Theology at the crossroads of '68

Omnes-June 27, 2018-Reading time: 9 minutes

May '68 revealed a cultural crisis, and its repercussions had transcendence for the life of the Church and for theology.

Text - Josep-Ignasi Saranyana, Full Member of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences (Vatican City)

Important theological controversies do not erupt suddenly. They depend on processes of long duration and of great theoretical depth. We see this, once again, in the theological crisis of 1968, which I will describe schematically in the following paragraphs. I will first speak of the remote antecedents and then of the theoretical developments of that prodigious decade.

Remote antecedents of the theological 68

Five doctrinal lines delimited, in my opinion, the theological space of 1968: the absolutization of individual freedom, the autonomy of moral conscience in the face of heteronomous instances, the critique of historical reason, Freudo-Marxism and Marxism with a human face.

a) On the absolutization of freedom

The theological analysis of freedom became more complicated at the beginning of the 16th century. Martin Luther, drawing on late medieval sources, problematized the relationship between grace and freedom, as witnessed in his essay De servo arbitrio ("Slave Freedom"), published in 1525, in response to Erasmus of Rotterdam's De libero arbitrio, which had appeared the previous year. Freedom, according to Luther and other theologians of that time, had been so deteriorated by original sin that it was no longer properly free, but a slave. The Council of Trent took action on the matter, condemning the fact that free will (or the capacity to choose) had been extinguished by original sin.
In the second half of the sixteenth century, the analysis of freedom became the star topic of theoretical discussion. After Michael Bayo, the auxiliis crisis broke out and, as a consequence, the Jansenist binary "free in necessity" and "free in coercion" burst forth in the middle of the 17th century, exaggerating the unqualified identification of freedom with will.

Thus, and by the law of the pendulum, in the face of a continuous negation or, at least, an ablation of freedom, the reaction could not be other than an absolutization of freedom. The evolution of ideas was one step away from considering freedom as an independent faculty, and no longer as the interior and deliberative moment of volition; or, in other words, it was one step away from considering that every inclination of the will is necessarily free, without any deliberation or choice.

On the walls of La Sorbonne and during the events of '68, one could read a graffito, taken from the Marquis de Sade (†1814), which read: "La liberté est le crime qui contient tous les crimes; c'est notre arme absolue!" ("Freedom is the crime that contains all crimes: it is our absolute weapon!"). The second part of the graffito takes us directly to Friedrich Nietzsche (†1900), who considered freedom as the absolute weapon for total emancipation. The German philosopher understands that social norms, although just, are always an obstacle to freedom. Submission to rules dwarfs us, enslaves us, makes us mediocre. Only the superior and aristocratic spirits can emancipate themselves from these restrictive circles, by the use of an unlimited freedom.

b) The autonomy of the moral conscience

According to the neo-Kantian Wilhelm Dilthey (†1911), the "fact of conscience" determined the origin of modernity. If previously moral judgment was considered to presuppose a law that I have not given myself, "inscribed in my heart" according to St. Paul, that is, a succession from the outside to the inside, from modernity onwards the process was reversed, from the inside to the outside, in search of certainties. The methodical formulation of this path corresponded to Descartes. In the religious field, the Reformation was responsible for this process.

In fact, the primacy of the "fact of conscience" as a catalyst for religious change in the 16th century can already be traced in Luther's commentary on the Pauline letter to the Romans, in the passage that speaks of the moral conscience (Rom 2:15-16). Luther understands, in commenting on this pericope, that God cannot modify the verdict of our conscience, but only confirm it (WA 56, 203-204). In this way, and exaggerating the Reformer's claims, he points to the absolute priority of self-examination. An unbridgeable disjunction between hetero-judgment and self-judgment is affirmed, the latter prevailing. I am not judged; I judge myself. It is I, in short, who decides on the goodness or badness of my own actions and the sanction they deserve.

