Communism was never popular in America, and no American group was more fervently anti-Communist than the Catholics. The American bishops, like the Vatican, had condemned Marxism before 1900 for its atheism, its violation of natural law principles, and its theory of inevitable class conflict. They condemned the Russian Revolution of 1917 that brought Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power. They condemned American Communism in the 1930s for its adherence to the Moscow party line, its frequent about-turns of policy, and its support of the anti-Catholic Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.
Even in the Second World War, when America and the Soviet Union were allies against Nazism, Catholics kept their distance. Archbishop Francis Beckman of Dubuque, for example, warned in 1942 that “the Christ-haters of Moscow and their international brethren… may well take note of the Church Militant when she becomes aroused.” And even as victorious American and Soviet troops shook hands at the River Elbe in early 1945, Catholic Mind reminded its readers that although “during the war there has been much wishful thinking about the transformation of the Soviet system… the reality remains unchanged.” It added that “the war has given the dictatorship a stronger, more penetrating grip on the country than it ever had before.” But it was in the twenty years of the “high” Cold War era, 1945-1965, that Catholic anti-Communism reached its climax, affecting every Catholic at home, at school, at work, in politics, in church, and even in devotional life.
The case against Communism seemed unassailable to American Catholic intellectuals. In 1948 John A. O’Brien, S.J., wrote, “There is no place for any concept of sin and redemption by Christ. Society and man in society are borne along like flotsam and jetsam in the tide without moral responsibility towards a mechanistically predetermined millennium where the state, an instrument of oppression, will wither away and the brotherhood of man will be realized without the fatherhood of God.” Communism, agreed Joseph McSorley, C.S.P., in a 1947 article for the Paulist Fathers’ journal, The Catholic World, was “utterly inhuman, in its indifference to justice, to mercy, to religion, even to logic.” A few years later, National Review editor and Catholic convert Frank Meyer wrote that “Communism, in actual and objective fact, does represent an absolute black, and the West, as a civilization in its essence, as close to an absolute white as is possible in the subdued light which illuminates this imperfect world.”
Liberal Catholics shrank from Communism with the same sense of horror as the conservatives. The editors of Commonweal, for example, wrote in 1953 that they were “deeply concerned with genuine measures to fight Communism — moral, economic, military, and psychological.” Thomas Merton, the convert, Trappist monk, and hero of the liberal Catholics, preached an unbending anti-Communist message, as did the great Jesuit theologian of the era, John Courtney Murray. Communism, wrote Murray, “came out of the East as a conscious apostasy from the West” and “assumed the task at which Jacobinism failed — that of putting an end to the history of the West.” Like his fellow Catholic intellectuals, Murray had no doubt that he was involved in a war for the survival of Western civilization and Christianity.
It was not only intellectuals who refined the anti-Communist argument. Practical politicians, local and national, were equally dedicated to the anti-Communist cause. The most famous was the junior U.S. senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy. Backed by the vice president of Georgetown University, Father Edmund Walsh, McCarthy made a press sensation in 1950 by declaring that he had a list of 205 State Department officials who were Communist Party members and that President Truman had knowingly permitted them to stay in their jobs. Throughout the anxious Korean War years that followed, McCarthy continued to make wild claims of a widespread Communist conspiracy within the federal government, and he won the loyal support of Cardinal Spellman of New York, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic War Veterans, and other patriotic organizations. Only when he attacked the U.S. Army did he overreach the bounds of most Catholics’ credulity.
Other prominent Catholic anti-Communists in public life included Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada, head of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, and Thomas Murphy, the prosecutor in the Alger Hiss perjury and espionage trials. Murphy recalled with pride that “I can’t recall one Irish name among the many thousands called upon before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.” Not all Catholics were red-baiters or McCarthyites, to be sure, but those who opposed McCarthy, such as the editors of America and Commonweal, argued that his scattershot charges of treason were discrediting federal investigation procedures and cloaking the real subversive work of Communist agents. Rallying to McCarthy, a pair of young Catholic intellectuals, William F. Buckley, Jr., and L. Brent Bozell, wrote a defense of his methods, McCarthy and His Enemies (1953). He may be ham-fisted, they said, but at least he takes seriously the apocalyptic threat of communism.
