Four Men

In the space of less than six weeks, from mid-December to late January, four men died who played crucial roles in the shaping of American Catholicism as it stands today.
The four were Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., the leading American Catholic theologian of the postconciliar era, who died December 12 at the age of 90; the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, the most visible American Catholic public intellectual of his day, who was 72 when he died January 8; Pio Cardinal Laghi, papal representative in the United States from 1980 to 1990, who was 86 at the time of his death January 11; and Archbishop Jean Jadot, Cardinal Laghi’s predecessor, who died January 21 at the age of 99.
A common thread linked their careers. Cardinal Laghi, Cardinal Dulles, and Father Neuhaus — each in his own way — shouldered the burden of drawing the Church in the United States back from the precipice of self-destruction to which Archbishop Jadot, with encouragement from Rome, had unintentionally helped bring it during the 1970s.
Start with Archbishop Jadot. This bright churchman directed the national missions office in Belgium and was a chaplain to native troops in the Congo before he apparently caught some important person’s eye and was brought into the diplomatic service of the Holy See. By 1974 he’d held top posts in the Far East and Africa. In May of that year, Pope Paul VI named him Vatican representative in the United States. (The title then, before U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relations, was apostolic delegate.)
Pope Paul wanted the American hierarchy shaken up and brought into the Vatican II era. Like many European Catholic intellectuals, Archbishop Jadot considered American Catholicism painfully behind the times. From Rome’s point of view, that made him a logical choice for the job.
During the Jadot years, the Church in the United States received 103 new bishops and 15 archbishops. The new men came to be called “pastoral” bishops: The idea was that, unlike their brick-and-mortar predecessors, these were sensitive leaders for the emergence of post-Vatican II Catholicism.
At least, that was the theory. The practice was rather different. In places like Baltimore, Newark, and Seattle, ultra-liberals were named. Two Jadot archbishops — in Santa Fe and Milwaukee — eventually left office under a cloud of sexual scandal involving themselves. By the end of the decade, American Catholicism was worse off than when the decade began.
In recalling those troubled times, it’s important to bear in mind the good intentions of Archbishop Jadot and the others involved. For example: Despite the Humanae Vitae controversy, Pope Paul continued to hope for Church renewal, and his man in Washington shared that hope. So, presumably, did the “pastoral” bishops. There is no reason to suppose any of them anticipated what would happen.
But by 1980, things clearly weren’t working out, and Archbishop Jadot was called to Rome. He languished there for four years at the office for non-believers, then went home to Belgium and spent his final quarter-century in obscurity.
To replace him, a new and very different pope, John Paul II, tapped Pio Laghi. Unlike Jadot, the Italian was a veteran of the diplomatic service who’d held the top posts in Jerusalem and Argentina.
During his ten years in Washington as apostolic delegate — and then, starting in 1984, pro-nuncio — I was occasionally asked to lend a hand with his speeches, especially those to meetings of the American bishops. I once remarked — truthfully — that the drafts he gave me were well-written and didn’t need much work. The archbishop shrugged and said, “I want the bella figura.”
But he was more than bella figura. This was a smart, tough-minded man who knew his job — namely, to alter the ruinous course of the American Church by putting a different kind of bishop in place. The day of the “pastoral” bishops had passed. Now it was time for the “John Paul II bishops”: a tougher breed, more committed to orthodox doctrine and discipline than the Jadot men. The choice in 1984 of John O’Connor for New York was the emblematic appointment of the new era.
This is not to suggest that every John Paul bishop proved to be a rock-solid tower of strength. Leadership failures by “pastoral” bishops and “John Paul” bishops alike underline one of the great mysteries of Catholic life: Who really chooses the pastors of the Church, and on what basis? Still, the episcopal selections that began in the Laghi years overall were a huge improvement on the disastrous 1970s. The archbishop was rewarded with a Vatican congregation (Catholic Education) and the red hat. Sometimes he was even mentioned as a possibility for pope.
Avery Dulles followed a very different career path. Several years ago, I heard one of his fellow Jesuits reply to a na├»ve questioner who’d asked where Dulles stood on the ideology spectrum: “Avery Dulles is a conservative theologian.” It was clear that “conservative theologian” wasn’t a term of approval with him. If asked, I suspect Cardinal Dulles would simply have said, “I’m a Catholic theologian.” Maybe, as a convert, “Catholic” was good enough for him.
Just after Vatican II, the author of Models of the Church briefly toyed — or anyway was perceived as toying — with the idea of being a liberal theologian. In those days, he talked about the “magisterium” of theologians — an expression with historical precedent, but singularly ill-timed at a moment when some theologians in practice were claiming authority superior to that of the pope and bishops.
By the mid-1970s, Dulles apparently had looked into this particular abyss and drawn back. He was a moving force in a 1975 declaration by a group of Christian theologians asserting the perennial claims of the tradition. Increasingly he became a voice of scholarly, eminently Catholic moderation — testimony that, to be a serious Catholic theologian, fidelity to the Church’s teaching wasn’t merely possible but necessary.
After John Paul named him a cardinal in 2001, he functioned as a norm of intelligent orthodoxy in the ranks of the episcopal conference.
Finally, Father Neuhaus. Interviewing him for a European magazine a few years ago, I asked if he still thought the Catholic Church was on its way to being the dominant culture-shaping force in the United States — in other words, considering all the calamities of the recent past, was this still the “Catholic moment” he’d proclaimed in the title of one of his books?
I’m sure he’d heard the question often before, but he fielded it graciously. Yes, he still believed that, he replied, but he’d never said how long it would take the Catholic moment to arrive. Could be a while, he acknowledged.
The delay wasn’t Father Neuhaus’s fault. This eminent convert was best known for his advocacy of religion’s role in the public square, but at least as important was his dogged commitment to shoring up the Church in its hour of need. This he did with wit and decency — albeit with a pen that now and then seemed dipped in acid.
And the Catholic moment? In his widely read First Things column “The Public Square,” Father Neuhaus returned to the subject last November. “Those who today speak of ‘the Catholic moment,'” he wrote, “tend to be younger Catholics and converts to the faith. Their experience of Catholicism is not that of being adrift but of coming into safe harbor, not that of loss but of discovery.” Still, honest man that he was, he saw little hope of building “a vibrant Catholic identity” on “the typically weak foundation of contemporary parish life.”
The decline of American Catholicism that occurred with terrifying speed in the wild-eyed 1970s may have slowed down a bit today, thanks to the efforts of men like Neuhaus, Dulles, and Laghi. But it hasn’t been halted, much less reversed. It would be hard to say when, or even whether, that will happen.
Image: Archbishop Jadot

