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Book Review 212: The American Pope

September 6, 2011 - Harry Eagar
THE AMERICAN POPE: The Life and Times of Francis Cardinal Spellman, by John Cooney. 364 pages, illustrated. Times, $19.95

In 1984, when John Cooney’s outstanding biography of the corrupt prelate Francis Spellman was published, the dead, censorious hand of the bishop was still able to reach out of the crypt and terrorize the publisher into suppressing part of his story. But, as Cooney wrote, “As much as any other man, Spellman shook Catholics’ implicit respect for their hierarchy.”

That overstates the matter. No bishop has gone to prison yet for running the vast child-rape ring that the church is. But non-Catholics no longer tremble at the political power of mitered criminals, and Spellman’s excesses have a lot to do with that. Eighteen years after Spellman’s ghost censored Cooney, the New York Press revealed what he had written, and today an Internet search brings that up first, ahead of the more significant offenses that Spellman ought to be remembered for: For his antidemocratic politics, his censorship, his assaults on separation of church from state, his McCarthyism, his corruption -- all matters of concern to all Americans -- and his damage to his church -- matters specifically affecting Catholics.

Spellman’s New York chancellery was known as the Powerhouse, and from 1939 to about 1960, Spellman was almost a surrogate government for the city. If he didn’t want a man appointed judge, he usually could not be appointed. If he disapproved of a play, a word to the thuggish Irish cops would fix that.

On the national scene, he was tight with the greatest criminal in American history, Edgar Hoover; and it was not merely the church but specifically Spellman’s archdiocese that created and supported McCarthy. Cooney provides some evidence that Spellman was maneuvering to get McCarthy elected president before McCarthy’s personal weaknesses detailed his fascist program.

Cooney understands, in a way that few historians of the American church have, the deep splits within it: The antidemocratic, Vatican-controlled bishops and their fully Americanized laity; the ethnic differences among Catholics (the Irish afraid of sex, the Italians afraid of ghosts); the core of truth in the Protestant bigotry that alleged Catholics would have divided, or even unAmerican, loyalties. Cooney quotes to devastating effect a policy statement from the official Vatican newspaper during Jack Kennedy’s presidential campaign: which “warned against attempts ‘to detach Catholics from the ecclesiastical hierarchy, restricting relations between the two to the mere sphere of sacred ministry and proclaiming the believers’ full autonomy in the civil sphere.’ “

There is no doubt Spellman endorsed fully this antidemocratic view, and no doubt that most Catholics rejected it.

This was not well understood, least of all by Spellman, a lonely man cut off from the feelings of ordinary people, for whom he felt little but contempt. As he bravely faced death in 1967 -- surprisingly bravely, if one thinks he accepted the church’s teaching ab out judgment, which perhaps he had not -- he seemed to the newspaper publisher Dorothy Schiff a lonely man. No doubt he was, since he never valued people except for the power he could wield with their cooperation.

It was, as Cooney recognizes, a real power but not a fundamental one. “One of the oddities about the Cardinal’s political prowess was that it went largely untested.”

People feared Spellman because of his demonstrated vindictiveness, cruelty and corruption, but -- as they might have expected, given his antidemocratic views -- it was all reflected power. He had no constituency of his own, and when he lost patrons (Pius XII, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon), he shrank back to his natural political level -- wirepuller, fixer, bagman.

Cooney reveals a nasty little story I had not known about Spellman. His favorite charity was the Foundling Hospital. When McCarthy, a sick, mean drunk, already 57 years old and not likely to live a long time, wanted to adopt a baby, Spellman handed him one of his foundlings. The fatherless infant was fatherless again within months. The incident shows, as nothing else could, the depth of Spellman‘s cynicism and contempt for, literally, little people.

I was more familiar with Spellman‘s crazy anticommunism. It was his life‘s passion, but young, liberal Catholics in the ‘60s, like me, quickly understood that Spellman’s and Hoover’s warnings of subversion were fantasies. Spellmanism made it awkward to be a liberal anticommunist.

Not only did Spellman’s kooky fantasies spoil his international anticommunist crusade; his contempt for ordinary people helped ruin the institution of the American church. Spellman was proud of the dozens of churches, schools, hospitals and orphanages he built, but he completely failed at developing the extraordinary human capital the American Catholics provided him.

His lack of concern for workers, exemplified by his savage persecution of his archdiocese’s gravediggers in the late ‘40s, was perhaps the beginning of his undoing. Nobody was stupid enough to believe his claims that gravediggers were undermining freedom. Whom the gods would make mad, they first make ridiculous.

In his life, Spellman was a mover and a shaker. At the end, he seemed to realize that he had no political progeny. At least, Cooney quotes some of his Powerhouse servants as saying he announced that after his death, things would fall apart.

And so they did. But even Spellman could hardly have guessed that for all he did, mostly bad but some good, 40 years after his death he would be remembered first as Franny the sugardaddy of the rent boys.


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