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.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.