c) The critical limit of historical reason

The third coordinate of the theological space of '68 has its roots in the three Kantian critiques (of pure reason, practical reason and judgment) and, above all, in Friedrich Schleiermacher's (†1834) critique of historical reason. When Immanuel Kant (†1804) left God, the soul, and the universe outside the scope of metaphysical knowledge, he opened the door to theological, psychological, and cosmological agnosticism. As metaphysics failed in its supreme attempt, theology was left at the mercy of feelings and emotions. With Schleiermacher's critique, historical facts also moved away from the human spirit. The hermeneutical circle closed the way to the origins of the Church and to the essential continuity between yesterday and today, and opened an unbridgeable gap between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.

d) Freudian-Marxism

We must also refer to Sigmund Freud (†1939), who discovered those zones of indeterminacy of freedom, swinging between dream and reality, the conscious and the subconscious. The Freudian therapeutics of psychic discharge and the "discovery" of the masked and repressed sexual drive contributed to the Freudian-Marxist formulations of Herbert Marcuse (†1979) and other representatives of the Frankfurt School.

Marcuse pointed out that all historical facts are restrictions that entail negation. It is necessary to free oneself from such facts. In some sense the sexual repression, pointed out by Freud, is concomitant with the social repression we detect historically. However, the repressed classes are not conscious of being exploited and, therefore, cannot react. Consequently, revolutionary consciousness has to emerge in minority groups outside the system, not objectively exploited, who understand that tolerance is repressive and rebel against it.

e) Marxism with a human face

It remains to point out one last inspirer of '68: the communist Antonio Gramsci (†1937), who elaborated the doctrine of "hegemony" by the cultural route. If a social class seeks hegemony, it must impose its own conception of the world and win over the intellectuals. If this group does not achieve its purpose, another bloc emerges to displace the dominant one, by means of a revolutionary phenomenon. The historical dialectic manifests itself, therefore, between the domination of a hegemonic class, which is unable to impose its project, and the emergence of a subaltern class that becomes dominant by implementing a more satisfactory alternative project. In any case, the conquest of political power requires the prior conquest of cultural hegemony.

Theology in the 1960s

The theological generation of the sixties suffered from the influences mentioned above, which questioned fundamental aspects of the Christian tradition. As in any debate, there was a bit of everything, although, due to their notoriety and media coverage, the less fortunate syntheses sounded more than those that reached a successful conclusion.

Three far-reaching controversies remain as testimony of those convulsive and complex years: the response to the encyclical Humanæ vitæ; the polemic on the eschatological character (or not) of the "kingdom of God"; and the diatribe on the "death of God".

a) The encyclical Humanæ vitæ and its reply

On February 15, 1960, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of Enovid as a contraceptive in the United States of America, and from that moment its use spread throughout the world, raising numerous questions for moral theology. John XXIII set up a "Commission for the Study of Population, Family and Birth", which was confirmed and expanded by Paul VI. The conclusions of that commission came in the form of a document (Documentum syntheticum de moralitate regulationis nativitatum). Since not all the members of the commission agreed with this opinion, the text became known as the "report of the majority", as opposed to another "report of the minority", that is, of those who disagreed with the authorization of the Pill.

The main argument of the majority report was based on the "principle of totality," according to which every moral action must be judged within the framework of the totality of a person's life. If a person ordinarily conforms to the fundamental moral principles of the Christian life, even if in isolated acts he or she does not behave according to those fundamental principles, such acts cannot be considered immoral or sinful, because they do not alter the fundamental choice made. Each one can build his own life path, at his own will, according to the autonomous opinion of his moral conscience and with full and absolute freedom. Thus formulated, the "principle of totality" was (and is) alien to the tradition of the Church, because it forgets that the principal source of morality is the work itself. It must be maintained, always and in any case, that there is room for intrinsically evil works, whatever the intention of the agent and whatever the circumstances.

For this reason, and based on the minority report, Paul VI promulgated the encyclical Humanæ vitæ on July 25, 1968. The encyclical established two principles, one of a general nature and the other relating to the topic under discussion: 1) that the authentic interpretation of the natural law belongs to the magisterium of the Church; and 2) that in married life the union of the spouses and openness to procreation are inseparable.