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Clara

    …but I’m not convinced. Certainly, Jadot did “shake things up” and not for the better by not recognizing the the “brick and mortar” bishops also imparted the faith and very effectively through their network of Catholic schools. But the bishops appointed by John Paul II (or whoever) have been so mediocre that their influence had far outweighed any good that the perceived benefit of Dulles, et al. could have.

    As far as the quartet of Dulles, et al., themselves, this has been mixed as well. We are still a long way off from receiving the fullness of the Catholic faith, even from the “John Paul bishops.” And I really wonder how influential these men really are in the long run. Fr. Neuhaus promoted a new kind of “Americanism” in his political theology, which is at odds with Catholicism as I understand it. But how widely it was received is another story.

  • Will

    The 1970’s were indeed a turbulent time for the Church, but I am not sure that it was really the fault of the “Brick and Mortar” Bishops. I think these Bishops were fundamentally good men, but the problem was the rules of the game changed on them, and to be fair, in some cases, when Bishops tried to get tough, they were not backed up by the Vatican. There is more to Catholocism than “Orthodox doctrine and discipline” and cracking down. A quick look at the Legionaries and their pederast embezzler of a founder, Maciel, shows that being hard right is no guarantee of how “good of a Catholic” a person is.
    JP II protected Maciel, which tarnishes his legacy a bit.

