A series of major tremors rocked the once-thought-changeless Roman Catholic Church last month. In Rome, Pope Paul VI charged the Jesuits, the intellectual elite of the church, with worldliness. In Washington, American bishops sent the fish industry reeling by declaring a virtual end to meatless Friday rules. And elsewhere in the United States, priests were organizing power blocs to challenge entrenched hierarchies.
The Pope suggested to some 220 representatives of the Society of Jesus that perhaps “some had the illusion that to spread the Gospel of Christ it was necessary to take on the customs of the world, its mentality, its profanity, indulging in the naturalist evaluation of modern morals.” His rebuke was tempered with words of praise for the 36,000-member order, the world’s largest, but the sternness of his criticism and its public disclosure raised many an eyebrow. The Pope talked to the Jesuits in the Sistine Chapel. They were in Rome for their first post-Vatican II congregation.
In the U.S. capital, American bishops also held their first post-Vatican II meeting. One of their early actions was to vote overwhelmingly to approve calling themselves the “National Conference of Catholic Bishops.” The conference also renamed the National Catholic Welfare Conference, which has served as the bishops’ administrative arm since 1922, the “National Catholic Secretariat of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.” The former NCWC, which under its new title will retain pretty much the same structure, had “welfare” appended to its title in post-World War I times when the word had more the connotation of the “common good” than what was then a secondary meaning, “social work.”
The action of the bishops that won the widest attention, however, was the vote to dispense with the rule of abstinence for American Catholics. Thus it is no longer a sin for members of the U. S. church to eat meat on Fridays and other days of abstinence. They will still be obliged to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and on Lenten Fridays, and the bishops voiced the hope that the Catholic community “will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to church law.” The New York Times reported that spokesmen for the nation’s $2-billion-a-year retail fish industry predicted losses ranging from 10 to 25 per cent, but many hoped the losses would only be temporary.
The authority for the bishops’ action was a papal constitution issued last February 17. In accordance with a decree of the Second Vatican Council, the papal constitution left to national episcopal conferences the right to substitute works of penance and charity for the rule of abstinence. Action was first initiated in Italy and Canada.
In other statements approved during their five-day meeting, the bishops took issue with U. S. government policies on birth control, charging that they invade the privacy of those persons least able to protect it. The bishops also came down strongly for racial equality, including open housing, and affirmed support for the American position in Viet Nam. Concerning Viet Nam, however, they stressed that “it is the duty of everyone to search for other alternatives” than war.
In Santa Monica, California, the news was made by a rebel priest who once asked the Pope to depose James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles. Father William H. DuBay, 31, announced formation of the American Federation of Priests and opened a national office to recruit members. He said that it would be a full-fledged labor union and that he had already received membership applications from 100 U. S. priests. DuBay was suspended from priestly duties earlier this year after a run-in with McIntyre on the race issue.
In Chicago, an infinitely more subtle organization of priests has been formed with the estimated support of about half of the local archdiocese’s 3,000 priests. The group, known as the Association of Chicago Priests, has exhibited a surprising measure of political sagacity. It seeks to give priests a more influential voice in hierarchical affairs. The present decision-making process has been described as a leftover of feudal days. It is said to be causing some to stay out of the priesthood, some to quit it, and some who stay in to suffer psychic damage.
“When I was in a tense, unhappy rectory,” one assistant was quoted as saying, “I lived on Pepto Bismol and aspirin. Most guys in that situation don’t leave the priesthood—they don’t have the guts to do something else or to explain their leaving to their families. What they do is keep what they call their ‘fun clothes’ (sport clothes) in the closet and say to themselves, ‘I’ll keep the pastor’s word the days a week I’m on call here’ and the rest of the time these guys are wearing their ‘fun clothes’ at the country club or the race track.”
Washington Post reporter Nicholas von Hoffman said the priests of the new theology and the new church are proclaiming, “Sacraments without direct and personal love are dead or at least inadequate.” The same newspaper reported that “in waggish Washington circles” the priests’ union movement had been tagged the National Association for the Advancement of Collared People.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, priests of the local diocese elected a steering committee to devise plans for the formation of a “free association of priests.” Religious News Service said the committee was named at a meeting held at the suggestion of Bishop Ernest J. Primeau.
The U. S. hierarchical shakeup was itself seen by some as a move toward democratization. A procedure was begun for the election of presidents, and the post was given initially to the Most Rev. John Francis Dearden, Archbishop of Detroit. He was said to have been elected on the third ballot.
Meanwhile in New York, an appeal to Pope Paul for a “new consensus” on birth control was made public. The statement was signed by eighty-five religious and scientific leaders, including a surprisingly wide assortment of Protestants. It was sent to the pontiff on June 2 and acknowledged on June 27 by the Papal Office of the Vatican Secretary of State. Among signers were Union Theological Seminary President John Bennett, Martin Luther King, Reinhold Niebuhr, Robert McAfee Brown, and Franklin Clark Fry; also Stated Clerk Marion de Velder of the Reformed Church in America, President Duke McCall of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and theology professor Hendrikus Berkof of Leyden University.
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