There had been a long tradition of socially progressive bishops in the United States going back into the nineteenth century with such prelates as Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop John Ireland, and Bishop Dennis J. O’Connell. They were succeeded in turn by other progressive leaders as Archbishop John T. McNicholas, O.P., Archbishop Bernard Sheil, and Bishop Francis Haas. These were all men whose outlook had been shaped by Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum and later by Pius XI’s Quadrigesimo Anno. Furthermore, when Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the head of the ‘Holy Office’—today’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—came down heavy on American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, even conservative prelates, and especially Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, came to the defense of Murray’s harmonization of Catholic tradition with the American socio-economic-political outlook. Spellman went so far as to defy Ottaviani and bring Murray (whom Ottaviani had formally “silenced”) to the Second Vatican Council as his personal theological advisor. In the years before and during the second Vatican Council we saw a blooming of a theologically and socially progressive hierarchy with men like Cardinal Albert Meyer, Cardinal Joseph Ritter, Cardinal John Carberry, Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan, and Cardinal John Dearden, to name only the top ranking. And then there was the eccentric and indomitable Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston who was willing to overthrow just about everything and break any rule to make the world spin along more happily. Blessed be his memory! Even men who could be quite authoritarian in the governance of their dioceses—Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of Washington or Cardinal John Cody of Chicago—championed the cause of minorities, of the poor, and of labor. It was not entirely a happy situation as men like Cardinal James Francis McIntyre of Los Angeles and Archbishop Thomas Toolen resisted the Civil Rights Movement in particular, but the tide was against them. In the years after Vatican II positions in the American hierarchy were increasingly filled with talented men of vision—Bishops Howard Hubbard of Albany, Matthew Clark of Rochester, John L. May of Saint Louis, Paul John Hallinan of Atlanta, William Borders of Baltimore, Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, John R. Quinn of Oklahoma City and then San Francisco, and Roger Mahoney who would end up as Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles. Many of these men—though not all—owed their advancement in part to Archbishop Jean Jadot, Apostolic Delegate to the United States from 1973-1980. Jadot, a protégé of Cardinal Leo Suenens who had been a principal architect of the Second Vatican Council, came from an aristocratic Belgian family and had exceptionally progressive views; he significantly marked the American hierarchy by his choice of intelligent and articulate prelates who were committed to the social agenda laid out by Popes Leo XIII, Benedict XV, Pius XI, John XXIII, and Paul VI as well as by the Second Vatican Council. Well, Suenens sowed the winds of change but it was Ronald Reagan who reaped the whirlwind. In 1983 the American bishops—at that point a body heavily influenced, if not controlled, by Jadot protégés, published the Peace Pastoral: The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. It was a dramatic counter-voice to the ost-politik of President Reagan and virtually was a Catholic vote of no-confidence in Reagan foreign policy. And that was only the one shoe. The bishops were preparing a second pastoral letter that they would in fact issue in 1986: Economic Justice for All. It would prove to be a critique of Republican economic theory that would clearly show that Reaganonmics is not compatible with Catholic magisterial teaching on distributive justice. Meanwhile, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle publicly declared that he would withhold half his taxes rather than allow money to go to the nuclear arms race. This was a direct challenge to the Reagan administration.
This split between the Catholic Church in the United States and Reagan policy—both regarding the Arms Race and Economics—threatened to undermine the joint efforts of John Paul and Ronald Reagan to destroy the hegemony of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. To keep abreast in the Arms Race, the Soviet Union had to pour its resources unstintingly into military expenditures with no room for developing a consumer economy. Reagan and his advisors counted on this “breaking the bank” and on it fomenting unrest among the unhappy citizenries of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, for his part, the Pope was brandishing the sword of Polish nationalism and egging the population of his homeland on to demand a better life than the Polish government or its Soviet overseers could provide. Marxisim in Eastern Europe was fighting a war on two fronts. And it worked. Poland fell and the dominoes followed. But that was not until 1989. In 1984 Ronald Reagan still had to figure out how to hold it together. He did not want to fight a war on two fronts also—Communism in Eastern Europe and Catholics at home.