    Bishops are pastors, not cops. I’ll tke an “Ultra Liberal” such as Archbishop Borders of Baltimore any day over some of the “tougher” JP II Bishops. I really don’t want the Church to become like SSPX, Opus Dei or the Legionaries. We should not confuse fanaticism with devotion.

  • William

    Will, you are indeed welcome to “take” Borders–so long as you take Bernadin, Weakland, Mahoney, et al., as well. They have left us such a mess to clean up.

  • Herb Edwards

    1970s stated, “I really don’t want the Church to become like SSPX, Opus Dei or the Legionaries. We should not confuse fanaticism with devotion.”

    I wonder if the author of the statement would consider St Paul, St Peter, the other Apostles, the saints etc as fanatics or ultra liberals. As for me, I call the members of the Legionaries, Opus Dei etc, faithful Catholics who are dedicated to living a holy life and bringing others to Christ. I consider ultra liberals (with no reflection on the aforementioned Archbishop of Baltimore whom I do not know and may well not be liberal at all) as people who want to change the Church to their own image and likeness, dislike church authority, and border on heresy. Their common bond is disagreeing with the church on Church teaching re contraception, abortion, homosexuality, Church authority, same sex marriage and a host of like issues. The author may not fall into this category, therefore my remarks should not reflect that the author does.

    We also should not confuse dedication and devotion to Catholic teaching as taught by the Magesterium with fanaticism. I posit that liberals are as fanatic about their beliefs as anyone; I just don’t believe their beliefs bring them close to Christ as is the reason for the Church’s being.

  • Chessie

    I disagree strongly with the last two sentences of this article. While looking at the Catholic Church in America from the top down, it may be hard to see… but if you look at the Church from the perspective of orthodox homeschooling families, parishes with perpetual Eucharistic adoration, parishes that have multiple vocations to the priesthood and religious life… you will see that the future holds a sense of renewal that Mr. Shaw may not see in his lifetime, but is there, quietly building just the same. There is hope… and it is with the Holy Catholic Church.

  • Grace

    I am a devotee of the writings of Dulles and Neuhaus and am an Opus Dei member. My oldest takes CCD at our very weak parish. Basically, it is run by a very nice woman, a woman who learned her Catholicism in the 1970’s. Her ideas are liberal, confused and even theistic. She is so ecumenical she could never say the words “true Church”.
    And she’s running the CCD program. How scary.
    Yes, we’ve talked to our parish priest. He just doesn’t see the magnitude of the problem.
    My son came home from CCD the other day and told me he was told he shouldn’t eat meat, because animals have souls.
    Yes, at CCD!!!

  • Cory Fisher

    It is hard, with our human eyes, to see the truth. What we, as God’s adopted chilren have to remember is that Jesus our Lord and Savior instituted His Church. He is without error (meaning that He Cannot make a mistake), and He promised us that the gates of the netherworld would not prevail against His Church. Even with all of the sin of man, the mistakes of judgement, and the failed leadership of us humans, the Holy Catholic Church will not fail, we have God running the show and everything is within His power. All that we must do is to remain Faithful to our Lord and be open to the Graces that He sends us.

    Remember, Be Not Afraid.

    Cory Fisher

  • Will

    So Opus Dei, Legionaries, etc are “holy” and Liberals are “Heretics?” Herb, you may be a nice guy, but you are not God and really ought to refrain from judging people, who are not of the same mind as you. So Liberals are “not as close to Christ” as LC and Opus Dei? Was Maciel the pederast, pervert and embezzler close to Christ? Is Holocaust Denier and all around nut SSPX Bishop Williamson closer to Christ. I seriously doubt it. My take of the “Ultra Orthodox” is {to paraphase Jesus} that they are like the Pharisees, obsessed with rules and like White Seplucers, beautiful on the outside and rotten on the inside. I notice that a lot of Opus Dei and LC posters on this website drink their own bathwater, trying to out do each other on who is holier, who is most orthodox, and thus the “better Catholic.” Some of them remind me of the more obnoxious Evangelicals: often wrong, but never in doubt.
    Be careful who you call a “Heretic.” Only God is able to judge.
    I defend Archbishop Borders and prefer him to most others.

