Time religion editor Ostling picks the top ten stories

Choosing the “top ten” religion stories from 1956 to 1981 seemed so impossible a task that I immediately accepted it as a form of journalistic calisthenics. We reporters deal with relative slivers of time and pause all too rarely for a longer look.

I selected the big “stories” (trends and clusters of phenomena as well as specific events) in all of religion worldwide. It must be admitted, however, that these judgments inevitably come from an American Christian viewpoint; a non-Western Christian or non-Christian might well produce a radically different list. My big ten are not necessarily in order of importance.

Pope John’S Council

In 1956 the Roman Catholic church seemed an unchanging monolith, controlled from the top by an autocratic Italian pope surrounded by men of like mind. The 1958 election of the engaging Pope John XXIII changed much of that. It did so because John decided to use his brief tenure to institutionalize change by launching an Ecumenical (that is, worldwide Catholic bishops’) Council.

Both benefits and disarray have resulted. In four annual sessions (1962–65) the council produced 16 decrees that were promulgated and implemented by John’s successor, Pope Paul VI. Among other things, the council instituted worship in vernacular language, balanced Vatican Council I (1870) by defining the authority of bishops along with that of the pope, recognized the laity’s role, acknowledged Protestantism, encouraged ecumenism, emphasized use of the Bible, reduced hostility toward non-Christian religions, condemned anti-Semitism, and declared that Jews bear no collective guilt for Christ’s death. Vatican II’s policies led to numerous high-level ecumenical talks, an advisory Synod of Bishops, and reforms in Vatican supervision of doctrine. The church’s social and economic views are modernized in many ways, most notably in seeking détente with Communism.

Perhaps in historical terms, and certainly in American terms, the most important decree was the Declaration on Religious Liberty. It held that true faith cannot be imposed “except by virtue of its own truth,” thus granting that in spiritual matters everyone needs “immunity from coercion in civil society.” This ended a cross-and-crown policy dating more or less from Constantine.

In return, Catholicism asked freedom for its own people to worship unhindered by government. The decree did not alter “the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion.” In other words, God and the church hold men and nations accountable, but do not use government power to force compliance. The council did not countenance free thought within Catholicism, but various church liberals have proceeded to question virtually every tenet of the faith.

The Pill

In May of 1960 the United States permitted marketing of the first oral contraceptive, with considerable impact upon the Roman Catholic church. The problem, however, had begun years ago. In 1930 Pope Pius XI, nailing down long Catholic tradition, had forbidden nonnatural methods. In 1951 Pius XII allowed use of the natural “rhythm” method, if for good reason. Vatican II declared that Catholics cannot use methods deemed “blameworthy” by church authorities. The pope assigned the problem of what methods to a special study commission, which did its climactic work in April–June, 1966.

According to documents leaked to the press in 1967, a majority of both bishops and theologians on this commission favored a basic shift in church teaching. But in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Paul VI boldly rejected that advice: “The church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law … teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” In stating this he cited both the 1930 and 1951 papal documents.

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Ecclesiastical reaction proved as important as the substance. Theologians and priests openly dissented, some bishops emphasized individual conscience, and papal authority was undermined (mostly in the West). There appears to be a ripple effect of questioning other traditional teachings in faith and morals. The vigorous reassertion of the ban by Pope John Paul II and the 1980 Synod of Bishops has not ended the problem.

There are three other effects. During the quarter-century, abortion became a popular and legal method of population control in nominally Christian nations, even though all denominations had once considered it abhorrent. The Catholic protest against abortion was weakened by the decline in doctrinal cohesion, and because the church denies the “out” of contraception for women who do not wish to bear children. Second, the availability and promotion of birth control doubtless have encouraged promiscuous and adulterous behavior. Finally, the decreasing birth rate in the West and the widespread failure of birth control in poorer nations increase the economic disparities among nations.

A Polish Pope

In 1522 the Sacred College of Cardinals elected a Dutch pope, who died a year later after failing either to stem Luther’s revolt or to reform his church. Italians held a monopoly on the papal throne from then until October 1978, when Karol Wojtyla, a dynamic and brilliant cardinal from Poland, was elected. The choice came at a conclave occasioned by the untimely death of John Paul I.

The election of a non-Italian was possible because Pope Paul VI had internationalized the ranks of cardinals eligible to participate. For the first time non-Europeans had a slight majority, and less than one-fourth of voters were Italian. Since John Paul II is so profoundly conservative in doctrine and discipline, it is important to remember that he ended up as the candidate of the relatively liberal cardinals who feared that a pope like Giuseppe Siri would try to scuttle the Vatican II changes.

