Catholic Participation in the Civil
Rights Movement was late in
starting but stronge once it had
In the heady years immediately after the Second Vatican Council the American bishops stepped up to the plate and addressed social issues. Admittedly it took them some time to get traction—and to get over fear of Francis Spellman, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York and Military Ordinary whose right-wing hawkish views supporting the war in Vietnam were in direct conflict with the clearly articulated position of Pope Paul VI. Spellman’s death in late 1967 freed the American hierarchy to take a more morally critical view of American Policy in Viet Nam and Catholic bishops, priests, nuns, and faithful became among the leaders of the Peace Movement. Similarly with the Civil Rights Movement, Catholics had initially been slow to become involved as several leading prelates, notably Archbishop Thomas Toolen of Mobile and Cardinal Francis McIntyre of Los Angeles forbad their clergy to be involved in Civil Rights or even to speak on the issue but it had become clear by 1965 that Catholics could not sit on the sidelines while other Christians were working to overturn racist policies that were depriving Americans of color of basic human rights. Once involved Catholics moved into leadership position in both the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War Protest Movement.
The Catholic Church itself had taken a sharp turn towards social liberalism in the early 1960’s with Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letters Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963). In fact, beginning with Leo XIII’s 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s follow up Quadrigesimo Anno of 1931 the Catholic Church had surprised the socio-political establishment with its endorsement of liberal economic principles, but the pontificate of John XXIII and his convocation of the Second Vatican Council threw Catholic social liberalism into high-gear. While Pius X and Benedict XV had made some efforts to steer the nations of Europe away from the horrors of World War I, the Catholic Church did not have a strong peace tradition in the first six decades of the twentieth century. Pius XI’s opposition to Communism pushed him into not collaboration but certainly accommodation with Mussolini. While some individual bishops, even (and especially) inside Germany had spoken out against the injustices and mortal violence of Nazi policy towards Jews and other minorities, the Holy See had taken a very reserved and cautious—far too reserved and cautious it has turned out—policy towards the evils of the Third Reich. Pius XII shared his predecessor’s repugnance of the Marxist dictatorships of Eastern Europe and in reaction—and from a fear of Marxism spreading in Latin America and Asia—was perhaps less critical of American foreign policy in the post-war years than he should have been. John XXIII took a new and bolder tack. He did not attack the West but he did lay down principles of a just society and outlined a vision of international peace that spared no party an evangelical criticism. Capitalism and Marxism together, Western Democracies and Totalitarian Governments alike were chided for their political, economic, and military goals that fell short—far short—of sound moral principles. In this new atmosphere the Pope called the Catholic Bishops of the World to meet and address the issues of the day. It was a Catholic Revolution. Indeed, the Council turned traditional Catholicism upside-down in many respects and the decree Gaudium et Spes on the Church in the Modern World (1965) made it clear that the Church was no longer in an unquestioning alliance with the traditional power bases of Western Society. It seemed as if the Church had waded into the modern world determined to meet it on new ground. Thus it came as a bit of a shock to many when Paul VI—who had been one of the architects of this socially liberal Catholicism—rejected the majority report of his specially appointed study panel and reiterated the Church’s traditional opposition to artificial contraception in his 1968 Encyclical, Humanae Vitae.
While a number of Catholic hierarchies were critical of Humanae Vitae, the American bishops loyally supported the Pope. Humanae Vitae is an immensely complicated subject and we will have to take a look at it in a series of entries just on that topic. Personally I think it is a grave disservice to the complexity of the issues merely to dismiss it as "conservative.” It did disappoint progressive Catholics, not only here but around the globe and a number of leading prelates, including Denis Hurley whose prophetic voice was the first Catholic prelate to speak out against Apartheid in his native South Africa, strongly signaled their disagreement. His failure to endorse the encyclical cost Hurley a Cardinal’s cap which, in the broad overlook of history, was a failure to honor the Sacred College with the membership of an indefatigable moral leader rather than to deprive that moral leader of any honor. In the United States, due to the imprudence of a number of prelates, particularly Patrick O’Boyle of Washington (who had been among the first bishops to champion racial integration) and James McNulty (the pathetically inept Bishop of Buffalo NY) dissent from this Encyclical unnecessarily became a cause célèbre and spun the Catholic Church in the United States into what has proved to be a tragic course of failed moral leadership. Adhesion to the teaching of Humanae Vitae became for years the litmus test of Catholic orthodoxy not only for candidates for the episcopacy but for clergy and laity. One priest wrote that one “could deny the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and the procession of the Holy Ghost and suffer no consequence but tell a woman that taking her pill was not endangering her eternal salvation and you would find yourself without a parish before nightfall.” That was a bit of an overstatement, but only a bit.
Paul VI was not a vindictive man. Far from it. He was deeply hurt by the rejection he felt and the anger that was directed towards him by Catholics and non-Catholics alike over Humanae Vitae. His successor, John Paul II, was a much stronger personality and saw the dangers of a divided hierarchy. Pope Paul had appointed Belgian Archbishop Jean Jadot to serve as Apostolic Delegate (the Pope’s Representative to the American Hierarchy and Church) in Washington and as such Jadot had the opportunity to shape a hierarchy in this country to his way of thinking. Jadot was a social liberal and saw that the nominations of many remarkably talented bishops-to-be were forwarded to Rome. This paid off in the early eighties when the American bishops produced their two outstanding pastoral letters—one on war and peace and the other on Catholic principles of a just economy. In the meantime, however, John Paul had ascended the papal throne and he decided that he wanted an American hierarchy on whom he could count for undivided loyalty to the agenda he was setting for his papacy. He could not afford to have dissent and there would be a new breed of bishops. More to come.