Bishops, priests, and ordinary Catholic citizens joined intellectuals and politicians in the struggle against Communism. Frequent sermons and pastoral letters reminded Catholics of the evil they faced in the great world standoff of the Cold War, and most of them supported the American policy switch to a defense based on nuclear deterrence. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York took second place to no one in his anti-Communist fervor, and he began to interpret any sign of opposition to his will as a sign of Communist subversion. In 1949 he even tried to discredit striking Catholic gravediggers in his diocese by making the outrageous claim that they were Communists. (The ploy backfired because their union was militantly anti-Communist. Some of the cemetery workers had been in fistfights with pro-Communist unionists in defense of the Church.) Archbishop Richard Cushing of Boston hired a personal “expert” to advise him on Communism between 1959 and 1963. His choice was Louis Budenz, a former Communist who had converted to Catholicism in 1946 and become an informer to government investigators against his old party comrades.
As Catholics moved out of the urban immigrant ghettoes and into the rising suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s, tens of thousands of them bought televisions, the era’s great new technology. Many of them had been listening to the radio for twenty years or more and could remember the staunchly anti-Communist Detroit priest Father Charles Coughlin from the 1930s. Now, in Monsignor Fulton Sheen (bishop from 1951), they had their first television star with his popular weekly show Life is Worth Living. Sheen could hold his own against rival media gurus of the moment like Norman Vincent Peale. His Peace of Soul (1954) was a best-seller. But Sheen was as zealous against Communism as his boss, Spellman, and he too favored vigorous measures to root out pro-Communist sympathizers from the government and from American colleges. In one broadcast he declared:
Communism is the social body what leprosy is to the physical body; in fact it is more serious, for Communism affects personality directly, while disease affects the mind and soul only indirectly. In moral language, Communism is intrinsically evil. It is evil because it submerges and destroys personality to the status of an ant in an anthill; free government is made impossible through its basic principle enunciated by Engels, that freedom is necessity or obedience to a dictator.
His book Communism and the Conscience of the West (1948) was a protracted warning against the Soviet parody-religion of Communism, which reminded Catholics that they would have to muster a zeal equal to the Communists’ own in fighting back against them.
Even devotional life was affected by anti-Communism, as the Catholic historians Thomas Kselman and Steven Avella have shown. An apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a group of children at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, had inaugurated the Virgin’s own war against Communism. According to the Catholic Mirror of 1948 she had told the children, “If my requests are heard, and the world is consecrated to my Immaculate Heart, Russia will be converted and the world will have peace,” but “if my requests are not heard, the evil doctrines of atheistic Russa will spread over the whole world.” Members of the “Blue Army,” founded in America in 1950, honored the Fatima visionaries and circulated Soul magazine to 70,000 anti-Communist enthusiasts. A Wisconsin housewife, Mrs. Mary Ann Van Hoof, also beheld the Virgin in 1950. The Virgin told Mrs. Van Hoof and the crowds who began to gather on her farm that the Korean War, then in its early days, was the beginning of the end unless American Catholics rededicated themselves to prayer and piety.
Underlining fears of a Communist “Fifth Column” in the nation, the Virgin also disclosed that “the Enemy of God is all over America. You’d be surprised if the sheep’s clothing were taken off — and how they’d spring up around you.” She added that “the black clouds are coming” and that “Alaska is the first stepping stone,” more ominous warnings to a nation afraid of Soviet invasion. Novenas to pray for the conversion of the Russians were common in urban dioceses, organized by the Blue Army, the Knights of the Immaculata, and other devotional groups.
Catholic newspapers and magazines kept the anti-Communist fires burning brightly by bringing news of fresh persecutions into every Catholic home. Soviet conquests in Eastern Europe meant that the large Catholic populations of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia — and several senior churchmen, including Archbishop Stepinac in Yugoslavia — lived “in chains” behind the Iron Curtain. The most dramatic incident was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when a combination of workers and students, many of them Catholics, overthrew the puppet Soviet regime in Budapest and set free the prince-primate of their Church, Cardinal Joszef Mindszenty, who made a triumphant entry into the city. He was not at liberty for long because a Soviet counterattack rolled into Budapest and crushed the uprising. Mindszenty, in fear for his life, sought sanctuary at the American embassy. A diplomatic stand-off followed, leaving Mindszenty stranded there for the next eighteen years. The Soviets would not promise him safe conduct out of the country while the Americans would not hand him over to his tormentors. He became a living example of the Catholic refusal to compromise with Communism. American Catholics lionized him for this show of unflagging determination. Hungarian refugees to America spread word of his example and helped form “Mindszenty societies,” Catholic groups to study Communist techniques. A Catholic church in New Brunswick, New Jersey even erected a statue of Mindszenty.
China as well as Russia became a source of acute anxiety in the early Cold War years. In 1947 the Catholic archbishop of Nanking, Paul Yu-Pin, told an audience in Washington that although the fighting between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai Shek had “the appearance of a civil war,” it was really “the beginning of an international war, a world war, launched by the Soviet Union against the democracies.” The victory of Mao’s “Red” Chinese in 1949 horrified a generation of American idealists, missionaries, and policy makers, who found it difficult to believe, then or later, that this was more a domestic revolution than a Soviet conquest.
