In the study of history, everything correlates with everything else. We are surfers riding the giant wave of time, backwards on our surfboards, seeing through a light fog behind us but not what is coming. To pick a relevant example, if something changed around 1968, most of us who were there can generate a list of major events to try to understand it: the assassination of Martin Luther King and the urban riots that followed; the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy two months later; the ramp-up of the Vietnam War and opposition to it after the Tet Offensive by the Viet Cong; the protests that disrupted the Democratic Convention; Richard M. Nixon elected President; Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae (which forbade artificial birth control, including the new chemical methods, and argued for the natural law reasons for doing so, despite many having already adopted that use); and the Detroit Tigers won the World Series in 7 games over the defending St. Louis Cardinals. It is a matter of judgment for the historian, or for us citizens, to try to understand the causality and the links of these events to others. The sharpest increase of abuse incidents occurred in the 1970s, but probably was not due to the outcome of the 1968 World Series, to take a trivial example.
The 1950s and 1960s saw increasing availability of pornography, such as Playboy and other “men’s” magazines (each newer one being more openly pornographic), accompanied by open advocacy of non-marital sexual activity (the “Playboy philosophy” advocated by Hugh Hefner) linked to a “sophisticated” and consumerist lifestyle, fueled by advertising in magazines and sponsored chains of bars and nightclubs. The “objectification” of women and their bodies, so regretted now, was popular then, at least in the media and entertainment fields. Under the banner of “freedom of the press,” all legal restraint of sexually explicit material was forgone, even when it depicted “man-boy love” and other forms of child abuse; novels that celebrated open sexuality of all forms received adulation by critics; societies were formed to promote such behaviors. The general culture became saturated with sexual images and ideas and behaviors, usually depicted as being sophisticated and liberated or liberating.
Yet, in the 1950s and 1960s, Catholics enjoyed a brief honeymoon from the many decades, even centuries, of vigorous persecution, sometimes by other Christians, often by non-religious writers, sometimes by rulers caught up in the religious struggles of the 1600s and later, and then by ideologically driven nation-states and secular religions (communism is the best example). Because of the large and competent Catholic school system, and large Catholic families, many lay Catholics advanced into the upper middle classes and into real prosperity as the century went on. The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, with the brief interlude of “Camelot” joy that came with it, was one example of that change of mood. The President of Notre Dame, Theodore Hesburgh, was named “Person of the Year” by Time Magazine (a major news outlet in those years) February 9, 1962 (the year I graduated from Notre Dame).
The start of Vatican Council II in October 1962 drew much attention to the Church, both for Catholics and others who hoped for radical changes, and for those who were leery of the confusion that had followed councils in the past. The attention the Church and churchmen received because of Vatican Council II, starting with the announcement in 1959 by Pope John XXIII, seemed to perpetuate the heady feeling of acceptance in general society, so for a time it seemed almost fashionable to be Catholic, at least to Catholics. An intellectual flourishing in the earlier part of the century, in Europe especially, but also spreading to America, gave substance to that sense of “coming of age” and of being able to explain and justify it. I think that self-selection of young men entering the seminary was deeply affected by these cultural trends, so that going to seminary wasn’t seen so much as a self-sacrifice for God and the Church, for the “salvation of souls,” but as an intellectually stimulating and “trendy” thing to do.
The assassination of President Kennedy November 22, 1963, was a major setback but didn’t kill the optimism entirely. His family and friends were popular and wealthy, and his and their charms set a tone that endured for some years, despite the less romantic characters of his presidential successors.
Much confusion about the teaching and practice of the Catholic faith was occasioned by Vatican Council II. Both before and during the council, open dissent of some clergy and other “observers” made daily “breaking news” for TV and newspapers. The more daring the dissent, the better the news coverage. The Council bishops and appointed experts mostly refrained from public discussions of that sort, as they were obliged, so those voices of traditional teaching were muted. Any priest or bishop or Catholic journalist who advocated for changes was lauded in the press and became the “go-to” person for daily television news interviews.
After the council ended, it seemed that few had enough residual energy or interest to study the actual documents it promulgated. Many seemed worn out by the incessant media coverage, and some were convinced that they understood “the Spirit of the Council” to be the major result—even the governing basis, “the hermeneutic,” for interpreting the documents. The result was to cause enduring doubt about the teachings of the Church on many issues, perhaps especially on sexual and reproductive matters.
The doubts and ideas popularized before and during the Council were popular among seminary professors and other Catholic intellectuals; their tenured positions in Catholic universities provided a haven for teaching those doubts and ideas that lasted for decades. Those years also happened to be a time of great growth in university size and wealth. I recall joking with friends that the greatest thing about being a new medical student at Harvard was that I didn’t need to hear any more that “we want to be the Catholic Harvard”; nobody at Harvard said that they wanted to be “the secular Notre Dame.” The ambition for Catholic universities to be among the best was strong even in the late 1950s. The famous Land-o-Lakes Conference of 1967 sealed the desire of the major Catholic Universities to compete with the famous research universities by rejecting control by the Church even in theological and disciplinary matters.
Then came 1968, as sketched out before. By then, Notre Dame and most other Catholic institutions had ended curfews, left the lights on all night, men could invite women to their dormitory rooms, etc. One often heard of priests and nuns partying together, leaving their convents to be “more secular,” and indeed many left religious life and priestly life in the 1970s.
I noticed even in the 1960s that many priests and religious had an exaggerated respect for psychiatric and psychological theories, the more “mystical” the better (Carl Jung), but also those that promised “scientific psychology” (Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner). Conferences of psychoanalysts and religious leaders were organized and published widely, even in the early 1950s. Many religious orders, especially of women, invited psychologists to give them retreats about the latest trends. The result was the almost immediate collapse of many convents, sisters seeking freedom “from repression” hoping for “affirmation” and other ideals; perhaps some were indeed immature or complicated personalities, but that is another story. In any case, their formation and maturity were not up to the task of countering the cultural trends.
Contraception was openly advocated by many of the dissenters around Vatican II, so that many Catholics who previously would not have considered that option were convinced that the laws of former years were going to be abandoned; the prohibitions had, after all, been lifted by most Protestant groups for decades before. Some Catholic scientists had been pioneers in developing the contraceptive “pill.” So, by 1968, when Humanae Vitae was published by Pope Paul VI—clearly affirming the ancient teaching against contraception of any kind (except periodic abstinence from sexual intercourse in hardship situations)—open rebellion was in the air; many priests refused to preach on the topic, or were frightened by now-entitled users, or feared for collection-box reductions that supported the school systems and expensive properties that most parishes had developed. Many dissenting theologians and writers lobbied openly against the encyclical, causing further confusion.
The changes in general culture had their impact on Catholics as well. The gradual increase in abuse of children and youth, documented in the Report in the case of Catholic clergy, during the 1960-1980 period (see Figures 2 & 3 above) seems to me largely explained by these cultural changes; they were in direct opposition to traditional Christian and Catholic norms of purity and chastity, and when combined with the doctrinal and moral confusion described above, caused the collapse of many religious institutions and the flight of many priests from their ministry into marriage or other relationships.
As mentioned in the Summary #11 above, I suggest that those who were close to those events should write detailed notes for future historians to ponder; each person who lived through that time and before will have their own observations and thoughts, both about causes and possible remedies. In April 2019, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI did just that, assessing the history of the abuses and making his recommendations for future prevention (9). His assessment adds his understanding of the role of the teaching of moral theology, and how trends and changes during the years around Vatican II caused confusion and doubt among many Catholics, both laity and clerics.