  • John D

    To call Jadot’s disastrous picks for bishops “unintentional” is to be “unintentionally” (?) naive! This man and JPII’s “bishops” ruined the Catholic church not only in America but elsewhere. See Australian and European bishops and their scandals. In fact, where haven’t there been sexual abuse scandals, Catholics who fail to resist the march to secularism and moral chaos, as well as the scandalous loss of vocations and closed parishes? It is time to “get real” and stop offering any semblance of praise for the mediocre bishops and popes since Pius XII. Look at the post Vatican II statistics regarding any aspect of church life. Have you noticed how fast the church responds to the criticism of any other “religion” regarding Catholic praxis? The four men you laud here, did little or nothing to change that. Benedict is the first conciliar pope to recognize the problem and act on it. The Moto Proprio is a good start. Then again, people like me are just hard nosed traditionalists who belong in the medieval church!

  • Remy

    My View from the Pew

    The historical accidents of the 60s and 70s promised, yet again, knowledge that would make the rules irrelevant, and grant us God-like freedom.

    When I rebelled against the Church in the 60s, the sides were still clearly drawn at the parish level. I came back in the late 80s after finding the world’s “promise” of change to be empty. But I struggled to remain faithful in the dust bowl of parish life. The Mother Church I had left in my arrogant youth was being savaged by liberal and conservative groups fighting for control, committee by committee, parish by parish. The shepherds were busy elsewhere, administrating and facilitating.

    A Catholic friend (cooperator) and an Opus Dei retreat opened my eyes to the beauty, richness and joy of real Catholiciam. I was given what my parish couldn’t give … solid Catholic teaching and a measure of peace. I started to learn and internalize my faith. I’ve never “joined” OD, although I’ve been on several of their excellent retreats. When I start to feel discouraged with the words or actions of our churchmen or “Catholic” politicians, I find something pertinent to read from our vast treasury of Catholic teaching, attend Mass more frequently, and talk things over with my husband and Catholic friends. I pray for all of us, send emails to those I see as over the line, and try not to judge.

    For me it all eventually came down to obedience, and I think it always will. Whether cardinal or catechumen, do whatever He, who is both liberal and conservative, tells you

  • John Schuh

    Father Neuhaus was the perfect bridge between Catholicism and evangelicalism, the closest thing we have had to a Newman.

  • Micha Elyi

    Remy eloquent mention of “the dust bowl of parish life” illustrated my experience of growing up Catholic in the 1960s. As a result, my faith was like the house built on sand.

    Grace, remember that parents bear the most responsibility for the Christian education and formation of their children. The parish pastor is supposed to help parishoners raise children into a Christian life. If the institutional Church is undermining your efforts to be a responsible Catholic parent, you have the authority — even the obligation — to seek the assistance you need in order to bring up your children to be faithful and educated Catholic Christians from another parish or your bishop. I’m glad to hear that unlike my own parents you have the gumption to confront your priest with your misgivings. You are in my prayers.

  • Ron

    Did not the last election demonstrate the disconnect with reality that many Catholics have? A majority of self-described Catholics voted for the most pro abortion president in history. Did not the Al Smith dinner display the conviviality of American Catholics, some clergy and hierarchy with the most pro-abortion candidate in history? If Catholics do not affirm the dignity of life, then what do we stand for?

  • Gabriel Austin

    I certainly grant that it is not easy to be a bishop. And the worst kind of bishop are those who want to be bishops.

    That said, the book on seminary education in the 1970s and 1980s [GOODBYE GOOD MEN] does certainly document the puerility of the bishops of those days. They were too concerned with avoiding scandal when told of the aberrations in the seminaries. The aberrations are those produced the later sex scandals and again the puerility of the bishops – too concerned with avoiding scandal.

    But truth will out. And it has done so to the tune of several billion [each billion is a thousand million] dollars.

    It does not seem wrong to find in the seminary aberrations – and the episcopal timidity – the major reason for the decline in vocations.