Another theory of the Sixties: Vatican II

One frustration of historical analysis is that one`s confident proclamation that “Y inevitably caused Z” often leads to rejoinders that “X just as inevitably caused Y, so, really, X caused Z. And, while we`re at it, what about W?”

Therefore, it`s attractive to look for non-inevitable events as causes. A reader writes:

I enjoyed your post on Takimag today, as I have appreciated so much of your writing online over the years. What prompts me to write just now is that I too have pondered “the Sixties” for quite some time. I do not have an answer to the mystery of why the 1960s happened as they did, but one thing I do know is that the mystery is larger than your column indicates. 

As you know, in France “the Sixties” are “’68,” and their “‘68ers” are our “Boomers,” more or less. Since so much of what we associate with “the Sixties” in the U.S. really refers to the period of 1968-74, I more often contemplate the question of why “1968” happened. And the big problem, or mystery, is that 1968 happened most everywhere. There was a ’68 in France, in Germany, in the U.S., in Mexico City, in Japan, and even—one could say—in Prague. There were smaller eruptions in England, in Canada, in Italy, etc. In each of these countries, the political narrative focuses on pretty much local concerns: In the U.S., it is a matter of racial justice and the Vietnam War. In Germany, it is a matter of the sons coming to realize the sins of the fathers during WWII. In France, it is a combination of Algerian decolonization and sexual freedom for students. And so on. The problem is that there are so many discreetly local “causes,” and yet there is a single, global “effect”—revolution by the young. For there to be so global an effect, there must be a global cause, I should think. What can it be? It cannot be racial justice, surely, for that had next to nothing to do with France or Germany, or hardly anywhere else than the U.S. 

For some in Europe, the global narrative concerns a generational coming to terms with the sins of the fathers during WWII. That makes some sense —after all, the World War was a global experience, and no one on the continent was spared a great deal of sordidness in 1939-45. But in the U.S., WWII remains the Good War, so it cannot possibly be the case that 1968 represents our coming-to-terms with the sins of the fathers. Some American writers suggest that it is oral contraceptives, a technological development, that did it. But could that really explain Mexico City? And how could that revolution in the intimate sphere be related to the quite political nature of the agitation we associate with 1968/the Sixties anyway? 

The only original speculation I could offer is that it might have had something to do with Vatican II. The thought would be that, ever since 1789, the West, broadly, had sought a happy medium between the poles of Revolution and Reaction, and the Catholic Church represented the latter pole. In Vatican II, the Church seemed suddenly to leave the field, or indeed, seemed to throw itself on to the other pole. This created a disorientation of the entire political spectrum—for where is the golden mean between the French Revolution and a no-less Revolutionary Church? I am drawn to this sort of speculation because it is a cause no less extensive than its effect—though of course Japan represents the hard case even there. 

In any event, it remains a great mystery—much more mysterious than 1848, for example. I’m glad to find someone else who finds it all equally puzzling, rather than something to be taken for granted.

This has the advantage of putting the Sixties into a long historical-ideological framework that would have made sense to Voltaire, Napoleon, Zola, and many others. The recent triumph of the English language as the global lingua franca has helped Americans forget how central France, with its triangle of Revolution-State-Church, was to how educated people all over the world thought. But you can still see some of the power of this way of thinking in the seemingly bizarre global popularity of Dan Brown`s The Da Vinci Code, which, in its lowbrow way, tapped into the power of centuries of anti-Vatican cultural energy.

Political trends in Western Europe in the 1950s were not bad for the Church. Christian Democrats were doing well in many countries, and the strong new De Gaulle government in France represented about as much as the Church could reasonably hope for out of that crucial country.

In January 1959, Pope John XXIII called for a Second Vatican Council. This was a pretty evitable decision. Wikipedia says:

This sudden announcement, which caught the Curia by surprise, caused little initial official comment from Church insiders. Reaction to the announcement was widespread and largely positive from both religious and secular leaders outside the Catholic Church,[7] and the council was formally summoned by the apostolic constitutionHumanae Salutis on 25 December 1961.[8][9] In various discussions before the Council actually convened, Pope John often said that it was time to open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.[10]

Between early 1959 and when Vatican II opened in 1962, there were important events in rich and fast-growing North America. In Quebec, French secularists took power in July 1960 away from French clericalists. That same year, John F. Kennedy`s declaration to Protestant ministers that the Vatican would have no control over him, followed by his subsequent election, was a huge event, but whether JFK`s election marked an opportunity or a setback for the Church was unclear.

So, the notion that Vatican II may have played the role of an “unforced error” (as they say in tennis) might make sense.