It was the year of the bad war, of complex innocence that sanctified the shedding of blood. English historian Paul Johnson dubs 1968 as the year of “America’s Suicide Attempt.” It included the Tet offensive in Vietnam with its tsunami-like effects in American life and politics, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee; the tumult in American cities on Palm Sunday weekend; and the June assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in southern California.In my own life, this sense of upheaval was made complete by my parents' acrimonious divorce. All of this took place in the context of the idea that "God is dead." Life had no moorings.
I appreciate the Cardinal's honesty. He relates how, while he was a priest serving in Washington and Baltimore, the Baltimore Metropolitan Health and Welfare Council undertook a study in 1965-1966 to advise the city government in how to address the issue of a sharp rise in unwed pregnancies. He writes, "At that time, the Board members of the Council, including myself, had uncritical faith in experts and social research. Even the II Vatican Council had expressed unfettered confidence in the role of benevolent experts (Gaudium et Spes 57)."
He goes on to say, "Not one of my professional acquaintances anticipated the crisis of trust which was just around the corner in the relations between men and women. Our vision was incapable of establishing conditions of justice and of purity of heart in which wonder and appreciation can find play. We were already anachronistic and without hope. We ignored the texture of life."
His ecclesiastical superior, Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan of Baltimore, had been appointed by Pope Paul VI along with others as additional members to the Papal Commission for the Study of Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rates, first established by Blessed Pope John XXIII in 1963 during the II Vatican Council. This was the group which did the (in)famous study which was submitted to the Pope, which seemed to show that contraception was a necessary adaptation to the demands of modern life and economies. As it turned out, even Cardinal Shehan believed this.
But then-Father Lawrence had come to a different conclusion, based on his personal history of early introduction to an integrated view of sexuality and holiness thanks to his parents, and his direct observation in his ministry of the dreadful consequences which followed in the wake of a loss of appreciation of meaning in sexuality. He writes, "I had taken a hard, cold look at what I was experiencing and what the Church and society were doing. I came across an idea which was elliptical: the gift of love should be allowed to be fruitful. These two fixed points are constant. This simple idea lit up everything like lightning in a storm. I wrote about it more formally to the Cardinal: the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage cannot be separated. Consequently, to deprive a conjugal act deliberately of its fertility is intrinsically wrong. To encourage or approve such an abuse would lead to the eclipse of fatherhood and to disrespect for women."
His remembrance then takes a tragic, graphic turn as he describes the effect of the carefully orchestrated dissent on the morale of the priesthood. You need to read it to know that he speaks honestly, from his heart, in spare but clear language. "Conversations among the clergy, where they existed, became contaminated with fear. Suspicions among priests were chronic. Fears abounded. And they continue."
And then he says something striking: Priests’ fraternity had been wounded. Pastoral dissent had attacked the Eucharistic foundation of the Church. Its nuptial significance had been denied.
Surely he was not alone. Many, many priests must have felt betrayed and bewildered.