Twenty years ago, the writer George Weigel coined the phrase “the Truce of 1968” to describe the aftermath of the public dissent from Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming the Church’s teaching on contraception. In Weigel’s telling, the Church’s failure to publicly discipline the theologians who rejected Humanae Vitae (the Vatican allowed the priests who had dissented publicly to recant privately), taught Catholics that one could dissent without major repercussions and that the Vatican would not back those bishops who tried to enforce adherence to the encyclical.
One could quibble with the word “truce” in Weigel’s metaphor, as one could say the Vatican’s actions look more like capitulation than a mutual cease fire, but otherwise it is a useful metaphor to describe the state of the Catholic Church as a whole since the 1960s. The warring factions in the Church galvanized over contraception, and this unspoken, or nearly unspoken, agreement not to escalate their disagreements on these issues any further is what has kept the Church from splintering in the intervening years. The operating principle of this unspoken agreement appears to be this: that there would be no crackdown on dissent from Church teaching, as long as one did not openly push for changes in controversial teachings, at least not too openly.
One part of this unspoken truce was a prohibition on criticism of Vatican II, or the reforms that followed it. You could do pretty much anything you wanted as a theologian after 1968, but you could not openly criticize Vatican II. This is one reason why Marcel Lefebvre found himself ostracized by Church authorities and eventually excommunicated, while Hans Küng merely lost the right to call himself a Catholic theologian but died in good standing with the Church, despite publishing a book denying papal infallibility in principle.
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There are several reasons why this became so crucial. One is that many Church leaders saw Vatican II as the Church’s peace treaty with the modern, secular world, and as crucial to its outreach to that world. Any criticism of Vatican II might seem like backsliding to an earlier era of conflict and strife. This concern motivates many “liberal” Catholics; as Cardinal Müller expressed it a few years ago, they believe secularization is irreversible, and so they seek to find a space where the Church can survive in a hostile secular society.
Of course, it was progressives in 1968 who leveraged their allies outside the Church—in the secular media, for example—to make the “truce” happen in the first place. This explains the prohibition on criticism of Vatican II: doing so would signal to the secular world that the Church was going back to a more combative stance, which would upset arrangements with secular society.
As Weigel pointed out, this truce made it much more difficult for those defending Church teaching on controversial issues, especially bishops. It also gave the impression that Church teaching was up for grabs on just about any topic. However wrong they may be about the permanence of secularization, those liberals were not wrong about the pressures of a hostile secular society.
In 1965, John Rockefeller III requested and received a 45-minute meeting with Paul VI, in which he tried to get the pope to alter Church teaching on contraception. Rockefeller even offered to ghost write the encyclical for him. Institutions such as the Ford Foundation, which was and remains a major promoter of “population control” (along with the Rockefeller Foundation), also pressed him to change the teaching. One can imagine how much greater those pressures are today. No one should have any illusions about what kind of societal forces are arrayed against the Church—they are very real, and very threatening.
For all the progressive complaints about them, neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI’s meager attempts to discipline theologians like Hans Küng and Leonardo Boff amounted to a breaking of this truce. With the election of Francis, this has changed dramatically. From the beginning of his papacy, with his “who am I to judge” comments about homosexual behavior, Francis signaled his willingness to alter the terms of the truce and perhaps even break it.
This led progressives to become open with their demands, such that today we have a cardinal, Cardinal Hollerich, clearly a friend of the pope, who feels comfortable openly rejecting the Church’s teaching on homosexuality altogether. The most open challenge to the status quo, of course, is the German Church’s “Synodal Way,” which promises an almost wholesale revision of Church teaching, to say nothing of the mutual cease-fire of 1968.
Whatever the cardinals thought they were doing by electing him, many in the progressive faction clearly want Francis to put an end to the truce once and for all. But, so far, they have not been able to procure this; opponents managed to thwart them at the Synod on the Family in 2014, and such opposition also derailed the effort to dispense with clerical celibacy at the Amazonian Synod in 2019. It also appears that, for the time being, the attempt to suppress the old liturgy in Traditionis Custodes has faltered as well. Moreover, most of Francis’ acts have been personal in nature and could be undone by his successors.
The “Synodal Way” is another matter entirely. It would be a public repudiation of the 1968 compromise too obvious to ignore or paper over. This is why I think it will ultimately fail. One can see this by comparing it with the reaction to Traditionis Custodes. The reason it failed to gain acceptance is not because a great number of bishops and Catholics agree or even sympathize with the concerns of those who embrace the old liturgy. It failed because it was so clearly an attempt to punish the putative “dissent” of traditionalists who allegedly don’t “accept Vatican II.”
In other words, non-trad Catholics defended them because the progressives wanted to punish dissent, breaking one of the post-’68 taboos. It also demonstrated that Benedict XVI’s attempt to normalize traditionalists was working (has worked?), to the point where enough fellow Catholics now see “the truce” as including them, as they did not in the decades following the council. The memo circulating in Vatican circles, recently published by Vatican journalist Sandro Magister, suggests as much.
The Synodal Way is an even more brazen attempt to cancel this unspoken agreement, but it suffers from the same flaws. One of its (mostly) unspoken assumptions is that Vatican II did not go far enough in a progressive direction. In other words, it implicitly judges Vatican II to be a failure, a cardinal offense against the status quo. The idea that Vatican II is the touchstone for the modern Church has been a staple of clerical formation since the 1960s, and I may be wrong, but I do not believe enough bishops are yet willing to jettison this aspect of their priesthood for the sake of the German zombie Church and its aspirations. The increasing criticism directed at the Synodal Way from the bishops would seem to confirm this.
Many Catholics of a traditional bent, myself among them, sometimes chafe at the way “mainstream” Catholics have been unwilling to take a more critical look at Vatican II and the reforms that followed the council. Indeed, I have to say I agree with the leaders of the German Synodal Way that Vatican II, at least in a practical sense, has failed, and the Church should not repudiate it so much as cease to treat it as a “super dogma,” as Joseph Ratzinger once put it. But until something else can, in practice, keep the Church from dissolving into schism, such criticism will remain on the fringes of ecclesial life.
This is the main reason why, however much it may gall faithful Catholics, the truce of ’68 still holds. The scandal of Catholic leaders, lay and clerical, denying articles of the Faith is why many faithful Catholics find this truce to be appalling and would like to end it. The people behind the Synodal Way would agree with them on this if nothing else.
And they are correct: the truce cannot last forever. At some point, the Church will either abandon essential aspects of the Faith where they conflict with secular power, which it cannot do, or suffer the consequences of defending them in an increasingly post-Christian Western world. But that day has not come, at least, not yet.
[Image: Pope Paul VI/Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich]