Two Catholics in the Public Square
David O'Brien July 29, 2004 - 12:48am
A Public and Private Life
Joseph A. Califano Jr.
Public Affairs, $30, 539 pp.
The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver
Smithsonian Books, $32.50, 704 pp.
Among the problems with the recent statements by bishops on Catholic politicians is that they were written without much dialogue with people who have some knowledge of politics. These pronouncements might have been stronger if they considered the experience of Catholic politicians, past and present.
For example, the years after World War II were a sort of golden age for Catholics in politics. Christian Democratic parties, whose predecessors had often been betrayed by bishops or the Vatican, now enjoyed church support as they took control of governments across Western Europe. Church officials, terrified of strong Communist parties, had few complaints as Catholics like Konrad Adenauer governed increasingly secular societies. Bishops would do well to reflect on that experience today.
Across the ocean a new generation of American Catholic politicians also came forward in the postwar era, among them Joseph Califano and Sargent Shriver. Along with assorted urban mayors and congressmen, the Kennedys, and Eugene McCarthy, they shared many of the values of the European Christian Democrats but had none of their experience of Catholic authoritarianism, political or religious. These American Catholics were ambitious, politically astute, unevenly educated, and remarkably innocent in their combination of faith and patriotism. “Born, bred, and branded Catholic,” Califano was brought up to be “American with a capital A and Catholic with a capital C.” So was Shriver, and in their later years both men are grateful for the gift of faith which, in memory, integrated and gave meaning to their long and enormously productive lives.
Califano and Shriver were well-loved children, proud of their family heritage, and completely at home in their worlds. Each received excellent Catholic formation, Califano by the Sisters of Mercy and the Jesuits in Brooklyn, Shriver by family and friends in the thick Catholic culture of Maryland. The Jesuits taught Califano to think about everything except religion. He learned natural-law ethics, which served him well, but higher education did not shake the “dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ religion that left little room for the exercise of individual conscience.” That shaking would come later, with marriage problems and the ambiguities of politics and the law.
Holy Cross gave Califano a grounding in philosophy and academic skills that served him well in law school. With his wife Trudy, Califano began his law career in New York, where they spent much time with the intellectual, social-activist, lay-apostolate wing of the local church. Work on John Kennedy’s New York campaign led Califano, still in his twenties, to a job with Cyrus Vance in the Defense Department, where he was in the front ranks of the administration’s civil-rights confrontations with Southern governors. Then he became a top aide to Robert McNamara until Lyndon Johnson brought him to the White House as coordinator of domestic policy, troubleshooting jack-of-all-trades, and Johnson intimate. When Richard Nixon took charge, Califano joined Edward Bennett Williams’s law firm and served as attorney for the Democratic Party through the Watergate crisis. Jimmy Carter brought him back to government as secretary for Health, Education, and Welfare, then fired him for no apparent reason when Carter’s administration needed a change. Out of government, Califano practiced law in Washington, later on Wall Street, until, needing a cause that would express his idealism, he became the nation’s leading advocate and fundraiser for research on addiction.
Along the way, his overwork for McNamara and LBJ helped wreck his marriage, but he remained close to his children, found love again, married, and eventually was reconciled with the church through the annulment process, an experience important and positive enough that he tells the story in considerable detail. Califano wants us to know he is a good Catholic; readers will agree he always was.
Califano’s memoir is an insider’s story, filled with interesting anecdotes about American politics, some of which he told in earlier books. Here he searches for threads of meaning to bind his life together. He finds them in the familiar nexus of family, friendship, and faith. His family gave him the gift of an unshakable faith packaged in loving affirmation. He found friendship in school and in the shared work of politics and law. He tells us much about the people he worked with, less about the policies, little about the failures. Through it all he trusted in God in that taken-for-granted way once so common among Catholics. He stayed close to the church through sacramental practice and networks of friendly priests. And he never forgot the call to service that echoed from parents through the Sisters and Jesuits and Trudy to the tough idealism of the Kennedy/Johnson wing of the Democratic Party. Like Shriver, Califano tells us more about his trusting faith in the church than his prayer life, expressing the self-effacing spiritual reticence of his generation.
Shriver’s Catholic formation was culturally and intellectually rich, less linked than Califano’s to the immigrant Catholic subculture and the competitive working-class desire for respect. In the Shriver household there were always priests around. Indeed Cardinal James Gibbons was his childhood friend and died in a Shriver family bed. His parents fell on relatively hard times after moving to New York, but Sarge went off to prep school and Yale, where he found mentors well versed in the Catholic intellectual tradition. He fought bravely as a naval officer in World War II, then began work as a protégé of Joseph P. Kennedy. After an agonizingly long courtship, he married his boss’s daughter, Eunice, in part because they shared an extraordinary Catholic faith which deepened over their long years together. Sarge’s talented, enchanted biographer notes that they were “cooperators” of Opus Dei; he expects they may some day be canonized together.