Twenty years after Humanæ vitæ¸ and after a spectacular "response" in which Bernhard Häring (†1998) and Charles Curran stood out, the important instruction Donum vitæ (1987) on respect for nascent human life and the dignity of procreation appeared. However, the Christian faithful were waiting for a more comprehensive and far-reaching magisterial reflection. This finally came in the form of an encyclical, published on August 6, 1993, under the title Veritatis splendor. This document points out the essential contents of Revelation on moral behavior, and has become an unavoidable reference for Catholic moralists.

b) From the theology of hope to the theology of liberation

The question posed by the theology of liberation (how the temporal task influences the advent of the kingdom of God) was already being debated in Europe since the 17th century, especially in late Lutheran circles. Its modern version is due to the Calvinist theologian Jürgen Moltmann, in his book entitled Theology of Hope, published in 1964. Moltmann's own thing was to articulate eschatological theology as a historical eschatology. In other words: to offer a secularizing vision of the "kingdom of God", so that the kingdom of God is "the humanization of human relations and human conditions; the democratization of politics; the socialization of the economy; the naturalization of culture; and the orientation of the Church towards the kingdom of God".

This presentation of the kingdom contrasts with that offered by Paul VI, in 1968, in his splendid Creed of the People of God: "We likewise confess that the kingdom of God, which has had its beginnings here on earth in the Church of Christ, is not of this world, whose figure is passing away, and [we confess] also that its growth cannot be judged identical with the progress of culture and humanity or of the sciences or of the technical arts, but consists in the ever deeper knowledge of the unfathomable riches of Christ, [...] and in the ever more abundant diffusion of grace and holiness among men."

It is undeniable that Moltmann and Metz influenced liberation theology. However, liberation theology had not yet acquired in 1968 the notoriety it achieved after 1971. And it should also be noted, contrary to what has been written, that the General Conference of Medellin in 1968 is foreign to the origins of liberation theology. Its theme was, rather, the reception in Latin America of the pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes, of Vatican II, in the context of the crisis of the hierarchical apostolate and the politicization of the Christian grassroots movements, and in the context of the dialectic developmentalism-dependence.

c) The theology of the death of God

And so we arrive at the third critical stage of theology, in the sixties. In 1963, the book Honest to God, signed by the Anglican bishop John A. T. Robinson, had appeared in England and had a huge impact.

Honest to God was the result of the fusion of three currents, or if you will, the point of arrival of three Protestant lines: Rudolf Bultmann (†1976), with his well-known demythologizing of the New Testament, and the radicalization of the gap between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith; Dietrich Bonhoeffer (†1945), who elaborated the most extreme presentation of Christianity, that is, an a-religious Christianity (only Christ and I, and nothing else); and Paul Tillich (†1965), who had popularized his concept of religion as an anthropological dimension that is everything and, at bottom, is nothing determined (a faith without God). From such premises, Robinson set out to reinterpret faith to make it accessible to modern man. His theology posed the problem of "how to say God" in a secularized context and the result was not at all satisfactory.

In those years, the category "world" was also being discussed in Europe and "political theology" was taking its first steps. This current, led by the Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz, also sought to present the faith in harmony with the cultural horizon of the time. For Metz, the "world" was historical becoming. According to Metz, when the incarnate Word takes on the world, God accepts that creation is filtered by the work of man. Thus, when we contemplate the world, we do not see the vestigia Dei, but rather the vestigia hominis and, in short, not the world projected by God, but transformed by man, behind which man himself beats.

In both cases, there is a notable deficit of metaphysical rationality. Kant's shadow is very long. Both Metz and Moltmann succumb to a supposed impossibility, on the part of reason, to transcend the phenomenological level and enter the noun. They postulate, without further ado, that reason can say nothing about God and supernature. The problem is, for them, how to speak of God to a world that supposedly no longer understands what God is.

Although the three controversies described above did not have a direct impact on the development of Vatican II, they did so rarefy the theological and ecclesial atmosphere that they negatively conditioned the reception of the great conciliar assembly. But this is a different matter, which would require a specific, long and detailed treatment.

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