John Paul II’s policy is to reconsolidate Catholicism around Vatican II—as he perceives it. Among his early actions: removal of German theologian Hans Küng from a Catholic teaching faculty; reaffirmation of the bans on married priests, women priests, and birth control; removal of priests from partisan politics; tightening of the grounds on which men are permitted to quit the priesthood; an extraordinary synod to stem a liberal drift in Holland; a first-ever advisory meeting with the College of Cardinals; establishment of official reunion talks with Eastern Orthodoxy for the first time since 1439; staunch opposition to the “new morality” on homosexuality and other matters; criticism of the spiritual void in both Communist and consumer societies; denunciation of more radical forms of Marxist-inspired “liberation theology”; and sweeping advocacy of human rights and economic justice.

With his appealing personality and vigor, John Paul is traveling as much as possible, thereby strengthening his office at the grassroots level. His election and his triumphal return home to Poland in 1979 revitalized a sense of nationhood that perplexes both the Kremlin and its clients in the ruling Polish Communist party. This contributed greatly to the union-led rights movement that began in 1980. The de-Italianization of the papacy reduces church entanglement with Italian politics, but it is not yet clear whether it will have lasting impact on the church’s central government, the Vatican Curia.

A Golden Age Of Bible Translation

A period slightly larger than our quarter-century, 1952–81, stands as one of the golden ages of Bible translation in English, and in areas influenced by Anglophone churches. The list of complete new Bibles includes: the Revised Standard Version (1952); the Catholic Jerusalem Bible (1966) and the New American Bible (1970); the Protestant New English Bible (1970); the updated New American Standard Bible (1971); the Living Bible (1971), a problematic paraphrase with fabulous sales; the American Bible Society’s big-selling Good News Bible (1976); and the New International Version (1978), aimed at the growing evangelical movement.

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The hegemony of the King James Version has been a boon for English literature, but the modern renditions get closer to the original manuscripts and make the Bible message clearer and livelier for most readers. The American Bible Society’s strategy of common-language and “dynamic equivalence” translation is producing modernized renditions in many other languages. According to the society, by 1980 the full Bible had been published in 275 languages, and 1,710 languages have at least one book of the Bible. Wycliffe Bible Translators formulated new written languages to make the Bible available for even preliterate tribes in the remotest areas.

Women’S Liberation In Religion

In the past decade, religious groups have been arrayed conspicuously on both sides of the debate over women’s role in home and society in the West—and especially the United States. Within the church, the movement centers on admission of women to the clergy and offices of lay authority. Women have long held great “clout” through separate Protestant auxiliaries and Catholic religious orders, and have become clergy in some groups.

In 1956, however, women achieved full clergy status in two U.S. establishment denominations: the United Presbyterian church and United Methodist church (which elected its first woman bishop in 1980). Subsequently, the breakthrough occurred in other churches and in Reform Judaism. The Church of England and possibly Conservative Judaism seem poised to open up in the 1980s. However, Catholicism and Orthodoxy require worldwide practice and follow tradition in such matters, and both made it clear in the 1970s that they will not countenance a change.

In North American Presbyterianism, meanwhile, the women’s cause has become so legalistic that seminarians who think the New Testament teaches against women clergy have been denied ordination, and local congregations have been required to nominate women to their lay boards. The women’s issue has contributed to small Protestant schisms in the United States.

The “New” Morality

This was Joseph Fletcher’s 1966 catch phrase for a utilitarian ethic. More broadly, it signifies a gradually spreading belief in the Christian intelligentsia that traditional absolute rules of right and wrong need radical investigation, or should be eradicated. Among items of the “old” morality under special attack: (1) adultery is always wrong; (2) homosexual activity is always wrong; (3) abortion should be forbidden by church and secular law except (Catholicism aside) for serious danger to the mother’s life.

The latter two issues have spilled from moral theology into secular politics. The change in moral philosophy leaves society open to radical future possibilities in the technological manipulation of the human species. Along with the intellectual debate, there has been a cultural revolution in TV, the press, and the popular music industry toward publicizing hedonism, promiscuity, and abuse of narcotics.

The Evangelical Groundswell

This is largely a U.S. development, but it has worldwide ripple effects due to America’s leading role in Protestant world strategy and funding. Similarly, the American-born “charismatic renewal” is exporting an evangelical flavor for the first time to many Catholic nations.

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Beginning in 1976 with Jimmy Carter, “born again” became a sportswriter’s cliché, but the power shift toward this component of Christianity was readily apparent years before. By 1980 the hard right of the movement was bidding for secular political influence.