The Holy See had long wanted full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. When the Popes lost their temporal power in 1870, several predominately Catholic nations maintained ambassadorial ties. The United States did not. In fact, Congress by law prohibited such diplomatic relations. In the years between the loss of the Papal States and the restoration of Sovereignty with the Lateran Treaty, more nations gradually began to exchange ambassadors with the Holy See. Each ambassador gave the Holy See more prestige and credibility in international affairs. During World War II, President Roosevelt, unable to name an ambassador, sent Myron Taylor as a “personal representative” to the Vatican. The Vatican proved to be a very important diplomatic post during World War II as representatives from various sides were posted there and it was one of the best—if not the best—channels of communication. Nevertheless, the outcry from America Protestant groups about any sort of American governmental presences—no matter how unofficial—was so strong that it would not be possible for many years yet to have official ties at the ambassador level. Periodically Presidents sent “personal representatives” but there was no standing mission. By 1980 most world powers had established full diplomatic relations with the Papacy, but the Holy See always wanted the prestige of American recognition. Ronald Reagan gave this in 1984. As a Protestant himself, and as a not particularly religious man, he was in a good position to do so, but there was still a considerable public outcry and several legal challenges. Nevertheless, President Reagan appointed William A. Wilson first ambassador to the Holy See. He served until 1986 when he was succeeded by Frank Shakespeare.
“Nothing gets you nothing” as Monsieur Thénardier likes to sing and while there is no public record of a deal, there is a definite change in the type of priest appointed to the episcopacy during and after the Reagan years. The concerns moved from issues of social justice, peace, the economy, and the environment to more “in house” matters. A nominee for the miter—or having a miter, for advancement—had to be explicitly opposed to the ordination of women. He had to have not blotted his copybook on contraception. He had to be clear on the Church’s teaching about abortion and same-sex relationships. There is nothing wrong with making sure that a candidate for bishop adheres to Church teaching, but what was curious is that there were no such litmus tests when it came to the Church teaching on war, on capital punishment, on economic justice. There was lots of wiggle room there. The ‘80’ and ‘90’s saw the American hierarchy change drastically in its outlook. They became far more establishment, some not bothering to conceal their open and uncritical preference for the Republican Party and its policies. Meanwhile, priests, religious, and laity who were involved in the areas of maintaining Church teaching on social justice—labor relations, health issues, immigration and migrants, against the death-penalty, civil rights—found themselves unsupported by many of their bishops and priests.
The Pope Francis sort of bishop whose priority is the poor was becoming virtually unknown in the United States. Prelates like Raymond Burke, Robert Morlino, Robert Finn, Edward Slattery, Michael Sheridan, Thomas Olmstead, Frank Dewane became more and more the face of the American Church. Decked out in pre-conciliar finery and extending their beringed episcopal paw to be slobbered over by the faithful as they proceeded to the altar for a retro-Mass, they were the epitome of the Tea Party at prayer.
A few years ago I had a chance to sit and visit with Thomas Gumbleton, retired auxiliary of Detroit. Bishop Gumbleton is the “last of the lefties”—named a bishop in the heady days after Vatican II and always an outspoken voice crying for Peace and for Justice, he was a thorn in the side of Presidents and Popes alike. That is what prophets do. I asked Bishop Gumbleton why there had been such a shift in the way the hierarchy saw things. He didn’t follow my suspicions of a symbiotic relationship between John Paul’s papacy and Ronald Reagan’s administration. His explanation was more simple. He said “In my day, we bishops came from families where our fathers were bricklayers, or worked in a factory, or carried the mail. Today, my brother bishops’ fathers were Doctors or Lawyers, or Businessmen. They were raised to think that way. That is the way their fathers thought.” Ockham’s razor says that we should accept the simpler explanation and that would be Bishop Gumbleton’s. Who am I to argue with Ockham, I am—after all—a medievalist. But I still say, that we got the John Paul Bishops as part of an understanding between the Reagan White House and the Holy See to reach their mutual goal of bringing down the “Evil Empire.” There are too many fingerprints to think the demise of American Catholic Progressivism was a natural death. The Good News is, of course, that our whole Christian Faith is based on Resurrection and it does seem that we might be in store for a better cut of Episcopal Leadership. As they like to say at those Tridentine Masses, Oremus.