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Things Fell Apart

In 1950, a novel called The Cardinal sped to the top of the bestseller list and stayed there, ahead of books by Ernest Hemingway and Frances Parkinson Keyes. Next year The Cardinal dropped only to fourth place. A few years later it became a three-hour blockbuster movie directed by the king of clunkers, Otto Preminger. Although today the book is largely forgotten, it’s worth recalling for the light it sheds on the Catholic psyche in the heyday of the Church in the United States. And also as an implicit reminder of the decline that set in a decade later and continues even now. Great literature it’s not. But as a cultural landmark of 1950s-style American Catholicism there’s hardly anything in its class.

The Cardinal is the work of a Catholic writer named Henry Morton Robinson. He also wrote poetry, another novel, and, with Joseph Campbell, a volume called A Skeleton Key To ‘Finnegans Wake’ attempting to penetrate the meaning of James Joyce’s impenetrable last book. Part of the success of The Cardinal lay in its being a roman à clef – an idealized version of the career of Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York tracing the rise of its priest-hero, Stephen Fermoyle, from his days as a curate in Boston to emergence on the top rungs of the clerical ladder as a key advisor to the pope.

Robinson’s timing couldn’t have been better. The book’s theme is summed up in a recurring question mulled by Fermoyle: Is it possible to be fully Catholic and fully American? His answer, and the answer of Henry Morton Robinson, is a resounding “yes.” And at midpoint in the last century, a resounding yes was what millions of Catholics firmly believed to be the truth and were anxious to hear.

In many respects, the 1950s marked the highwater mark for American Catholicism. The Church was growing in numbers, expanding in institutional presence and political strength, and becoming a cultural force. The 31 million Catholics were served by 46,000 priests and 158,000 religious sisters. There were 33,000 seminarians. Sunday Mass attendance stood at 70 percent. On the cultural front, Thomas Merton’s 1948 autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain had become a flagship document of the postwar religious boom. Bishop Fulton Sheen was poised to begin his phenomenal TV career.

But success came at a price – suspicion and outright hostility in important sectors of society.

            A reminder of the decline that began in the Sixties . . . and continues today.

The year before The Cardinal appeared, Paul Blanshard, a writer for The Nation, published a bestseller of his own. American Freedom and Catholic Power posed the question Stephen Fermoyle asked: Could good Catholics be good Americans? Blanshard’s answer, like that of many, was a resounding “no.”

Here was the real-world background for Henry Morton Robinson’s book. At a key point in the story, a newly arrived Apostolic Delegate to the United States addresses an intimate gathering of ecclesiastical heavy-hitters in the residence of the Archbishop of New York, behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral. After speaking glowingly of America, he continues: “I come neither as a meddler nor an overseer, but merely to remind you that that the world looks to the Catholics of the United States for a rekindling of the spiritual flame that is now almost extinguished in the world. If your light fails, there is danger of universal darkness.”

In the novel, it’s 1926. But these words appeared in a book published in a 1950 America facing up to cold war against an implacable, officially atheistic foe. To non-Catholic readers they were an apologia for Catholicism, while to Catholic readers they supplied a compelling rationale for their Americanism.

Both come fully together at the very end of the book. It’s 1939, the eve of World War II. Fermoyle, a cardinal by now, stands on the deck of a British liner carrying him home from the conclave that’s elected Pius XII.

As the ship threads its way among icebergs, heavy symbolism sets in. Western civilization (the British ship) is menaced by deadly threats from the North (the icebergs: Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia). But a prince of the Church stands in the bow of the noble vessel, seeing all, understanding all, and praying ship and passengers home to safe haven – the providential embrace of the world’s greatest democracy, deeply infused with the wisdom of the Catholic Church, and prepared to seize the torch of Christendom from Europe’s failing hand.

Catholics and many others ate it up in 1950. But that was before the rise of the culture of dissent, the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies, the post-Vatican II turmoil in the Church including the defections of thousands of priests and nuns, and the scandal of clergy sex abuse and coverup.

Today 65.6 million American Catholics are served by 39,000 priests and 57,000 nuns (with soaring median age for both groups), graduate-level seminarians number 3,500, and 22 percent of Catholics say they go to Mass weekly. Assimilation into the secular culture and its values has driven thoughts of uplifting the culture, or even saving it from its worst excesses, from the minds of very many, perhaps most, Catholics.

It’s as if Cardinal Fermoyle’s ocean liner had hit an iceberg and sunk. As the Church in America ponders its options, the first big question, demanding an honest answer, is: how did the disaster happen? We need to know that in order to have some hope of making Catholicism as compelling and attractive a proposition for Americans today as it was for so many back in 1950.

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity (forthcoming from Ignatius Press).