America’s Catholic Bishops

Short of the Pope himself, there is no one who can challenge the Catholic bishop for leadership or power in the American church today

Yet in the aftermath of the Council one diocese after another has slowly set about establishing clerical senates to give priests a greater voice in diocesan affairs, laymen have been added to school boards, lay-clerical commissions have been established to foster better relationships with Protestants and Jews. If some bishops have silenced their priests for speaking out on social issues, others have defended the right of their priests to do so.

our figures in particular symbolize the American bishops' ambivalence: Cardinal Joseph Ritter of St. Louis, Archbishop John P. Cody of Chicago, Archbishop Philip M. Hannan of New Orleans, and Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York. During the Council, Cardinal Ritter, by his vigorous speeches and interventions, almost became the darling of American progressives. Even before the last session ended he had set in motion ambitious, widely praised plans for a strong follow-up in his own archdiocese. Yet within the past eight months he has disciplined three of his priests, each identified with liberal causes in St. Louis. In Chicago, Archbishop Cody has won favor for retiring elderly, ineffective pastors, disfavor for his authoritarian administrative manner (retiring some of the pastors without prior notice or discussion), praise for allowing his priests to form a consultative organization and blame for his ambiguous handling of the Chicago racial tensions. As Archbishop of New Orleans Philip M. Hannan has gained the respect of local integrationists for his offer to help the public school system in the face of a growing segregationist private school system. The same man horrified many during the Council by his energetic efforts to induce the assembled fathers to endorse defensive nuclear warfare. The Cardinal Spellman who was a major obstacle to the nationalistically anti-Jewish bishops of the Middle East during the Council debate on the Jews is the same Cardinal Spellman who has said concerning the Vietnamese war, "My country right or wrong."

At first glance, it is difficult to see a pattern here. As a body, the American hierarchy does not lend itself to easy labeling as "liberal" or "conservative," reactionary" or "progressive." Nor, for that matter, is it much easier to apply labels to most of the bishops individually. Only a handful have established any kind of public reputation for anything, either within or outside the Catholic Church. Cardinal Spellman has made a name for himself over the years by his many public controversies, his violent opposition to federal school bills which did not include parochial school aid, and by his well-publicized visits to American servicemen abroad. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's florid style gained him a large following as a popular writer and TV personality. Cardinal Cushing of Boston has a name as an engaging, sometimes baffling person. He is a lifetime member of the NAACP, active in Protestant- Catholic discussions, a close friend of the Kennedy family's. He is also the cardinal who once warmly commended the founder of the John Birch Society. When he later attacked the society, and later still retracted his attack, he only confirmed the guess of many that he acts more on impulse than on coherent policy.

Beyond a few celebrities like this, it is doubtful that most non-Catholics know much about the American bishops. There are probably few Catholics who know more. Though the bishops are the unchallenged spiritual leaders of some 46 million Roman Catholics, they turn out to be astonishingly inconspicuous as personalities. To their own people, they are neither special heroes nor notable villains, neither inspiring leaders nor feared tyrants. When they speak, which is rarely, it is usually in the language of undistinguished goodwill and fervent aspirations. The late Archbishop Rummel of New Orleans was cursed by Catholic segregationists when he began integrating the Catholic schools during the mid-fifties. More recently, Archbishop Cody was vilified by some of his anti-integration flock in suburban Chicago. When Fulton J. Sheen was installed as Bishop of Rochester, New York, late in 1966, he was met at the airport by nearly a thousand enthusiastic fans. Emotional displays of this kind, either pro or con, are exceedingly rare. On occasion, of course, the American bishops issue general statements, sometimes in strong language. In November of 1966, for instance, they sharply denounced the increasing federal participation in birth control programs. Their statement occasioned bitter protest among many non-Catholics and a heated denial by a number of federal agencies of the bishops' charge that these programs are or would be coercive. Yet hardly anyone seemed to notice the limp response among American Catholics to the words of their supposed religious guides. A few Catholics were outraged at the bishops' statement (pointing out the total lack of evidence to back up their charge of coercion), but most simply failed to respond in any way at all. The bishops might as well have been talking to themselves.

Possibly the only area in which they receive enthusiastic support is in their dedication to the parochial school system. This also happens, though, to be one of the few causes which they support with a full-fledged publicity drive and systematic organizational work (the same can hardly be said of their work for peace or the eradication of poverty). To judge by the obsequious attention lavished upon bishops during Catholic ceremonial occasions—the eager attempts to shake their hands or to kiss their rings—or by the frequency with which their pictures appear in the diocesan newspapers, one might easily be led to imagine them as charismatic figures among their people. It doesn't happen to work out this way. The bishops' theological and symbolic role as wise, dominant shepherds is not matched by their actual power to shape opinion or command a special loyalty on issues going beyond the narrowest matters of Church law and ritual. The hierarchy has shouted against federal and state birth control programs; public opinion surveys show that nearly 60 percent of American Catholics favor such programs. None of the strong episcopal statements favoring racial justice have managed to make the slightest dent in the adamantly white ethnic Catholic neighborhoods of Cicero, Illinois. They have called (rather vaguely, it must be said) for peace in Vietnam, but recent polls show more support for Administration policy among Catholics than among any other religious group.

The curious thing is that the bishops don't really seem to care. They appear remarkably content to remain quiet, benign figureheads among those they are supposed to guide and inspire, saving their major energies for administrative work well away from the public eye. Only a handful of Catholics could say where their own bishop stood on most issues. They could probably guess he was against sin and in favor of goodness. But how does he feel about this housing bill, or that school integration busing scheme, or about napalming villages in South Vietnam, or about what percentage of the American tax dollar should go to foreign aid? There is hardly a diocese in the country where one could come up with answers to such practical, immediate, important questions as these. Many Catholics would count it progress if their bishops took even the most outlandish positions on specific issues; it would at least indicate signs of life. The few bishops who do speak to concrete issues on occasion—Archbishop Lucey in San Antonio supporting efforts to unionize migrant workers, Archbishop McGucken in San Francisco calling on Governor Brown in the last days of his term to commute death sentences, Bishop Mussio in Steubenville, Ohio, protesting against right-to-work laws—are often lionized out of all proportion to the significance of their stand. But when the normal course is to do nothing, even the smallest action becomes news.

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