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

At the same time, many bishops who might accept the idea of reform begin to balk when they see some of its implications unfold under their noses. They would have trouble enough if they had a single-minded zeal to change policies and practices. But few show such zeal; more often they are ambivalent, hesitant, and quick to panic, especially when they feel their authority is being threatened. Even during the last triumphal years of the Council, some telltale clues were there for all to see. In 1964 and 1965, for instance, the bishop of Mobile-Birmingham, Thomas J. Toolen, forbade priests and nuns to take part in the march on Selma (they marched anyway); Cardinal James McIntyre of Los Angeles silenced three of his priests for speaking on race problems from the pulpit; Father Daniel Berrigan was ousted from New York by his Jesuit superiors for his public opposition to the Vietnamese war (as rumor had it, because of the displeasure of some members of the New York hierarchy); Bishop Edward J. Maginn of Albany stepped on Father Bonaventure O'Brien, a Franciscan from Siena College, for complaining too loudly about Negro slums in Albany; Bishop Bernard J. Topel dressed down a group of Catholic journalists in 1965, calling the previous year "a year of shame." The "shame" was that some Catholic newspapers had dared to criticize the bishops. The prize instance of repressive silliness came shortly after the close of the Council. After receiving obscure complaints from obscure persons, Archbishop Karl J. Alter of Cincinnati ordered a local convent of nuns, the Glenmary Sisters, to get to bed by 10 P.M., to have their reading matter approved in advance, and to cease inviting lay people to eat with them.

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.

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