On the 40th anniversary of the signing of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV), one of the highest ranking Americans in the Vatican has written an eye-opening and deeply personal retrospective on the world-shaking events which took place in the wake of the document’s publication. The deadliest thing to hit the Catholic in the last 40 years, he says, was not the encyclical which reiterated the Church’s stand against contraception – but the dissent from it.
Cardinal James F. Stafford, Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary – the head of the Vatican arm that deals with indulgences – writes in the Vatican’s official newspaper that he was a priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore at the time HV was published.
Stafford, who hosted World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 as the then-Archbishop, recounts, “The summer of 1968 is a record of God’s hottest hour.”
“The memories are not forgotten; they are painful . . . They inhabit the whirlwind where God’s wrath dwells. In 1968 something terrible happened in the Church. Within the ministerial priesthood ruptures developed everywhere among friends which never healed. And the wounds continue to affect the whole Church. The dissent, together with the leaders’ manipulation of the anger they fomented, became a supreme test. It changed fundamental relationships within the Church.”
The Cardinal explains that dissident theologians, led by Charles Curran and other dissident clergy, attempted to bully their fellow priests into signing on to documents of formal dissent. He relates a length his own experiences of being bullied, on August 4, 1968, when a meeting of Baltimore priests was convened, with the intention of pressing them into signing the Washington “Statement of Dissent.”
That abusive pressure on priests loyal to Rome and the fractionization of unity resulting from large numbers of openly dissenting clergy has remained problematic to this day. “Abusive, coercive dissent has become a reality in the Church and subjects her to violent, debilitating, unproductive, chronic controversies,” writes Cardinal Stafford. “Diocesan presbyterates have not recovered from the July/August nights in 1968.”
One key area which Cardinal Stafford highlights as having sustained “a direct hit” was the friendship among the faithful and the clergy.
“The violence of the initial disobedience was only a prelude to further and more pervasive violence,” he writes. “Priests wept at meetings over the manipulation of their brothers. Contempt for the truth, whether aggressive or passive, has become common in Church life. Dissenting priests, theologians and laypeople have continued their coercive techniques. From the beginning the press has used them to further its own serpentine agenda.”
Read the Cardinal’s complete column at the Catholic News Agency: