End Notes: Lord Jim

A small book recently appeared on the shelf reserved for the memoirs of flown nuns and former priests, this one by a man who was auxiliary bishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, when he abandoned ship. Reluctant Dissenter by James P. Shannon is a book that tells a story far different from the one its author set out to write.

I knew Shannon when he was a newly ordained priest, faculty adviser of Nazareth Hall (where I was in my final year), and editor of the literary magazine Puer Nazarenus. Fr. Shannon, a whirlwind of activity, simultaneously was an assistant at the cathedral, on the faculty of Nazareth Hall, and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. From the beginning, he tried to do too many things. Eventually, he ran so fast that he lost the sense of where he was going and why.

At Nazareth Hall he taught Greek and literature. When assigned books were discussed, he participated—to a point. “Gentlemen,” he announced, during a discussion of Lord Jim, “I labor under the difficulty of not having read the book.” This earned him his nickname, Lord Jim.

In Conrad’s novel, Jim sets out on his first assignment as an officer in an old, rusty ship transporting pilgrims. When rough weather seems to be about to break the ship apart, the crew, including Jim, abandons the ship and its passengers. When the crew eventually rows into port, they find their abandoned ship tied up at the dock, having somehow gotten there without them. Conrad tells the story of Jim’s long life lived under the shadow of his unforgivable treachery. At first, Jim tries to exonerate himself. But his redemption begins when he accepts the awfulness of what he did. Eventually, Jim redeems himself with an heroic act of courage.

From Nazareth Hall, Shannon was sent to Yale where he got a doctorate in history. He was assigned to St. Thomas College of which he became president and where, in 1965 at the age of 44, he was named auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese. He also attended the fourth and final session of Vatican II. In 1966, he was made pastor of St. Helena’s, my home parish, but was rarely present. It was from St. Helena’s that he abandoned his pastorate.

Why did Shannon abandon the bark of Peter? The main reason is his inability to accept the reiteration of traditional Catholic teaching on contraception by Pope Paul VI. However, there is little sign that he reflected on Humanae Vitae. The closest he comes to an argument for his dissent is that since marriage has two ends, procreation and the mutual love of the spouses, the second can trump the first and allow contraception. The encyclical specifically addressed this non sequitur. Like so many others, Shannon had a closed mind by the time Paul VI wrote. The pope presciently saw the consequences of separating the unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act. Those consequences are all around us now.

It is said that no one can write an autobiography without lying. That may be too severe. It is the things not said that puzzle the reader of Shannon’s effort to get us to accept his good estimate of himself. For example, he talks a lot about his wife and thanks her for helping him rebuild himself when he resigned as bishop. Marrying her culminated a series of betrayals. But when did they meet? In 1964, before he became bishop. They kept in touch, and he turned to her when he grew lonely in his self-imposed exile in Santa Fe. They have been married far longer than he was a priest, and they have no children.

As a newly ordained bishop, Shan-non became the willing darling of the media, and therein, perhaps, lay his downfall. He hosted an NBC television program on new Catholics and came under withering fire from Cardinal McIntyre, whose criticisms, addressed to Cardinal Dearden, might have anticipated the infamous Call to Action. On leave in Santa Fe, Shannon came to doubt that he would ever have a diocese of his own. And he was making new friends. He submitted his resignation on November 23, 1968. A half-year later, he got a license to marry Ruth.

Shannon’s attitude toward the events he relates is difficult to describe. He recognizes that he declared his independence of the Church, but he does not like to be called a former priest or bishop. He excommunicated himself when he married but thinks the later Code of Canon Law abrogates that, as if he is in good standing. He has blanked out the enormity of his betrayals.

His wife is still a Protestant, yet he speaks of “our pastor.” He thinks he is still in the Church. Others share his confusion. I hear he is lecturing at St. Thomas on Vatican II. It is as if Jim never jumped. I wonder if he ever got around to reading Conrad’s novel.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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