In early April, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote an article concerning the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church. The outcry made massive headlines the world over. The German scholar notes,
“The extent and gravity of the reported incidents has deeply distressed priests as well as laity, and has caused more than a few to call into question the very Faith of the Church. It was necessary to send out a strong message, and seek out a new beginning, so to make the Church again truly credible as a light among peoples and as a force in service against the powers of destruction.”
More than this, Benedict attempts to draw a connection to what he believes to be some of the roots from which this tragedy has sprung. He writes:
“It could be said that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely, and a new normalcy arose…Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms…The mental collapse was also linked to a propensity for violence. That is why sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes because violence would break out among the small community of passengers…Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ‘68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.”
THE COUNTERCULTURAL WARFARE
The former Holy Father has subsequently received a lot of flack (both from his theological peers and the secular skeptics) for this particular statement. However, the sexual revolution of 1968 of which Benedict XVI notes is heavily tied to the hippie movement. Though 21st century millennials can frequently laugh about the goofy fashion and mannerisms of the hippies (some TV shows of the decade managed to poke fun at them too), the youthful movement was one which advocated for hypersexual activities along with the use of hallucinogens such as marijuana and LSD. Since then, what was at the time considered to be part of the counter culture, has gradually manifested itself as natural practice in modern society.
The hippie movement is perhaps partially to blame for the unethical sexual orientation of Church officials who abused their rank and viewed their fellow human beings as objects. Then again, it was a significant enough movement back in the day that its effects are certainly not limited to the hierarchy within the Catholic Church. The two most harmful aspects promoted and lived out by the hippies were almost definitely the movement’s sexual liberation and adoption of psychedelic drugs.
“Tripping” and frequent sex or “easy sex” (in the manner in which the hippies were advocating) were, in reality, a visible promotion of the search for self-gratification. In drugs, this gratification diminished the intellect and will; in sex, this gratification was reducing the dignity of the human person. Some of the major activities the hippies were engaged in brought about the dehumanizing of the individual (made in the image of God) or the self-degradation and limiting of the intellect.
The huge increase in sexual activity that occurred in the sixties should have had an obvious and only natural result: an increase in pregnancies. Yet, Professor W.J. Rorabaugh with the History News Network explains what solutions women began choosing at the time, in particular, a certain new biological development:
“Free love would not have happened without the birth control pill. First sold in 1960, it took several years before single young women gained access. Once the risk of an unwanted pregnancy plummeted, the double standard ended. Hippie men declared that everyone should have sex with whomever they wanted whenever they wanted. In practice, this turned out to mean that hippie men indulged themselves, while women ended up discarded, heart-broken, and depressed.”
Right here we get a glimpse of how, from the very start, the birth control pill wasn’t doing anything to help women’s relationships – and neither was free love. The relationships were shallow and, quite literally, unfruitful, fleeting and totally unsubstantial. “Free love” was, in fact, a certain recipe for emptiness. The pill, introduced to the market at the beginning of the decade is yet another product of the 1960’s which has helped in building a culture of death, belittling human life even prior the moment of conception.
THEOLOGICAL STRIFE AND BACKLASH AGAINST 1968 ENCYCLICAL
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, at least in the United States, was experiencing a revolution of its own. A dirty incident involving the theology department of the Catholic University of America is a prime yet poignant example of this development. Dr. Jeff Mirus for CatholicCulture.org details part of the story for us:
“It was a remarkable thing even for the 1960s—the takeover of the Catholic University of America by its heterodox Department of Theology…the wholesale defiance of episcopal oversight as soon as the bishops on the Board of Trustees tried to put a stop to the promotion of a non-Catholic vision of sexual morality by the ever-popular Fr. Charles Curran…perhaps the single most important thing to know about the disaster that befell Catholic University was that the secularized ‘Catholic’ rot at the root of the crisis was already very widespread when the quarrel over Charles Curran’s sexual teaching exploded in 1967, and well before the famous statement of dissent against Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae (On the Regulation of Birth) rocked the Church in 1968.”
Not only was a misguided sexual orientation filling the heads of the students enrolled in Fr. Curran’s courses, but here we also get a glimpse of one of the frequent responses to the altogether just and life-enriching document which is Humanae vitae. Curran’s assault on the statement came less than a week after its release. Not only scholars, but especially some of the common laity of Catholic communities strongly disagreed with the expectations the Church revealed in the encyclical. It most certainly “rocked” the Catholic Church back in ’68, though today most practicing Catholics have come to love this document which upholds the sacred dimension of human life, something which was quickly diminishing in the 1960’s.