Shriver was enormously energetic, magnetic, optimistic, filled with “passionate conviction,” the competent idealist that reformers dream about. As Joseph Kennedy’s man in Chicago he managed the Merchandise Mart office building, led the Chicago school board through dramatic social changes, and gave outstanding leadership to the local Catholic Interracial Council. He was on his way to high office in Illinois when Kennedy family priorities called him to Jack’s campaign, later to his administration. Kennedy made him the founding director of the Peace Corps, where he won the undying admiration of a remarkably talented staff (people like Bill Moyers), the support of hard-bitten conservative senators, and the respect of his brother-in-law. When Jack was killed, Sarge took charge of funeral arrangements. He then loyally served Lyndon Johnson by turning the war on poverty into programs that changed America: Head Start, Community Action, Legal Services, the Jobs Corps. He served Johnson too loyally as far as Robert Kennedy was concerned. When Shriver accepted appointment as ambassador to France and declined to leave to help Robert’s 1968 presidential campaign, he was in permanent trouble with his Kennedy relatives and their friends. Robert stopped Johnson’s move to make Shriver vice president in 1964, Ted and his entourage sabotaged Hubert Humphrey’s interest in Shriver in 1968. He finally made it to a national ticket, replacing Thomas Eagleton as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972. He tried for the Democratic nomination four years later, but his time had passed.
Califano and Shriver share a brighter, more hopeful memory of the 1960s than the usual bleak images of division and decline. Both books say more about the constructive projects of the period than they do about its tragic errors. Urban riots are not forgotten, nor is Vietnam, but both men were more concerned with poverty programs than foreign policy, and their personal pain comes through when they remember that there was never enough money. Califano saw the political struggles up close and had few illusions. He was a staff man for powerful patrons, so there was little space for his idealism. But the Shriver story, not so well known, is interesting, even a bit inspiring. Here was a truly Catholic public servant, determined to do good, a quick study and a talented leader, listening to many voices, making decisions, building teams of talented and trusted administrators, pushing the envelope, imagining a better world.
Shriver never lost his innocence, in part because he was a partner with Eunice in her chosen commitment to retarded children and adults. When one considers how retarded people were treated in the 1950s and how they are regarded today, one can say yes, this determined woman and her family did change the world. In a moving conclusion, the author describes the eighty-five-year-old Shriver in China, shooting baskets with retarded children, then telling veteran Communist bureaucrats what he learned about life and love from retarded people.
The Shrivers had their own way of confronting problems: get smart people together who know something about the problem, pick their brains, then make a decision and do something about it. When the Shrivers worried about abortion, as early as 1964, they had experts in to talk with the Kennedy family; before long there were the Kennedy Institute for Bioethics at Georgetown and a network of Eunice-sponsored Life Support Centers for pregnant women across the country. Running in 1976, Sarge made clear his determination to do all in his power to limit abortions while opposing a constitutional amendment and promising to uphold the law of the land. Later, when the nuclear arms race heated up in the early 1980s, Shriver invited important national security figures like McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan, and Robert McNamara to dinner, with a few thoughtful friends like Fr. Bryan Hehir. Before long, the three cold-war leaders had an important article in Foreign Affairs challenging the escalation of the arms race, and Hehir was working with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin on the U.S. bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter on peace.
What would bishops learn if they listened to these stories? They might be reminded that politicians, like everyone else, deserve respect. Califano and Shriver embody “Faithful Citizenship” with one large caveat-they talk back. In the 1960s, natural law and the John Courtney Murray/John F. Kennedy language of dual religious and civic obligations seemed to split the world, but these Christian Democrats of the postwar generation were as integrated as any churchman. God was at work out there, in the world, the same God who worked on them in church. These men are grownups, neither children nor sheep, prepared for dialogue, respectful of their pastors, convinced that their experience matters.
The translation of moral principle into public practice is always complicated. The nuns taught Califano “right and wrong in stark colors,” he recalls, but “the dominant color of politics is gray.” There are few who can negotiate politics with integrity as these men did. Still, even the best can get caught up in the problem at hand and miss important moral challenges, as Califano and Shriver both did. So the good bishop or pastor listens, sometimes reminds people of a principle, sometimes nudges them to look at something or someone not noticed, sometimes backs off, always affirms constructive efforts, when necessary criticizes inaction. Someday, perhaps, bishops will learn again how to engage in genuine pastoral dialogue with mature lay people on important public issues. Then they will be better able to speak to the wider public, on behalf of the community, and they will be heard.