The inchoate movement includes these sectors: (1) the growing evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal element in mainstream Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches, which arose in the 1960s; (2) the neo-Pentecostal denominations and independent congregations; (3) the caucuses and networks that rally evangelical minorities within the relatively liberal Protestant denominations; (4) a profusion of “parachurch” agencies to meet evangelical needs that old-line Protestant denominations have neglected—in such areas as television, radio, music, books, magazines, Sunday school curriculum, youth work, missions, evangelism, and college and seminary education.

The Six-Day War

In this instant war of 1967, Israel occupied geographically and spiritually strategic areas. The move had a multiple effect on religion in the area. First, the war added measurably to the linkage of Jewish identity with the nation of Israel. Anti-Zionism is now a spent force on the left and right of Judaism. However, in recent years a minority element has been questioning whether it is spiritually healthy for Judaism to be so dependent upon the situation of one nation. Second, the change in status of Muslim shrines in East Jerusalem and elsewhere (e.g., the Patriarchs’ Tomb in Hebron) has exacerbated Muslim-Jewish tensions and reverberated in secular politics. The occupation has helped foster a pan-national sense of Islamic unity and has focused “holy war” talk upon Israel. Third, among some Christians who emphasize Bible prophecies, the capture of acreage on which the Jews could rebuild the Jerusalem temple has produced expectations that the end times are upon us. However, there is no evidence that late twentieth-century Judaism will be able to build a temple on what is already a Muslim holy site, or to restore ritual sacrifices.

The Centrality Of African Christianity

During the quarter-century, most of black Africa won its independence. Far from withering away when the colonial offices closed, Christianity has prospered as never before under dynamic black leadership. Religious demographers, notably David Barrett of Nairobi, estimate that the continent will be the statistical center of Christianity by the next century.

The new churches still accept skilled missionaries who are willing to play a subordinate role, but Catholicism is somewhat handicapped by its dependence upon white missionary priests and its ties to a universal see in Rome. The Christian religion faces historic competition with Islam and tribal animism. It is confused as well as strengthened by the numberless African independent churches, some of them only quasi-Christian. It confronts political oppression in some black nations, and the embarrassing identification of Christian culture with white supremacy in South Africa.

Black Liberation

The civil rights movement in the United States, beginning around 1965, was a great moral crusade. But it is also an incomplete one, given the current tenuous state of race relations and black fortunes in the nation. The movement was substantially the work of black Protestantism, supplemented by many religious and secular groups. Its unchallenged leader was the Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr., who won the Nobel Peace Prize and was assassinated in 1968.

The movement brought incalculable moral benefits to the U.S., but its very achievements may have skewed some churches’ concept of mission too far toward political success. During the 1970s, churches became increasingly involved in the struggle for black independence in white-ruled areas of Africa. By 1980 this focused on one remaining minority regime: South Africa (and its pseudoindependent black enclaves and its colony of Namibia). The liberation activity of black Christians, and the response of white South African Christians, will take on overwhelming importance in the coming quarter-century.

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A few brief comments are in order about other significant developments.

Militant Muslims. A militant mood is undoubtedly on the rise in the Muslim world. The question is whether the force is religio-spiritual or political. For instance, Iran’s revolutionaries regularly violate commandments of the faith, in God’s name. Such power games could eventually corrupt Islam as a moral force.

The Cult Scare. This is the most overblown development. Most of America’s new religions would have to multiply at a furious rate to reach the size of many denominations we journalists never even notice. However, the so-called cults have severely tried (1) the parents of their converts; (2) the blithe myth that “it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re sincere”; and (3) America’s commitment to religious liberty. The tolerance for abduction and “deprogramming” of adult “cult” converts is rather frightening.

Institutional Ecumenism. Christian unity is now an ineradicable issue for most churches, but there is apparently declining interest in older institutional forms of it. The National and World Councils of Churches have tended to become less a means for building unity around Christian belief, more a channel to pursue social visions even if they divide Christians. The Consultation on Church Union is stalled, although there have been many smaller organic mergers.

Video Religion. U.S. religious television, usually evangelical, has increased remarkably, but much of it is stronger in technique than in conveying the full biblical message to Christians or to reaching the secular audience. Indeed, this may be beyond the capability of television. Since the medium is not the message, a lot of hard strategic thinking is needed. In other parts of the world, radio provides a means for spreading the gospel in “closed” societies.

The Death of Theology. This is, of course, a whimsical overstatement inspired by the “Death of God” boomlet of the 1960s. God survived, but reflection upon him seems in a moribund state except in Catholicism, where it is confused but lively. The Protestant giants have left no successors of equal stature. Sometimes the very concept of expressing belief in verbal form is considered offensive. If truth and meaning cannot be conveyed through the admittedly problematic means of human language, however, a basic rationale of all theological efforts is eliminated.

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