The Impact of 1968 on The Church

[I had signed up for a class in the Institute for Continuing Learning at nearby Young Harris College; however, with other commitments that have emerged, I will not be able to attend. I prepared the following to share with the professor and the class.]

The Impact of 1968 on the Roman Catholic Church

J. Patrick Mahon

Matthew Fox in his book, The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s  Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church And How It can Be Saved, clearly delineates the events of 1968 which were to have  a lasting impact on the world and on the Roman catholic Church:

The year 1968 was a tumultuous one around the globe. In the United States two assassinations roiled the country—the of the Reverend Dr. martin Luther King, Jr. in April, which set off riots all through urban America, and then the shooting of Senator Robert RF. Kennedy  on the day of his presidential primary victory in California. The war raged in Vietnam, and so did students marching in opposition to it in Europe as well as the United states. In the spring of 1968, student rioters in Paris dug up stones on the Boulevard Saint Michel and used them as weapons to hurl at the police. Tear gas was everywhere. Students created barriers from felled trees and cars to defend themselves from the police. With strikes freezing public transportation, gasoline stations, grocery stores, and more shut down; businesses closed and the student uprising brought down the government of Charles de Gaulle. I was there. I lived through the powerful dynamics of it all.

I was also receiving letters from friends in Chicago who were beaten up in Grant Park by the police at the tumultuous Democratic National Convention, which took the Democrats decades to get over and gave the 1968 election to Richard Nixon. My Dominican [Order of priests in the Church] provincial was sitting in Mayor Daly’s box at the convention while his police were beating up protestors, including my brother Dominican activists, in Grant park. Turmoil was in the air. Vietnam was an issue that split fathers from sons. But so too was education itself.

In the Catholic Church, 1968 will be remembered as the year of Pope Pail VI’s notorious encyclical that reinforced birth control prohibitions, Humanae Vitae [in spite of the fact that the majority of the papal commission voted to relax the prohibitions]. . . .

Students were protesting in Germany as well as in Berkeley, Madison and Paris.[1]

In his memoirs, Swiss theologian Hans Küng, describes the situation at the University of Tübingen in Germany:

Unfortunately the efforts at integration [university reform]came largely to a halt when student unrest hits Tübingen and the radical left becomes active not only among students of politics, sociology and psychology but also among Protestant students of theology . . . . In the Catholic faculty there is now a concern that certain Protestant demagogues among the academic assistants and students might put the whole structure of the faculty in question.[2]

Küng describes the crisis in greater detail:

The rebellious students, an extremely active minority with a Marxist orientation, are very soon concerned with more than just a reform of studies and the structure of the student body. They object to the stagnation of German politics. . . .

In their fight against a technocratic restructuring of the institutions of tertiary education in the service of business and for their democratization through the participation of lecturers, assistants and students with equal rights, the radical students see themselves in a great alliance with liberation movements and women’s movements all over the world. They claim a ‘political mandate’ for this. So there are protests, often violent, against the Vietnam War, but also against the wretched situation in the Third World, in Africa, Central and South America.[3]


The background on 1968 leads us to Tübingen University. Hans Küng who had been a peritus [theologian advisor to a bishop] at the Second Vatican Council later hired fellow peritus, Josef  Ratzinger, who had been peritus to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne. Ratzinger was seen to be a progressive thirty-five year old theologian:

When one considers the work of  Father Ratzinger at the Council—including this Nijmegen Declaration [Any form of inquisition harms theology.] that he signed in 1968—and holds it up to his statements and actions since 1968, one can see a remarkable shift. The Ratzinger of the council and the Ratzinger that follows after 1968 hardly seem like the same person at all.[4]


As a younger theologian, Ratzinger had a deep respect for human freedom, especially freedom of conscience:

Over the pope as expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there stands one’s own conscience which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even the official church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism.[5]

As Ratzinger experienced the student unrest of 1968, his views took a dramatic shift:

Some students in the University of Tübingen took over lecterns during lectures by theologians. One day a group of students barged into a meeting of the theology faculty and demanded to be listed to. While other faculty patiently hung around to listen to the student rants, one professor rose up and stalked out. It was Ratzinger. People who were there say when he came back another day he was a different person.[6]

Profound influence indeed:

Father Küng writes he is aware that Cardinal Ratzinger is “more rooted in the neoscholastic tradition” and “attaches more importance to the authority of the church fathers” than he does. “What is more important to me is that we are both like-minded over the significance of the Second Vatican Council: in the direction of the renewal of theology and the church and ecumenical understanding. Freedom in the church is fundamental to this.”

