I recently spent too many hours plowing through John Cooney’s four-hundred-page 1984 biography, The American Pope: The Life and Times of Francis Cardinal Spellman. Spellman was archbishop of New York from 1939 to 1967. He was notorious for his autocratic style and the power he exerted both inside and outside the Church. He was also known for his political conservatism, rabid anticommunism, American jingoism, unstinting support for the war in Vietnam, love of pomp, and financial acumen. He seems to have been almost a caricature of what Protestants long feared about Catholic clerical authoritarianism.
During his nearly thirty years of near dictatorial rule in New York, the cardinal’s residence became known as “The Powerhouse.” He raised and spent hundreds of millions on new schools, churches, and hospitals. Mayors, governors, senators, and presidents paid homage. Spellman counted J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn as friends and collaborators. He was an outspoken defender of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting, and lent his support to Richard Nixon rather than John F. Kennedy in 1960. Although he was conventionally pious, he seems to have thought of himself more as the chief executive of a multimillion-dollar enterprise than as a spiritual leader. “Few people thought of him as a priest at all,” according to the novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed. Although Spellman apparently had a softer side in private, “he really was quite the bogeyman in public.”
Spellman, a Massachusetts native and 1916 graduate of Rome’s North American College, had little interest in theology, and resisted Vatican II’s reforms. “I hire theologians,” he once said, dismissively. He campaigned to ban movies, such as Roberto Rossellini’s The Miracle, that he judged blasphemous or obscene. When an article in Commonweal criticized such censorship, Spellman got the author fired from his teaching job at the University of Notre Dame. “Error has no rights” was his firm belief. In 1949 he used seminarians to break a strike by the diocesan’s cemetery workers, falsely claiming their union was infiltrated by Communists. His famous feud with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, once the most popular priest in America thanks to his TV program Life is Worth Living, was, predictably, about money, not theology. When Spellman lost that battle, he had Sheen exiled from New York City to upstate Rochester.
The liturgist Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, a former teacher of mine, wrote that “when Cardinal Spellman got dressed up to celebrate pontifical High Mass, it was eerily like watching the Infant of Prague come to life, but an Infant with whom it was advisable not to trifle.” Spellman’s visibility and authority was the embodiment of what made the pre–Vatican II Church so compelling for many. “It was discipline,” Kavanagh wrote. “American Catholicism was a bit corrupt, somewhat crazy, and not a little magnificent.”