“This sets the scene for the tragic drama following the actual date of the publication of the encyclical letter on July 29, 1968,” Cardinal Stafford writes.
Following the publication of Humanae Vitae, Stafford recalls the way the rejection of the Pope’s encyclical unfolded.
“Rev. Charles E. Curran, instructor of moral theology of The Catholic University of America … and nine other professors of theology of the Catholic University met, by evident prearrangement, in Caldwell Hall to receive, again by prearrangement with the Washington Post, the encyclical, part by part, as it came from the press. The story further indicated that by nine o’clock that night, they had received the whole encyclical, had read it, had analyzed it, criticized it, and had composed their six-hundred word ‘Statement of Dissent.’ Then they began that long series of telephone calls to ‘theologians’ throughout the East, which went on, according to the Post, until 3:30 A.M., seeking authorization, to attach their names as endorsers (signers was the term used) of the statement, although those to whom they had telephoned could not have had an opportunity to see either the encyclical or their statement. Meanwhile, they had arranged through one of the local television stations to have the statement broadcast that night.”
Cardinal Shehan was “scornful” of the reaction. “In 1982 he wrote, ‘The first thing that we have to note about the whole performance is this: so far as I have been able to discern, never in the recorded history of the Church has a solemn proclamation of a Pope been received by any group of Catholic people with so much disrespect and contempt’.”
The test in Baltimore
“The personal Πειρασμός, the test, began,” writes Stafford, who was a priest of the Diocese of Baltimore at the time.
He remembers that the trial began with a phone call inviting him to St. William of York parish in southwest Baltimore to discuss the encyclical. “The meeting was set for Sunday evening, August 4. I agreed to come. Eventually a large number of priests were gathered in the rectory’s basement. I knew them all,” Stafford relates.
Although he expected a chance to read the papal document and discuss it, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, one pastor/ leader, assisted by some priests from the local seminary read the Washington statement aloud. Then the leader asked each of us to agree to have our names attached to it. No time was allowed for discussion, reflection, or prayer. Each priest was required individually to give a verbal ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
“I could not sign it,” states Cardinal Stafford. ‘My earlier letter to Cardinal Shehan came to mind. I remained convinced of the truth of my judgement and conclusions.” … However, Stafford says that no one else there held his convictions; “Everyone agreed to sign. There were no abstentions. As the last called upon, I felt isolated. The basement became suffocating.”
What happened next involved was unprecedented in the history of the Baltimore presbyterate, according to Stafford. “They had planned carefully how to exert what amounted to emotional and intellectual coercion. … The priest/leader, drawing upon some scatological language from his Marine Corp past in the II World War responded contemptuously to my decision. He tried to force me to change. He became visibly angry and verbally abusive. The underlying, ‘fraternal’ violence became more evident. He questioned and then derided my integrity. He taunted me to risk my ecclesiastical ‘future,’ although his reference was more anatomically specific. The abuse went on.”
“We all had been subjected to a new thing in the Church, something unexpected. A pastor and several seminary professors had abused rhetoric to undermine the truth within the evangelical community. When opposed, they assumed the role of Job’s friends. Their contempt became a nightmare,” Stafford observes.
The aftermath of dissent
(Story continues below)
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This type of abuse was paralleled in the secular history of the time as well, says the cardinal, citing an encounter from April 1968 with the same priest who would a few months later lead the dissent meeting at St. William of York.
As the riots in Baltimore raged following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Father Stafford called the pastor to see if he might need food, medical assistance, or other help from the city. When the pastor answered the phone, Stafford could hear “disillusionment and fear” in the priest’s voice as he described how, “Everything has been set ablaze.”
The memory of this incident prompted Stafford to realize that, “Ecclesial dissent can become a kind of spiritual violence in its form and content. …Violence and truth don’t mix. … The violence of the priests’ August gathering gave rise to its own ferocious acrimony. Conversations among the clergy, where they existed, became contaminated with fear. Suspicions among priests were chronic. …The Archdiocesan priesthood lost something of the fraternal whole which Baltimore priests had known for generations.”
“Something else happened among priests on that violent August night,” explains Cardinal Stafford, “Friendship in the Church sustained a direct hit.”
A lesson learned
In spite of all the damage done by the dissent, Stafford stresses that, “that night was not a total loss.” “Paradoxically, in the hot, August night a new sign shown unexpectedly on the path to future life. It read, ‘Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered’.”