent.  The result, as I put it in Courage, was that “a generation of Catholic bishops came to think of themselves less as authoritative teachers than as moderators of an ongoing dialogue whose primary responsibility was to keep everyone in the conversation and in play.”

And Catholic lay people learned, as I wrote, “that virtually everything in the Church was questionable: doctrine, morals, the priesthood, the episcopate, the lot.” Thus the impulse toward Cafeteria Catholicism got a decisive boost from the Truce of 1968: if the bishops and the Holy See were not going to defend seriously the Church’s teaching on this matter, then picking-and-choosing in a supermarket of doctrinal and moral possibilities seemed, not simply all right, but actually admirable — an exercise in maturity, as was often suggested at the time.

Did the Truce of 1968 cause a “widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae” among Catholics? No, that happened before the Vatican intervention in the Washington Case, and no serious observer doubts that there was widespread rejection of the classic Catholic teaching on artificial contraception before Humanae Vitae was issued. What the Truce of 1968 did do, however, was make it far harder for those prepared to explain and defend the Church’s teaching to do so.

Some have recently been pleased to describe the Truce of 1968 as a “neoconservative myth,” as if that overused adjective explains everything (or anything). But in the four years since Catholic Scandal Time dominated the headlines, those who dismiss my argument as fantasy have yet to propose a credible, comprehensive, alternative explanation of the crisis of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance. In The Courage To Be Catholic, I suggested that a large-scale breakdown of ecclesiastical discipline had been one crucial factor in creating the crisis, and that the Truce of 1968 was one important moment in that disciplinary breakdown. Those who deem this interpretation of history a “myth” should offer an alternative account, from which we all might learn. In four years, they have failed to do so.

Why, is an interesting question.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.