The student uprisings in 1968 that saw Marxist students take over classes, often with the threat of violence hanging in the air, proved a turning point. Cardinal Ratzinger, troubled by the totalitarian impulse to put faith at the service of ideology, left Tübingen for Regensburg. In Father Küng’s memoir, he said the student revolt “evidently had a permanent shock effect on Ratzinger.”

“To the present day, Ratzinger has shown phobias about all movements ‘from below;’ whether these are student chaplaincies, groups of priests, movements of church people, the Iglesia popular or liberation theology,” Father Küng writes.

According to John Allen Jr.’s book Pope Benedict XVI: A biography of Joseph Ratzinger, the pontiff recalled it differently. Allen quotes him saying the events at Tübingen showed him “an instrumentalization by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal and cruel. That experience made it clear to me that the abuse of the faith had to be resisted precisely if one wanted to uphold the will of the council. … I did see how real tyranny was exercised, even in brutal forms. Anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity.”[7]

Ratzinger himself wrote:

I myself have seen the rightful face of this atheistic piety unveiled, its psychological terror, the abandon with which every moral consideration could be thrown overboard as a bourgeois residue when the ideological goal was at stake. All of this is alarming enough in itself; but it becomes an unrelenting challenge to the theologian when the Church is used as its instrument.[8]

This is the “relativism” that Ratziner, as Pope benedict, still rails against. The student revolt at Tübingen had a profound influence on the Catholic Church. Ratzinger moved to the University of Regensberg, where he later raised Islamic ire when he misspoke about Islamic beliefs, and eventually rose to become archbishop of Munich. As Archbishop he was the head of the German bishops conference and he petitioned Rome to withdraw the Hans Küng’s license to teach theology because he had questions about his orthodoxy.

Under Pope John  Paul II, Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Holy Office and before that the Office of the Inquisition. He was known as the “papal Rottweiler.” According to Matthew Fox, Ratzinger “silenced and in many cases dismissed more than ninety-one theologians or pastoral leaders.”[9]

Often an observer outside of your tradition can help you better understand what is happening within your tradition. Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, captures the essence of what has happened in the Church since the inception of the Vatican Council:

Attempts to restore the way modern men and women understand the Christ story have been initiated in Christianity before, but fear has thus far always beaten them back. The more rigid defenses have developed around the old symbols with the hope that these new ecclesiastical Maginot lines would protect us from harm a least a few more years. Sadly, they too have turned out to be illusory.

On the Roman Catholic side of church history there was in the mid-twentieth century one brief and beautiful attempt to escape the ghetto of traditional thinking and engage the real world. It occurred during the papacy of John XXIII (1958-1963). Sensing the magnitude of issues confronting the increasingly irrelevant church, Pope John convened the Second Vatican Conical (also called Vatican II) and allowed yesterday’s faith understanding to interact with today’s learning. The result was salutary. The winds of change and reform began to blow through the cobwebs of this ancient institution. It was a glorious and hopeful moment. It did not last, however. As soon as Catholicism’s traditional and badly dated understandings began to be challenged publicly, fear grew among the faithful until it was rampant. Threatened institutional leaders began to feel the loss of their power, and “defenders of the faith” rose in a mighty chorus to beat down this potentially life-expanding reform effort.

