October 27, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

How our nation and our Church changed during the Sixties

John F. FinkDuring the 1960s, often referred to simply as The Sixties, both our country and the Catholic Church changed drastically.

For our nation, that decade included the election of the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy; his assassination three years later; the Civil Rights Movement with its successes, but also the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; the divisive Vietnam War; the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy; and the riots that accompanied the Democratic convention in 1968. It also included, as I wrote two weeks ago, the Sexual Revolution and the movement toward sexual equality.

For the Catholic Church, that decade included the Second Vatican Council, which made numerous changes in the Church that many Catholics previously never imagined; the debates over artificial contraception culminating in Pope Paul VI’s decision not to change the Church’s teachings; the angry dissent when the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” was released; participation in the Civil Rights Movement and opposition to the Vietnam War; and a steep decline in the number of priests and religious.

Many Catholics concluded during the Sixties that they could dissent from certain teachings of the Church, something they didn’t think possible earlier. But American Catholics were stunned by the events after the release of “Humanae Vitae.” Within two days, more than 80 theologians, led by Father Charles Curran of The Catholic University of America in Washington, issued a statement saying, “Spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the value and sacredness of marriage.”

Even the Canadian bishops dissented. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued what was called the “Winnipeg Statement” that stated that people could in good conscience use contraception as long as they first made an honest attempt to accept the directives of the encyclical. The genie was out of the bottle, and refused to go back in.

Not everything was negative for American Catholics though. The changes in the Mass caught on easily. Most people liked the fact that the Mass was celebrated in English instead of Latin, that the priest faced the congregation instead of praying with his back to it, and the new roles of the laity as they became lectors and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. The laity also quickly began to fill new positions of governance open to them, such as on parish councils.

One of the biggest changes was the Church’s attitude toward other Christian faith communities. No longer were Catholics forbidden to attend weddings and funerals in Protestant churches. They could even become members of the YMCA or YWCA, previously forbidden.

Oh yes, another change was made by the U.S. bishops in 1966. They abolished the law requiring abstinence from meat on Fridays. Of course, they said that anyone who decides to eat meat on Fridays must substitute some other penance, but how many Catholics had paid attention to that?

The bishops did not abolish the law that says that Catholics must attend Mass on weekends. But when Catholics saw how easily the law on Friday abstinence was tossed aside, I believe that this is when Mass attendance, too, began to slide.†

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