Charles R. Morris (Hachette)

Earlier last year I received an email from Kathleen Morris, the daughter of the late Commonweal columnist Charles R. Morris. Charlie, as he was known to most people, died in December of 2021, and Kathleen was putting together a book of remembrances by people who knew or worked with him. I was pleased to be asked, because Charlie was one of the more remarkable people you were ever likely to meet. I had, in fact, met him only a few times, but occasionally I spoke with him on the phone about his columns. He was direct and businesslike in our dealings, and I was surprised to discover that he had a stutter, an affliction he thought too inconsequential to remedy. That impediment proved no obstacle to his many and varied accomplishments.

Charlie was the author of fifteen books, including American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church (1997), regarded by many as the best, and certainly the most readable, one-volume history of the Church in America. He was perhaps best known for The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash (2008), which astonishingly predicted that year’s financial crisis. Charlie worked in finance at Chase Manhattan Bank for many years, but he had first worked in government, running the welfare system under New York mayor John Lindsay in the late 1960s before becoming the secretary of Health and Human Services for Washington state, where he managed not only the welfare department but also the prison and state medical systems. After that, he spent a few years in London as director of the Vera Institute of Justice, evaluating welfare programs in the United Kingdom. He ended up at a technology startup. His experience with managing the welfare bureaucracy in New York led to his first book, The Cost of Good Intentions: New York City and the Liberal Experiment (1981). Like nearly everything he wrote, that book’s take on politics was hard to pigeonhole. As one of his writing and business collaborators notes in Kathleen’s book, Charlie was first and foremost a contrarian. He was also an enemy of injustice and pretension wherever he encountered it.

I was first introduced to Charlie by longtime Commonweal contributor Fr. Robert Imbelli sometime in the 1990s. Charlie was consulting Imbelli and Fr. Joesph Komonchak, another Commonweal contributor, about contemporary theological issues for his book on the Church. As I recall, he took us all out for dinner, where we were questioned about current divisions within Catholicism. Commonweal subsequently published an extended excerpt from American Catholic. I remember being enthralled by the book, especially its portrait of the brilliant and tyrannical Dennis Dougherty, cardinal archbishop of Philadelphia. Under his beady eye and scrupulous administration, the Church in Philadelphia became one of the largest real-estate owners in the city. Dougherty built hundreds of schools and several hospitals and colleges. He famously made his rounds in his own limousine. In 1934, he issued an edict denouncing the movie industry’s obsession with “sex and crime,” which prohibited Catholics from going to the movies. The ban was never rescinded. In all his writing, Charlie had an eye for that sort of telling detail.

Charlie was first and foremost a contrarian. He was also an enemy of injustice and pretension wherever he encountered it.

 

Kathleen’s book of tributes arrived just after Christmas, and I eagerly read through it. Most of the contributors had worked with Charlie either in government or business. They painted a recognizable portrait of him as a brilliant and disciplined person. “He was the smartest person I ever met” was a common refrain. He wrote his books and countless articles mostly after dinner and a full day of work. Once, when he was beginning his second book, Kathleen asked her father why he worked all the time. “This isn’t work, this is fun,” he responded. It must have been!

One contributor who had worked with Charlie in Washington state told a story about his uncanny ability to manage an enormous bureaucracy. People on his staff were putting in long hours under a great deal of pressure. Arriving early one morning, this staff member found Charlie sitting in his office reading the paper with his feet on his desk. Exasperated by this display of nonchalance, he reprimanded his boss. “What the hell are you doing?” he protested, noting how hard everyone else was working. Charlie was unfazed by the outburst. “Let me tell you something,” he calmly answered. “I am paid to think. I am thinking.”

That answer has a touch of arrogance, but the testimonies in Kathleen’s book attest to the fact that when it came to reorganizing government bureaucracies and managing people in other venues—not to mention writing books—it paid to let Charlie think.

A disabled Vietnam War veteran who was hired in Washington state and eventually promoted to director of Veterans Affairs recalled how Charlie warned him about the perils of public service. “Do you realize that in working for the government that you can become totally discredited and never have done anything wrong?” This man went on to manage the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees in the state after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Another old colleague of Charlie’s ran an antipoverty program in Harlem for many years. In 1995, he was accused of fraud by New York’s governor, George Pataki. Charlie didn’t believe the accusations. He offered to represent his former colleague for one dollar. Thanks to his legal acumen and skill at handling the press, his friend was vindicated.

There are many stories like that, and many about Charlie’s shrewd political judgment. After John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, Charlie explained to an incredulous friend that the business-oriented Republican Party was in the process of becoming a populist party, one determined to use the Electoral College to win and hold onto power as a minority.

But what comes across most profoundly in the book is Charlie’s unbridled curiosity. He undertook each of his books because he had a desire to learn about something new, whether that was nuclear weapons or how surgeons work. He was undaunted by any intellectual challenge. In middle age, for example, he decided to learn calculus. Nor was it surprising that he held down a full-time job while going to law school in the early 1970s. Yet despite these remarkable intellectual gifts, he was also remembered for his generosity and many kindnesses. Although he wrote dozens of pieces for Commonweal, he never accepted a fee. He had been a seminarian as a young man, and although he left the Church, he confessed to remaining “fond” of the institution and its culture. As one colleague noted with some exasperation, he often took the unpopular stance of defending the Church. He could be fearless in that way about many things.

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Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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