With the death of John XXIII the movement collapsed. Every pope since John XXIII has been dedicated to battening down the hatches of antiquity and to reasserting traditional authority. One has only to trace the successive occupants of that papal office to see this precipitous retreat from reality. After John XXIII, the Catholic Church installed Paul VI, who halted all theological initiatives and reversed all progress on family planning. Next they chose John Paul I, who lasted only a few months. The John Paul II took the throne of the Vatican and began to systematically repress all creative thought in the Catholic community. Finally, the mantle fell on Benedict XVI, who had been John Paul’s chief enforcer of orthodoxy. Indeed, it was this present pope, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who was the power behind the destruction of that band of Catholic scholars who had helped make the Second Vatican Council possible in the first place. Under his direction, eminent Catholic thinkers like Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Charles Curran, Leonardo Boff and Matthew Fox were removed from teaching posts, harassed, laicized or silenced. A whole generation of scholars was muted when its leading thinkers and creative scholars were attacked, with the result that today Roman Catholic scholarship has all but disappeared from the priestly ranks. That church’s leadership has made the critical mistake of identifying its explanations of truth with truth itself and of seeking to deny the relativity of all propositional statements. The idea that the ultimate truth of God can be reduced to creedal or doctrinal formulas is both ludicrous and spiritually suicidal. The result of this is that catholic Christianity is tragically more irrelevant to the world today than it has ever been before.[10]

As Spong states, successive popes beginning with Pope Paul VI and continuing through the reigns of Pope John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, have made every effort to restore the church to its pre-Vatican II status. They along with curial officials have been trying to stuff the Vatican II genie back into the bottle. The dogged persistence has paid off to a certain extent but it has exacted a high price—a fractured Church. The second largest Christian denomination after practicing Catholics in the United States is former Catholics—people who have abandoned the Church.

Another notable death occurred in 1968. Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who, after leading a dissolute life, entered the Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky on December 10, 1941. His autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, [11] gained him instant acclaim and fed an interest among young men for the solitude of the monastery. Writing sixty books, many poems, and countless letters, Merton died from electrocution by an faulty fan while emerging from a shower at a hotle in Bangkok. That morning—December 10, 1968—he had given a talk to monastics on “Monasticism and Marxism.” This was exactly twenty-seven years to the day after he had embraced the solitude of Gethsemani.

Merton cherished his solitude but from the silence of his cell and later his hermitage; however, he became an outspoken prophetic critic and the conscience of the peace movement during the Vietnam era. Suffering the oppression of heavy-handed church authority, including censorship, and having been silenced for speaking out on nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, Merton uaually rebelled against abuses of authority. Merton’s view of oppressive authority, written in the sixties, echoes Spong’s critique of the church in the wake of Vatican II. Merton felt that church authorities were intent on “erecting a monumental tombstone over their own grave.”[12]

In an interview with Thomas McDonnell in 1967, Merton spoke of “the crisis of authority” in the Church. Little has changed and Merton’s critique is spot on today:

There can be no question that the great crisis in the Church today is the crisis of authority brought on by the fact that the Church, as institution and organization, has in practice usurped the place of the Church as a community of persons united in love and in Christ. On the one hand, love is announced and “instilled”’ but, on the other, it is equated with obedience and conformity within the framework of an impersonal corporation. This means too often that in practice love is overshadowed by intolerance, suspicion and fear. Authority becomes calculating and anxious, and discredits itself by nervously suppressing an imagined opposition before the opposition really takes shape. In so doing, it creates opposition. The Church is preached as a communion, but is run as a collectivity, and even as a totalitarian collectivity. . . . It may mean the complete destruction of the Church as a powerful institution.[13]

The year 1968 is still having a direct impact on the Roman Catholic Church. In 2011, the church is in deep crisis. The sex abuse scandal has seriously damaged its credibility. The constant struggle between progressives and the restorationists who are intent on taking the church back to the good ole days (that never were and never will be) before Vatican II is creating a divided church.



[1] New York: Sterling Ethos, 2011, 16-17

[2] Disputed truth: Memoirs II. New York: Continuum, 2008, 105-106.

[3] Ibid., 108.

[4] Fox, 16.

[6] Fox, 17.

[7] Deborah Gyapong, Hans Kung Claims Right To Be in Pope’s ‘Loyal Opposition,’ March 26, 2007. Retrieved July 7, 2011

[8] Kung, 120.

[9] Fox, xvii.

[10] Jesus for the Non Religious. New York: Harper, 2008, 134-35.

[11] New York: Mariner Books (Anniversary Edition), 1999.

[13] Thomas P. McDonald, “An Interview with Thomas Merton,” Motive 28 (1967), p. 41. Cited in Anthony Padovano, The Human Journey, New York: Image Books, 1984, 48

e emerged, I will not be able to attend the class. Prom previous readings I realized there has been a dramatic impact continuing to this day.]

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