A steady stream of atrocities, with missionaries or Chinese Catholics as the hapless victims, sustained American Catholics’ apostolic indignation through the 1950s and early 1960s. More volatile was Vietnam, where even American help could not prevent the collapse of the old French colonial empire in 1953 to a Communist attack. Catholic anti-Communists could take comfort from the brave work of Dr. Tom Dooley in Vietnam and neighboring Laos. Dooley, a St. Louis-born navy doctor, supervised the evacuation of Catholic refugees from northern to southern Vietnam in 1955 and wrote a moving book about the experience, Deliver Us From Evil, which became a Catholic best-seller. Later he wrote sequels, describing the simple medical centers he built to bring basic health care to neglected Laotions. His self-image, as historian James Fisher shows in a new biography, was that of a man advancing the anti-Communist cause with a stethoscope in one hand and a crucifix in the other. This work was a public relations bonanza for the American government and the Catholic church, made all the more poignant by the fact that Dooley died young, only thirty-four years of age. He became almost a saintly figure to a generation of young Catholics. Like Mindszenty he embodied American Catholic Anti-Communism at its most heroic and high-minded.
Ironically, few Americans had practical opportunities to act on their deeply held anti-Communist convictions. As the Hungarian Revolution had shown, President Eisenhower did not dare to intervene on behalf of anti-Communist rebels behind the Iron Curtain. America’s nuclear arsenal was already big enough to pulverize the Soviet Union but Russia had nuclear bombs too, which induced a strategic deadlock. For forty-four years the face-off continued, with each side frozen in place, blending overwhelming firepower with effective powerlessness. In retrospect it is clear that much of the energy diverted into seeking domestic Communists was ill spent. American Communist Party members and ex-members certainly existed, but not in large enough numbers or with enough unity to make a credible threat to national security. Meanwhile, Catholics’ zeal to stamp out domestic Communism gave them a reputation among other population groups of abusing constitutional rights and favoring an oppressive state bureaucracy. The unkindest cut came from Paul Blanshard, an anti-Catholic polemicist, whose Communism, Democracy, and Catholic Power (1951) drew readers’ attention to the “deadly parallels” between Catholicism and Communism. They were, he said, twin tyrannical systems threatening American democratic freedoms.
But while Catholics’ outspoken anti-Communism gave them bad publicity among civil libertarians, it won them the applause of “law and order” organizations, such as the untiring FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, who recruited heavily among Catholics. Anti-Communism was a good symbolic issue for Catholic immigrants and their children, too. They could allay nativist fears about divided loyalties by pointing to their anti-Communist ardor as evidence of “one hundred percent Americanism.”
The broad anti-Communist consensus among American Catholics broke down as Vatican II ended in 1965. Pope John XXIII’s peace encyclical, Pacem in Terris (1963), took some of the crusading wind out of anti-Communist sails, and Paul VI tried to make diplomatic contact with the Soviet Union. At home Catholics began to divide over other issues. First the civil rights movement caused a sharp difference of opinion. Catholic conservatives argued that activists like Martin Luther King, Jr., were Communist dupes. Catholic liberals like the Jesuit priest John Lafarge countered that King was a “prophetic” religious figure whose acts of witness ought to awaken Catholic consciences too long asleep. Then the Vietnam War tore apart the Catholic anti-Communist consensus. Cardinal Spellman, unshaken in his old beliefs, went to Vietnam to pray with the troops at Christmas in 1966, but by then the outspoken “Catholic left,” led by the Berrigan brothers, priests with a talent for theatrical gestures, was arguing that an obsession with Communism had blinded American Catholics to issues of social justice, peace, and freedom. America, in this telling, was the enemy of freedom, rather than its last bastion.
The “culture wars” of the 1970s and 1980s contributed to the fragmentation of American Catholic culture, which enjoyed little of the certitude that had held it together in the 1950s. Marxist Communism as an atheist ideology had lost virtually all its radiance by the mid 1970s though it began to show up in religious dress, much modified, in elements of liberation theology. Still, the old anti-Communist verities lived on in the mind of Pope John Paul II. Annealed to political-religious struggle in Cold War Poland, he recognized no essential change in the situation, however much his American flock might be experiencing second thoughts. The events of 1989 vindicated him, enabling Catholic anti-Communists everywhere to rejoice. Their own view of the world had prevailed while its greatest rival of the century had degenerated and then died.
This article originally appeared in the March 1996 issue of Crisis Magazine.