Some of the decade’s TV shows tried to prolong a homey warmth among characters (as did The Andy Griffith Show) or tried to appeal to a wider family audience (like Leave It to Beaver). The Twilight Zone made its audience think of the “what if” possibilities. Parents could often rest easy with their kids being entertained by The Peanuts or the adventurous Thunderbirds. And Batman, usually, just made the audience crack a smile or laugh.
However, newer forms of entertainment tried to popularize their programming by being different – often by supporting questionable activities. While Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek often showed women in a positive light and was certainly helpful in the advancement of racial equality, it also had some negative tendencies. Putting aside the frequent risque female wardrobes (which would only help to foster objectification), the show made a positive nod to contraception or birth regulation. By season three of Star Trek: TOS, the episode “The Mark of Gideon” features Captain Kirk suggesting birth control as a solution to a race’s overpopulation of their home planet.
This is a sad Star Trek reference as it shows how the popular culture was once again fueling the flames for this sin. One of the specific vices the Holy Father attacked via Humanae vitae was contraception, which was mentioned earlier as commonly being used by women of the hippie movement. The encyclical’s famous historical significance lies partially in the fact that it was responsible for the earliest display of widespread lay disapproval of Catholic teaching in the 20th century. Some of Pope Paul VI’s cautions would remain stinging reminders even decades later, warning among other things of the inevitable loss of honor and respect between the sexes as particularly seen in an increase of men no longer viewing their female counterparts with dignity. This is what Paul VI believed would plague society if contraception and similar life-restricting acts would be welcomed into the home and the sex life. In fact, we could already see it happening among the hippies. It has already been noted that this lack of respect for another human being was commonplace among the hippie couples.
TECHNOLOGY AND OTHER DEVELOPMENTS SHOWING DECLINE IN RECOGNIZING HUMAN DIGNITY
Technology? What harm could it be doing back in the sixties? They didn’t have social media, porn accessible just a few clicks away, AI’s which could remind them what to do on a daily basis, an unlimited bombardment of multimedia targetting them 24/7. Some of this actually was seeing use and development in the 1960’s, and other elements did not require one with an outstanding imagination to dream up.
With much of the fantasy and science fiction literature of the decade shifting toward graphic sex and sensual elements, the release of the paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings novels (written by the Catholic professor J.R.R. Tolkien) was quite refreshing. This new release brought with it an unprecedented and rather unlooked-for popularity in America. This cultural phenomenon which included many college students (hippies too) falling in love with the Middle-earth fantasy sparked several noteworthy literary works which took to the task of examining the background and subsequent associations of Tolkien’s grand body of work. One such work was Understanding Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings by William Ready which was written in 1968.
In attempting to suggest an allegory in part of LOTR, the author goes on a bit of a tangent, yet it’s an enlightening one disclosing what one of the thinkers of the day saw for the future of humanity:
“The very creation of Man as a part of Nature is computed to a pattern that will permit a programmed development of the earth and beyond, by the Board. Man’s very seed will be tapped, analyzed and bottled for the correct ingredients needed for this time or that before it will be permitted to be fertilized. Abortion will replace the Blessed Event, Euthanasia the Consolation. Environmental patterns, devised by programmers, correlated with words and sounds, will make poetry, music to dance to, in patterns better than any created by Man in the days when he danced for joy, for birth, for resurrection” (Ready 64).
In an attempt to explain the symbolism and meaning in LOTR, William Ready actually presents a startlingly accurate prediction of the darkening outcome for humanity, attributing the hypothetical circumstances primarily to technology. However, from the perspective of the 21st century millennial, the scenario Ready painted is no longer hypothetical. The point to be made is the fact that this writer was seeing this as a realistic possibility – even though he was writing half a century ago. When Ready’s talking about “the Board” or the programmers, one might take away an image of The Matrix. In reality, however, Ready was making a much more realistic prophesy than his peers in sci-fi and fantasy writing who by this time had begun experimenting with dystopias, cyborgs, and humanoid robots (some of which have seen fruition in modern advancements).
But Ready’s frightening proposal is different, perhaps unique. Yet, in his day, some of the most bombarding media would have merely been TV and cinema. And, as for computers, they would have been bulky, impersonal machines. Still, he could see something of what was in store.
