In any list of heroes of the post-conciliar Church in the United States, the name of Monsignor George A. Kelly would figure prominently. By disposition and acquired character he is the quintessential insider, a man at home in his vocation who for over 50 years as a priest has not only worked in parishes but figures prominently in promoting and defending the Church’s teaching on family life. Indeed, he served as Family Life Director as well as Secretary for Education in the Archdiocese of New York.
It would have been a reasonable scenario for George Kelly to be named an auxiliary of New York, to have gone on to his own see, and say about ten or 15 years ago, become cardinal archbishop of somewhere. That didn’t happen, and it is possible now to see that it was providential it did not.
Long before anyone else, George Kelly saw what was happening to the Church in this country. The post-conciliar world was not one of polite debate where it could be assumed that everyone had the same goals. In The Battle for the American Church, Kelly showed us how the war was being fought and what losses had already been sustained. His calm assessment made it impossible to ignore any longer how bad things really were.
The Battle was followed by a platoon of books. Kelly was now ensconced as the John A. Flynn Professor at St. John’s University, but his energies were far from exhausted by his teaching and writing. From within the academy he was able to see close-up one of the major battlefields in the post-conciliar Church. Once more he answered the call to arms.
It is le trahison des clercs, in both the original and extended sense of the term, which lies at the heart of the Church’s problems in the United States. The corruption of theology, particularly of moral theology, and the timidity of the bishops when confronted with theological dissent, more than any other single factor accounts for the destruction of the seminaries, the distortion of religious doctrine, the abdications in pastoral work with the luxuriant increase of “ministers,” and, of course, with defections from the clerical and religious life and the allied confusion about marriage.
George Kelly was not at all disposed to be a simple observer or chronicler of this vast night battle. One of his major achievements is the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. The idea behind the Fellowship was Kellyesque and simple. The sorry spectacle of dissenters swarming over the media to repudiate and question the latest magisterial document had to be countered, and it was Kelly’s inspiration that a magisterial militia was needed.
Surely it was pardonable for observers to suppose that the majority of Catholic intellectuals stood with the dissenters. One heard no countervailing voices. But this silence was due not to an absence of voices so much as to their dispersion and failure to be amplified. The Fellowship provided the means whereby Catholic intellectuals faithful to, grateful for, and students of, the magisterium could make their collective hosanna heard.
The assumption at the beginning was that bishops would welcome this army of loyalists and seek their support against the dissenters in our midst. Monsignor Kelly saw the work of the Fellowship from the very beginning as a band of volunteers at the disposal of our bishops. And many bishops agreed.
The difficulty was that Washington agencies and spokesmen of the bishops often seemed less on the side of the loyalists than of the dissenters. And over the years, bishops have been named who seem almost as chary of the magisterium as dissenting theologians. All too many bishops whisper their approval and keep their distance. The Fellowship annually gives out a Nicodemus Award.
The number of members of the Fellowship passed a thousand some years ago; its mailing list now includes some 1300. A good portion of the membership comes to the annual meetings, the proceedings of which contain some extraordinarily good papers. A current project is the making of a volume of the best items from the proceedings. The quarterly newsletter of the Fellowship contains position papers, book reviews, battle reports. What began as a counter to dissent has evolved into a learned society as well.
Archbishop Stafford welcomed the Fellowship to Denver last fall, attended meetings and the banquet, celebrated a Mass in his cathedral for members. Wherever the Fellowship has met over the years it has been the recipient of genuine hospitality from the local bishop. Still, I wonder if there is sufficient appreciation in the hierarchy of the remarkable accomplishments of Monsignor Kelly.
In My Father’s House, Kelly’s autobiography, appeared a few years ago, and it was followed by Keeping the Church Catholic with John Paul II, both published by Doubleday. They are a good introduction to this remarkable priest, doughty battler, American apostle. In his presence, I am often reminded of the haunting chant of a Tenebrae psalm: Zelus domus tuae comedit me (“the zeal of your house has consumed me”).
Monsignor Kelly is now 76 and talks of turning over the reins of the Fellowship, and perhaps he will. What he doubtless will and deserves to do is savor a bit of his accomplishment. What more could a Cardinal Kelly have done for the Church? In one of his quodlibetal questions, Thomas Aquinas asks whether a bishop has more dignity than a theologian. I won’t destroy the suspense and tell you his resolution. In any case, it seems pretty clear that one monsignor has done more than some bishops to defend the faith in the continuing battle for the American church.
The Fellowship, unlike the Marine Corps, is still accepting enlistments. There is always need for a few more good women and men. Contact Dr. Joseph Scottino, Gannon University, Erie, Pennsylvania 16541 (814-871-7272). Or call Alice Osberger at 219-239¬5825.