To have been the proverbial fly on the wall during a conversation, one good time would have been during dinner in the White House on September 2, 1943 when Franklin Roosevelt was hosting Winston and Clementine Churchill with their daughter Mary and the newly appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averill Harriman. The other dinner guest was the future cardinal, Archbishop Francis Spellman, just back from a lengthy tour of overseas military units.
Mary was devoted to her father and accompanied him on many wartime trips including Quebec, Washington, and Potsdam. In 1966 when I was a student, she befriended me and invited me to Chartwell when it was being prepared for a public opening, and I had time alone with her father’s paintings. She was better than any fly on the wall and seemed to have total recall of table talk great and small. The conversation on September 2, fresh from the Quebec Conference, was about the future of Russia. On the next morning, the cardinal had a longer conversation with the president, first about declaring Rome an “open city,” a subject the president had addressed in a press conference on July 23, and then about post-war prospects for Eastern Europe, especially Poland. Roosevelt had expressed a desire that Rome be an open city, but cited Nazi German and Fascist Italian opposition to the idea. Spellman would recount the conversation himself. In short, he was taken aback by what Roosevelt said so cavalierly about Soviet designs: “There is no point to oppose these desires of Stalin, because he has the power to get them anyhow. So better give them gracefully.” For the cardinal’s benefit, Roosevelt hoped “although it might be wishful thinking” that the Russian intervention in Europe “might not be too harsh.” Likewise, despite Winston’s embrace of Roosevelt, the Soviet threat strained him greatly, and his plangent message when the president died did not obscure his conspicuous absence at the funeral.
Churchill was not to be ranked among the mystics or ascetics of Christendom. He avowed: “I am not a pillar of the church. I am more of a flying buttress: I support it from the outside.” His instincts were impatient with the Fathers, but he could be moved to tears by good hymns and carefully prescribed the ones he wanted when he died. Loyalty to the Established Church was a patriotic impulse rather than a matter of faith, for the restless dogmas that supported the Establishment varied with the tides; yet he saw through religious sham enough to avow that if he had become a clergyman, he would have enjoyed unsettling the bishops by preaching sermons highly orthodox in character. Of practical ecclesiastical matters he was amusingly ignorant and in 1942 he wanted to have Cardinal Hinsley appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. But that expression was not insignificant, because he saw in Hinsley’s strong voice during the dark war years, a manly and indeed prophetic courage that resonated in ways that could save nations as well as souls.
Of interest here is the deference that someone like Spellman or Hinsley could engender from secular leaders not innocent of cynicism but respectful of integrity. It recalls the tribute that the magnificent curmudgeon, H.L. Mencken, surprisingly paid to Cardinal Gibbons: “a man of the highest sagacity, a politician in the best sense” who never “led the Church into a bog or up a blind alley.” That kind of virile exemplar would find it hard to take root in the ecclesiastical soil today, notwithstanding some venerable figures. The clerical vacuity that proposes itself as a substitute for apostolic prophecy is especially disappointing, and even dangerous, in our difficult times. In the First World War, Cardinal Mercier said that the sentimental and vapid preaching of his clergy in his tortured country “told the people to love but not why they should do it.” There should be unflagging caution when clerics are hauled in to add a pious gloss to a political event, which is why strained and cobbled events such as Presidential Prayer Breakfasts court humbug, but these can also be opportunities for flexing the sinews of the Gospel. Nonetheless, on some national civic occasions benign Catholic prelates miss the opportunity and disappoint the faithful by deliberately neglecting the counsel of Luke 12: 8-9.
Franklin Roosevelt’s fifth cousin once removed did not like Churchill, whom he had met only once and briefly, during the latter’s lecture tour as a youth in 1900. Churchill’s first offense was that he did not rise when a lady entered the room. Theodore told a friend, “He is not an attractive fellow.” Winston was eighteen years younger than Theodore, who had charged up San Juan Hill two months before Churchill had charged at Obdurman, but in ways they were too much alike to get on well. When Churchill published a biography of his father six years later, Teddy’s assessment written to Senator Henry Cabot lodge, might have been a sketch of himself: “Still, I feel that, while the biographer and his subject possess some real farsightedness … both possess or possessed such levity, lack of sobriety, lack of permanent principle, and an inordinate thirst for that cheap form of admiration which is given to notoriety, as to make them poor public servants.” Similar words are spoken sniffingly today by the media, superior clerics, and preening intellectuals about a president they think is “heinously unsuitable” and a “connoisseur of low culture” and generally not up to snuff.
But carrying the heavy baggage of his many calamitous missteps, such as Gallipoli in 1915, Dieppe in 1943, the Bengal famine of 1943 and his ambiguity about the Normandy invasion, Winston could honestly fit the same Roosevelt’s 1910 description in a lecture at the Sorbonne:
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
These observations provoke an anxious solicitude for the present state of the Church, for it would be hard to find a surplus of church leaders in the arena of such men. The common instinct for Rotarian jocularity rather than true Christian prophecy resembles the manner of Churchill’s Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, whom the prime minster called “A curious mixture of geniality and venom.” Those anointed to proclaim Christ seem not infrequently reticent about enlisting his Holy Name in what is no less than a spiritual warfare that cannot be won by appeasement. When our bishops were assured by President Obama that there would be no imposition of civil regulations on the Church’s moral standards, specifically in matters of health care, they left a meeting in the White House boasting that they had been promised a good deal. It was their Munich. That conjures the ghost of Neville Chamberlain waving his piece of paper securing “peace for our time.” When Chamberlain died, Churchill refused to humiliate his memory and paid an eloquent tribute in the House to his predecessor’s virtue, but he could not hide the naiveté that paved the steps winding the way down to near destruction.
As it is a nervous business for prelates to court and be courted by civil power, one might question the wisdom of popes addressing the United Nations or parliaments. A pope is not merely another head of state, and the whole history of the economy of Christ and Caesar makes clear that popes are never stronger than when they are weakest in things temporal. Surely a man resolved as Pope Francis is to do what is right for mankind, was ill-served by those who counseled him on what to say in addressing a joint session of Congress. On that awkward day, the Holy Father spoke of refugees, human rights, the death penalty, natural resources, disarmament, and distribution of wealth, but there was no mention of Jesus Christ. The speech invoked acceptable figures like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, but no canonized saint that the nation’s legacy boasts.
The resources of the Church in the material order are vast, if fading, but her supernatural resources are beyond calculation. An indicting finger points to the neglect of such treasures of talent and grace in lands of privilege, as for example in the mercenary hypertrophy of the Church in Germany. This affects all limbs of the Body of Christ. Where there are bishops of moral vigor, there will be an abundance of young men willing to take up the call of priestly service. Where the spirit is tepid and refreshes itself on the thin broth of a domesticated and politically correct Gospel, seminaries will be vacant. As C.S. Lewis gave account: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
In his Idea of a University, Newman wrote: “Neither Livy, nor Tacitus, nor Terence, nor Seneca, nor Pliny, nor Quintillian, is an adequate spokesman for the Imperial City. They write Latin; Cicero writes Roman.” The Church needs a Roman vigor that persuades men to rise above self-consciousness. An English bishop reflected: “Wherever St. Paul went, there was a riot. Wherever I go, they serve tea.” In spiritual combat, there is no teatime, and effective strategies cannot be plotted at conferences, synods, workshops, and costly conventions at resort hotels with multiple “break-out” sessions and mellow music. One fears that a fly on the wall at any of those conversations would drop to the floor out of boredom. “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8)
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a photo of Cardinal Spellman with ex-prime minister Winston Churchill in New York City in 1946.