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The Crisis Starts With Cardinal Spellman

September 9, 2018 Frontpage No Comments

By SHAUN KENNEY

One of the most striking things in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was the diagnosis of when these morally withered predators entered the priesthood.
Exercises in post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning abound, blaming the Second Vatican Council, the Novus Ordo Mass, the freewheeling 1960s or the Vietnam era following the 1970s.
To get to the taproot of the rot, one must go all the way back to the late 1930s and witness the meteoric rise of one prelate who shaped the modern Catholic Church in America: Francis Cardinal Spellman.
Ironically enough, Spellman’s rise to power was enabled by his acting as informant against a bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston, who not only had a mistress but a small child in hiding. For this information, then Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli came to rely upon Spellman as his “go-to” man for all things American.
Spellman and Pacelli’s relationship was one of mutual trust. Pacelli needed help having the Vatican City State recognized; Spellman arranged the meeting with President Roosevelt in 1936. Pacelli sought to silence Fr. Coughlin; Spellman initially pressured his superior in Detroit and resorted to political means through Ambassador Joseph Kennedy to take Coughlin off the air in 1939.
Almost immediately after Pacelli was elected Pope Pius XII, one of his first acts was to appoint Spellman as archbishop of New York. Spellman served as a vital link between the Holy See and the United States during the Second World War, with Spellman assisting in the liberation of the Eternal City from the retreating Germans in June 1944 (much to the frustration of the British who nearly trapped and destroyed Kesselring’s German Tenth Army, if U.S. General Clark had not explicitly disobeyed his orders and marched toward Rome instead).
For his efforts, Spellman was rewarded with a cardinal’s hat in 1946. Spellman’s ardent anti-Communism and support for Catholic education was matched only by his desire to normalize relations between the United States and the Holy See — the only two powers with truly global reach; one military, the other diplomatic.
The U.S. didn’t have much of a diplomatic corps back then; the Holy See had the oldest and most prevalent diplomatic corps in the world (and still does — it is perhaps the primary function of the Holy See at the United Nations). The National Catholic Workers’ Committee qua Catholic Relief Services became a conduit for the United States (USAID) to send aid to places where the U.S. could not go and was not welcome (e.g., Haiti).
Yet where Spellman’s talents truly lay were in fundraising. An able administrator, Spellman was able to raise vast amounts of sums to help a financially destitute Catholic Church after the devastation of the Second World War. Spellman’s support for Catholic charities and overseas charitable work were well known, especially since it enhanced the diplomatic power and prestige of the Holy See through American financial conduits.
In many ways, we exist in Spellman’s vision of an American Catholicism. It was Spellman who brought the theologian John Courtney Murray, SJ, to the Second Vatican Council, and who welded the Catholic Church institutionally to a Democratic political establishment that — at the time — had not yet made its radical leftward social turn in the wake of the 1960s and the advent of Roe v. Wade.
Yet behind Spellman’s discretion lurked another problem, one more deeply spiritual than purveyors of prudence would care to admit. In short, Spellman was not a chaste man, and his predilections for seminarians and priests was well known and commonly accepted by those who wanted to touch power within the American Catholic hierarchy.
Thus discretion took the place of holiness.
How do men such as Spellman rise to power? Struggling to become respectable Americans in a strange country and respectable Catholics by a Vatican still highly suspicious of republican forms of government, the American bishops saw a grand opportunity to define themselves as “good Americans” — first by opposing Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, then by being good anti-Communists.
Yet it is during this period that the American episcopate began to emulate their great man. Spellman’s church presented the veneer of respectability, built a system of charitable works the USAID leans upon, and made respectable U.S.-Vatican relations. Yet the interior was and remains a rotten tulip.
Challenging this clerical power structure is a difficult thing indeed. Foremost in the minds of many is how one reforms this arrangement without allowing it to become “political” — i.e., without leveraging the scandal as an opportunity to destroy. Are these the definitions of prudential judgment, where the sacred may be profaned for temporary or temporal gain?
Were Spellman a politician, one might argue that he led a successful career that mainstreamed the Catholic Church in America, restored the fortunes of papal diplomatic power, defended uniquely American ideas of religious freedom, and welded American economic strength to Vatican moral authority.
Yet as the layers are peeled back ever so slightly, we can see clearly how Spellman’s peccadilloes infected Catholicism in the United States. We commercialized our faith with shiny packaging only to find that the expiration date had long since passed and are shocked to find — as in Pennsylvania — when opened just a tiny bit, we find that American Catholicism is nothing of the sort.
One is reminded of the old Jesuit nursery rhyme provided to Catholics during the time of the Elizabethan persecutions during the sixteenth century:

Mary had a little Lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went,
The Lamb was sure to go.

How fortunate to have such a good shepherd! Perhaps here we see a mark of holiness that we should look for in the bishops and cardinals who will shepherd us back toward more faithful times. As Our Lady of Akita (venerated in Japan) is said to have reminded us, faithful recitation of the rosary is our single greatest weapon as bishops oppose bishops and cardinals oppose cardinals.

The Borgias

“At least the Borgias left behind good art.” So quips a friend who is observing the current scandals . . . in the United States . . . and it is unbelievably true. The era of wreckovations where beautiful parishes were converted into Ikea showrooms has only served to remind the faithful that there is nothing special here.
As for me? I’ll take smells and bells over guitars and sandals. After all, we know the difference between Bob Dylan and the Gather hymnal.

Send Me Your Thoughts

Of course, I am succeeding (but not replacing) the inestimable Mr. James K. Fitzpatrick for the First Teachers column. Please feel free to send any correspondence for First Teachers to Shaun Kenney, c/o First Teachers, 5289 Venable Road, Kents Store, VA 23084 — or if it is easier, simply send me an e-mail with First Teachers in the subject line to: svk2cr@virginia.edu

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