Friday, July 25, 2008

The Summer of '68

Cardinal Stafford, Archbishop of Denver during the great 1993 World Youth Day and now (promuovere per rimuovere?) Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican, today published his recollections on the fortieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae. To mark the day, I will interrupt my series on Christian faith and the free market (and my long-awaited conclusion on commercial neighborhoods) to comment on his statement.

His comments -- overwritten, as any auditor of Cardinal Stafford would expect -- juxtapose the response to Humanae Vitae against the other events of that summer: the Tet Offensive (and the media's treasonous response), beginning in late January; the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4; the subsequent rioting, which hit Baltimore (where Stafford was a priest) and Washington (the flash point for Humanae Vitae dissent) especially hard that Palm Sunday weekend; and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, on June 6. Stafford also recalls the decline in sexual morality and rise in hard drugs over the course of the sixties, following pari passu with Western society's absurd trust in social-science "experts." And he cites the great historian Paul Johnson's description of it all: America's Suicide Attempt.

The Cardinal then describes the dramatic events of Humanae Vitae itself: first, the papal birth-control commission's public recommendation that Church teaching on sexuality be overturned, signed by, among others, Baltimore's Cardinal Shehan. Next the Pope's surprising courage in the publication of Humanae Vitae on July 25. Then Fr. Charlie Curran's quick return from the West Coast to Washington to convene a meeting of theologians on July 29 in The Catholic University of America's Caldwell Hall (still the seat of the theology faculty), where the Washington Post fed them the encyclical as it first arrived on American presses so that they could publish their dissent by 9pm. That long night of telephone calls in which they found fully 600 theologians' names to append to their statement. And then Fr. Stafford's own test, when on August 4 he was called to a meeting of priests in which, without discussion, each was asked, individually, to say yes or no to the Washington statement. Stafford says that he was the last one asked, and the only one to say no. He was then subjected to verbal abuse in front of his brother priests before being dismissed. If you have ever heard Stafford speak, you have heard the trauma of that night.

The leader of the event, Stafford says, was an inner-city pastor. Stafford had spoken with him over the phone during the MLK riots, and he recalls his words: "From here I see nothing but fire burning everywhere. Everything has been set ablaze. The Church and rectory are untouched thus far." I lived for a year in a DC neighborhood only now recovering from those riots. Chaos.

Stafford draws what seems to me an odd connection between the events. For him, they are only two examples of radical violence, and the breakdown of civility that follows thereon. After the violence of August 4, he says, the communio of the presbyterate was destroyed. He recalls a failed conversation with that pastor ten years later: the two of them stared into an abyss, he says, from opposite sides, with no possibility of coming together. Stafford's summation, "He has since died while serving a large suburban parish," perhaps ironically bespeaks the only solution to the breakdown.

The Cardinal responds with his Balthsarian death-of-God theology: "Trinitarian life is essentially self-surrender and love." His article is scattered with the word abyss.

But we might view those events from another angle. Stafford treats the conjunction of chaos as purely accidental: civil society and ecclesial communion both happened to break down that summer, so it's convenient to compare the two, like two books beside each other on a shelf. But perhaps the collapse of civil society is precisely the context for the collapse in ecclesial communion. It is perhaps no coincidence that the priest who led that Baltimore meeting was the same one who had seen his parish go up in flames. '68 was a year of terror. (Stafford does not mention the student riots in Paris that May, a catacylsm that brought down the traditionalist De Gaulle government and a watershed in European history.)

In this light, we read Stafford's ultra-voluntarism. He sums up the lesson: "When the moment of Christian witness came, no Christian could be coerced who refused to be." And he sums up the Gospel: "Christ learned obedience through what he suffered" -- a passage central to his Balthasarian theology, but through which many earlier theologians tread lightly. The proper pastoral response, he says, is to call us into the abyss of radical obedience.

But we might instead read the Crucifixion more as love "till the end": a God who enters all the way into the darkness of our suffering. And we might consider the way that violence shatters our sense of order. That inner-city pastor is not just the image of disobedience, but one who has suffered terror: the terror of an entire city parish in flames. The Christian response is then not to demand obedience, not gazing across an unbridgeable chasm, but reaching out in solidarity with the broken.

And the history of the twentieth century is not the age of apostasy, but the age of terror. The crisis of the Church in the twentieth century is not just Satanic priests trampling on their vocation, but the weak being drowned by the storms of the age. And the pastoral response is not a new syllabus of errors, but the joy and compassion of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, reaching from end to end sweetly, extending the goodness of God into the chaos of the age.