Take, for example, his allusion to computers generating poetry and music. This is something which is not at all science fiction but reality. Man has created several types of artificial intelligence doing just this! Programs have taken on the functions of the writer himself. Additionally, the past decade has seen an increase in companies built around stock music, and some of these companies’ music is being primarily generated by these programs. Personally, I see this as endangerment to the arts – those forms meant for human beings to creatively express themselves. Beyond the onslaught of technology, William Ready envisions science as mistreating and harming its very inventors: humanity itself. Ready is warning of authentic vices plaguing modern society.
Sperm are kept in cryopreservation. Abortion needs no current example. (If you are living in a first-world nation, you know exactly what is going on right now in regards to this abomination’s spotlight in government issues.) In many cases, God’s natural design for the development and immediate nurturing of the infant within the mother’s womb has been exchanged for a synthesized experimental chamber. Besides abortion, other unnatural substitutes to the “Blessed Event” have come to include the generation of human beings outside of the mother’s body. In vitro fertilization, taking place in a petri dish, allows for creating a human person in the absence of another human person’s direct contribution.
Back in the sixties, even prior to the Roe v Wade decision in the U.S. (1973), an infant’s safety, let alone privacy, was being toyed with. In some instances, this unalienable right was utterly dismissed as in a number of the circumstances around LIFE Magazine’s acquiring of the breathtaking imagery used in its 1965 cover story “Drama of Life Before Birth.” Photographer Lennart Nilsson was responsible for the detailed, colorful images.
Since the late 1930’s, abortion had been a wholly legal action in Sweden. The Swedish photographer not only used special equipment to capture babies within the womb, but he also saw abortion victims as unique opportunities for furthering his body of photographic work. In some scenarios, Nilsson took the dead infants and situated them as he saw fit for his photos. Some of these would appear in the zine’s historic 1965 issue. The phenomenal photography was wildly applauded both within and outside of the scientific community. It was one of the most well-documented moments of the 20th century in which humanity stood in appreciation and gratitude for the fruit of the destruction of innocent human life.
St. John Paul II was a firm believer in the ideal that science could purify religion and vice versa. It should not be concluded that science is inherently evil or malicious (as is particularly the case in abortion and certain eugenics), but rather science, like any field at man’s disposal, can be employed either for the good of humanity or for its annihilation. In the case of science’s lack of recognition of human dignity in so many areas, Christianity is called to purify the scientist’s understanding of the significance and necessity of such dignity. A dismissal of human dignity and the priceless worth of the individual is the beginning to the breakdown of society. Sooner or later, this path leads to the collapse of order as the line between one’s true rights and justice becomes increasingly obscured. With human dignity thrown out the window, human safety is put on the line. (Eg: Hitler.) And questions like, “Why can’t I kill someone when it’s convenient to?” begin to arise.
Returning to the more generalized understanding of technology, other thinkers active in the sixties produced commentaries on the developments they were witnessing. Pope Francis employed the following excerpt from Romano Guardini in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’:
“The gadgets and technics forced upon him by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself. To either a greater or lesser degree, mass man is convinced that his conformity is both reasonable and just.” – Das Ende der Neuzeit (The End of the Modern World)
This is a quote from Guardini’s book that was published in 1965. Like Benedict XVI himself, Guardini was a German, a priest, and a scholar. Already by 1965, Guardini had noticed humanity’s inclination, perhaps even its crazed thirst for newer technologies which was seldom questioned on the grounds of its effects on humanity’s health. What we see today in the widescale adoption of smartphones, AI-run loudspeakers, and entertainment streaming services Guardini was observing in the common use of such seemingly harmless devices as the telephone, radio, and television. This is the fact that, when abused, these advancements can harm the social (and spiritual) health of the community.
In simply scratching the surface of the goings-on of the 1960’s within the realms of culture, technology, and theology, one can truly get a grasp of how the decade set society up for failure decades down the road. It has not only affected the way people think and act (both within and outside of the Church), but it also provides something to look back on. Some of the most widely-covered assassinations took place in this tumultuous decade. It was a time of strife, disapproval, and change.
There are moments of honor to be applauded, but when we look carefully, we see many of our modern societal dilemmas traced back to their origins in the sixties. We can begin to see how we arrived at a seemingly unimaginable dystopia which has situated itself all-too-comfortably in the reality of the 21st century.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared in Catholic Journal: Reflections on Faith and Culture on May 1st, 2019.